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April 04, 2006

The Democratic Party and the Fear of Big Ideas
Posted by Shadi Hamid

The Democrats’ have released their national security “plan.” It is possibly the most formulaic and banal document that I have had the displeasure of reading in months. There is nothing necessarily bad about it. There is nothing good about it either, which is exactly the problem. It is a document without even a hint of ambition, one which wallows in the mediocrity and amoralism which appear to have become the hallmark of today’s Democratic Party. Talk but say nothing. Criticize but offer no alternatives. Offer plans without vision. Recycle clichés ad infinitum. In short, the Democratic Party is afflicted by a pronounced aversion to ideas, especially new ones. At least, we could give the impression that we were trying to be original but even this, it seems, would be asking too much. Instead we are given a “toughness” post-it note to-do list:

Policies that are both “tough and smart.” Check.
Kill terrorists. Check.
A lot more equipment for troops. Check.
Stronger military. Check.
Nuclear weapons are bad. Check.

Yes, we got the message – Democrats are “tough.” Being tough on national security is, of course, good and necessary. But what do we actually believe in ? God knows. Or maybe Harry Reid knows but isn’t telling us. (He did, however, tell the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt that while “we of course acknowledge that democracy is our goal . . . we first have to have stability.” Umm, Mr. Reid, stability was our “goal” in the Middle East for five decades and that wasn’t exactly a resounding success).

The document is subtitled “The Democratic Plan to Protect America and Restore our Leadership in the World.” One would think that the founding ideal of our country – Democracy – would be mentioned in any discussion of US global “leadership.” But, alas, supporting democracy abroad isn't mentioned even once. Nothing about how the lack of democracy in the Middle East has produced a poisonous environment conducive to the rise of religious extremism and terrorism. Democracy promotion, apparently, is no longer popular. So, instead, we get focus-group approved, watered-down dilutions which masquerade as forward-looking “plans.”

Newsflash to the Democratic Party: 9/11 happened. Deal with it. Beliefs matter. America’s ideas matter. Public diplomacy matters. Combating extremist ideologies matters. Helping Muslims free themselves from the shackles of autocratic rule so that they can express and channel their grievances through legitimate political channels…matters. And democracy is not a bad word, so let's stop acting like it is.


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Oh I don't know Shadi. 5 decades of not seeing my friends and relatives killed in asinine wars in the middle east was pretty nice.

But you democracyarsenal types keep wanting to kill people I love.

News Flash: Shadi, go fight in the wars you advocate. Leave me and mine alone. I don't give a rat's ass about democracy in the middle east. Not ONE TINY RAT'S ASS.

How's that grab ya?

Here's the question--and this addresses your concern, Angryman: Has anyone a shred of proof that "spreading democracy" will defuse built up hatred of Western policy? We're talking support for Israel's occupation of Palestine, and the British/American carving up of the Ottoman empire.

Whether the Middle East has democracy as an end in itself doesn't move me. I just don't see it helping--after all our projection into Middle Eastern affairs, why should they become happy when we come *forcefully* impose a new government on them?

The new ideas Democrats could and should support involve reducing our involvement in Middle Eastern politics. Self-government is not self-government if it's forced on you by the world's bully.

Glad to see the addition of Shadi Hamid to this great blog. He offers a unique perspective and I am glad to see his ideas reaching a broader audience.

Keep up the good writing!

Shadi, I agree that the document isn't ideal, but what do the republicans have on the other side? Slogans, a China-centric QDR, and a new national security strategy that is again mostly state-focused. I'm not thrilled, but it's better than the Republican "plans".

Democracy seems to be out of fashion in the United States, now that Hamas has been elected in Palestine and other democratic elections in the Middle East and Iraq are not to the liking of the Bush administration and it would seem -- the Democrats as well. This makes me very sad. I grew up pledging Allegiance to a flag that I believed represented democratic ideals of universal value, including the egalitarian principle of one-person, one-vote. I've begun to think we concentrate too much on political philosophy and should focus on the economics of our foreign policies. Is the US really looking for democracies in the Middle East, or for compliant governments that will provide US corporations access to oil and military contracts, and accede to IMF and World Bank requirements to privatize national companies and cut social subsidies? I am still an idealist, I still believe in the principles upon which the US was founded. What I don't believe in is a US foreign policy driven by those who derive enormous wealth from oil and war and cheap labour.

Umm, Mr. Reid, stability was our “goal” in the Middle East for five decades and that wasn’t exactly a resounding success.

This formulaic point has become a staple of contemporary hawkish thinking on the Middle East, articulated in virtually identical terms by people like Condoleeza Rice and Christopher Hitchens - and now you, Mr. Hamid.

It strikes me as off the mark for two reasons:

First, because of its blithe acceptance of the notion that the US actually did pursue "stability" in the Middle East for 50 years. That seems a gross oversimplification and distortion. The US typically pursued its intertwined power interests and economic interests in the region. Sometimes the pursuit of those interests recommended destabilization; sometimes they lead in the direction of stabilization.

More important, however, is the rather absurd suggestion that US policy in the region was not by and large successful, in its own terms. The United States succeeded in both preventing Soviet domination of the Middle East, and also preventing the region from becoming a flashpoint of confrontation between the two superpowers. With a few temporary exceptions, it maintained a steady supply of cheap oil. It also helped to end a few wars, including brokering a peace deal between Egypt and Israel. (Perhaps you would have preferred a more calamitous and murderous battle to the death in this case, so that Egypt could be "liberated".) Overall, I would say that navigating through the fraught and dangerous waters of the Cold War without starting a massive global conflict in the Middle East is quite a success, and possibly saved the lives of tens of millions of people.

But convicted by your own words, Mr. Hamdi, you express open contempt for stability. I suppose that means, then, that you actively favor instability. The so-called "Truman Democrats" are revealing themselves in recent weeks to be a crowd of dangerous and petulant fanatics, who need to be kept away from power. How recklessly they indulge their zeal for Democracy! Of course since they are so "moral", they would perhaps prefer a world on fire with the purifying moral flame of Democracy - and piled up with lots of liberated and dead democratic bodies - to a boring world of stability, imperfection and peace. Now that they see their crusade in danger (and perhaps fear the drying up of foundation monies) they are lashing out in anger at how Bush "stole" their precious democracy-promotion movement, and messed it up by fighting their eagerly sought wars so ineptly.

Personally, I am beginning to grow optimistic. Since the day I read Peter Beinart's hideous New Republic article after the 2004 election, and then some of the other Truman Democrat manifestos, I have been on a bit of a personal crusade of my own - to challenge this approach wherever I find it, and to encourage Democrats to pursue a more practical - and less dangerously romantic - agenda of promoting global peace and security, strengthening multilateral and global institutions for resolving conflicts, re-establishing the rule of international law, negotiating economic and environmental compacts, restraining themselves from interfering in the internal affairs of other states, and focussing on fundamentals of national defense rather than radical and revolutionary transformative agendas, which in my opinion are based on dubious, faith-based empirical claims about the "absense of democracy" as the root of all evil. There are a lot of others like me, and I'm starting to experience some hope that our argumentative efforts are paying off.

On a related note, I lived through one cold war, and I have no intention of going through another one. Unlike some of these eager young democracy warriors, who have come of age in the triumphalist post-Cold War atmosphere of pain-free ideological enthusiasm, my youth was blighted by the persistant nightmare of threatened nuclear annihilation, with raving ideological nuts on both sides. The sporadic "threat" of Islamist terrorism, for example, supposedly the great challenge of this generation, is nothing compared to that earlier, more overwhelming threat. But some of the meddlesome zealots in the democracy-promotion NGOs, and also inside the US government, seem determined to provoke conflict in Belarus, Georgia, the Ukraine, Chechnya - and inside Russia itself - and everywhere else the government falls short of their "moral" standards of political purity. I have had it with these dangerous games, and will continue to resist them.

Unfortuanately, the Truman Democrats will never go away. Just as the Republicans have had to deal with several cycles of rising and falling fortunes on the part of their neoconservative wing, so Democrats will have to continue to fight back for a long time against the Beinart-style Truman Democrats and their hawkish zealotry. So Mr. Hamid, I'll see you in 2008 ... and 2012, and 2016, and 2020.

Well said, Dan.

Mr. Hamdi, do a bit more reading, get a clue, and come back later.

Back to the main point,

How likely is it to see bold innovative ideas out of a committee?

A national security plan that's supposed to represent an entire political party? No way. One candidate can express bold ideas, and maybe the party will follow him. Likely they'll follow him after he wins the presidency.

But get a committee coming to a consensus, and how can you expect anything more than oatmeal?

Sounds like you're out of step with the rest of the country. Check the latest AP-Ipsos poll:

* 40% approval of US foreign policy and war on terror
* 35% approval on US policy towards Iraq
* 30% approval GOP Congress
* 49%-33% prefer Democrats running Congress over GOP
* 41% tie - party that people trust to protect the country

But in the mean time, you're doing a wonderful job shilling for the Right by recycling their talking points.

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