Opinion

The Democrats' foreign-policy game

What you vote for isn't always what you get.

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The Democratic Party and its presumed presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, have made "restoring America's image" and "renewing American leadership" cornerstones of their foreign-policy promises for 2008.Nearly every Democratic foreign-policy speech, press release, or Web link says as much.

This is a powerful message that certainly resonates with American voters and our friends around the world. However, if we look just below the surface of the rhetoric and analyze specific policies proposed by Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail, we find plans that would only further damage America's international standing.

On two critical issues in particular – trade and the war in Iraq – Democrats have been trying to have their cake and eat it too: They claim they will restore America's image and leadership and simultaneously promise unilateralist and irresponsible policies certain to have the opposite effect.

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This foreign-policy "house of mirrors" (where what you're told is not necessarily what you get) may have been useful to get through the primaries. But it risks tying the Democrats up in a Gordian knot in the general election, and, if they win the White House, well beyond.

Regarding trade, Democrats have become unabashedly protectionist to the point where they are willing to thumb their noses at American friends and allies like South Korea, Colombia, Canada, and Mexico. In May, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shelved a painstakingly negotiated trade pact with Colombia that would have primarily benefited American exports. If the US is wary of trading with tiny Colombia – a democratizing neighbor confronting terrorism and drug trafficking – what does that say about America's capacity for global economic leadership?

Ms. Pelosi also recently killed "fast-track" procedures intended to ease congressional votes on trade agreements, meaning new pacts with South Korea and Panama are also likely to remain in limbo. And just last month, Democrats in the House and Senate proposed a bill (containing many of Senator Obama's campaign promises) that would require the president to submit plans to renegotiate all current trade agreements – including the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico – before Congress would consider any new agreements.

The message Democrats are sending to the world is clear: You cannot trust America to honor its trade agreements, even with developing nations struggling to enter the global middle class. This is a far cry from Obama's Lincolnesque promise in his Democratic nomination victory speech June 3rd to restore "our image as the last, best hope on earth."

On Iraq, Democrats have put themselves in an equally tenuous position. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Obama and congressional Democrats remain committed to calling the "surge" a failure. And they are wedded to promises for immediate troop withdrawals.

Every reputable analysis of Iraq – including from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group – warns that a rapid reduction of US troops would reignite sectarian violence and threaten the government in Baghdad.

Nonetheless, more than 40 Democratic congressional candidates recently pledged that, if elected, they would legislate an immediate withdrawal of all troops except those guarding the US Embassy. And Obama maintains his vow to immediately begin removing "one to two combat brigades each month" – a pace that would represent the most frantic retreat since Vietnam.

To ignore recent hard-won stability in Iraq and withdraw in the face of a certain humanitarian catastrophe would be viewed across the world as the height of irresponsibility; and it would make a mockery of Obama's hopes that America will "once again have the courage and conviction to lead the free world."

Perhaps we should not take the Democrats too literally – perhaps this is simply a crafty election year strategy aimed at placating an antiwar and increasingly protectionist electorate. After all, two of Obama's senior advisers – in unguarded moments – described his campaign promises on trade and Iraq as mere necessities to win the election; afterward prudence would prevail.

But Democrats may be playing it a bit too clever, possibly hindering their chances in November. Despite lofty promises, the policies they are most aligning themselves with leave them vulnerable to Republican charges of "defeatism" – that America cannot compete in a world of open markets and cannot successfully finish the job in Iraq.

Unless Democrats begin matching their policies with their inspirational rhetoric, they risk losing more than just the election. They risk losing their chance to help America truly reclaim its mantle of global leadership.

Stuart Gottlieb was a Democratic foreign-policy adviser and speechwriter in the US Senate from 1999 to 2003. He now directs the policy studies program at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.

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