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November 14, 2006

Or Is It: When Neocons Sound Like Liberals?
Posted by Marc Grinberg

Shadi raises an important issue in his last post, on foreign policy messaging.  He argues that liberals (including him) are increasingly uncomfortable with moralistic messaging that decries human rights abusing regimes, calls for the promotion of democracy and freedom abroad, and suggests that there is evil in our world.  The important question is why. 

The answer, it turns out, was in his post (the title) the whole time: because "liberals sound like neocons."  The language of good and evil, criticizing oppression and human rights abuses, democracy promotion - today, these are all neoconservative themes.  When liberals refer to them, they are seen (by other liberals) as mimicking the Bush Administration.

But there is something extremely disturbing about this.  After all, human rights, democracy, values-based foreign policy - these are traditionally progressive ideas, right?  Was it not President Carter who argued that our foreign policy must be guided by our belief in human rights - by our "belief that dignity and freedom are fundamental spiritual (yes, he said that) requirements."  Was it not President Clinton who stated that under his leadership "America's bright flame of freedom [was] spreading throughout all the world."  Was it not Clinton who called on the international community (at the UN!!!)  to "take a side - not merely stand between the sides. For when good and evil collide, even-handedness can be an ally of evil."

Now, I believe Shadi's problem is more with the language than with the policies (human rights, democracy, etc.).  I fear, however, that this is not true of all liberals who increasingly oppose the injection of morality into foreign policy and object to American involvement in the affairs of other nations.  I can understand why.  The Bush Administration has stolen our foreign policy tradition and made it their own, perverting it to a nearly unrecognizable form in the process. But I think the tendency to run away from our tradition, to ditch morality to the side of the road, let the neoconservatives pervert our values, and move forward with some variant of a realist foreign policy is wrong. 

Instead, liberals must fight to take back our tradition from the Bush Administration.  Let's reclaim the policies of liberal internationalism and the language of a moral foreign policy.  After all, the two come hand-in-hand.  Since liberal internationalism is an approach rooted deeply in liberal beliefs and worldview, it would be impossible to sell it in language devoid of values and of morality (I challenge you to try).

I'm up for the fight.  Are you?


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The issue is that the neo-con talk of bringing democracy and freedom to the great unwashed was pure propaganda. Telling people we are invading a country to secure their oil just doesn't sound "American", so a socially acceptable cover story was promoted instead.

This is easy to see: we let places with terrible regimes from Sudan to Zimbabwe exist without any effort to bring them the benefits of "democracy". In addition we are quite happy aligning ourselves with repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia when it meets our economic needs.

Perhaps some neo-cons and "liberals" really believe a modern version of the white man's burden, but our policies have always been based upon self-interest, not humanitarian aims.

If you want to change things, first you have to be a realist.

I think the real controversy among the left is on pairing hard power with moralistic ends.

I doubt many progressives would object to cutting support to dictators or trying to free political prisoners a la A.I. and the like. There's certainly a faction that thinks that aid rather than moralistic rhetoric is the best way to do this, but that's more of a battle over means, not ends. I think we can safely write off those who won't trust the U.S. to use soft power towards moralistic ends. They aren't a substantial electoral block and they aren't likely to be swayed by your arguments anyways.

I think the controversy comes in when we're willing to use great power politics, let alone military action. Your earlier discussion of 'threats' is on point Mr. Grinberg. If something is a 'threat' it puts hard power on the table, if not necessarily military methods.

I'd say addressing this issue is a two front rhetorical battle.
1) Making clear that hard power does not necessarily mean military action. I think you're exactly right on this on Mr. Grinberg, we need to make explicit when we're talking about military action and when we are not. I personally am quite willing to consider military intervention in cases of genocide/politicide, which is obviously a moralistic motivation, albiet a higher threshold than dictatorship.
2) Make the case for when non-military hard power is justified and when it is effective. (Given the failures of sanctions, it's important to remember that justified does not automatically imply effective.)

The other area of debate is democracy promotion versus general human rights promotion. However, those are both moralistic ends, so I think involving that debate would just muddy the waters.

rdf is correct, the "spreading democracy" talk was just a cover for us to impose our will on Iraq, that is until the Iraqis objected with real democracy demands and fighting in the streets.

Actually our real foreign policy reflects our domestic policy--corporations first and everyone fight for the scraps. A humane foreign policy would be hard to believe coming from a country that violates its own constitution, has two million people in prison, executes its citizens for convictions that may not be valid, practices racial discrimination, actively exports jobs, provides few worker rights and has an abysmal public health system.

Actually our real foreign policy reflects our domestic policy--corporations first and everyone fight for the scraps

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