01/24/2008 01:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Foreign Policy Hurts the Democrats

So much for the great foreign policy campaign of 2008. The importance of global affairs has receded like a bad hairline as the economic recession, immigration, health care, and other topics closer to home take center stage in this presidential campaign. That would appear to favor the Democrats, whose top candidates have virtually zero foreign policy experience between them. Their bread and butter remain pocketbook issues.

Yet one of the rallying cries for Democrats was opposition to the war in Iraq and to a potential war with Iran. With the war in Iraq showing limited progress (although the jury is still out) and war with Iran virtually a non-starter (thanks to the NIE report), Democrats are left without anything to oppose about American foreign policy. Hand it to the Bush administration, which has brilliantly stolen the thunder of the Democrats by pushing for nuclear talks on North Korea, making some (albeit limited) concessions on global warming targets at Bali, and finally talking (after wasting seven years) about a peace plan amenable to both Palestinians and Israelis. What's a Democrat oppositionist to do? Even criticizing the Bush administration's Pakistan policy is seen as almost too mainstream to warrant any serious debate (seems virtually everyone recognizes that our cozying up to Musharraf is not a sound strategy).

There's always torture, but I doubt voters really consider a candidate's position on waterboarding when they enter a voting booth. Plus, on this issue, if McCain gets the nod from the Republicans, no Democrat will dare disagree with him. Trade? This came up a bunch in Michigan with the Republicans -- it's fun to see candidates discussing the boring minutia of Peruvian subsidies, as if Peru were our largest trading partner. But McCain is actually probably closest to correct on this issue: many jobs shipped overseas simply ain't coming back.

One thing you don't hear Democrats talking a lot about is terrorism. Why not? Are they afraid of getting into a debate with Republicans on whether we are winning the war on terror? Are they afraid their own policies on this front are inadequate, or too vague or status quo to warrant mention? Every serious study shows that al-Qaeda is stronger today than it was on 9/10 and the reason there has been no major terrorist attack in this country owes more to dumb luck than alphabet soup agencies or indecipherable color alert systems concocted by DHS. I guess I'm at a loss to explain: Forgetting for a moment the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, how will Democrats fight terrorists any differently from Republicans? The Democrats have, rightfully, talked about restoring America's image in the world, but how do they intend to do that while still carrying out strikes against suspected terrorist targets in Pakistan or Yemen? Will John Edwards' smile or Obama's Kenyan roots simply melt away all the ill will stored up overseas? I doubt it. I have not seen a serious strategy on how to repair America's image abroad. Everyone kneels now before the altar of diplomacy but that only gets us so far. Apply more soft power? Trouble is that U.S. public diplomacy has an abysmal record in the Muslim world (Hi Magazine, anyone???). Go on a listening tour? If it didn't work for Karen Hughes, it won't work for Hillary Clinton. The Middle East is not upstate New York.

Remember all it takes is one foreign policy incident -- one errant bullet, one suicide bomb on a subway, one nuclear mishap -- and undecided voters will be sent scurrying over to the Republican side, craving someone with national security know-how, especially if McCain wins the nomination. Although foreign policy at present is not a central issue in the campaign, my guess is if the Democrats do not win the White House in November, foreign policy (and their lack of new ideas on this front) will have something to do with it.