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October 07, 2006

The Battle and the War
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Over at the Democratic Strategist, a new webzine showcase for progressive minds like Ruy Teixeira, Bill Galston and others, I'm involved in a roundtable on that hardy perennial, "whither Democrats and national security?"

You can check out the Truman Project paper and various responses (so far mine and Gary Hart's) on their site.

Here on our non-partisan site, it's just a useful opportunity to recall that, however much foreign policy gets pulled into elections these days, the results mirror the public's views on issues and priorities through a glass darkly at best.  Really producing a broadening in public thinking -- or rather, giving the public a chance and a voice to express the broader views that emerge in deliberative polling or town hall exercises -- requires a kind of progressive and bipartisan activism that's rather different from election-time talking points. 

--making the effort to weave diverse bits of activism into a common narrative -- for example, the relationship among AIDS, poverty and security, or among oil prices, global warming and the innovation economy -- and then referencing that narrative whenever possible;

--committing to talk about foreign policy in ways regular folks can relate to, and starting where they are, not where we wish they were;

-- and committing to talk to regular folks about foreign policy all the time, not just in election years.


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This post expresses a delusion common to people who have spent years immersed in a particular subject and are certain that other people can be brought to share their passion for it, if only they are approached properly. Engineers are notorious for this. Musicians too. And Beltway think-tankers....

Look, Americans spend little time thinking about foreign policy unless they think it affects their lives. I mean, affects their lives immediately and directly, not in the sense that how children are raised in China and Africa today will affect our world in 25 years. For the United States to sustain any internationalist foreign policy, what is required is not public understanding but public trust.

You don't build a plumbing business by educating people about plumbing. You build a plumbing business by gaining a reputation for being a good plumber yourself. Foreign policy is no different. Americans know it's important, but they don't know much about it and know they can't run it themselves. This is what political leadership is for.

This is a problem for Republican politicians, for Democratic politicians, and for the people who expect to advise polticians who survive the electoral gauntlet and advance to the Presidency.

Republican politicians face the public as the representatives of a President who has gotten the foreign policy job badly wrong. They can't establish their own reputations without distancing themselves from his, and this in turn cannot be done without rending their party and jeopardizing their own political futures.

Democratic politicians face the public as the representatives and spokespeople of organized interest groups with very specific agendas, only one of which -- supporters of Israel -- has an agenda related to foreign affairs. To build public confidence in their own ability to handle the nation's foreign affairs, they would have to devote much time and effort on issues for which the interest groups that dominate the Democratic Party have little concern.

The many people who hope to influence American foreign policy yet have no thought of running for office themselves face the task of getting people's attention -- meaning the people who might attain high office and most especially the people who will attain high office. Essentially, they not only have to do right, they have to guess right. If we wind up with another President who enters office uninterested in foreign affairs, or inclined to passivity and reaction in that area, prospective advisers could do everything right and still end up with nothing to show for it.

There is no easy way forward for individuals in any of these groups, but it is individuals, not the groups, who will have to move forward. Democrats will be waiting till doomsday if their wait for a "Democratic foreign policy" to emerge from group debate and consultation. A Democratic foreign policy can only be produced by an individual willing to take the risk of dwelling publicly on a subject foreign to his party's dominant interest groups, able to negotiate the path to the White House, and thereafter able to impose his ideas about foreign policy on the party and the country.

Or, we can wait for just anyone to be elected President, and then see foreign policy improvised on a daily basis by people whose exposure to the subject can be measured in weeks and who see it primarily in the context of the next campaign. Having seen two administrations in succession take office with this orientation, and knowing the background of the likely contenders for the Presidency in 2008, we have ample reason to suspect that this is the way a Democratic (or Republican) foreign policy will actually emerge.

If you read carefully, I'm actually not taking the position you criticize. As someone who has been living outside the Beltway for a while now, (and mostly enjoying it), I'm not expecting the structure or details of a foreign policy to emerge "from the people." But through our system of elections, citizens make the fundamental choice of orientation in foreign policy as other areas. Right now they do it on a playing field that is structurally and rhetorically skewed away from progressive views. That's what progressives need to fix -- and what lots of "regular folks," who don't want to be involved in the details of policy-making but do want the policy to fit better with the values they espouse in other areas of life, want as well.

Actually, the last presidential election was decided almost entirely on national security issues: that Bush would keep us secure while Kerry lied and flip-flopped. And that was basically a false issue as there was little difference between the two candidates on military spending or war. There was virtually no campaign contention on the issues of domestic repression (Patriot Act), corporate welfare, health care, drug war, immigration, free trade, educational testing or any other domestic issue. Okay, there was some petty stuff about gays and abortion but we're talking real issues here.

Let's give them credit--the Dems do have a foreign policy--step up the military tempo in Iraq, invade Iran and continue to support the Zionist repression of Palestine (which is at the heart of anti-US feeling in the Middle East and Islamic world). The rape of Lebanon was real popular with the Dems, also, with every senator voting for it and the Dem House Leader ecstatic about it.

Where will we get the troops for all this imperialism? Senator Clinton has proposed expanding the army by 80,000, probably to be provisioned by Congressman Rangel's proposed draft bill. Gotta love New York.

I have a different reaction to this piece: Amusement over the claim that Dems are progressives in foreign policy. What's progressive about war, war, war? So what we're seeing is an attempted re-framing of the Dem wing of the Repub/Dem party as "progressive." Whatever. Life, political life, is a masquerade.

I am not sure where Heather gets the idea that "citizens make the fundamental choice of orientation in foreign policy as [in] other areas." They do no such thing.

Citizens drive politicians' positions on issues that affect citizens' lives directly (or at least that citizens -- or voters, a significant distinction -- think affect their lives directly). Taxes, zoning laws, and the definition of marriage all fall into that category. But foreign policy? National defense? Most voters don't know very much about them, and don't want to. They do want political leadership to take care of them. They evaluate which aspirants to political leadership can be trusted, and grant those they think can be broad discretion to chart the nation's course at they see fit.

What about that "...playing field that is structurally and rhetorically skewed away from progressive views"? Oh, boo hoo. How about "a political environment in which politicians calling themselves 'progressive' have failed repeatedly to gain the public's confidence that they can be good stewards of the country's interests"? As indeed they have, going all the way back to the McGovern candidacy of 1972. Ever since then, Democrats have come off second best when national security and foreign affairs have been salient issues, excepting only the Watergate election of 1976. Is that the voters' fault? The media's? Is the mysterious tilt of the political playing field to blame?

Or do aspiring political leaders styling themselves as "progressives" have a history of being just no damn good, uninterested in national security matters and counting for electoral success on Republicans screwing up so badly that voters will accept anything and anyone just to get rid of them?

The last time I checked Bill Clinton, calling himself progressive, enjoyed a bit of popularity. Unfortunately he strayed from progressive values with "free" trade, welfare reform and aggression against Yugoslavia and Iraq, which now means that progressivism is in limbo due to Clinton's move to the right, Bush's expert exploitation of the media and Democratic spinelessness.

Ms. Hurlburt has recognized this problem and is trying to help progressives find a way to political success. This means that US citizens have to be convinced of the primacy of progressive values and policies. Citizens, believe it or not, do have influence on public policy. In that the opinions of citizens are largely formed by the corporate media, often against their own best interest, media savvy is needed to shape public opinion and that's what Ms. Hurlburt is addressing. I do wish she would concentrate as much on the message as the medium.

What should be the bedrock progressive values? She talks about replacing conservative mental shortcuts with new images, but she falls short in describing the images. What images or values is she thinking of? What should be the progressive stands on war, corporate welfare, the defense budget, social security, education, environment, free trade, domestic surveillance, health care, drug war, Palestine, etc.? She advocates a better campaign story on national security, but what is to be that story? Will it be, as I believe, that the neoconservative "war on terror" has demonstrably made us less secure and we need a new policy based not on American hegemony but on world partnerships? Or will it just be more of the same, dressed up in new Madison Avenue clothes? What is the mission of the Progressive Battle Plan? What kind of America do progressives want to see--one of perennial war with accompanying domestic repression (the two are inseparable) or one of peace and prosperity, together with the rest of the world?

I understand why she has not stipulated these goals. They go against current Democratic Party thinking which is pretty much allied with those of their brethren across the aisle. Both parties suckle from the same corporate mothers. So are we stuck with just being better "framers" and "spinners" of the same-old same-old? This is where the cheese gets binding. I pray that Ms. Hurlburt is up to the task.

Where to start? In foreign policy the one US move that would instantly transform our relationship with the arab and Islamic worlds for the better would be a demand on the Israelis to implement United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 which calls for the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict" [the six day war] and the "[t]ermination of all claims or states of belligerency" and 339/338 which called for the enforcement of 242.

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