The Democrats' reality problem

Posted: Apr 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle often sounded uncertain about the war in Iraq, but not about North Korea -- the United States had to absolutely, unconditionally, give in to North Korean demands for bilateral talks about the communist nation's nuclear program.

"I clearly believe," Daschle said in January, "that the only way now for us to successfully deal with the North Koreans is to enter into direct talks, to make sure that we have people sitting across the table to address the concerns specifically enunciated by this administration -- and they can't do it too soon."

He wasn't alone. Sen. Ted Kennedy agreed, telling the "Today" show in March: "I think Colin Powell should have direct conversations with the North Koreans. That is what is being urged by South Korea, Japan and our allies in the area. This is a recommendation not just of Democrats."

In fact, nearly every Democrat on the planet said the same thing -- Bill Richardson, Madeleine Albright, Joe Biden, Howard Dean and, one presumes, even Democratic county commissioners and dogcatchers. The problem with this seemingly eminently reasonable demand on President Bush is that North Korea is no longer making it. So, on this question at least, the entirety of the Democratic Party is to the left of Kim Jong Il.

On Saturday, the North Koreans dropped their insistence that the United States enter into direct talks, saying it "will not stick to any particular dialogue format."

The shift is no coincidence so soon after the United States smashed the regime of Saddam Hussein. As South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun noted, North Korea is terrified that it will be next. The North Korean media, which usually obsessively reports Kim Jong Il's "brilliant revolutionary feats," hasn't reported his whereabouts in weeks, presumably because he has been anxiously viewing news reports from Iraq.

If the new tone from North Korea has a rational explanation, how then to understand the Democrats? After so many of them were dead wrong about the invasion of Iraq -- about its difficulty and how U.S. troops would be welcomed -- it is, uh, notable that they would be so wrong, so quickly, about an entirely different foreign-policy question. Just bad luck?

Partly it is a reflexive partisan opposition to Bush policy. But, more fundamentally, it reflects an underappreciation of the uses of force and how the "demonstration effect" of a military campaign can make the rest of the world more respectful, rather than less, of the United States; a naive faith in the power of negotiations to work out any dispute (so, why not just sit down with the North Koreans?); and a hyperwillingness to believe the United States is in the wrong whenever it holds a position opposed by other countries.

It all adds up to a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works, and of the utility and general morality of American power. This poses a danger for the Democrats. Not just because they will occasionally say things that are starkly wrong (Republicans do that, too), but that their lack of a coherent and realistic framework for foreign policy prevents them from offering serious policy alternatives that keep from simply sounding churlish about American successes overseas.

You can imagine some Democrats muttering in chagrin today, "Why did North Korea have to give up their demand so easily?" This attitude is reminiscent of the posture of the Democratic Party in the late 1980s. Back then, it was so out of step on so many issues that it had been forced into the position, in the words of party theorists Elaine Kamarck and Bill Galston, "of tacitly hoping for bad news -- a stance the electorate can smell and doesn't like."

Usually sensible liberal commentator Peter Beinart recently wrote of North Korea that the administration portrays "its calm as steely resolve. But it actually signifies a refusal to face reality." As recent days have demonstrated, it is Bush's critics who have the reality problem -- one they ignore at their peril.