THE BLOG
04/12/2007 09:32 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

That Worldview Thing

Whether it is clearly articulated or not, all foreign policy proposals--for Iraq and everything else--make sense within a broader worldview. Policy is one thing, but the larger view or vision of what foreign policy should be about can serve as a window into America's future.

For his part, President Bush's policies have articulated his quasi-tyrannical perspective that violence creates power.

Just the other day, MoveOn.org's Town Hall on Iraq gave us all a chance to ferret out the worldviews of the various Democratic Party '08 candidates for President--which included, among other things, a full transcript for every American to read.

Did each candidate present a specific foreign policy worldview? If so, what was it? Which statement in the Town Hall epitomized that worldview? And finally: what does this tell us about what the future holds?

Listening to the candidates in the order they spoke at the MoveOn event, the following "snapshots" give answers to those worldview questions--and along the way, build general a sense of where each candidate is at the moment, in terms of their foreign policy thinking, and of what that means for the entire field.

John Edwards

  • Foreign Policy Worldview:  No single worldview presented
  • Presented instead: Views on the limits of Presidential authority 

The first to present in the Town Hall, Edwards' comments are marked by a focus on two big concepts: Presidential authority and time.

Edwards stated clearly that he was not interested in discussion abstract ideas, but action right now.  This focus on action now--not later, but now--has been a recurrent frame invoked by the Edwards campaign.  Edwards approach was epitomized in this statement:

Every day this war drags on is worse for Iraq, worse for our troops, worse for our country. We don't need more debate. We don't need symbolic resolutions, we don't need abstract goals. What we need are binding requirements, and we can't wait until this President takes off in 2009. Here's what I think ought to happen. Simply put, Congress should use its funding authority to force President Bush to end the war, and start immediately bringing American troops home from Iraq.

We can see in this statement that Edwards is presenting his vision that I would call "action now," in opposition to both a Congress that he sees as having passed "symbolic" bills and a President who has impeded action.  And while Edwards talked about the need to "directly engage the Iranians and the Syrians," he did not lay out a broad worldview for foreign policy in yesterday's forum.

Joe Biden

  • Foreign Policy Worldview:  No single worldview presented
  • Presented instead: Theory of peace in Iraq through federalism and oil revenue sharing  

More than any other candidate, Biden's comments, yesterday, echoed the conclusions of the Iraq Study Group (a.k.a. the Baker Group), whose proposals for Iraq were given to President Bush--whereupon they were discarded.

Biden stated clearly that the problem in Iraq was "sectarian violence" and then articulated a four part plan for stopping that violence through (1) the establishment of separate Sunni and Shia entities in Iraq, (2) creation of a limited central government, (3) oil revenu sharing, and (4) increased reconstruction assistance.

Rather than present any broad foreign policy worldview, Biden presented something reminiscent of classical American federalism.  That view was epitomized by this statement from Biden:

Were I President, I would call for the permanent five of the Security Council along with Germany and the four largest Muslim nations in the world to call for an international conference on Iraq whereby they impose upon the regional powers, Iraq... I mean, excuse me: Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey... a political solution, a political solution based on a federal system of giving local control in order to maintain a unified Iraq. If we do this, we can, not even if we do this, we should consistent with this, begin to draw down American combat troops within the next three months

We can see from this statement that Biden sees regional engagement has the key to establishing a federal system that will provide enough stability in Iraq to allow for American troops to leave.  While not a foreign policy worldview, Biden's plan is rooted in references to classical political theory, which as become a characteristic distinct to his campaign.

Dennis Kucinich

  • Foreign Policy Worldview:  Yes
  • Description:  Peace through global interdependence  

Kucinich was the first candidate in the Town Hall session to present a foreign policy worldview that clearly distinct from President Bush's violent monarchical approach.  The clear statement of foreign policy worldview, however, came after the most elaborate plan for Iraq.

According to Kucinich, the violent insurgency in Iraq is "fueled by the United States occupation."  He proposes, therefore, to end the U.S. occupation and replace it with a U.N. occupation.  Kucinich makes clear that the U.S. occupation is both military and corporate, but does not so much insist on an end to military and corporate presence in Iraq as the end to U.S. monopoly of that occupation.  Hence, while Kucinich proposes an end to the "U.S. occupation," he also proposes that the U.S. fund the U.N. multinational occupation that will take our place, plus--a key point--that the U.S. pay "reparations" to the Iraqi people.  All told, Kucinich's plan seems to increase the occupying force and U.S. expense, but change the worldview behind it.

That change in worldview was epitomized  by this statement from Kucinich:

My wife and I are both involved in the international community right now, and reaching out to people around the world. We need to have a President and his first lady, and in the case of Senator Clinton, if she happens to get elected, be in a position of embracing the world community, fearlessly and courageously, in an open-hearted way, that brings the best intentions and actions of the United States forward.  But it also means that we're going to have to put away this approach of aggression.

Here we see Kucinich explicitly distinguishing his worldview from that of Bush--"embracing the world community" in opposition to "this approach of aggression."

Bill Richardson

  • Foreign Policy Worldview:  National and Regional Reconciliation
  • Description: Stability through regional diplomacy and national conferences

Richardson's proposals for Iraq bear the marks of a seasoned diplomat and were presented with clear logic and credible goals.  But they also introduced a language of national "reconciliation."  While not proposing an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq, Richardson endorsed "timetables" that would result in the removal of any "residual" U.S. forces in the region.  To do this, Richardson proposes using the War Powers Act to "de-authorize" the war--a tactic that he calls "the most important step."  If contested, Richardson believes the authority of Congress to de-authorize the war through the War Powers Act should be tested in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Questions of Congressional authority aside, Richardson's plan for Iraq rests on two proposed "conferences."  The first conference would divide Iraq into three factions (Sunni, Shia, Kurd) and then bring them to a reconciliation that resulted in a viable government.   The second conference  would be a U.S.-led "security" meeting with NATO and all nations in the region including Syria and Iran.

These two conferences take shape within Richardson's broader foreign policy worldview epitomized by this statement:

What does that mean? That means that we also invite Iran and Syria. We have to look at Iraq not in an isolated way, we have to look at the whole Middle East, the Persian Gulf, the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and you get Iran and Syria to invest in the stability of the region. This will be tough. This will be difficult but the full force of withdrawal, the full force of American diplomacy, and the full force of bringing other entities Europe, Muslim countries, and the region for a solution. We'll give Iraq a chance.

For Richardson, the problem with our current foreign policy worldview is that it isolates Iraq--and ourselves--from a broader regional perspective.  The solution to Iraq requires that we change not just policy, but complete perspective.

Hilary Clinton

  • Foreign Policy Worldview:  Yes
  • Description: Protection through force and diplomacy

Although difficult at first glance to distinguish from President Bush's foreign policy worldview,  Clinton did explicitly state a distinct perspective--while at the same time acknowledging that some MoveOn members may not be satisfied with what they hear.  To set up her perspective, Clinton first distinguished between "two really different ways of thinking about" the problem of getting out of Iraq:  (1) what she believes should be done while President Bush is still in office and (2) what she would do if elected President.   The first way of thinking, as Clinton put it, begins with "facing up to the reality" that the situation on the ground is getting worse not better, "capping" the President's ability to increase troop numbers, limited redeployment of troops, benchmarks for the Iraqis, and greater diplomatic engagement in the region.

As President, Clinton describes a plan that affords continuing protection to the Kurds as reward for having "fulfilled their end of the bargain," eliminating permanent bases, but maintaining a "residual force" in the region to protect against terrorism and instability. 

Clinton's subsequent statement about the purpose of this "residual force" epitomized her distinct foreign policy worldview:

I am absolutely clear: we do not plan a permanent occupation or permanent bases, but in line with all of the legislation that has been
passed by the Democratic majority, or passed when we were in the minority, going all the way back to 2005, we have tried to be responsible in saying there may be a continuing mission to protect
America's vital interests, and to support an Iraqi government that we hope to be an ally going forward, assuming they are acting responsibly. So, the bottom line for me is that we will begin re-deploying our
troops as soon as I am President, and we will do so in as expeditious a manner as possible.

The distinction between Bush's foreign policy worldview is distinct by virtue of the prominent role of U.S. diplomacy and an explicit limiting of the President's authority.  What remains constant is the presence of U.S. military force as a guarantor of U.S. interests.

Chris Dodd

  • Foreign Policy Worldview:  No single worldview presented
  • Presented instead: End Iraq engagement through energy independence

Calling for immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq to start "this evening."  Dodd turns several current arguments on their head by suggesting, for example, a deadline for ending the withdrawal rather than a deadline for starting it, and by suggestion a "surge in politics and diplomacy" rather than a surge in military force.  But the overriding feature of Dodd's proposal is a reframing of national security in terms of energy policy.  Solving our problems in Iraq requires that we deal with a problem that is of our own making, albeit involving the Middle East:  energy dependency.

Similar to Biden, many of Dodd's proposals for Iraq echo the ideas put forth by the Iraq Study Group.  But his broader vision is of an America that is more capable in foreign policy because it has declared energy independence at home.

Dodd's foreign policy worldview was epitomized by this statement:

the solution I have, for us to not only get out of Iraq, re-deploying our troops immediately, but also reducing the kind of incentives that cause us to believe we have a role to play in perpetuity in Iraq. And thus energy independence within 10 years is something I'm strongly advocating. I believe it can be done and that we no longer have to depend on energy resources coming out of the Middle East. I believe that the American people would be more than delighted to participate in an idea that would allow us to achieve that kind of independence... Americans are anxious to be asked to be a part of something larger than themselves. I can't think of anything more important to the American people right now than reducing the kind of dependency that exists as a result of our dependency that exists as a result of our dependency in that part of the world.

Dodd's energy independence worldview does not encompass all aspects of U.S. foreign policy, but it would clearly have significant consequences in all areas.

Barack Obama

  • Foreign Policy Worldview:  Yes
  • Description: Power with diplomacy

Last up in the rotation, many of the specifics of Obama's proposal for Iraq had already been mentioned, including: recognition of problems, benchmarks for Iraqis and greater regional engagement.  What characterized Obama's statements, however, was an explicit attempt at articulating the big questions, the big changes that need to come in the whole of American foreign policy.

Referencing his earlier plan to work towards "political accommodation" between Sunni and Shia, and his efforts to work hard in the senate to reign in the authority of President Bush.

It is his statement about what constitutes power on the global stage that epitomized his foreign policy worldview:

Ronald Reagan during the Cold War called the Soviet Union an "evil empire," but he consistently met with the Soviet Union because he recognized power without diplomacy is a prescription for disaster. So, I think we have to have serious conversations with them. I don't think we should be naïve about what to anticipate from them. I think that they will continue to make mischief so long as they think that we're gonna keep a lid on the violence in Iraq, but if we combine a phased withdrawal from Iraq, with the kind of diplomatic efforts that are necessary, with all parties in the region, then I think that we've got a chance for the kind of political opening that will ultimately make a
real difference in Iraq.

In this statement, Obama clearly rejects Bush's "Power without diplomacy" worldview in favor of an integrated perspective that emphasizes diplomatic effort while not eliminating military force.

In Summary

Reducing each candidate's statements down to a few words, the end result would look something like this:

  1. John Edwards - limit Presidential authority
  2. Joe Biden - stability through Federalism
  3. Dennis Kucinich - peace through global interdependence
  4. Bill Richardson - national and regional reconciliation
  5. Hilary Clinton - protection through force and diplomacy
  6. Chris Dodd - energy independence
  7. Barack Obama - power through diplomacy

That is quite a bunch of ideas, but a few points come to mind by way of a summary.

First, expressing a clear worldview does not go hand-in-hand with having a viable Iraq policy.  Kucinich and Obama expressed the clearest worldviews, but their policies were confusing or hesitant in comparison to Richardson and Biden.

Second, what a candidate said or did in the past does not have much bearing on their worldview going forward.  Many candidates stated that they have been against the war for some time now, but the consequences of those histories for American policy in Iraq going forward was not ever clear.  It was helpful, however, to know how their conception of American foreign policy history informed their worldviews.  Of the whole field, only Biden (federalism) and Obama (reference to Reagan) grounded their Iraq policies in American history.

Third, discussing Senate actions vis-à-vis Iraq tends to muddy a candidate's statements.  This tendency was apparent in the perspectives of Clinton, Dodd and Obama.  Edwards and Richardson were the best at striking a distance between themselves and senatorial over-deliberativeness.   

Fourth, clear statements of foreign policy worldview help voters understand big distinctions between policy ideas.  Kucinich's "peace through global dependence," Richardson's "reconciliation," and Obama's "power through diplomacy" each gave listeners clear concepts in which to make sense of policy statements that were unavoidably confusing. Iraq is a mess.   So the policy proposals put forth to clean up the mess will be somewhat messy, too.  Worldviews can be clear, broad, understandable.

Fifth, more than experience even--communication matters.  While many people have cited Richardson's experience as the key factor in his candidacy, the Town Hall session showed that it was his ability to communicate that distinguished him.  In this respect, Richardson and Obama--by virtue of their ability to communicate--seem to be the most effective articulating foreign policy worldview.   

Sixth, while ending violence in Iraq is a concern of all Democratic candidates for President, none expressed a desire to monopolize the use of violence as policy in the manner that characterizes the worldview of President Bush.  All candidates  talked about the central role of tempering the application of military violence and limiting the executive's claim to absolute control of military violence.

Overall,  the candidates seem to be gravitating towards a Democratic foreign policy worldview that rejects a definition of power based on force and unilateral use of violence, even if they are split on the manner in which the transition to this new worldview should take place.

As the debate season begins to take shape, progressives will continue to listen carefully not only to policy, but also to worldview as a strategy for distinguishing between and, ultimately, casting support for individual Democratic Presidential candidates.