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Fixing For A Foreign Policy Fight

Derek Chollet is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and coauthor of America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11.

Tonight, the Democrats turn to national security and America's role in the world. All the pundit bloviating about the bad blood between the Clintons and Obama has drawn attention away from an important story: Despite the intensity of the primary campaign, Democrats are more unified on major policy questions than they have been for a long time. This is especially--and perhaps most surprisingly--true on national security issues, which have generated so much heat among Democrats during the past seven years.

And what's interesting is that this consensus is not built on the worldviews of the old left or the liberal blogosphere, but the centrist national security agenda that had fully matured by the end of the Clinton Administration.

Foreign policy was hardly mentioned in the 1992 or 1996 conventions and was not central to either of Bill Clinton's electoral victories. Like Obama, Clinton ran against Republican opponents--George H.W. Bush and Robert Dole--who, like John McCain, possessed on paper all the attributes of a national security leader. Yet Clinton understood that he needed to stake out "New Democrat" positions that could convince Americans that liberals could be trusted on national security, something they had struggled with since their meltdown over the Vietnam War.

While Clinton got off to a shaky start as commander-in-chief, he built his foreign policy on three basic pillars: embracing globalization and trade; promoting democracy; and developing a concept on the use of force that turned the usual liberal debate about using military power on its head--instead of the burden of proof falling on those advocating intervention, the burden fell on those who advocated doing nothing in the face of aggression (as we saw in the Balkans). By the late 1990s, and still today, these ideas framed the mainstream of Democratic foreign policy.

Of course, the George W. Bush years have tested this consensus politically. Progressives have become increasingly anxious about the use of military power, trade is more controversial, and democracy promotion has been tarnished by its association with Bush's "freedom agenda."

Yet Obama and his running mate Joe Biden fall squarely within this tradition. They have criticized some of the specifics of trade agreements, but have been steadfast defenders of an open global economy. Although strong critics of the Iraq War, Obama and Biden are hardly doves--they have called for doing more to end the genocide in Darfur and have advocated the use of force to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. And they have made clear that they believe the U.S. must remain a steadfast defender of democracy around the world--as their response to the Georgia crisis demonstrates.

Need more evidence? Consider that during the drafting of the Democratic Party platform--which in the past has witnessed fierce showdowns between hawks and doves over issues like defense spending--the foreign policy planks were approved by acclamation in a matter of minutes. And while Biden's place on the ticket has been interpreted by the punditocracy as an admission of weakness by Obama on national security, in fact it should be considered a sign of confidence, a sign that Democrats intend to confront Republicans on national security head-on. As we'll see tonight, it's a fight they believe they can win.