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October 25, 2006

The Left Rediscovers its Love of Manifestos
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Contrary to Tony Judt’s delusional assertions about liberal acquiescence to Bush’s ruinous foreign policy designs, I must say that recent months have demonstrated that liberals are a serious bunch, who are, once again, thinking big. In my August Prospect essays on the future of progressive foreign policy, I cited the works of Michael Signer, Madeleine Albright, Robert Wright, and Peter Beinart in proposing bold alternatives to neo-isolationism of the ascendant Left and the neo-conservatism of the once-ascendant Right. Most of you are probably already familiar with these contributions.

The last year or so has also marked a renewed liberal interest in the treasured art of manifesto writing. For starters, Peter Beinart’s book is a manifesto if not in form then certainly in ambition. When young Democrats who care about foreign policy meet these days, one of the first things they presumably ask each other is whether they have dutifully read The Good Fight. Yes, it’s a damn good book. Beyond that, there is the Euston Manifesto, authored across the pond by Norman Geras and a reputable slate of intellectuals, who know moral clarity when they see it, and also when they write it.

More recently, I read the short-form sort-of-manifesto of Bruce Ackerman and Todd Gitlin, published in The American Prospect. I think it’s a bit lacking in the atmospherics that one has come to expect from manifestos, but I suppose this is the price we pay for living in a somewhat post-ideological world. Nevertheless, it’s signed by quite a few prominent people, so it’s certainly worth looking at, if for no other reason than its serving as a nice rejoinder to the political misanthropy of the almost-too-ubiquitous Tony Judt.

I suspect there will be more manifestos to come, led by the curiously titled and already wildly over-appreciated book – Ethical Realism – by unabashed arch-realists Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman who appear intent on doing everything in their power to resurrect the soul of Bismarck (or perhaps Scrowcroft) while making it all at least slightly palatable to messianic City-on-a-Hill savages in America and elsewhere. Rarely do you see people so willing to pass the torch of American hegemony, however un-benevolent, to China, India, and others. If Lieven had his way, he’d make Chirac look like an idealist.

Well, anyway, bring it on, as some have been known to say in their less opportune moments. Manifestos are always fun, even if they are inane and indulgent of neo-Parisian attitudes on US foreign policy.


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The more educated one person is, the better we all are! That is one reason we need to address the Millennium Development Goals. We need to give everyone the chance for education, the chance for life! The Borgen Project is working towards this goal and we need to get our politicians working for it too! Elections are coming up so we had better vote for those who want to end poverty!

What could be better for this administration than supporting the Millennium Development Goals for their foreign policy? Bringing about legislation to end global poverty, establishing equal rights, and primary education for all the worlds' citizens are just the kind of issues that need to be addressed right now. If we want to keep our country safe, shouldn't we assure other countries that they are safe?

One thing that most (all?) of the authors you cited have in common is that they still believe it is America's place to bring the benefits of "democracy" and "freedom" to the rest of the world. This is just a new form of the "white man's burden" argument from colonial days.

1. It won't work - liberal values need to arise internally
2. It is a cover for our real motivation - securing favorable trade policies for raw materials and finished goods
3. It ignores all the work being done on adapting to a world where resources are finite - this means scaling our economy down to a sustainable level, through conservation and changes in our consumption patterns.
4. It requires the continuation of our military posture and the associated diversion of resources away from our own health, education and infrastructure improvement - isn't Katrina enough of a wake up call?

I'm calling this soft empire promotion "neo-liberalism" as an homage to its neo-conservative forebears. Get over it, the US can no longer tell the world what to do. We haven't won a major war since WWII and our ability to strong arm countries via economic means are becoming increasingly ineffective (Venezuela, China, Iran, etc.)

Rarely do you see people so willing to pass the torch of American hegemony, however un-benevolent, to China, India, and others.

Well that really is a quite willful distortion. Lieven argues for disengaging the US military from Korea. The argument is that the US is overextended, and so like any other overextended enterprise needs to cut back on some of its commitments and expenditures in some areas and assess its priorities, so that it can consolidate its powers and devote the necessary energy and resources to its primary interests. Indeed Lieven argues for drawing back on some commitments because that will "allow the U.S. to concentrate instead on maintaining its overwhelming lead over China in naval and air power." Somehow you manage to twist this recommendation for a tactical redeployment of US energies aimed at maintaining an "overwhelming lead" in the air and on the seas into a suggestion that the US hand the keys to the world over to China and India, and pass them the "torch of hegemony".

But this is more of the same routine hyperbole that we have come to expect from the crowd of contemporary liberal interventionists and chauvinistic exceptionalists. It is of the same rhetorical type as the ridiculous false dichotomy which they endlessly repeat according to which the the only alternative to being engaged just about everywhere in the world is "isolation" and "isolationism".

One thing that is interesting about many of the four recent "manifestos" you mention is how banal and similar they are. (Actually, only Beinart's writings deserve to be classified as anything close to a manifesto - the rest are just conventional essays.) There are no new perspectives and insights in these works; no surprising and edifying lessons drawn from a close analysis of current global conditions; no really innovative ideas for solving domestic or global problems; no evidence of expert economic analysis or any other kind of empitical expertise. They're boring recitations of standard liberal triumphalist pieties, with a few concessions made here and there to the realities of the Iraq mess, and some sort of rhetorical "hook".

There are a lot of things Lieven says and proposes with which I disagree, but I mostly find him full of wise, sensible advice, and a broad global perspective. And at least his writings show evidence of serious scholarship, and of being deeply informed about global conditions, instead of reading as if everything the author knows comes from the pages of the New York Times.

I really think that you and a good number of your colleagues at the Democracy Arsenal, the Truman Project, the Princeton Project, the Progressive Policy Institute and now over at the new journal Democracy are dangerous fanatics and megalomaniacs. I am going to be doing everything I can over the next few years to see to it that as we transition away from the Republican ascendancy you and your Democracy Jihadist friends are kept away from power - or that if you get power you are prevented from putting your foreign policy projects into effect.

RDF - if you want America to act like France on the international scene, then it's going to be tough for me to convince you otherwise, right? I do think America is one of the last countries that actually claims to stand for something. Sure, we don't always live up to it, but that doesn't mean we should pack our bags and call it a day. It's also no mistake that countries hold us to a higher standard - because they see us as different too - that we are capable of more as a country than the standard realpolitik that emanates from Paris and Beijing.

Dan Kervick-

You said: "And at least his writings show evidence of serious scholarship, and of being deeply informed about global conditions, instead of reading as if everything the author knows comes from the pages of the New York Times."

Just so you know - Lieven is not a Middle East specialist. In fact, I would suspect that he doesn't know a whole lot about the region, its culture, its religion, its history. You accuse me of writing as if everything I know comes from the pages of the New York Times. Well, how often does the NYT talk about internal divisions within the Muslim Brotherhood? Presumably, one would think that's important, considering they will one day come to power. I wonder what Lieven would suggest we do then? Leave it to China seems to be the new call-to-arms.

Sorry Shadi. But the people I had in mind were Signer, Wright and Beinert. I was talking about the four manifesto writers you mentioned. I should have excluded Madeline Albright from that blanket criticism.

I now see that that you had introduced the topic of manifestos by discussing your own American Prospect piece. But I know from your bio you are trained specialist in Arab Studies.

Again you resort to caricature and spleen in descibing Lieven's views. Since I know you have read some of his work, I'm sure you recognize that he has nowhere argued that it would be a good thing for China to become the dominant power in the Middle East, or to manage Middle East affairs. If you don't like Lieven's views, then why don't you engage with them in detail, and with some intellectual honesty, instead of resorting to these distortions and one-off sarcastic cracks.

What does "pack our bags and call it a day" mean?
What does "act like France" mean?

Supporting America's creed: "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" can be as simple as living up to it ourselves. It doesn't imply having 750+ foreign bases or using the CIA and/or our military to inflict these values on those with natural resources we covet.

If people want to claim we have some special rights to 40% of the world's resources when we have 4% of the population, then let them at least be honest about this. Don't use the euphemisms of bring democratic values to others when what is really meant is taking their oil.

If you have a workable policy, let's hear it. Beinart et al are as full of catch phrases as your reply was. How about some details? So far our muscular foreign policy has led us into losing every major war we've engaged in since WWII. Why do you think we will do better in the future?

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