A Liberal Voice

James Hoge On US Foreign Policy, the Risks of War and The Visions of the Democrats

News | Eric Frey | December 2007 / January 2008

Foreign Affairs Editor James Hoge chairing the IWM panel (Photo: J. Novohradsky)

It is one the great paradoxes of contemporary America that a country with the world’s top experts on international politics conducts such a flawed foreign policy. Talking to Foreign Affairs editor James F. Hoge during his recent stay in Vienna, one couldn’t help but wonder what the world would look like if people like him were in charge of policy-making in Washington.

Hoge was in Vienna for the 25th Anniversary conference by the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), where he chaired a panel about solidarity and international institutions – an issue that has been close to his heart for decades. Editor since 1992 of the world’s premier foreign policy journal following a distinguished career in journalism, at 71, he looks 20 years younger.

Hoge’s main concern at the moment is the disastrous decline in the reputation of the United States under the Bush administration and the possible course of American foreign policy under the next president.

In an effort to introduce some intellectual content into the current primary campaign, Foreign Affairs asked the three leading candidates from both parties to spell out their visions of the world and their concepts for U.S. foreign policy. Since summer, Democrats Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama, and Republicans Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney, all contributed essays varying in quality, tone and content.

But what was most striking, said Hoge, was the commonality of their views of the present and their ideas for the future.

"With the exception of Giuliani, they all see the loss of American credibility in the world and the rise of anti-Americanism as a hindrance to an effective foreign policy," he said. "And they all want to spend more money on the military and are asking for a larger military that is able to address the large number of crises in the world."

Hoge calls himself a liberal and has little sympathy for what the Republicans have done to U.S. foreign policy in recent years. But he is not impressed by the ideas of the Democratic candidates, either.

"Most of the pieces by the Democrats are about incremental fixes, there is not a lot of fresh thinking," he said. "Clinton, Obama and Edwards all want to go back to the liberal internationalism of an earlier period. That is a very safe position, but not a realistic one, because you cannot roll back. Some changes of the Bush years will be with us for a while. The rhetoric will change, but the enhancement of presidential power, for example, will stay with us."

What Hoge would like to see from any Democratic candidate, and particularly from the frontrunner, is a "real reevaluation" of American foreign policy.

"If Hillary is elected, I hope that she will institute a reappraisal of the world we live in, what role the United States can play in it, and then do it," Hoge said. "If we only go with the corrective moves that we see in these pieces, we will only scratch the surface of our problems. We may reduce the boils on our skin, but not get down to the underlying causes."

Still, Hoge believes that the former first lady is better prepared for the challenges of the world than her husband was in 1993.

"Bill Clinton came from a small state, while Hillary had eight years in the White House and eight more years in the Senate, and she has a more principled mind than Bill. Bill just ‘ad-hoc’ed’ foreign policy all the time and never came up with a comprehensive strategy. Hillary would face a different world and has a different kind of mind."

Turning to the top Republican candidates, Hoge describes Mitt Romney as "an extremely bright, effective man who is running a brilliant campaign and would be a very efficient manager as president." In contrast to his campaign rhetoric, Romney would likely be only moderately conservative and show more skill in foreign policy than Bush.

Even Giuliani would not quite be as radical as president as he sounds on the campaign trail, says Hoge.

"The only card he is carrying is that America is under threat and he alone can make it safe. But knowing him from his years in New York, I don’t think it will be so black and white." Giuliani’s biggest liability is "his hot temper, and that can really become a problem. Hillary also has a temper, she gets angry, but then she goes back to planning. Rudy acts impulsively, and then he cannot stop."

Hoge observed a gradual shift in the foreign policy of George W. Bush away from the hard-nosed unilateralism of his first term.

"The pendulum is swinging back, not because the Bush mind has changed, but reality has smacked him right in the his face," Hoge said. "Unilateralism does not match with the realities of the world, where we have complex problems, a build-up of different power centers and the danger that other countries will counter-balance us."

While the "Cheney faction" is pushing toward a military response, the dominant groups around secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are a still going along with the European-led negotiation process.

"The reigning view is that the Iranian nuclear program is still small, so we still have time to isolate Iran through sanctions while continuing negotiations. Such a dual-hand strategy will only work if we also make concessions, in particular dropping the call for regime change and offer the Iranians some security."

But the Bush administration has lost all credibility with the Iranians. "The next administration will have a much better shot at reaching a solution, so the best strategy is to tread water until next year. We need a new driver in the seat."

And what are the chances that Vice President Dick Cheney will get his way instead and Bush will give the order to bomb Iranian targets? Probably not, says Hoge.

"The current scare campaign by the U.S. has the double purpose of frightening the Iranians so they will take negotiations seriously, and of gaining the attention of the Europeans and Russia. In terms of domestic politics, the strongest selling point of the Republicans is that the country is under threat." He puts the chances of a war with Tehran at "less than 30 per cent," he said. For Europeans, small comfort.

"Sorry, but I cannot be reassuring on Iran."

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