John Edwards’ Foreign Policy

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 Senator 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 over-emphasis 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 Senator Clinton and some of his Democratic rivals as well. (See the Foreign Policy In Focus Spotlight on the Candidates.)

Serious Concerns

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 administration.

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 Senator 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 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 article.)

Iraq Invasion

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 of 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 website.

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-in-chief.


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 lawyer, challenged 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 completed 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 which 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.”

Post-Invasion Support

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 Senator John Kerry, who was deeply torn about his support for the war, his 2004 running mate remained an enthusiastic supporter. The New York Times reported 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 anti-war 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 anti-war 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 at will.

Hawkish on Iran

Edwards’ statements on Iran are not encouraging in this regard. To his credit, he has criticized Senator 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 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 non-proliferation 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-and-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 Bush.

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 hardliners 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 )

Liberal Hawk

Despite presenting himself as a new kind of politician, in many ways Edwards is a throwback to the 1960’s 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.

Edwards’ call 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 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.