Edwards Reengages in Search of a Doctrine
Posted by Ari Melber
The September issue of Foreign Affairs hits newsstands today, featuring a 5,700-word article with John Edwards’ most detailed foreign policy vision to date, under the internationalist headline “Reengaging With the World.” Of all the prominent presidential candidates, Edwards has staked out the most comprehensive challenge to the Bush Doctrine of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Top Republicans have promised to continue most of Bush’s foreign policies – or “double” them, as Mitt Romney pledged for Gitmo – while leading Democrats have largely operated within Bush’s framework. Democrats tend to criticize the Iraq war’s execution while crediting GWOT for improving national security (Clinton); or to oppose the war while endorsing variations of preemption (Obama); or to call for multilateral diplomacy while supporting unilateral plans to partition Iraq along sectarian lines (Biden). Only Edwards completely rejected the failed GWOT framework, which has anchored U.S. policy for six years, and fully confronted the Bush administration’s reckless exploitation of terrorism for domestic political aims – an important critique that has been unthinkable for Obama and Clinton because of their bipartisan instincts. This record makes Edwards’ new article more relevant than the typical campaign white paper, and though his provocative criticisms are enumerated in detail, some of the proposed alternatives are wanting.
Edwards advocates American power guided by “moral leadership,” deployed in concert with a reengaged set of allies, and bolstered with new assistance for the developing world on par with the Marshall Plan.
“We need to place ‘smart power’ at the center of our national security policy,” he writes, picking up on Suzanne Nossel’s essay in the same journal three years ago. To Edwards, smart power begins by weighing the externalities of hard power that the administration has ignored. Thus, even setting aside moral and constitutional concerns, Gitmo is a counterproductive exercise in hard power, Edwards concludes, because it created the “recruitment poster al Qaeda wanted.” Endorsing the arguments of Richard Holbrooke and Anthony Zinni, Edwards laments that approaching the fight against today’s terrorists and tomorrow’s extremists in strictly hard power terms, as a global war, has actually minimized “the challenge we face by suggesting that the fight against Islamist extremism can be won on the battlefield alone.”
Instead, a smart power approach means taking proactive action to “stabilize weak and failed states” before they become terrorist havens; spending more on development, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and “universal primary education” (with a sixfold budget boost for schools in “countries with a history of violent extremism”); creating a new cabinet-level position to direct global development policies; and, in a thorny but intriguing proposal, altering the typical force structure of our foreign operations by establishing a new, non-military corps of civilian reserves. These 10,000 “civilian experts” could deploy for humanitarian and reconstruction missions, which would otherwise be staffed by soldiers, potentially reducing both mission creep for the Defense Department and our military footprint in volatile areas. The article does not specify where this corps would report in the government. A campaign policy aide told me the idea is to place them in the State Department, where they could presumably tackle more logistical and practical operations than diplomatic foreign service officers. One potential problem is that many of the priority missions for such a corps occur in dangerous areas, and the President would be wary of deploying thousands of Americans without some military protection. Yet if the corps were deployed with soldier escorts, it’s not clear why such a split operation would be superior to deploying trained military personnel to run the entire mission, since they have the ability (and authority) to defend themselves.
The most significant shortcoming in Edwards’ article is that he does not say precisely when he would use force as President. The emphasis on “smart power” is a welcome acknowledgment that the administration’s crabbed vision of American power has made our country less safe, just as its myopic devaluation of traditional diplomacy has diminished our leverage in foreign affairs. But Edwards does not provide a metric, let alone a doctrine, for when to use military force. Instead, he issues a sweeping promise, more fit for a campaign ad than a policy journal:
As commander in chief, I will never hesitate to apply the full extent of our security apparatus to protect our vital interest, take measures to root out terrorist cells, and strike swiftly and forcefully against those who seek to harm us.
This is actually less specific than Bush, who definitively lowered the threshold for the threat required to legitimize force, via the preemption doctrine, and announced an unrealistically long list of enemies that must be destroyed before the long war ever ends -- literally “every terrorist group of global reach,” as he told Congress in 2001. (To be fair, it’s not a clean comparison. Bush’s metrics are from presidential pronouncements, while candidate Bush vaguely promised a “humble” approach to foreign affairs.)
Yet if Edwards’ smart power plan raises the threshold for using force, he doesn’t directly say so, nor does he explain exactly how he will determine which “vital interests” are worth fighting to protect.