The Democrats' Middle East dilemma

Savaged by right-wingers for a "Daily Show" appearance in which she seemed to root for U.S. failure, former Clinton advisor Nancy Soderberg talks about what Bush does and doesn't deserve credit for.

By Page Rockwell
Published March 21, 2005 11:52PM (EST)

The seven weeks since the elections in Iraq have been uneasy ones for many Democrats. The election's relative success, followed by large anti-authoritarian demonstrations in Lebanon and some initial signals of democratic reform from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have Bush supporters declaring vindication for his Middle East policy.

There is still a long way to go before anyone can rightly declare victory for democracy in the region, says Nancy Soderberg, a former foreign policy advisor to President Clinton. Still, the positive signs of change have left the president's opponents grappling with a tough question: How do they stand by their criticisms of Bush and articulate a strong alternative position on foreign policy while recognizing the positive developments in the Middle East?

No one is more familiar with the Democrats' dilemma than Soderberg, whose March 1 appearance on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart made her the newest Democrat that conservatives love to hate. Soderberg took a seat on Stewart's set to promote her new book, "The Superpower Myth: The Use and Misuse of American Might," but like so many others who've entered Stewart's disarming comedic cosmos, she was quickly pulled off script.

"This is just you and I talking, no cameras here," Stewart joked.

In short order he had Soderberg conceding that the idea of Bush's ushering in a new era of democracy in the Middle East was "scary for Democrats." When Stewart quipped, "My kid's gonna go to a high school named after [Bush], I just know it," Soderberg replied: "Well, there's still Iran and North Korea, don't forget. There's hope for the rest of us."

Not wasting a minute, right-wing pundits -- though quick to dismiss "The Daily Show" as facile comedy when it rips into the right -- declared Soderberg official spokesperson for the Democratic Party's true-blue treasonous agenda. Opinion Journal editor James Taranto led the charge, gloating that Soderberg had "admitted repeatedly that Democrats are hoping for American failure in the Middle East." When Soderberg appeared on Fox's "O'Reilly Factor" last Wednesday, Bill O'Reilly declared that Bush "may win big in the Middle East" which would make it very difficult for Democrats to get elected in 2008. "Because of that reality," he asked her, "don't you feel that some Democrats are rooting for the Bush administration to lose in Iraq and, indeed, even in the war on terror?"

Soderberg has been taking the right-wing spin in stride -- and has continued to address the issues she considers key to U.S. foreign policy in the rapidly changing Middle East. Talking by phone from her office in New York, she rated Bush's second-term progress, weighed in on what Democrats should do now as the opposition party -- and put right-wing bloggers in their proper place.

Since your appearance with Jon Stewart, you've reminded people to take your remarks in the context of a comedy show.

That was banter with Jon Stewart, and I think that the fact that it was taken out of context says more about how desperate [right-wing] extremists are to find something to criticize the Democrats for. I think you can make way too much of a late-night comedy show and the right-wing bloggers who go around looking for ways to bash Democrats.

But your comment that recent signs of progress in the Middle East are "scary for Democrats" did speak to a key dilemma: How do those who were against the war acknowledge the encouraging signs in the Middle East without undermining their criticisms of the Bush administration?

I actually think Democrats want to see and would benefit from a successful Bush foreign policy. We're not there yet. A change in course is always welcome, and the Democrats will have no problems if the Bush administration begins to get it right. Whether it's Democrats or Republicans, we need to return to a policy of tough engagement, where America is a persuader and not an enforcer.

That means zero tolerance [with regard to] nonproliferation and terrorism, and if we succeed in doing that, Democrats will applaud it. And it will enable both Democrats and Republicans to reap the benefits of a more realistic foreign policy, and I think that that's good for both sides.

The remarks you made on "The Daily Show" led Bush supporters to say that Democrats are partisans first and patriots second. Do you think it's important or worthwhile for Democrats to address the charge that the party is unpatriotic?

Extremists always try to paint Democrats as unpatriotic America haters, but I don't think it's a credible charge, and I don't think we should waste our time debating it. I think what the Democrats need to do is set forward a positive message of what they stand for: a strong military, well-cared-for troops and international rules of the road that protect Americans and keep America safe and prevent another potential terrorist attack -- particularly one with nuclear weapons.

I think what's a more interesting discussion is whether or not the Bush administration is undergoing a fundamental shift in its approach to international foreign policy. They fell victim, in the first term, to what I call the "superpower myth," which says that because we're the lone superpower we can bend the world to our will, primarily on our own and through military means. I think that has been [disproved as a viable] policy, and I think the administration is undergoing a second-term shift.

Look at the president's trip to Europe: He's talking partnership, he's talking about listening, he's talking about building coalitions, and he's even praising French fries instead of freedom fries now. It's a fundamental shift in rhetoric that may well translate into great opportunities.

You've said that the signs of progress in the Middle East have more to do with events like the death of Yasser Arafat than the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But you've also said that Bush deserves some credit for the changes in Iraq.

The elections were better than even they had hoped: 8.5 million people came out and ignored the insurgents' threat. They voted for a secular government, not an Iranian-style Islamic government, and that's all good. I think the Iraqi people are clearly going to be better off after America's huge investment.

Historians will debate whether it was worth it, and we don't know yet the ultimate cost. So far it's 1,500 [American] lives, and my guess is that number will grow. Hundreds of billions of dollars: That number's going to grow. And our troops are there for the foreseeable future. Our exit strategy is an Iraqi security force to whom we can hand over power -- there's not one of those on the horizon anytime soon.

I think the administration does deserve credit for what's been going on recently in Iraq -- that is, I would hope so. I mean, we have an enormous investment; we should see some progress from it. But whether that will translate into dramatic progress throughout the Middle East is a much different question. My guess is [that kind of progress] is a generation away. I thought President Bush's speech at the National Defense University this month was very wise in calling for Arab reform, beginning with the reform of the education system and the government-controlled press. That's a conversation that needs to happen now. I wish it had happened four years ago, but it's better now than never.

How do you think a Democratic administration would be handling the Middle East today? What would a Kerry administration have done differently?

In the book I call for a policy of tough engagement, which is America returning to its [role of] leader as persuader, not just enforcer, with strong alliances and zero tolerance for terrorists and proliferation. I think it's a very sound Democratic -- or Republican -- position, and one that a Democratic administration would likely pursue.

It appears to me that the Bush administration is shifting toward such a policy. They've run away from Bill Clinton's record for the last four years; I think they're shifting back to many of the policies that he spent the '90s developing. They're sound policies; they made sense; they never should have been rejected in the first place.

You've said that the spread of democracy in the Middle East hasn't actually gotten very far. What else do you think needs to be done in terms of U.S. policy?

Well, I think in the next four years you can achieve great progress in peace between the Arabs and Israelis. You now have a credible interlocutor on the Palestinian side, and Sharon is well-positioned to move things forward. The only real, significant progress that has come in the peace between the Arabs and Israelis has come when America has served as a catalyst. The Bush administration has been standing on the sidelines for the last four years. Now they have a chance to bring that to fruition.

There are also likely to be some major changes in Syria. The current Syrian president, Assad, has never rid himself of his father's old guard, and Damascus will be looking for ways to please Washington, one of which is to offer to negotiate return of the Golan Heights with Israel. So that's of historic proportions. The Arab world needs to begin to feel the winds of change. That's not going to happen overnight, and it's got to be very carefully managed.

In Iran, I believe the administration has the right policy; they just can't get anyone to follow them, partly because of their difficult relations with Europe over the last four years. That's changing with the president's recent trip to Europe, and hopefully they'll be able to convince the French, Germans and perhaps even the Russians that a nuclear-armed Iran is not in anyone's interests. The Bush administration's position has been "We're going to refer it to the Security Council," but that's meaningless unless some of the Security Council members agree with you; you can't drive things through the Security Council by yourself.

What's your biggest concern about the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East, going forward?

Lack of engagement.

So what strategy of engagement should Democrats be promoting?

Restoring America's image as a world leader that acts in the interests of the rest of the world too. Today, more than half of Europe does not see us as acting in its interests; more than seven out of eight Muslim countries believe that we are a direct threat to their well-being and to their countries. It makes it much harder, when you have the attitude that we've had in the last four years, to build coalitions.

Now, Iraq is what it is. We went in virtually alone; we're going to be there virtually alone. But in the other issues that face us -- the war on terrorism, the need to stem proliferation -- we can't do that alone. We need to return to international controls, norms and, yes, at times the U.N., to be able to have tough rules of the road that make it harder for proliferators and terrorists to operate.

This administration -- and particularly the new nominee for the United Nations, John Bolton -- has undermined the very arms-control policies that keep Americans safe: Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, chemical weapons ban, small-arms ban. There was a lot of talk about them after September 11th but they haven't really done much to move forward.

What's missing from the discussion right now about the U.S. role in the Middle East?

I think there's been a very healthy debate about the run-up to the war: the shunting aside of the international community, the expectation that American troops would be welcomed with open arms. Likewise, about the mistakes made in the handling of the war: the failure to see the insurgency coming, the failure to provide our troops with adequate body armor, the horrible abuse of Iraqi prisoners. All of this is going to be very much a part of the history.

But so will the good things. I mean, these elections, there are wonderful things happening in Iraq in terms of trying to give the Iraqi people a better life. For a man who campaigned for the office of the presidency in 2000 against nation building and peacekeeping, [President Bush] has become the biggest nation builder and peacekeeper in recent history, and there's definitely some good that will come out of that.

If progress continues in the Middle East, will the Democratic Party have a hard time running a strong presidential campaign in 2008?

I think Democrats have a very strong record on foreign policy. Having worked in four presidential campaigns, I know what it takes for a nominee to pass the credibility test to be a commander in chief. There is a perception gap between Democrats and Republicans, but if you strip away the rhetoric and look at the facts, Democrats are very strong on foreign policy.

People forget that it was Bill Clinton's military that went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. We're the ones who are pushing for better body armor and pay for soldiers, more support for the soldiers, pushing the administration to try and get into negotiations to stem the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. Democrats are the ones that understood the threat from al-Qaida. When the Bush administration came in, they were focused on threats from states, did not understand that terrorists and non-state-sponsored terrorism was a direct threat to us.

The Bush administration is going to try to take credit for everything good that happens, and blame everything bad that happens on its predecessors. That's the name of the game when you're in the White House. Democrats do it. Republicans do it.

The natural role of an opposition party is to set the record straight. I believe that the facts are strongly on Democrats' side.

Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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