Democracy Arsenal

« No Marines to Send | Main | A Proposal for a New Progressive Foreign Policy »

August 23, 2006

Do Democrats Have a "Vision Gap" on Foreign Policy?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Well, yes, they do. And that is the subject of a two-part series I'm writing for The American Prospect Online on the future of progressive foreign policy. Here is the beginning of Part I: 

“Don't doubt yourselves. We know who we are.” Senator Barak Obama said those words to an audience of progressives in a well-received speech at the Take Back America conference in June. If only it were true. When it comes to foreign policy, we do not know who we are, at least not yet.

Today, significant fault lines divide the left on a host of major foreign policy questions. If such disagreements were simply a matter of differing policy prescriptions, that would be one thing. But the divisions are of a more fundamental nature -- a product of competing meta-narratives liberals hold to understand America’s role in a post-9/11 world.

There have been sustained efforts by Democrats of late to close ranks and present a unified front. Bill Clinton has said that “we ought to be whipped if we allow our differences over what to do now over Iraq divide us.” Even despite these differences, most progressives now agree that the Iraq adventure, for all the promise it might have once had, has proven a disastrous mistake. And over the past year, Democrats in Congress have done a much better job of coordinating their opposition to the Bush administration’s innumerable national security missteps.

An artificial, contrived consensus based on the lowest common denominator might suffice while in the opposition. However, if Democrats win back Congress this year or the presidency in 2008, a more clear vision will be necessary. Ideas are imperative -- but while it is easy to argue that Democrats need “big ideas,” it is more difficult to figure out what those might actually be.

In recent months, there have been several noteworthy attempts to provide an intellectual and ideological frame for progressive policy. Here, in the pages of the Prospect, Michael Tomasky as well as John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira have offered the most cohesive arguments to date, proposing the “common good” as a foundation for a new progressive vision. Unfortunately, both these efforts reserve their focus for domestic policy. Their foreign policy suggestions are vague and, for the most part, avoid tackling the challenging questions that have sowed division within liberal ranks.

Read the rest here


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Do Democrats Have a "Vision Gap" on Foreign Policy?:

» Left Global Cataracts Exemplarism from Eteraz
The Democrat vision of foreign policy has been one of negation. Perhaps this is excusable in light of the fact that the Dems are the opposition party. Still, a vacuum has been created. And if the Dems win either the legislature or the White House they... [Read More]


Do we have a story to tell to the American people, one which embraces our country’s founding ideals and our enduring sense of moral purpose?

Amazingly enough, our constitutionally established republic actually comes equipped with a statement of purpose:

in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Our history is that of the progress of a noble experiment in self-government. It is the story of an attempt by a people to govern themselves, for themselves, and to govern themselves wisely. And its success or failure depends on the ability of presently existing Americans to progressively improve self-government, and to successfully pass its institutions, habits and fruits on to their posterity.

This founding national ideal still provides us with a morally uplifting national aspiration, and is all the moral vision Americans need in addressing the challenges and opportunities we face.

As far as the government of our foreign affairs and relations is concerned, all such interactions might be measured by the extent to which they contribute to the perfection of our own union, as explained in the Preamble to the US Constitution.

Within the context of a well-governed republic, Americans are a free people. Individual Americans, and groups of Americans, have a variety of moral aspirations, religious aims and ideological agendas which they are free to pursue, at home or abroad. But the many legitimate purposes of subgroups of Americans are not the purpose of the United States government itself.


The striking thing about Democratic and Republican voters right now is how deeply they agree on the need for greater closure in US foreign policy, even though they are far apart on what needs to be done to bring closure. It is not just the specific policies of the Bush administration but the open-endedness of them that has caused the administration to lose public support.

What Democrats need to convey is a sense that whatever challenges America faces in the next six to ten years, they will pick their commitments carefully and make sure they are executed in a timely as well as effective manner.

There is a possibility that progressive Democrats will focus narrowly on getting out of Iraq, while centrists will argue that they can do a more competent job of waging open-ended commitments. Voters may want a party that understands the need for a policy that is broader than just Iraq but deeper than just promising to execute present commitments better.

The problem of religious conflict will not be solved anytime soon, but there is a very important dimension of it that you need to take into account right now. This is the way the subjective timeframe influences how people feel. If our relations with the Arab and Muslim world are defined only in terms of an open-ended struggle for moderation, we will define our relationship in terms that are essentially timeless, and in timeless struggles moderation is always fighting an uphill battle.

What we need are new goals that have some finiteness in time and in relation to which the distinction between ends and means is much clearer than it is today. We need in particular to engage the Middle East in new ways that give people there some sense of irreversible accomplishment as a result of engaging with us.

It never ceases to amaze me that the people who talk the most about extending democracy abroad seem completely unaware that we're losing it here at home. The greatest threat to our republic is probably not terrorism but the "unitary executive" (as even General Franks acknowledged some years ago.) An ambitious foreign policy with "big ideas" can only exacerbate this crisis by empowering the executive branch.

However, if you really want to advocate an aggressive democracy promotion policy, you're going to have to demonstrate that it has some hope of success and can be done at a reasonable cost. Before Iraq, we had a 25% success rate in nation building (2 of those successes were tiny Grenada and Panama). Given the enormous amount of blood and treasure that goes into these social engineering projects, I would suspect that most Americans wouldn't sign on to this.


You said: "The greatest threat to our republic is probably not terrorism but the 'unitary executive'"

You're right to be concerned about an encroaching "unitary executive," but the Bush admin. has only been able to justify its increased power by saying that a growing terrorist threat requires a more assertive executive role. In other words, the "unitary executive" and the threat of terrorism are two sides of the same coin.

And the only way to dampen the terrorist threat in the long run is to promote a free, democratic Middle East where people will be able to channel their grievances into a responsive political process.

Also, I'm not sure why you're referring to Americans' unwillingness to sacrifice "blood and treasure." Democracy promotion requires the latter but not necessarily the former. I am, after all, not advocating that we invade autocracies neo-con style (which is a key difference between neo-cons and liberal interventionists).

While the spread of democracy is a worthy goal, couldn't a demand for democratization as a condition for foreign and military aid be seen as interference every bit as illegitimate as invasion? Both are attempts to enforce change from without.

Futhermore, our aid is almost always already given with some goal in mind (e.g., keeping Egypt at peace with Israel). What happens when the zeal for democratization undermines the original purpose of the aid?

You're right to be concerned about an encroaching "unitary executive," but the Bush admin. has only been able to justify its increased power by saying that a growing terrorist threat requires a more assertive executive role. In other words, the "unitary executive" and the threat of terrorism are two sides of the same coin.

Since the threat of terrorism will be with us the rest of our lives, if you're right the republic is finished.

I think it's the exaggeration of the terror threat that makes the case for shredding the Constitution viable. There's a reason Bush and Rumsfeld talk about the "danger" of an Islamic caliphate stretching from Spain to Indonesia. If people had a more realistic assessment of the threat, our liberties would not be in danger.

But this danger is to some extent bipartisan. Depending on how ambitious your foreign policy is, you too will feel the need to exaggerate the threat to justify the expense. This plays into the hands of those who argue that the threat is so extreme the Bill of Rights is a suicide pact.

I am, after all, not advocating that we invade autocracies neo-con style (which is a key difference between neo-cons and liberal interventionists).

Since the liberal interventionists were for the Iraq war, I assumed your policy was similar to the neocon's agenda, but that you'd prefer to have France and Germany on board. If that's not the case, I apologize for my misunderstanding.

We've done nothing to promote democracy in the middle east that would conflict with a narrow definition of our economic interests [read: incompetent realism] and an equally narrow definition of the needs of Israel.
You're bullshitting.

very well done .I am really pleased to post my comment on this blog . It helped me with ocean of knowledge so I really belive you will do much better in the future . Good job web master .

There are certain things in life related to smoking that simply cannot :)
parça kontör
parça kontör bayiliği
parça kontör bayilik

I just came across this. Funny how things have changed since 2006 - we now have Obama who thinks he is a foreign policy expert...

The comments to this entry are closed.

Sign-up to receive a weekly digest of the latest posts from Democracy Arsenal.
Powered by TypePad


The opinions voiced on Democracy Arsenal are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of any other organization or institution with which any author may be affiliated.
Read Terms of Use