A sizable number of progressive activists, celebrities,
and unions who, for various reasons, are unwilling to support the underfunded,
long-shot bid of Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich are backing the presidential
campaign of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as their favorite among
the top-tier candidates for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Indeed,
the charismatic populist has staked out positions on important domestic policy
issues, particularly addressing economic justice, that are more progressive
than any serious contender for the nomination of either party in many years.
On foreign policy, however, his record is decidedly mixed.
On one hand, he's the first serious candidate in the past two decades to seriously
dispute the neo-liberal orthodoxy on international trade. He has challenged
the hawkish front-runner Hillary
Clinton on a number of issues and has called for the withdrawal of the vast
majority of American forces from Iraq. He has questioned
calls by President George W. Bush and some of his Democratic rivals to expand
the armed services by nearly 100,000 troops. He has disagreed with the Bush
administration's framing of the struggle against Islamist extremists as a "war
on terror" as well as its overemphasis on military means, instead arguing for
"a comprehensive strategy to respond to terrorism and prevent it form taking
root in the first place."
Edwards has called
for a dramatic increase in spending for development programs aimed at the world's
poor, particularly in health care and education, as well as an expansion of
support for microcredit programs. He has proposed dramatic reform and better
accounting of the military budget. And, he has recognized that climate change
is a major threat to national security that needs to be addressed seriously.
These are significant and genuinely progressive positions that not only distinguish
him from the Republicans, but from Sen. Clinton and some of his Democratic rivals
as well. (See the Foreign Policy In Focus Spotlight
on the Candidates.)
Despite these positive points, however, Edwards
has also taken a number of foreign policy positions that have raised serious
concerns among those who are desperately seeking a real alternative to the Bush
As a senator, Edwards distinguished himself as one of the more conservative
Democrats through supporting such controversial measures as providing unconditional
military aid to the repressive government of Colombia and voting for funding
the dangerous and expensive Trident D-5 submarine nuclear missile program. He
also voted in favor of an amendment that prohibits the United States from cooperating
in any way with the International Criminal Court in its prosecution of individuals
responsible for serious crimes against humanity. This vindictive law also restricts
U.S. foreign aid to countries that support the ICC and authorizes the president
of the United States to use military force to free individuals from the United
States or allied countries detained by the ICC.
Unlike Sen. Clinton, Edwards has apologized for his October 2002 vote authorizing
the invasion of Iraq and has been one of the most outspoken of the Democratic
presidential contenders calling for an end of the war, which he refers to as
"one of the greatest strategic failures in U.S. history." While refusing to
promise a complete withdrawal of American troops by the end of his first term
should he be elected, he has called for an immediate reduction of forces and
a complete withdrawal of combat troops within a year.
However, he has called on maintaining sufficient military forces in Baghdad
to protect the Green Zone and its sprawling U.S. embassy complex as well as
American personnel elsewhere in that country. He has also called for a sufficient
U.S. military presence, perhaps in neighboring Kuwait, to "prevent genocide,
a regional spillover of the civil war, or the establishment of an al-Qaeda safe
haven" as well as "a significant military presence in the Persian Gulf." (The
direct quotes above were included in Edwards' recent Foreign Affairs
Edwards' single biggest problem with progressive
voters has been his pivotal role back in 2002 as one of the most strident among
the minority of Democrats on Capitol Hill who supported Bush's demand for congressional
authorization to invade Iraq. Indeed, were it not for the support by Edwards
and his Democratic colleagues – who then controlled the Senate – there would be
no need to be concerned about a genocide, an al-Qaeda safe haven, the spread
of a civil war, the protection of a Green Zone or American personnel, or any
of the other functions for which he would spend billions of dollars and risk
American lives in the coming years if elected.
In September 2002, in the face of growing public skepticism of Bush's calls
for an invasion of Iraq, Edwards rushed to the administration's defense in a
Washington Post op-ed.
Apparently aware of public opinion polls showing that a majority of Americans
would support a U.S. invasion of Iraq only if it constituted a threat to our
national security, he set about to claim just that, insisting that Iraq, which
had actually been successfully disarmed several years earlier, had somehow become
"a grave and growing threat" and that Congress should therefore "endorse the
use of all necessary means to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's
weapons of mass destruction."
Edwards insisted that "our national security requires" that Congress grant
Bush unprecedented war powers to use against Iraq, even though it was located
on the far side of the world and posed no threat to the United States. Furthermore,
in an apparent effort to undermine respect for the United Nations Charter – which
forbids such wars of aggression – in his support for the Bush administration's
quest for U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, he further insisted that "we must
not tie our own hands by requiring Security Council action."
The Bush administration was so impressed with Edwards' arguments that they
posted the article on the State Department Web site.
The former senator's defenders reject critics' charges that he deliberately
exaggerated the supposed Iraq threat in order for the United States to take
over than oil-rich country and that he was instead simply fooled by the phony
intelligence the Bush administration gave him. But the episode still raises
questions as to what other wars he might be talked into waging as commander
Edwards was one of only seven Democratic co-sponsors
of the Senate bill authorizing Bush to attack Iraq whenever and under whatever
circumstances he chose. Indeed, his contempt for international law became even
more apparent when he voted against a resolution introduced shortly beforehand
authorizing a U.S. invasion of Iraq only if first approved by the United Nations
Security Council as legally required. Edwards' wife Elizabeth, who is also a
him over the absence of any legal justification for an invasion, but this was
apparently of little concern to him. In effect, like Bush, Edwards believes
that the United States need not abide by international legal standards that
forbid countries from invading one another.
In calling on his fellow senators to support his resolution, he stated, in
reference to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, "We know that he has chemical and
biological weapons." This was totally false, however. Iraq had rid
itself of its chemical and biological weapons stockpiles years earlier.
Edwards also claimed, "We know that he is doing everything he can to build
nuclear weapons, and we know that each day he gets closer to achieving that
goal. Iraq has continued to seek nuclear weapons and develop its arsenal…."
This was also totally untrue. As far back as 1998, the International Atomic
Energy Agency had reported that Iraq's nuclear program had been completely eliminated.
Edwards was also dismissive of the plethora of
evidence challenging the claims that he and the Bush administration were making
about Saddam Hussein's alleged military prowess: "Almost no one disagrees with
these basic facts … that he has weapons of mass destruction and that he is doing
everything in his power to get nuclear weapons" and "that he is a grave threat
to the region, to vital allies like Israel, and to the United States." He went
on to ridicule opponents of the war, saying, "Yet some question why Congress
should act now to give the president the authority to act against Saddam Hussein's
weapons of mass destruction," apparently failing to consider the fact that he
didn't have any, and insisting that "it is a decision we must make. America's
security requires nothing less."
Ignoring arguments by strategic analysts that an invasion of Iraq would deflect
personnel, intelligence, money, and other resources from challenging the real
threat from al-Qaeda, Edwards insisted, "Our national security requires us to
do both, and we can."
When the invasion went forward despite Iraq's belated cooperation with UN inspectors
and the absence of any signs that Iraq had rebuilt the offensive military capability
Edwards and Bush had claimed, Edwards voted in support of a Republican-sponsored
resolution that directly challenged the consensus of the international legal
community that such an offensive war was illegal by insisting that the war was
somehow "lawful." The also resolution commended and supported "the efforts and
leadership of the president … in the conflict against Iraq."
For the next three years, despite growing public
disenchantment with the Bush administration's Iraq policy, Edwards continued
to support the ongoing U.S. occupation and increasingly bloody counter-insurgency
war. In an interview on Meet the Press in November 2003, interviewer
Tim Russert asked the North Carolina senator if he regretted giving Bush "in
effect a blank check for the war in Iraq." Edwards replied
by saying, "I still believe it was right."
When Russert noted the absence of any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or
any ongoing WMD programs, Edwards insisted that Iraq still posed a threat regardless
of whether Saddam Hussein actually "had them at the time the war began or not"
because "he had been trying to acquire that capability" previously and therefore
posed "an obvious and serious threat to the stability of that region of the
world." Such a statement indicates that Edwards believes that the United States
has the right to invade any country that at some point in the past had tried
to develop biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons capability.
Given that that would total more than 50 countries in the world today, the
prospects of Edwards as commander in chief is rather unsettling.
Unlike Sen. John Kerry, who was deeply torn about his support for the war,
his 2004 running mate remained an enthusiastic supporter. The New York Times
how "Mr. Kerry had increasing doubts about the war. But Mr. Edwards argued that
they should not renounce their votes – they had to show conviction and consistency."
It was not until 2005, when he started making plans for his second presidential
bid, that Edwards finally came around to an antiwar position. Critics argue
that this was simply a response to public opinion polls that were beginning
to show that no pro-war candidate could win the 2008 Democratic nomination.
His supporters, however, argue that his conversion to his current antiwar position
is indeed genuine, noting how Edwards has provided some of the most articulate
and passionate criticisms of any candidate.
Even assuming that his regrets regarding his vote and his current opposition
to the war are sincere, however, it is unclear as to whether his reversal is
simply a reflection of his belated recognition of the tragic results of the
invasion of Iraq or whether he now categorically rejects the Bush Doctrine,
which holds that the United States should be able to invade foreign countries
Hawkish on Iran
Edwards' statements on Iran are not encouraging
in this regard. To his credit, he has criticized Sen. Clinton for her support
for the dangerous Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which attempted to declare Iran's
entire Revolutionary Guard as a "terrorist organization," and he has stressed
the need for direct negotiations with the Islamic regime, which the Bush administration
has thus far rejected.
In other respects, however, Edwards has placed himself to the right of the
Bush administration, even to the point of accusing the president of downplaying
the alleged threat from Iran and not doing enough to counter it. In a speech
earlier this year, Edwards told
an Israeli audience, "For years, the U.S. hasn't done enough to deal with what
I have seen as a threat from Iran. As my country stayed on the sidelines, these
problems got worse. To a large extent, the U.S. abdicated its responsibility
to the Europeans. This was a mistake."
He also criticized the United Nations for not taking a more confrontational
position toward Iran, and he threatened unilateral U.S. military action:
"The recent UN resolution ordering Iran to halt the enrichment of uranium
was not enough. We need meaningful political and economic sanctions. We have
muddled along for far too long. To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons,
we need to keep ALL options on the table. Let me reiterate: ALL options must
remain on the table." (Emphasis in original.)
Iran and Nuclear Weapons
What is particularly disturbing about Edwards'
dire warnings about Iran's supposed nuclear threat is that, like his similarly
dire warnings about Iraq's alleged nuclear threat five years ago, he was simply
not telling the truth. For example, Edwards expressed concern about Iranian
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "attempts to obtain nuclear weapons over a long
period of time."
However, given that Iran ended its nascent nuclear weapons program back in
2003 and Ahmadinejad has been president of Iran only since 2005 (and was a mayor
with no ties to the country's nuclear sector prior to that), it raises questions
as to how he possibly could have been attempting "to obtain nuclear weapons
over a long period of time."
Critics have charged that, given that Edwards has not made false accusations
about nuclear weapons programs from non-oil-producing states, he may simply
be trying to frighten the American public into supporting a U.S. takeover of
Iran in order to control the country's natural resources, as some alleged he
also did in regards to Iraq. Edwards' supporters counter by arguing that "all
options on the table" does not mean that he is actually considering a full-scale
invasion as he advocated with Iraq, and the fact that these two countries just
happen to sit on two of the world's largest oil reserves is just a coincidence.
Though Edwards' exaggerated notions of nuclear threats emanating from anti-American
regimes in the Middle East are more likely a reflection of ignorance than deception,
his logic regarding the issue of nuclear proliferation has at times stretched
credulity. One of his arguments regarding the alleged danger from Iran is his
categorical statement that "Once Iran goes nuclear, other countries in the Middle
East will go nuclear, making Israel's neighborhood much more volatile." This
begs the question: Given that Israel itself has had nuclear weapons for at least
35 years and no other Middle Eastern country has yet gone nuclear, why would
Iran obtaining nuclear weapons suddenly lead other countries in the region to
immediately follow suit? And, if nonproliferation is really Edwards' concern,
why has he refused to support the proposed establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free
zone for the Middle East, similar to similar zones already successfully established
in Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific?
And why has he not also called for tough sanctions against Israel, India, and
Pakistan for their ongoing violations of UN Security Council resolutions regarding
their already-existing nuclear arsenals?
In an example of either his profound ignorance or irresponsible obfuscation,
Edwards has even refused – in
face of a direct question by a reporter – to even acknowledge the fact that Israel
has nuclear weapons.
Like Bush, Edwards is also prone to greatly exaggerate Iran's hostile intentions.
For example, he warned an influential group of Israeli political and military
leaders that Ahmadinejad's "goals to wipe Israel off the map indicate that Iran
is serious about its threats," ignoring the fact that the Iranian president
never actually said that and, even if physically destroying Israel really was
his goal, Iran is many years away from having that capability. Furthermore,
since the Iranian president is not commander in chief of that country's armed
forces, Ahmadinejad couldn't order an attack on Israel in the first place. (See
"My Meeting with Ahmadinejad.")
Given that most Israelis currently oppose going to war against Iran, it's disappointing
that Edwards would exaggerate the Iranian threat before an Israeli audience,
given that the impact would be to strengthen the position of Israeli hawks and
weaken that of Israeli moderates.
Israel and Its Neighbors
Edwards certainly does not support Israeli moderates
who are seeking to resolve conflicts with their Arab neighbors, either. Indeed,
he has consistently voiced his strident support for the occupation policies
of rightist Israeli governments. This has included his backing of Bush's endorsement
for the unilateral Israeli annexation of large swaths of the occupied West Bank
in order to incorporate illegal Jewish settlements which the UN Security Council
has called on Israel to dismantle. Edwards also criticized former UN Secretary-General
Kofi Annan for raising questions regarding the legality of Israel's separation
wall in the occupied West Bank, declared illegal in 2004 in a 14-1 ruling by
the International Court of Justice.
In the face of widespread criticism by reputable human rights organizations
over Israel's systematic assaults against civilian targets in its April 2002
offensive in the West Bank, Edwards went on record link defending the Israeli
actions, opposing United Nations efforts to investigate alleged war crimes by
Israeli occupation forces and criticizing Bush for calling on Israel to pull
back from its violent incursions into Palestinian cities as called for in a
series of UN Security Council resolutions.
Similarly, in 2006, Edwards backed the Bush administration's policy of pushing
Israel to launch a massive assault on Lebanon as a surrogate strike against
Iran, even though it led to the deaths of over 800 civilians and caused billions
of dollars worth of damage to that country's civilian infrastructure. Dismissing
charges from human rights
groups and the international legal consensus that Israel, like Hezbollah, was
guilty of war crimes – as well as the fact that it actually hurt
legitimate Israeli security interests – Edwards simply claimed that "Israel has
the right to defend itself."
Even though Israel had rejected repeated calls by Palestinian President Mahmoud
Abbas for negotiations based on proposals made by Israeli representatives from
previous more moderate governments at talks in Taba in 2001 and Geneva in 2003,
Edwards proclaimed earlier this year that, "While Israel is willing to go back
to the negotiating table, little has been seen on the Palestinian side." Though
Bush was finally willing to invite the Palestinians to sit down with the Israelis
at the U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis, Edwards appeared to be pushing
Israel for a military response instead, telling an Israeli audience that, "For
peace, Israel needs a partner. Absent this partnership, Israel not only has
the right to defend itself, it has an obligation to defend itself."
It appears, then, that despite Edwards' nominal support for a two-state solution,
his propensity to place primary responsibility for resolution of the conflict
on those subjected to foreign military occupation rather than on the occupying
power raises questions as to whether he is fully committed to the "land for
peace" formula endorsed by all presidents – Democratic and Republican – prior to
Similarly, in response to a Syrian proposal to unconditionally open bilateral
peace talks with Israel, Edwards appeared to side with the Bush administration
and Israeli hard-liners in rejecting the offer, saying, "Talk is cheap. Syria
needs to go a long way to prove it is ready for peace." (See "U.S.
Blocks Israel-Syria Talks.")
Despite presenting himself as a new kind of politician,
in many ways Edwards is a throwback to the 1960s Cold War liberalism of such
leading Democrats of that era as Hubert Humphrey, who had a strong record in
support of labor, economic justice, and the environment, yet supported criminal
and disastrous military adventurism overseas, most notably the war in Vietnam.
Indeed, Edwards is yet to explain how the United States can afford his ambitious
and progressive domestic agenda while simultaneously having to fund large-scale
military interventions overseas. He has called for dramatic increases in military
spending, most of which has nothing to do challenging the threat from al-Qaeda.
that America should "reclaim the moral high ground that defined our foreign
policy for much of the last century" sounds noble until one considers that taking
the moral high ground has been more the exception than the rule in U.S. foreign
relations over the past 100 years. Though calling for a return to the policies
of previous administrations that "built strong alliances and deepened the world's
respect of us," he uses the presidency of Ronald Reagan as an example.
In reality, however, Reagan greatly alienated the international community through
his support of contra terrorists and other attacks on Nicaragua in
contravention of international law and a ruling by the International Court of
Justice; his threats of a nuclear first-strike against the Soviet Union; his
support for a series of brutal dictatorships in Latin America, Asia, Africa,
and the Middle East; his defense of Israel's devastating 1982 invasion of Lebanon
and subsequent U.S. intervention in that country; his 1986 attacks on two Libyan
cities; his support for the apartheid regime in South Africa, its occupation
of Namibia and their invasion of Angola; and, related unilateralist policies.
To be sure, a John Edwards administration would be a real improvement over
the administration of George W. Bush in the foreign policy realm, but it would
clearly not be as progressive as many of his supporters would hope for.
Since first entering politics less than a decade ago, Edwards has greatly deepened
his understanding of important policy issues and has moved to the left on his
domestic agenda. His learning curve on foreign policy matters has thus far not
been as impressive, but could potentially improve as well if, and only if, Democrats
at the grass roots demand it.