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In Boston, the word is ‘mum’

As the Democrats prepare to make foreign policy a central part of their campaign for the first time in decades, there is precious little debate over the many issues facing the country. Brave New World.
Democratic Convention Kicks Off
Former President Bill Clinton delivers his speech during the Democratic National Convention Monday at the FleetCenter in Boston.Darren McCollester / Getty Images

The Democratic Party, for decades burdened by deep divisions and misgivings about how and how much America should engage the world, is preparing for the first time since 1972 to make American foreign policy and national security a centerpiece of its national campaign.

This is not to suggest that the divisions that have haunted the party since Vietnam are gone; they are not. Many of the rank-and-file Democratic delegates gathered here to hand the party’s standard to Sen. John Kerry remain deeply suspicious of the size of America’s defense budget and the deployment of American troops in places like Iraq.

The vast majority of these Democrats also put domestic economic and social concerns ahead of foreign policy issues, and many of them object privately to Kerry’s stated intention, if elected, to keep American troops in Iraq and even to expanding the size of the U.S. Army by 40,000 troops.

Yet there appears to be a consensus, at least among the party regulars, that Kerry’s chances of unseating George W. Bush are too fragile to survive any kind of internal debate on issues of national security.

“Inside the Fleet Center, you’re not going to see a whole lot of dissent on any aspect of foreign policy,” says a Howard Dean supporter from Wisconsin who asked not to be named. “I think people understand that even if national security isn’t a Democratic advantage, the Iraq war has made it one of Bush’s vulnerabilities. So, basically, we’ll hold our noses and applaud.”

Getting real
As the prospect of a Kerry presidency has gone from unlikely to conceivable in recent months, the party began struggling to draft a national security vision that is more than simply a sustained criticism of Bush. With the release of the report of the presidential 9/11 commission last week, some in the Kerry campaign believe they have been handed a blueprint for presenting a more thoughtful, effective and honorable way for America to meet the challenges of the post-9/11 world. These officials also hope the report’s bipartisan credentials will help the Democratic candidate embrace hawkish ideas that, in any other atmosphere, would have torn a Democratic Party gathering to pieces.

Yet coverage of the report’s release has focused primarily on the structural reforms urged by the commission; creation of a single national intelligence “czar,” a national counterterrorism center and improved coordination between homeland security, law enforcement and first responders nationwide. These recommendations all flow from the detailed analysis the commission conducted on how American was attacked.

Less noticed is a critical section dealing with a deeper question: why America was attacked. It is here that Kerry’s campaign sees a real opportunity to distinguish its man from President Bush without merely sounding like “Bush Lite.” Again and again since 9/11, President Bush and his senior national security aides have asserted that America was attacked by al-Qaida, “the enemies of freedom,” because of what America stands for rather than the actions it has taken overseas.

But in Chapter 12 of the commission’s 567-page report, that idea is rejected.

“American foreign policy is part of the message. America’s policy choices have consequences. Right or wrong, it is simply a fact that American policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American actions in Iraq are dominant staples of popular commentary across the Arab and Muslim world. That does not mean U.S. choices have been wrong. It means those choices must be integrated with America’s message of opportunity to the Arab and Muslim world. Neither Israel nor the new Iraq will be safer if worldwide Islamist terrorism grows stronger. The United States must do more to communicate its message.”

Rising to the challenge
Kerry’s campaign is poised to seize upon this point: that it is not enough to “cowboy up” as if America were attacked only because of its freedoms and prosperity. America, in this view, must also examine closely its footprint in the world, and particularly in the Muslim world. Isn't it important that America be respected, Kerry is recently asking, rather than merely feared and loathed? If America is Gulliver, isn't there some way for it to be more conscious of what is being squashed under those big Nikes?

Good question. But to get there, the 9/11 commission says, the policy dilemmas are severe. Is it wise, for instance, to continue allying the nation with repressive regimes like those in Saudi Arabia or Egypt? The commission says no. 

“One of the lessons of the long Cold War was that short-term gains in cooperating with the most repressive and brutal governments were too often outweighed by long-term setbacks for America’s stature and interests,” the report concludes.

When a statement like that is issued by a panel that includes Cold Warriors like John Lehman and Slade Gorton, all sides need to take notice.

Not a simple matter
But it is important to  realize that the prescriptions of the 9/11 panel cannot simply be adopted as the Democratic Party’s platform without debate. While the rank-and-file may well clam up during the conventions for the sake of ousting Bush, the debates will come back to haunt a Kerry administration that attempted to, for instance, be more evenhanded in its dealings with Israel, or tougher on the Saudis (risking an oil-tinged backlash). These are not small changes in American policy, and powerful interests in both parties will rise to challenge them.

For now, though, mum’s the word. Call it voluntary censorship. The Democrats know they already are perceived as the weaker party on such issues by the public, and recent polls that show Bush’s standing falling still show him polling better on questions of national security. They are not about to allow a debate over how to use American power abroad — or whether to pull out of Iraq — taint their man.

Over the past two decades, Democratic presidential candidates routinely steered clear of foreign policy when not forced into a corner, leaving to Republicans an issue that political consultants consistently argued was a loser with the great majority of the electorate. Remember, Clinton’s 1992 Bush-slayer, “It’s the economy, stupid,” was devised precisely in order to remind voters of the inordinate amount of time Bush the Elder spent on world issues.

That strategy is no longer an option for either party. For Kerry, then, this convention is really about more than filling in the blank spots in his resume and appearing "likeable" to swing voters. He needs, also, to plant a serious marker with his own loyalists about the change he will bring to America's projection of power and influence. He needs to calm the fears of those who worry that American troops will be left too long in Iraq, while at the same time reassuring the public that he will not “cut and run.”

That's no simple matter.

Michael Moran's Brave New World column appears each week on