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September 12, 2006

Ask it Again: How Divided is the Left?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Last week, Kevin Drum made an interesting argument that’s worth chewing on:

Democrats have recently achieved a fairly considerable consensus on how to move forward. I don't want to overstate this: obviously there are still plenty of differences among major players in the party. But if you take out, say, the Chomsky wing on the left and the Lieberman wing on the right, there's a surprising amount that the rest of us agree on.

This is nearly the opposite of what I argued in my recent American Prospect articles. I said:

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.

Well, what’s going on here? Drum might be right that Democrats agree on specific policy prescriptions such as spending “more on things like port security and chemical plant security,” “strengthening cooperation between the FBI and the CIA,” and supporting “a far more serious energy policy.” Fair enough. But these are commonsensical positions that anyone who is not slightly deranged would agree with. Moreover, Drum avoids the aforementioned question of meta-narratives: how liberals envision our country's role in the world, its mission and its calling (or does that sound too imperial?). He also skirts around the complex and contentious issue of how and even whether the US should aggressively promote democracy in the Middle East.

The Kossack left, certainly, is rather ambivalent about the utility and uses of American power, but much less so about its abuses. It is a bit challenging to even figure out what the this group really thinks about outstanding foreign policy questions, since all they really do is criticize whatever the Bush administration happens to be doing at any given moment coupled with simplistic calls for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Indeed, as others have pointed out, the Kossacks and a good chunk of the Democratic base don’t have well-defined positions on foreign policy. Rather, they seem to take a “if Bush says it or does it, it must be bad” approach to national security.

Similarly, I recall an infuriating article by Juan Cole in Salon after Hamas came to power in January’s Palestinian elections. Its title - “How do you like your democracy now, Mr. Bush?” – made me cringe. The occasion of Hamas’s victory was too readily employed in the service of cynical “I told-you-so putdowns,” when it should have been used for reasoned reflection on how to improve our democracy promotion strategy.

As I’ve argued before, even Congressional Democrats, despite the presumably "hawkish" tendencies of some of its membership, had the audacity to come up with a national security plan which not once mentioned the word “democracy.” This is, it strikes me, a rather glaring omission. In short, contrary to what Kevin suggests, all is not well. Far from it.


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The only serious divide in the Democratic party is between the base and the elites. The majority of Democrats -- the majority of Americans -- is for the "simplistic" policy of getting out of Iraq now (i.e. within a year to 18 months).

Sure it doesn't have the sophistication of Michael Signer's let's-cut-up-Iraq-and-send-in-the-NGO's plan, but at least it can be done.

Since when is Chomsky a Democrat? Most of the "liberals" I know want nothing to do with the blue wing of the Corporate Party.


There are several foreign policy think tanks and policy institutes out there that represent the Democratic left, as well as many prominent academics and academic institutes and programs that go beyond mere dissent to offer sophisticated thinking on a global agenda across a whole range of issues. Take a look the Institute for Policy Studies and the International Relations Center. These groups and their scholars offer proposals on a broad range of issues that you completely ignored in your own American Prospect essay, including Latin American policy, Africa policy, Asia policy, disaramament, UN reform and global environmental and economic policy.

Indeed, outside their few obsessions with democracy promotion in the Middle East, the War on Terror and abstract commitments to free trade and a strong and pro-active military, it is a bit challenging to even figure out what Truman Democrats really think about 90% of global issues, since all most of them do is take pot shots at the easiest targets on the left, and indulge in airy rhetorical flights of pseudo-idealism and speechifying.

It is also clear that establishment, Washington-based Democrats simply choose to ignore the left and pretend they are not there. Democrats in and around Washington, and those close to other centers of power have abandoned the rank and file of their party and thrown in with the corporatocracy. They are contemptuous of the modest democratic and egalitarian instincts and lack of grandiosity of the majority of Democrats. Therefore it is not surprisng that they don't even know what many on the left think.

Here's a narrative for you:

The Democrats’ first priority is always to focus on the direct and immediate threats to America. That is the key to our security; not to get distracted by secondary threats that divert us from our most pressing foes. Democrats believe that exaggerating the strength of our enemies only increases their stature and global appeal. Democrats know that it is because our values are better than those of the terrorists that we will ultimately win and there is no reason to elevate them to positions of influence that they do not deserve. Democrats have undying faith in American ideals and know that the only way that the terrorists can defeat us is if we give into fear and undermine our society from within. Democrats pay attention to details and history; they do not lump together every Muslim terrorist group in the world into one undifferentiated mass, when many of these groups hate each other even more than us. Democrats do not provide opportunities for all of our enemies to come together and target us as a common foe. Instead, Democrats use the power of America to turn the whole world against the enemies of freedom, democracy, and human rights. Democrats know that simply holding elections is not enough, that human rights demand a serious commitment to civil society and democratic institutions that goes way beyond mere rhetoric. Democrats let facts and reality dictate the best strategies, not purely ideology that blinds us to our errors and gives us cover to commit crimes in the name of some higher ideal. Democrats invite debate and criticism because that is the hallmark of a free society. Democrats do not call for freedom in foreign lands while trying to quash dissent at home. And finally, Democrats believe in competence and accountability, which is the responsibility of the leaders to the governed and the most sacred of covenants.

The Kossack left, certainly, is rather ambivalent about the utility and uses of American power, but much less so about its abuses.

Why the hell *shouldn't* someone be ambivalent about a course of action ("spreading democracy") that has led to the horrific mess in Iraq?

What do you mean when you say the US should "aggressively promote democracy" in the Middle East? Is that code language for more war? You're the one lecturing others about their "glaring omissions"--why you don't you specify what you are talking about? How, precisely, is your position superior to those on "the left" who are just so unserious about our national mission? Is it because you used the word "aggressively"?

Perhaps you're too busy fantasizing about bombs that bring democracy, but it might do you good to take a look at George Washington's Farewell Address, which also commits a "glaring omission" by not including among the national desiderata a program for international conquest in the name of "spreading democracy." Washington even has the audacity to "warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue." How unserious of him! Clearly, people who use the word "aggressively" are much more serious than those who counsel us to be skeptical about forcing other nations to bend to our will.

If you want to say that "aggressively promoting democracy" should be understood as non-militaristic (although it certainly doesn't sound like it), then the idea that we should work with other nations to create favorable conditions for representative government falls into the category of "commonsensical" things that you sweep aside at the beginning of your post. Who would be against foreign aid, medical assistance, disaster aid, etc.?

Lastly, it would be nice if we could better manage our own democracy before lecturing other countries on how they can improve.

How can we have a discussion of 'divisions' on the left without a nod to the obvious?

Like the producers of Survivor - I too, want a discussion of the importance of race and ethnicity in all political activity.

We assume a defacto ethnic bias when we read the opinions of someone named Mohammed -

Yet Americans are simply not allowed to identify or question Jewish ethnocentric bias on all things Middle Eastern.

Now the thread will deteriorate into a discussion of whether I shave my head, sleep with Muslims, or require meds to function.

Until and unless we address the problem of ethnocentric bias in politics - there will be no viable anti war candidate in either party - save Russ Feingold, for, er, obvious reasons.

America is turning into Sobibor West with Jews in the watchtowers.

There are certain things in life related to smoking that simply cannot :)
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Yet Americans are simply not allowed to identify or question Jewish ethnocentric bias on all things Middle Eastern

Yet Americans are simply not allowed to identify or question Jewish ethnocentric bias on all things Middle Eastern

Posted by: Miu Miu Handbags | April 16, 2009 at 09:59 PM

Yet Americans are simply not allowed to identify or question Jewish ethnocentric bias on all things Middle Eastern

Posted by: Miu Miu Handbags | April 16, 2009 at 09:59 PM

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