Friday, December 12, 2008

The Real Foreign Policy Debate

Here's a reader's letter to Ross Douthat:

I think you're creating all sorts of divisions where none really exist. There is NO substantive division between Democratic realists and Democratic internationalists and not much between them and their likeminded Republican brethren. The predominant strain of thought in American foreign policy since WW 2 has been liberal/internationalist/realist. It was conceived by Acheson/Marshall/Kennan/Harriman et al. and pursued by every administration, Republican or Democrat, from then until 2000. Separate this from domestic political posturing, and apart from minor shading the policy differences of Acheson, Dulles, Rusk, Kissinger, Shultz and Albright are indiscernible. Essentially, it consisted of enlightened self interest pursued through containment of adversaries; operating through international institutions wherever possible; and the fostering of alliance systems. On the whole it was a fairly respectable endeavor although there was dirty dealing from time to time. Occasionally, the bus would come off the road of course, notably over Vietnam, and Jingoism or the military lobby would get the upper hand, but it seldom lasted long.

In 2001 there really was a quantum shift in policy to one of overt interventionism; rejection of traditional international institutions as a problem solving mechanism; disinterest in the views of major allies; open support of the most extreme Israeli positions in the middle east; and the embrace of attempts to export democracy, even if in a somewhat ham handed way. This whole approach was increasingly dominated by domestic political considerations, perhaps that was its original genesis, and it has proved fairly disastrous in almost every respect ...

Now with the election of Democratic administration the inevitable reaction has set in and the Republican internationalist/realists are anxious to get back in their traditional groove alongside the folks who think the same way in the Democratic party ... you and Yglesias are quite wrong, this state of affairs is sustainable for a very long time. Any fault lines that appear are far more likely to be between a Lugar and a Cheney than between a Lugar and a Clinton. There are no fault lines between a Daschle and a Clinton. I use these names, but this is not really a matter of personalities despite the media's obsession with people rather than substance.

Here's Douthat's first paragraph in response:

I think [this] is rather like Robert Kagan's suggestion last year that we are all neocons of some sort or another: It emphasizes important commonalities - in this case, among post-WWII internationalists of various sorts, especially during the Cold War - but elides extremely important differences in order to make its case. Saying "the predominant strain of thought in American foreign policy since WW 2 has been liberal/internationalist/realist" is like saying that "the predominant strain of thought in American domestic policy since WW 2 has been liberal/neoliberal/neoconservative." It gets at the important point that policymaking has operated within a more constrained range than many people think, but it obscures the fact that there are very important differences between domestic-policy neoconservatism and domestic-policy liberalism - or between, say, the realist internationalism of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the liberal hawkery of John F. Kennedy. (Just compare this speech to this speech ...) The latter set of differences manifested themselves most notably in our policy toward Indochina - and if your case that the Iraq War represents a unique break with five decades of unbroken foreign-policy consensus requires dismissing the years America spent embroiled in Vietnam as a case where the bus went "off the road" modestly but not for long, you're probably overselling your argument a bit.
Actually, it's not just overselling your argument. It's getting it all wrong. Douthat's right that the left/right consensus has long driven American foreign policy, but he needs to indicate that it's the Democratic Party's radical left base that has made an epochal departure from America's traditional internationalism, not the Bush administration.

Fred Baumann, writing in the Public Interest in 2004, pegged the real issues facing American foreign policy since Vietnam:

THREE decades after the Vietnam War, American politicians are still making foreign policy decisions in its shadow. In fact, on one level, debates such as those over the recent war in Iraq can be viewed as hinging on how one interprets the American experience in Vietnam ....

This particular strand in our politics is directly attributable to what, for lack of a better label, I will call the "Vietnam paradigm." It describes not simply a constellation of isolationist policy directives but, more importantly, a general attitude of political suspicion and moral condemnation of nearly any use of American military might. Such post- Vietnam skittishness has affected America's domestic politics in enormous and largely pernicious ways. Most significantly, it has made popular consent for any large-scale foreign intervention--and thus the credibility of any such threat--perennially fragile. This has led conservatives when in power to fight wars on tiptoe ....

If the Vietnam mentality poses both direct and indirect dangers in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, it poses an even more troubling domestic danger in its tendency toward ever greater rhetorical excess and emotional rancor ....

To be sure, there is a strand of rational criticism of the administration's conduct of the war on terror. It can be found in the serious policy journals and with columnists like Anne Applebaum in the mainstream media. But it does not much characterize the antiwar movement's overall tone and style. That movement encompasses a large range, from distinguished intellectuals like Susan Sontag and veteran foreign policy experts writing popular books, like Chalmers Johnson, down through the mainstream of the New York Times and the Washington Post and respectable Internet "bloggers" like Josh Marshall, descending to popular entertainers like Tim Robbins and Michael Moore, and to ever more abusive fringe journals and blogs, all the way down to LaRouche websites. Still, from high to low, there are some strikingly common themes.

Conspiracy theory, in particular, has found its way into the mainstream. The missing weapons of mass destruction are a case in point. Practically everyone, including President Clinton, Senator Ted Kennedy, and the French and German intelligence services, was convinced that Iraq had them. Yet "Bush lied; people died" (now available on bumper stickers and T-shirts) immediately became the slogan of the antiwar movement. Similarly, the case that this was an "illegal war" because a second resolution had not been forthcoming from the United Nations is a staple of antiwar argument ... Then there is the much-touted discovery of a group of Zionist "neoconservative" foreign policy advisers of the second and third rank who have allegedly hijacked U.S. foreign policy for sinister reasons. A long-time commonplace for the LaRouche set, this too is now a part of the mainstream political discourse. Finally, there is the vitriolic personal assault on the leaders of the administration, culminating most recently in Whoopi Goldberg's obscene punning on President Bush's surname in front of Senator John Kerry himself. Perhaps the historians who say it was this bad in Jefferson's day are correct, but that doesn't make the current incivility any less remarkable ....

This dynamic became all too obvious in the case of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In view of the indefensible character of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein from the point of view of "progressive" sentiment, it became crucial to keep the focus on American overreaching and on "anti-imperialism" as an abstraction. That way, the antiwar side did not quite have to say that it would rather Hussein had stayed around to murder people and the Taliban to keep women from medical care than to have had the United States kick them out.

Thus much of the simplicity and heat of the antiwar position has its root in the difficulties of its own situation. But those difficulties do not lead it to moderation. On the contrary, they encourage psychological projection, demonization, and a constant stoking of righteous indignation. This in turn explains why the liberal mainstream has opened itself up to what had previously been judged the paranoid conspiracy theories of the political fringe. Vulgar polemicists like Michael Moore, or the old University of Chicago types who hated Leo Strauss, are always with us. But U.S. senators don't usually lionize the former or Harper's give space to the fantasies of the latter. When that begins to happen, we come to that mysterious point where quantitative change begins to become qualitative. What drives the change, above all, is the need for self-justification. And here the Bush administration has been a stick in the liberal eye.

Realist conservatives with their tough-minded rhetoric are easy for liberal idealists to live with. Tough-mindedness is openly selfish and can be deplored without posing much of a moral challenge. But a frankly idealistic conservatism that doesn't just speak democratization but actually tries to undertake it has to be unmasked, since it poses a moral threat to the good conscience of its opponents. Unmasking measures--that is, vilification and attack on motives--have a double function. They discredit the other side publicly; more importantly they reassure the idealists about their own goodness.

It isn't that the antiwar side would hate to see a democratic Middle East any more than it hated to see the gulag abolished. Rather, the success of the war on terror would mean the triumph of an unreflective, brassy, self-justifying, and morally repulsive patriotism, which could, horribly, sit in judgment of its betters. Of course, Katha Pollitt understood why her daughter wanted, with all of New York, to fly that flag after September 11. But she also thought she understood what her daughter was too naive to grasp, namely that flying that flag would inevitably lead to horrors like Abu Ghraib. Again, for Susan Sontag, it was the most natural thing to conclude in the New York Times Magazine that Abu Ghraib really did represent what the United States has become. For if that were not the case, the utopian idealism of those like Sontag would have to confront the fact that it had defended much that was worse.
Read Baumann's entire piece at the link (it's the best explanation of antiwar sentiment and BushCo demonization you'll find).

Douthat's reader buys into the post-Vietnam mindset by declaring that the traditional liberal internationalist consensus was destroyed in 2001 (recall, apparently, U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam just went "off the road" temporarily). It wasn't. What we saw in the Bush administration was
a willingness to put power to prinicples, the same moral principles that drove the liberal utopianism of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt's foreign policies.

The issue for the country now - our real foreign policy debate - is to resist the abandonment of America's renewed paradigm of power and purpose in international affairs. To that effect, the coming Barack Obama administration is making attempts at international reassurance (the nuclear guarantee to Israel, for example). Desite all of our current economic problems, the U.S. will remain primus inter pares in world politics. American leadership in the Middle East, and increasingly South Asia, will remain central to the agenda of global peace and prosperity for decades to come.


Gayle said...

It's good news to learn that "Barack Obama administration is making attempts at international reassurance". I sincerely hope it is successful.

I was completely devastated that Obama won the election and am certainly not happy with the huge majority the Democrats have in the House and Senate, but in spite of the fact that I was sorely disappointed, I am hoping that Obama's presidency is successful and that he will be good for the country... I'm just not going to be holding my breath!

I must admit that intellectually, much of this post is a bit over my head. I find it hard to care exactly why there is so much anti-American sentiment among the far left, I just wish there were some way to unite this country. I am beginning to conclude that time may never come.

AmPowerBlog said...

Well, Gayle, this is an unusual post, focusing on a lot of high-faluting debate. But I have noticed Obama has pissed off the radical leftists a bit with his appointments (a good thing), and talk of a nuclear guarantee to Israel is reassuring, for me at least.

He hasn't taken office yet, so who knows?

Norm said...

I think we can fully expect a President Obama to immediately tackle the Middle East problems. I am sure the millions of people in Israel, Palestine and other Arab countries who would rather live in peace wish him the best. I think he realizes that besides a carrot he will need the biggest stick on the globe.

AmPowerBlog said...

Thanks Norm!