Evaluating the Democratic Party Platform

Evaluating the Democratic Party Platform
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The excitement over the nomination of Barack Obama as the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party has been tempered by some key foreign policy planks in the 2008 platform, particularly those relating to the greater Middle East region. These positions appear to run counter to Obama's pledge early in the primary race to end the mindset that led to the Iraq War.

At the same time, substantial improvements in some foreign policy planks of the 2004 platform indicate at least modest successes by progressive Democratic activists in challenging the more hawkish proclivities of the party's traditional leadership.

Among the positive aspects of the platform is a commitment to take concrete steps towards nuclear arms control and eventual disarmament. These include ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and recognizing U.S. obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The platform also contains new commitments to sustainable development in the Global South and treating Latin American nations as "full partners" with "mutual respect." There is also a call to develop a civilian capacity to promote global stability and improve emergency response by creating a Civilian Assistance Corps of skilled experts to provide aid in international emergencies. And the platform pledges to rebuild international alliances, partnerships, and institutions so badly damaged by the arrogant unilateralism of the Bush administration.

Regarding the greater Middle East, however, the Democrats don't appear to have yet learned the lessons of the past 40 years: that the more the United States militarizes the region, the less secure we become. Indeed, while rebuking some of the excesses of the Bush administration, the platform in some areas appears to be taking the country down the same dangerous path.


In 2004, the Democratic Party platform supported the ongoing Iraq War and occupation. Its only criticism of Bush policy was that the administration did not send enough troops or adequately equip them. With the defeat in the primaries and caucuses of Hillary Clinton and others who voted to authorize the Iraq invasion, the Democratic Party – with a standard-bearer who had forcefully opposed the invasion at the outset – might be expected to have adopted a strong antiwar plank. And, indeed, this year's platform calls for the redeployment of U.S. combat brigades by the middle of 2010.

Still, however, the 2008 platform endorses an ongoing U.S. military role in that violent oil-rich nation. It calls for an unspecified number of U.S. troops to remain as a "residual force" for such "specific missions" as "targeting terrorists; protecting our embassy and civil personnel; and advising and supporting Iraq's Security Forces, provided the Iraqis make political progress."

A troubling aspect to these exceptions is the vagueness of the language. Given that the Bush administration has referred to all Iraqi insurgents fighting U.S. forces as "terrorists," it raises questions as to what degree U.S. military operations and the number of troops to sustain them will actually be reduced. In addition, the U.S. "embassy" – the largest complex of its kind in the world, taking up a bigger area than Vatican City and situated in the heart of Baghdad – requires a substantial military force to adequately defend. And the number of "civil personnel" in the country is in the tens of thousands and would presumably require many thousands of troops to protect them. It is also unclear what kind of "support" is required for Iraqi Security Forces, which have thus far shown little ability to engage in major military operations without substantial U.S. personnel involved.

The platform also fails to mention that the invasion was an illegal war of aggression in violation of the UN Charter, the U.S. constitution and the most fundamental principles of international law, raising concerns as to whether the Democratic Party is willing to renounce the Bush Doctrine of "preventative war." Indeed, the platform insists that the United States "must also be willing to consider using military force in circumstances beyond self-defense."

Another concern is that rather than calling for bringing the troops home to their families following their withdrawal from Iraq, the platform insists that they will instead be redeployed on unspecified "urgent missions." Given that, despite the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Iraq, the Democratic Party platform also calls for increasing the armed forces by nearly 100,000 troops and dramatically increasing the already-bloated military budget, it is quite troubling to consider what future battlefronts the Democrats will deem as "urgent."

On a positive note, the platform recognizes the humanitarian crisis created by the U.S. invasion and occupation. It calls for the United States to provide "generous assistance to Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons." In addition, recognizing that diplomacy is "the only path to a sustainable peace," the platform declares that the United States should "launch a comprehensive regional and international diplomatic surge to help broker a lasting political settlement in Iraq," though there are some questions as to whether, even under a Democratic administration, the United States still has the credibility to lead such an effort. Importantly, the platform also declares that "we seek no permanent bases in Iraq."


Even as it promises a de-escalation of the war in Iraq, the Democratic platform proposes to escalate the war in Afghanistan by sending "at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, and use this commitment to seek greater contributions – with fewer restrictions – from our NATO allies." Even assuming that the threat the Taliban poses to Afghanistan and the threat al-Qaeda poses to the United States and other countries require military responses, there is little evidence that sending additional combat brigades to Afghanistan will improve a situation that is deteriorating – not because of the lack of adequate U.S. war-making capability but in part in reaction to it.

Recognizing that the current emphasis on conventional army forces and airpower is inadequate, the platform does call on the United States to place greater emphasis on "special forces and intelligence capacity, training, equipping and advising Afghan security forces, building Afghan governmental capacity, and promoting the rule of law." It also calls for increasing economic assistance to the Afghan people, grass roots economic development, support for education, investing in alternatives to poppy-growing for Afghan farmers, and cracking down on drug trafficking and corruption.

The platform also recognizes the danger posed by al-Qaeda's sanctuary in the tribal regions of Pakistan and criticizes the Bush administration's support for the Pakistani dictator recently forced from power.

Yet there is no indication in the platform that the Democratic Party recognizes what may be the most critical policy shift needed in Afghanistan: to cultivate stronger ties to more moderate, responsible, and democratic leaders within the national and regional governments, and end the Bush administration's counterproductive policies of backing warlords and other criminal elements simply because they are willing to oppose the Taliban.

Combating Terrorism

While warning that there must be "no safe haven for those who plot to kill Americans," the platform also calls for a "comprehensive strategy to defeat global terrorists" that "draws on the full range of American power, including but not limited to our military might." In an implied rejection of the unilateral approach of the Republican administration, the Democratic platform calls for "a more effective global response to terrorism" [emphasis added] and enhanced counter-terrorism cooperation with countries around the world.

Recognizing the need to empower the vast majority of Muslims who "believe in a future of peace, tolerance, development, and democratization," the platform recognizes how "America must live up to our values, respect civil liberties, reject torture, and lead by example." The platform calls for the United States "to export hope and opportunity – access to education that opens minds to tolerance, not extremism; secure food and water supplies; and health care, trade, capital, and investment." The platform also pledges the Democratic Party will "provide steady support for political reformers, democratic institutions, and civil society that is necessary to uphold human rights and build respect for the rule of law." However, given the extreme anti-Americanism that has grown in Islamic countries in recent years, overt backing of opposition elements could in some cases backfire and be used to discredit indigenous movements for human rights and democracy.

Israel and Palestine

Though the Middle East is awash in arms, the Democratic Party platform endorses President Bush's memorandum pledging an additional unconditional $30 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel. The platform thereby rejects calls by human rights activists that military assistance to foreign governments be made conditional on their compliance with international humanitarian law and outstanding UN Security Council resolutions. U.S.-supplied Israeli weapons and ordnance have killed thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in recent decades, and Israel continues to violate a series of UN Security Council resolutions regarding its illegal settlements, its nuclear program, its annexation of greater East Jerusalem, and other policies.

Though strategic parity has long been considered the most peaceful and secure relationship between traditional antagonists, the Democrats instead call upon the United States "to ensure that Israel retains a qualitative edge" in military capabilities. As such, the platform implies that the principal U.S. concern isn’t Israeli security but the expansion of the U.S. ally's hegemonic role in the region. Indeed, the platform doesn't call for a reduction in the large-scale U.S. arms transfers to Arab governments historically hostile to Israel, a logical step if the Democrats actually were concerned about that country's security.

The Democratic Party platform does support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which reverses the categorical rejection of Palestinian statehood that the party maintained as recently as 16 years ago. Yet the platform calls only for compromises from the Palestinian side in order to make such a two-state solution possible. Even though the Palestinians have already unilaterally recognized Israeli sovereignty over 78% of historic Palestine and are demanding statehood only on the remaining 32%, the Democratic platform dismisses as "unrealistic" any obligation for Israel to completely withdraw from lands seized in its 1967 conquests. It also denies the right of return to Palestinian refugees, insisting that they should instead only be permitted to relocate to a truncated Palestinian state that Israel might allow to be created some time in the future. While the Palestinians may indeed be open to minor and reciprocal adjustments of the pre-1967 borders and would likely offer a concession on the right of return, the Democratic platform unfortunately demands specific compromises by those under occupation while making no specific demands for compromises by the occupier.

Similarly, the Democratic platform appears to endorse the Bush administration's racist double standards regarding Israel and Palestine. It pledges to "continue to isolate Hamas until it renounces terrorism, recognizes Israel's right to exist, and abides by past agreements" while failing to call for isolating Likud and other extremist Israeli parties that similarly fail to renounce attacks against civilians, recognize Palestine's right to exist, and abide by past agreements. Similarly, the platform insists that "Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel" without mentioning the possibility of it becoming the capital of an independent Palestine.

Still, this one-sided party platform – which appears to be more closely aligned with Israel's center-right than more progressive Israelis – seems at odds with the increasingly balanced perspective of Democratic voters. Party supporters are beginning to recognize the interrelatedness of Israeli security and Palestinian rights as well as the platform's stated goal for the United States "to lead the effort to build the road to a secure and lasting peace."

Human Rights

The platform takes what appears to be a strong stand in support of human rights and freedom, arguing that the United States must be "a relentless advocate for democracy" and a steadfast opponent of repressive regimes. Promoting democracy became a key rationalization in the bipartisan call for the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Ironically, however, the platform only mentions by name autocratic governments over which the United States has relatively little influence. For example, the platform states, "We will stand up for oppressed people from Cuba to North Korea and from Burma to Zimbabwe and Sudan." Meanwhile, the platform fails to mention any allied autocracies over which the United States could potentially have far more significant influence. It says nothing about standing up for oppressed people from Saudi Arabia to Equatorial Guinea and from Brunei to Egypt and Azerbaijan, whose governments all receive U.S. aid and diplomatic support.

Like the Bush administration, the Democrats seem to believe that defending freedom is not important if your government is deemed to be a U.S. ally. (Ironically, the platform criticizes the U.N. Human Rights Council for being "biased and ineffective.")

Regarding Cuba, the Democratic platform insists that the United States "will be prepared to take steps to begin normalizing relations" only if that socialist country "takes significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the unconditional release of all political prisoners." However, the platform makes no demands for the release of the tens of thousands of political prisoners held by allied dictatorships. Nor does it call for withholding normal relations or even suspending military aid or police training and assistance to regimes pending "significant steps toward democracy." What appears to most bother the Democrats, then, is not Cuba's authoritarianism, but its socialism.

Similarly, while the platform demands that "Russia abide by international law and respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors," it says nothing in regard to such obligations regarding U.S. allies Morocco and Israel – over which the United States has far more leverage – which are engaged in illegal military occupations of neighboring countries.

When prominent Democrats do criticize human rights abuses by allied governments, the party leadership attempts to silent them. For example, in what was perhaps the most dramatic repudiation ever of a former president by his own party at a national convention, the Democrats marginalized Jimmy Carter in apparent retaliation for his outspoken support for Palestinian human rights. They limited his appearance in Denver to a videotaped segment speaking in praise of Barack Obama and interviewing survivors of Hurricane Katrina. (Some of Obama's aides have falsely accused Carter of referring to Israel as an apartheid state, when he in fact had explicitly stated he was referring only to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where the establishment of Jewish-only roads, Jewish-only settlements, and other strict segregation policies do indeed resemble the old South African system.)


Though scores of countries currently possess nuclear power plants and nuclear reprocessing facilities, the Democratic Party platform singles out Iran by insisting that it alone be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. Though calling for "aggressive, principled, and direct high-level diplomacy, without preconditions" with the Islamic republic, the platform also calls for tougher sanctions against that country. Curiously, the platform demands that Iran abandon its "nuclear weapons program" even though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the most recent U.S. National Security Estimate recognize that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons program. Nor does the platform mention the already-existing nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems of India, Israel or Pakistan. It fails to even mention proposals for a nuclear weapons-free zone for the region – such as those already in effect for Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, and Latin America. As such, the platform is in apparent agreement with the Bush administration's position that the United States, not international treaties based on principles of universality and reciprocity, should determine which countries can and cannot have nuclear weapons.

The platform also demands that Iran end its "threats to Israel," but does not call on Israel to end its even more explicit threats against Iran. Failure to accept such demands, according to the platform, will result in "sustained action to isolate the Iranian regime." Furthermore, despite years of U.S. refusal to even negotiate with Iranian officials, the Democrats insist that "it is Iran, not the United States, choosing isolation over cooperation."

Toward a More Progressive Platform

Though many aspects of the 2008 Democratic Party platform's language regarding the Middle East and related issues are well to the right of most Democrats, delegates at the national convention in Denver could do little about it. In 1968, despite the successful efforts by party bosses to hand the presidential nomination to Vice President Hubert Humphrey instead of the more popular antiwar candidates, the convention at least allowed debate and discussion of minority planks by liberal opponents to hawkish aspects of the party platform. This time around, however, the leadership allowed no such challenges from the floor.

This silencing of the Democratic Party's progressive wing comes despite its critically important support of Barack Obama for the party's presidential nominee. Furthermore, based on a series of foreign policy statements related to the Middle East and other policy areas prior to becoming a serious contender for the nomination, Obama himself may be somewhat to the left of the platform on a number of issues. The Democratic Party establishment, powerful military and economic interests, and an apparent fear of right-wing attacks have all apparently forced Obama to abandon some of his more principled foreign policy positions.

With a few conscientious exceptions, Democratic Party leaders have rarely led. They have usually been forced to adopt more progressive policies as a result of pressure from the grass roots of the party. For example, the Democratic Party in 1968 had a platform supporting the war in Vietnam War and a pro-war nominee. By the next presidential election in 1972, the Democratic Party had a strong antiwar platform and an outspoken antiwar nominee in Senator George McGovern, which helped force the Nixon administration to sign a peace treaty by January of the following year. The four years in between saw massive antiwar mobilizations with hundreds of thousands of people protesting in Washington, DC, and elsewhere, as well as large-scale civil disobedience campaigns, widespread draft resistance, and other forms of opposition.

Other examples include the Nuclear Freeze campaign's success in pushing the party to support major arms-control treaties, the anti-apartheid movement's successful campaign to get the party to support sanctions against South Africa, the Central America solidarity movement's eventual victory in forcing the party to challenge the Reagan administration's support for the Nicaraguan Contras and the Salvadoran junta, and supporters of self-determination for East Timor forcing a reluctant Clinton administration to a cut off military aid and training for the armed forces in Indonesia.

Grassroots pressure has already helped shift the foreign policy positions of leading Democrats in this decade. Indeed, every single candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2008 advocated more progressive positions on Iraq, Iran, international trade, nuclear weapons, climate change, and a number of other foreign policy issues than did the 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry, who was then considered one of the more liberal members of the U.S. Senate. As such, although aspects of this year's Democratic platform fall short on the Middle East and some other foreign policy issues, an engaged activist community can ensure that a better platform will emerge by the next elections.

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