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March 28, 2005

We need a 12 step program. Now.
Posted by Derek Chollet

Since the 2004 election there has been a surge in longish think pieces about progressives and national security, starting with Peter Beinart's cover story in the New Republic (which, by the way, has brought him a very hefty advance to turn into a book), and more recently Matthew Yglesias's article in the American Prospect.    Both of these essays provide useful historical perspective and plenty of insider gossip, and help define what efforts like this blog (and its host institution) are all about.   We could write on this subject for days -- and I hope we do -- but let me focus on a couple thoughts that came to mind when re-reading these articles.

First, it is true as Beinart stresses that the dominant interest groups within the Democratic party still do not see national security as a vital part of the progressive mission (or, a successful progressive mission), and those that do tend to lean far to the left of mainstream America (think MoveOn).  I actually think that the former issue is more of a problem than the latter -- many Americans are uneasy with the Administration's performance on national security, as the latest polls about support for the Iraq war illustrate.

Yet too many progressives still believe that national security is not "our" issue.   We still approach these questions as boxes to check.  Take this example: the Kerry-Edwards campaign was more focused on national security issues than any Democratic campaign probably since 1960, yet too often it still treated these issues as things we had to pivot off of to hammer Bush on our perceived bread and butter: health care, education, taxes, the environment, etc. etc.  People actually said behind closed doors things like "once we give this speech/make this argument/end this debate on Iraq or terrorism, we will be able to pivot onto other issues."  Many political advisers thought that we could end the debate with one killer line of attack, and then never have to deal with it again.  A big part of our challenge as national security progressives is to make the case that these issues are not just ones that we can remain credible on (or dispense with through one thoughtful speech), but ones that we can actually win on.

A second part of our challenge is to bridge a cultural divide - not the ones most political commentators talk about, but the enduring gap between progressives and the military.  This is as much about experience and disposition as it is about specific policies.  Progressives actually think a lot about and are comfortable with foreign policy (diplomacy, foreign aid, institutions, etc); but we have less confidence in national security (defense).  Often this divide is obvious, often it develops in more subtle and even unintentional ways -- this is what I was getting at in last week's dust-up with Suzanne about the wisdom of promoting some sort of civilian post-stabilization corps. 

By far the best article written about this gap was after another painful election loss (2002) by our own Heather Hurlburt.  What's most depressing about her piece is how right she was then, and how little has changed today.  But I guess acknowledging that we have a problem is the first step toward recovery.  What other steps do we need?


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Bienert and the New Republic are not progressive, especially in comparison with the American Prospect.

The issue of national security is no different for us than for others. Are we safeguarding human rights? Are we cooperating and coordinating with allies in efforts to alleviate inequalities in less fortunate countries? Are we promoting disarmament and PROGRESS toward democratic dialogue and inclusion?

National security is not about guns and planes. That is the progressive position. It's about exchanging bullets for ballots. That's progress.

Mainstream sellout rags like The New Republic are afraid they won't sell enough advertising and subscriptions in D.C. unless they join the anvil chorus and do a little sabre-rattling a couple times a year.

I saw Bienert on a panel about new media last night on C-Span. He wanted to have the last word on everything. He is not a progressive, he's an "old Democrat," as in Robert McNamara.

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