- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

As Democrats comb the 2004 election results for lessons, one should be obvious: We need bolder, newer ideas, particularly in the post-September 11 foreign policy realm.

Just as neo-conservatives provided much of the spark and intellectual energy behind modern Republicanism, Democrats need a “neo-progressive” movement to give them purpose and vision — and hope to their future candidates.

Big ideas are needed in a changing, challenging international environment. They are also good politics. Candidates with big ideas convey purpose and gravity, resoluteness and firm beliefs — traits that helped George Bush appeal to voters on the grounds of character and shared values.

Neo-cons have shown how to come up with big ideas in recent years. They provided some of the intellectual heft and vision behind Ronald Reagan’s outlandish belief the Berlin Wall should come down. More recent notable examples are Paul Wolfowitz’s conviction the overthrow of Saddam Hussein could help remake the Middle East, Richard Perle’s willingness to confront Saudi Arabia over its internal policies, and John Bolton’s belief arms control can be used more confrontationally to pressure extremist regimes.

One need not agree with much of the neo-con movement to admire its intellectual vigor and ambitious approach. Indeed, neo-cons can be dangerous. Many bear considerable intellectual responsibility for trivializing the costs and difficulties of war in Iraq. And the pre-emption doctrine, a classic neo-conservative concept, contributed to an international image of an America unbound, to use Ivo Daalder and Jim Lindsay’s phrase.

But big ideas are better than no ideas. The key is to ensure they are debated and vetted, not to squelch them in advance.

Some might disagree with this assessment, at least in political terms — claiming Democrats need simple credibility on foreign policy so they can neutralize the issue and outcompete Republicans on domestic turf. This perspective, which seems to have guided much of the Kerry campaign this year, begs the question of how one obtains credibility in the first place. Purple hearts from Vietnam, however commendable, do not suffice — which should be no surprise since Bill Clinton defeated two war heroes and Ronald Reagan defeated a Naval Academy graduate in their respective runs for the White House.

Nor is it enough to run on a platform of multilateralism, however right in principle that basic tenet of John Kerry’s campaign may have been. Multilateralism is a means and not an end; it describes process more than goals or vision.

In preparing for 2006 and 2008, Democrats need to think about how they would like history books to look back on their tenures in office if they are fortunate enough to regain the White House and/or the Congress. Then they should work backward, fashioning concrete ideas to create those legacies and political strategies for how to sell them. Among the candidate ideas worthy of exploration:

• A long-term strategy to win the war on terror. Virtually all Democrats certainly agree with President Bush that current al Qaeda leadership and followers must be destroyed using all tools of American power. But as Donald Rumsfeld has noted several times, we have no long-term strategy to prevent creation of the next generation of al Qaeda and affiliated groups. A few small programs to support nongovernmental organizations in the Arab world and similar efforts from the Bush administration do not suffice.

Democrats need a vision to tackle this challenge, including elements such as a major push for educational reform and economic opportunity in Islamic countries, with U.S. resources to back up the efforts where appropriate.

• Energy policy. John Kerry talked about getting the United States off its dependence on Mideast oil, and addressing global warming, but it was far from clear how he intended to do either. Tax subsidies for hybrid cars and greater research funds for alternative energies have their place. So might a major proposal to subsidize production of biomass fuels in the United States. It could gradually redirect existing farm subsidies away from food crops. That in turn could provide the basis for breaking the logjam on global trade talks, and help create economic opportunities for farmers in developing countries.

• Training and equipping African militaries to stop civil conflict. The Clinton administration began training and equipping African militaries for peacekeeping; the Bush administration kept it on life support at about $10 million a year while advocating, but not accomplishing, a major expansion. Democrats should wholeheartedly promote this concept and work relentlessly to provide it at least $100 million a year. The goal should be for Africans to handle most of their continent’s many serious conflicts principally on their own, perhaps saving hundreds of thousands of lives yearly.

• A major child survival initiative. President Clinton and President Bush have both rightly underscored the need to address the terrible scourge of HIV/AIDS. But if this threat merits a bold initiative, so do the traditional scourges of malaria, childhood diseases and malnutrition. Moreover, all these are linked: The effectiveness of HIV/AIDS programs is ultimately limited most by the quality of local health networks throughout the world, which are also relevant to increasing vaccination rates and countering childhood diseases.

A broader health and nutrition agenda might cost the U.S. $10 billion a year instead of the $2 billion-$3 billion now planned for HIV/AIDS alone. If Democrats want to show they too care about morality and to back Mr. Kerry’s words that “faith without works is dead,” there can be few worthier expenditures.

In the post-World War II years, Democrats once were the country’s greatest foreign-policy visionaries. Indeed, many neo-conservatives came from their ranks.

It is time now for the Democratic Party to reclaim the best of its proud traditions. The easiest time to be innovative and take risks is when one has little to lose. Politically speaking, we Democrats couldn’t ask for a better moment.

Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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