2008 will be the fourth presidential election year since I turned eighteen. In the previous three, I registered once as a Republican, twice as an Independent, and voted once for a Democrat. Pragmatism matters more to me than ideological consistency.
The American political system doesnt always leave much room for people whod rather vote for policies than for parties. Next November, however, Ill likely side with the candidate who best articulates a sensible international agenda. There are five items on my foreign policy wish list, shaped both by pride at having served alongside our nations flag in Afghanistan and Iraq and by the reality of having buried too many comrades beneath it.
First, and most important, we must restore the American ideal in the world. Coercion is an inescapable part of international politics, but force has never been Americas most effective weapon. Our social ideals of liberty, equality, and prosperity are stronger than any fleet or division. After 9/11, nearly the whole world stood with the United States. Less than six years later, Im uncomfortably conscious of my accent while walking down a London street. The United States cant bully the world into submission, but we mustnt retreat into isolation, either. We must lead, and restore the moral authority that has been such a great source of strength in American history.
Second, Ill vote for someone who makes explicit the threeway relationship between energy, the environment, and national security. These issues cannot remain the polarizing terrain of the far left or the far right. Tie them together, and recognize that energy dependence constricts our strategic options, environmental change poses security challenges of enormous magnitude, and we can either take the lead to shape our own future, or surely be shaped by it. This is one of those rare issues where fact and political expediency may actually converge.
Third, theres one, and only one, threat that could change life as we know it an hour from now: nuclear weapons. This nation has squandered nearly two decades since the end of the cold war without giving the real WMD out there the consideration they demand. Despite the admirable efforts of groups like the Nuclear Threat Initiative, loose nukes, trafficking in fissile material, and the emergence of new nuclear states continue to threaten the planet. But this is not an intractable problem. In the words of Harvard professor Graham Allison, nuclear terrorism is the ultimate preventable catastrophe: without loose weapons and fissile material, there can be no nuclear terrorism. So lets get our act together and prevent it.
Fourth, Iraq. The war has passed through three distinct phases: a fairly conventional fight to topple the Hussein regime, a complex insurgency, and, now, an ethnic and sectarian slugfest. American troops, deployed in sufficient numbers, could have had a decent chance of affecting the outcome of the first two phases, but that window of opportunity is slamming shut. Our ground forces are stretched nearly to the breaking point, and conventional U.S. troops will inevitably need to be drawn down in Iraq before a stable society blooms. What that means for the presidential contenders is this: the U.S. has enduring interests in Iraq, and we cannot simply wish ourselves back to February 2003. We must draw down while keeping sufficient forces in the region to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven and to prevent genocide in Iraq. Total withdrawal is irresponsible, and so is talk of deadlines. As then Commandant of the Marine Corps General P. X. Kelley testified before Congress during the debate over pulling U.S. troops out of Lebanon in 1983, If the time is too short, our enemies will wait us out; if it is too long, they will drive us out. Ambiguity isnt politically comfortable, but its necessary here.
Finally, in restoring the American ideal and implementing these tangible policies, we need good people to serve in government. Our next president should call on all Americans, not only on political loyalists, to serve. There is a brain drain in our best universities: many of the most gifted graduates are channeled straight into private-sector jobs without even considering public service. This isnt because young people today are unwilling to work for the common good; its because theyve never been asked. Civic engagement demands more than going shopping, and sacrifice means more than giving up our peace of mind while watching violence on the evening news.
The current crop of Democratic candidates comes reasonably close to meeting the first four points on my wish list. All recognize the need to repair the reputation of the United States. All seem to grasp that the issues of energy, the environment, and security are intertwined. Barack Obama, mentored by Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, has developed expertise in the problem of securing loose nukes. Most of the candidates, apart from Dennis Kucinich, recognize that withdrawal from Iraq will be neither immediate nor complete.
But what I dont, to my great disappointment, hear from any of them is a call for Americans to serve their country. Even Obama, who appears most willing to present grand visions, has shied away from talk of sacrifice. Only Republican John McCain has ventured significantly into such territory in recent years. We need national leaders who will use the bully pulpits of public life to inspire Americans to get involved. If our policies are to reflect our ideals, then the military, the Foreign Service, the intelligence community, and all the other arms of our government must be diverse cross-sections of American society. The ancient Greeks, after all, had a word for those who shun the affairs of the state: idiotes.
We are at war, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. What we need from a Democrat at such a time is exactly what we need from a Republican: wise, measured, and inspiring leadership. Part of that involves appealing to our idealism and issuing a genuine call to service. The Democrat who does so will get a lot of votesand maybe mine.