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November 13, 2006

When Liberals Sound like Neo-Cons
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I think Marc, in his latest post, has gotten to the root of the Democrats’ problems on national security:

What concerns me is the increasing tendency among liberals (of all stripes) to confuse taking a security threat (or a moral travesty) seriously, with advocating an armed response to that threat.  The Bush Administration has already stolen democracy promotion and a moral foreign policy from liberals.  Has it now taken ownership of the ability to assess threats to American security

What we’ve been doing too much of and for too long is letting conservatives define the terms of the debate. We have to go on the offensive and reclaim what was once ours but has now been taken away.

A couple weeks ago, a few of us were discussing US foreign policy. I started going off on neo-conservatives. Someone interrupted and said “wait, you’re not a neo-con?” At first I thought she was joking. But she wasn’t. She really thought I was. Why? Because I talk about democracy promotion a lot and I sometimes use explicitly moralistic language when doing so. It’s irritating, tiresome, and it bores me to have to start my arguments with a disclaimer (I’m not a freaking neo-con. I’m a liberal and damn proud of it).

So I know what Marc’s talking about and I sympathize with his frustration. The neo-cons (and Republicans in general) act as if they have a monopoly on morality, democracy promotion, and whatever else. And, too often, progressives run away, scared and disillusioned, accepting the terms of the discourse. Well, that’s got to end.

With that said, let me hedge a bit. And I know Marc will jump on me for this. I didn’t like the way he phrased the Iran security threat in his Democratic Strategist article:

If any issue should arouse the passion of Democrats, it is the spread of nuclear weapons to a radical Iranian government. Iran is a nation that stones women, publicly executes homosexuals, suppresses its minorities, and has violated the most basic human rights we fight for as Democrats. Allowing Iran to build a nuclear weapon would strengthen this government's hand against their own people. And nuclear proliferation--which would spread from Iran to the rest of the region--poses the greatest human rights abuse of all: threatening to destroy millions of lives in a war or a nuclear accident.

It just makes me feel uncomfortable. It sounds a bit too… ummm…Manichean? Marc and I talked about this earlier and he pushed me to explain what I thought was problematic with his choice of words. And I’ll say the same thing I said then: I’m not entirely sure: I just don’t feel entirely comfortable with that kind of rhetoric.

To be frank, sometimes I look back at the language I use in my own articles and I wonder if I go too far. For example, a couple months ago I wrote the following in the American Prospect:

We do indeed have a story to tell, and it is this: America will close, finally, the longstanding gap between words and deeds; we will, today, wage a war on the twin perils of tyranny and terrorism; and we will not stop until we have won.”

I stand by my phrasing here. However, I can fully understand why it makes progressives uncomfortable. The question is: should it?


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Yes it makes me uncomfortable. When you say "wage a war on the twin perils of tyranny and terrorism" you are asking for a blank check. Who's a tyrant? Who's a terrorist? How do we define "victory". Who gets to define all those terms? What kind of war? Sorry, but this kind of language reminds me of charlatans who are trying to dupe people into allowing them to do things people would not ordinarily agree to. Politicians have debased the word "war" to the point it's meaningless. War on poverty? War on drugs? War on tyranny? Even our invasion of Iraq was just a three week war. The last 3 years have been an occupation.

A potential problem with your quote is the use of the word 'war.' The use of the term war has expanded to include non-military or pseudo-military struggles most notably the war on drugs. To a lesser extent, the Cold War muddied the waters since military confrontation tended to only be through proxies by one side or the other. When neo-cons say war, they tend to mean it. If they aren't calling for direct military action, they at very least are calling for a military mindset.

I support foreign policy liberalism and democracy promotion. But I think we may be well served by avoiding the use of the word 'war' unless we think a military mindset is the appropriate solution to the problem.

As a side note in response to the first comment, I am comfortable with the use of the terms tyranny and terrorism. I think Mr. Hamid tends to be clear and consistent with his use of those terms. It may be that we sometimes do better to argue what we are for rather than what we are against, but that's a secondary consideration. By comparison, 'war' is troublesome when we don't mean military action such as outright battles, occupation, counter-insurgency, or the like.

You sound like a neocon to me, too.

From the Project for a New American Century:
". . . a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States' global responsibilities."

Where do you differ from that?

Shadi, yes, it should make you uncomfortable.

For a lot of people, the way they can tell you're serious is whether you're willing to kill for your beliefs. Progressives who want to talk to people and understand them are by definition not serious.

If you look for a way to compromise with your enemies, they will walk all over you. Why should they have any respect for you if you aren't ready to kill them?

Republicans have shown this repeatedly. Progressives try to negotiate with them and they walk all over us. The claim is -- these people will not protect you from America's enemies. They can't even protect themselves from us. We are bullies, we will bully your enemies the like we bully Democrats. We will make your enemies afraid of us. Progressives would your enemies do whatever they want, just like they let us do whatever we want."

So OK. You have to stand solidly for something that others can get behind and support. You have to be uncompromising about the important things.

And you have to listen to other points of view and find out whether they can be compatible with your stand. If they're orthogonal to you or off at a skew angle then OK, no big problem, respect them. If they're against you then you oppose them resolutely.

Republicans have come out against the Constitution. They have come out against the middle class. They have come out for torture and for preventive war. If you don't oppose them effectively, what good are you?

Republicans fight dirty. You don't have to fight dirty in response, but if you don't you have to win without fighting dirty. You can't be civil and ignore them. People don't want an upstanding moral leader who loses to trickery and dirty fighting.

People talk like Democrats have a majority in both houses now. But we haven't really seen it inaction. How many democratic legislators do republicans have blackmail material on? Remember Foley? A republican who often voted against the republican party line. But they could depend on him to vote right when it counted. Were they blackmailing him all along? We need for all elected and employed government agents to take an oath that they will resign rather than let blackmail interfere with their duties. It wouldn't solve the problem, but it would at least highlight this republican (and soviet and israeli etc) tactic.

Progressives value civility. We like to speak politely to dictators and conmen and thieves etc. We need a way to do this with more finesse. That can start with publicly talking to republican legislators who are known liars and thieves with -- what's the word? -- nuance, that's it. "Yes, you are a known liar and a known thief and I'm going to politely work with you right up until the investigation and sentencing are complete. And I'll be polite after that too. I'm polite to known liars and thieves, apart from doubting what they say and checking my wallet and calling them liars and thieves."

You need your own language to describe your noble goals. If people can't tell you apart from neocons then why would they prefer you to neocons?

"Interventionist" has become the wrong word. "Interventionism" now *means* "sending the army in to make foreigners do what we want". If you want a tool that isn't so blunt, find a name for it.

As a point of reference, here's the Vision of the Progressive Democrats of America:

"We are committed in word and action, both personally and politically, to justice and democracy at all levels, and to the preservation and restoration of natural ecosystems in America and worldwide.

"We are specifically committed to the realization of new models for achieving local, national and global security that redirect the current wasteful and obscene levels of military spending toward the uncompromising and effective funding of: health and education programs; an end to discrimination; the provision of full and meaningful employment; and an end to poverty for all people."

Note the lack of arrogance.

I agree that the word 'war' is the problem- war on terror is probably one of the worst phrases ever used- just step back a moment and contemplate it- semantics matter- I think struggle against or campaign against or fight against or something else needs to replace the term war, which does more to obfuscate reality than clarify it.


ARGH! This is the kind of thing that drives me crazy! The problem isnt the use of the word WAR, but that the NeoCons stole the Liberal language of Democracy Promotion, and fused it into a nationalist fear-based propaganda machine fueling blind support of their policies. They were successful precisely because most Americans have felt, since 9-11, that some element of people in the world are at WAR with us! What they do not really understand is that these elements are led by power hungry, non-ideological people willing to use the language of BOTH war and sacrifice (suicide bombing being the ultimate sacrifice) to consolidate their power over their people, and wage war against us with them. What we should be doing is reminding people of the essential fact that we are not the only ones who are affected by their actions, and that there is considerable leway to use truly Liberal policies, both diplomatic and military, in alliance with the other world powers, to effect a positive change in the lives of those most willing to sacrifice everything. If people can get a good job, and raise and feed their family, they will not blow themselves up on a bus. One underlying problem, I think, is that Republicans feel absolutely comfortable waging war without requiring any form of sacrifice from the current generation, while the Democrats avoid talking about war altogether, for fear that they would then be required to speak about the sacrifices that are absolutely required by a population in order to wage war. The centrists that determing elections can probably be convinced of the middle ground that we are at war, and it is going to take sacrifice from all elements of society in order to succeed against those aligned against us.

Darin London:
I personally am not saying we need to avoid talk of war at all. I'm saying that we should only talk of war when we consider military options to be on the table.

I think Mr. Hamid's use in that passage to be troubling because I don't think he considers tyranny, in and of itself, to be sufficient justification for war. Unless I seriously misunderstand his general positions, he's not advocating that we use military means to democratize, to pick an example he often discusses, Egypt.

So I think we should limit use of the word war to those cases where we think military means are appropriate. I fully support struggling against terrorism and tyranny, but I think military action should be reserved for more specific and higher thresholds.

This prompted a Blog entry

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