MINNEAPOLIS—Senator Joe Lieberman sat on an auditorium stage, surrounded by Republicans, and beamed like a satisfied heretic.
It was less than 24 hours since the former Democrat’s convention speech in praise of his friend John McCain, and Lieberman was speaking as part of a panel discussion on the prospective McCain administration’s hypothetical foreign policy. The room was packed full of journalists, Republican officials and internationalist types, eager to hear from a man who has largely ostracized himself from his colleagues on Capitol Hill. Three other McCain advisors were sitting onstage, but it was Lieberman—whom Barack Obama endorsed just two years ago, when he faced a primary challenge—who volubly took the lead in criticizing the Democratic candidate, whom he described as unprepared to lead the country through a Manichaean global struggle.
“This is a difference, I think, between Senator Obama and Senator McCain,” he said. “There is good and evil in the world and there’s some people in the world who just hate us for various reasons. Hate our allies. And ultimately we are only going to make them more law abiding or less threatening members of the international community” by confronting them, he said, “as we have in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Lieberman was appearing at the session, held at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, as part of a weeklong series of policy forums. Taken together, the news that emerged from these discussions, at least when it came to the conflict that Lieberman described, was notably dire. At another forum earlier that morning, sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, one expert warned that Iranian leaders are dangerously prone to misjudge American intentions, and another said that Israeli officials were “actually preparing” for a military attack on Tehran. Richard Haass, the former Bush administration State Department official who now heads the CFR, raised the possibility that Pakistan could soon become a failed state, and another panelist described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as being in a “suicide watch” stage, in which the “extinction” of one side or the other was a real possibility.
“We’re opening the bar early this morning,” Haass joked.
That forum, however, lacked big names, and it was far more sparsely attended than Lieberman’s, which also included Richard Williamson, the U.S.’s special envoy to Sudan, Robert “Bud” McFarlane, the former Reagan administration adviser (and Iran-Contra figure), and Robert Portman, the former Ohio congressman and current U.S. trade representative. The message from Lieberman and his fellow panelists was comparatively upbeat, as they described an improving Iraq and a world that’s democratizing, with the help of some muscular Republican foreign policy.
“This might get into the area of controversy,” Lieberman said, “but whatever one thinks about whether we should have gone into Iraq, Iraq now is potentially a great model for the future in the Islamic world.”
Then he turned to Obama, suggesting that his opposition to President Bush’s Iraq troop surge, had it been successful, would have carried disastrous consequences.
“A lot of my Democratic colleagues in the Senate, including Senator Obama, kind of gave up on Iraq when things were going tough in 2005 and 2006,” he said. “And you know John and I and others felt very strongly that—no matter what you thought about whether it was right to go in—the consequences of losing Iraq, the historic center of the Arab world, to Al Qaeda and Iran essentially and probably bringing about civil war if not genocide, was so severe that we had to try everything we could to avoid it.”
Though Lieberman has been arguing for such an interventionism for going on seven years, there was still something surreal to the spectacle of Al Gore’s running mate accusing the Democratic candidate of risking genocide. Even the other participants were a little bit boggled. “This is an out-of-body experience for me,” Portman joked. “I played the role of Joe Lieberman in debate preparation for Dick Cheney in 2000.”
“Some people say to me, how is it you could be the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000 and you’re here supporting the Republican candidate for president eight years later?” Lieberman acknowledged, during a back-and-forth over trade issues. “Now obviously part of it is John McCain, our close working relationship,” he continued. “But part of it is that on some critical issues, to me anyway, and I think to our county, the Democratic Party has changed. I mean it’s only eight years ago that the Clinton-Gore administration is deeply committed to free trade.”
With that, Lieberman slipped in the knife.
“If Senator Obama really follows through on some of the things he’s said,” the senator said, “I think that those anti-trade policies will have the net effect of putting us—I don’t want to be alarmist but putting us into a lot worse shape economically than we otherwise would be, let me be as diplomatic as that.”
“This is a fateful decision,” Lieberman said, before getting up to leave the forum early. (He had an interview scheduled with Fox News.)
As he left, so did half the room, the journalists packing away their laptops and tromping off to their next event, leaving the panel, which was still talking, to contend with all the world’s problems.