Michèle Flournoy hardly seems like a renegade.
As president of the Center for a New American Security, she and her colleagues have assigned themselves the modest-sounding mission of coming up with a pragmatic foreign policy platform for the next president. But within the progressive foreign policy establishment, this makes them revolutionaries.
“Part of what we’re saying is, let’s have some clear-eyed analysis based on the facts,” said Ms. Flournoy in an interview in her Washington office a few blocks from the White House. “Let’s focus on what works for a while.”
Ms. Flournoy’s nominally nonpartisan group has become part of a debate that has grown sharper as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the rest of the Democratic presidential field begin to articulate their worldviews, pitting the liberal interventionists who dominated the foreign policy apparatus under the Clinton administration against a new species of progressives seeking, to some extent, to reign in America’s foreign ambitions.
It’s a genuine clash of worldviews, and it’s just beginning. Call it the rise of the liberal realists.
“The biggest cleavage in the Democratic Party is over America’s role in the world,” said Kenneth Baer, a co-founder of the quarterly publication Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, and a former speechwriter for Al Gore’s presidential campaign. Whether America should play an expanded or limited role in the next Democratic administration’s foreign policy, he said, “is the big divide.”
For years, top Democratic advisers on foreign policy have been drawn from the neoliberal or “Wilsonian” school. Its adherents at the Progressive Policy Institute, the Democratic Leadership Council and, of course, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University advocate that a Democratic president project the country’s strength to spread American values. Most of the members of the school favor a careful withdrawal from Iraq, and they are, for the most part, committed multilateralists. But they also argue that the Iraq experience should not discourage future interventions or engagement in support of American values, especially in the Middle East. In an interdependent world, they argue, more democracy, liberty and rule of law will ultimately increase American security.
Ms. Flournoy, a 46-year-old former Department of Defense official in the Clinton administration, and her colleagues think the war in Iraq and the country’s plummeting reputation abroad changes the equation, and that the next president may have to reign in his or her ambitions when it comes to the projection of American power.
As Ms. Flournoy and CNAS co-founder Kurt Campbell wrote in an influential June policy paper called The Inheritance and the Way Forward, “First, U.S. strategy must be grounded in a common sense pragmatism rather than ideology. U.S. national security strategy must be based on a clear-eyed assessment of the challenges and opportunities of the new security environment as well as realistic objectives derived from our national interests.”
These self-styled realists feel chastened by the raft of problems inherited from the Iraq war and want to ratchet back direct American engagement, concentrate more on rebuilding America’s reputation and, not unlike the paleoconservatives who guided foreign policy under George H.W. Bush, let national interests be the nation’s guide.
Just how much influence their argument is having on the front-runners in the Democratic presidential race is not immediately apparent. While fringe candidates like Dennis Kucinich advocate an almost isolationist foreign policy, the leading candidates speak about international affairs in a language still very much imbued with talk of Wilsonian values.
Still, there have been some clues that the balance of power is shifting—and is leading to increasingly discernible divisions between the leading Democratic contenders.
One of the first indications was an October 2006 speech by Hillary Clinton at the Council on Foreign Relations about balancing “the pragmatic with the moral elements of our strength.” In that speech she approvingly cited a book called Ethical Realism, which hews close to the pragmatic line.
More recently, in June, Mrs. Clinton spoke at the standing-room only opening of CNAS and said, “We must regain our place in the world with a new security policy that serves our national interest, recaptures our moral authority, works with our allies, modernizes our military and confidently projects our values.”
Mrs. Clinton listed national interest first and values last, a slight shift, but a significant one to the finely-attuned ears of the foreign policy establishment.
Mr. Obama, by contrast, seems to be moving away from anything smacking of restrained pragmatism—the Wilsonians disdainfully call it “soft realism”—by stating recently that he would meet with the leaders of rogue nations, and that he would attack Al Qaeda in Pakistan with or without the approval of the Pakistani government.
“It’s very striking that Obama talks about a common security for our common humanity—now that is really engaged,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson school and an oft-mentioned candidate for secretary of state in a Democratic administration. “He is really grasping that we are an interdependent world and the only way to address our problems is to embrace it—whereas the Clinton campaign is more focused on restoring our standing in the world.
“That is, of course, also a big part of Obama, but you are looking at what’s the lead,” she continued. “So the leads are different. I think he is pushing the envelope on a number of things. His speech on Pakistan, he is willing to say I would talk to anybody. He hasn’t backed down.”
The third leading Democratic contender, John Edwards, has, like Mrs. Clinton, made the pursuit of a humbler foreign policy a centerpiece of his campaign.
In a lengthy articulation of his foreign policy views in the September edition of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Edwards puts “restoring America’s reputation” as his priority, and writes that “[r]ather than alienating the rest of the world through assertions of infallibility and demands of obedience, as the current administration has done, U.S. foreign policy must be driven by a strategy of reengagement.”
An informal foreign policy adviser to Mr. Edwards, Derek Chollet, has taken up residence at CNAS and has an office a few doors down from Ms. Flournoy. In the Foreign Affairs article, Mr. Edwards directly echoed the center’s “Three No’s” Iraq report, by writing that “the United States must retain sufficient forces in the region to prevent a genocide, a regional spillover of the civil war, or the establishment of an al Qaeda safe haven.”
Certainly, the traditional “values” establishment, already under siege by the liberal antiwar Netroots for advocating a gradual approach to withdrawal from Iraq, is wary about the center’s growing influence.
“They are coming out in the same place in terms of, ‘Let’s move away from values,’” said Ms. Slaughter, referring to the center and the antiwar bloggers. “It’s like a flanking movement. It’s one of the reasons many folks like me are standing up and fighting for values even though we know full well that you will be tarred with the neocon brush.”
But Ms. Flournoy and company seem determined to carve out their own prominent place in the liberal foreign policy firmament.
She made it clear in the interview that unlike some prominent bloggers, she thinks the United States is a force for good abroad, and pointed out that she supported an exit strategy from Iraq that calls for a residual force of 60,000 troops.
“If you look at the ‘how’ in what we are suggesting,” she said, “there is a world of difference between us and the others.”