Saturday, June 02, 2007

Democrats show similarities with Bush

Democrats show similarities with Bush
By Edward Luce
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: June 2 2007 03:00 | Last updated: June 2 2007 03:00

Tomorrow the eight Democratic hopefuls for 2008 hold their second debate in the tiny state of New Hampshire. But if their first outing last month was anything to go by, critics of the way the George W. Bush's administration has handled the post-September 11 world may come away feeling short-changed.

With the notable exception of Iraq, on which all the candidates favour a withdrawal of US combat troops within a year or so, few have directly challenged the parameters of Mr Bush's "global war on terror". Among the leading candidates only John Edwards has proposed an overhaul in how to frame it.

Advisers acknowledge that some of this caution, particularly from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, stems from the continuing suspicion of Democratic instincts on national security.

Since protests against the Vietnam war, Democrats have had the reputation of being the "blame America first" party. There is also a desire to demonstrate that calling for a withdrawal from Iraq does not imply a reluctance to go to war.

"The Democratic candidates are bending over backwards to show that they would have no hesitation in firing that missile or in authorising this or that war," says Steve Clemons at the New America Foundation, a centrist think-tank. "In many respects they are running on a Bush-lite foreign policy platform."

Perhaps the most notable similarity with the Bush administration is on Israel. As recently as 1999 and 2000, it was acceptable for Bill Clinton, a Democratic president, to talk about "Israel's occupation of the West Bank" as an obstacle to peace. Mr Clinton frequently referred to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories in the same vein. That is no longer mainstream.

The section in Mrs Clinton's website dealing with foreign policy summarises her record on defending Israel and says she has "spoken out against the problem of anti-semitism in Palestinian textbooks". Nowhere does it mention her support for a renewed peace process.

In an article in Foreign Affairs published yesterday, Mr Obama calls for a renewed focus on an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He adds that "our starting point must always be a clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel". Mr Obama was criticised after the first debate for having forgotten Israel when asked to list the US's key allies.

"The plain fact is there is no upside for candidates to challenge the prevailing assumptions about Israel," said one of their advisers, who asked not to be named. "The best strategy is to win the White House and then change the debate."

On Iran, most recommend unconditional talks, in contrast to Mr Bush who says Tehran must first suspend its enrichment of uranium. But all the contenders have come close to repeating the formula put forward by John McCain, the leading Republican candidate, who said the only thing worse than war with Iran was a nuclear-armed Iran.

"In dealing with this threat no option can be taken off the table," said Mrs Clinton earlier this year. Mr Obama also says the military option can not be taken off the table.

"Iran provides an opportunity for the Democrats to show they are realistic and tough on foreign policy because it poses a genuine threat to Israel and broader regional stability," says Ivo Daalder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who advises Mr Obama's campaign.

Similarly, the leading candidates agree on the need to restore trust in America around the world - in part by closing Guantánamo and providing legal rights to terrorist suspects. But all three echo Mr Bush's call for an expansion of the US army and marines by between 80,000 and 92,000 soldiers.

None, says Mr Clemons, questions the underlying logic of relying so heavily on projection of force in foreign policy. "America is at a stage when we need someone to say: 'We're stuck, let's revisit the fundamentals,' " says Mr Clemons. "But so far they are too timid to risk it."


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