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December 14, 2006

Am I a Truman Democrat? Are You?
Posted by Marc Grinberg

As movements grow, they tend to be defined by friend and foe in ways that pervert reality.  I do not suggest that this is done with evil intent.  Individuals simply have an interest in describing ideologies as they want them to be, often obscuring what they actually are. 

In the past two years, as the Truman National Security Project developed and grew, it has all to often been the victim of such mischaracterization.  As Truman Project founder Rachel Kleinfeld argued in response to a post by Matt Yglesias in response to a post by Ali Eteraz, if you "want to understand what we are about, our own website and writings are the best place to look."  So let's go to find out what a Truman Democrat really is.

Truman Democrats believe in core universal liberal values: equality of opportunity, civil and human rights, the possibility of progress, the importance of a just society, etc.  But if all liberals share the same values/desired ends, then how does one liberal differ from another?  The answer is implementation.  In both domestic and foreign policy, disputes among liberals occur in the process of developing policies, that is, liberals disagree about how to best pursue their values/ends.  We see this in education policy, welfare policy and, obviously, foreign policy.

Truman Democrats differ from others in their understanding of processes of international relations and thus their assessment about how to best achieve liberal foreign policy goals.  To clarify what beliefs underly the Truman approach to national security, we look to the website and Truman Project writings:

Truman Democrats believe that the pursuit of American national interests (as defined by liberals - this means they include not just security and American material interests, but also our values and the well-being of all humans) requires, in no particular order:

  1. Active American involvement in the world, with all our tools of power
  2. The promotion of real liberal democracy
  3. Robust military and intelligence capabilities
  4. Strong alliances and active involvement in international organizations
  5. Legitimate international behavior
  6. Free trade
  7. International development
  8. Comprehensive policy coordination

Many of you will read this list and agree with each of these beliefs.  Then welcome, you are part of the Truman Democratic movement.  This doesn't mean that you necessarily share specific policy views with me or, say, Mike Signer (I sometimes disagree with him too).  Truman Democrats are not defined by policy positions - you will find Truman Democrats on all four sides of most current issues.  Instead, Truman Democrats are united by a set of beliefs that define a general approach to national security. 

It becomes clear, then, how Truman Democrats differ from the various conservative and alternate liberal approaches to foreign policy.  Neocons, for example, may agree with 3 and 6, but would disagree with our other beliefs.  Conservative realists may agree with 1 and 3, but would disagree with the rest.  Some liberals may agree with 2, 4, 5, 7 and 8, but disagree that America needs a robust military capability, that we should promote free trade and that America should at times intervene militarily.  If we understand the Truman approach this way, then it is clearly not neocon-lite.  It is distinctly liberal.

The foreign policy debates among liberals are real, but lets not pretend that there is a simple dichotomy between interventionists and isolationists.  The vast majority of our readers, I believe, agree with the foundational beliefs of Truman Democrats.  I would even venture a guess that most Democratic Members of Congress (from the Progressive Caucus to the Blue Dogs) agree with the Truman Democratic approach.   Of course we don't all agree on policy.  Some of the hottest debates today are among Truman Democrats - between Brian Katulis, Ken Pollack and Les Gelb on Iraq; between Wendy Sherman and Bill Perry on North Korea.  But we are united on how we broadly approach national security.  And as we enter 2007 in the majority, this is good news.


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It seems like you've left out the core requirement for being a Truman Democrat -- the need to natter on incessantly and pretentiously about what a "Truman Democrat" is.

The rest is simply applying some fucking common sense to foreign policy. As Matt Yglesias wrote almost two years ago (albeit more politely), all this verbal jacking-off about "progressive internationalism" or "enlightened nationalism" or "Truman Democrats" is just rehashing a consensus center-left approach that has existed for many years, although it was disrupted by the Rove-goaded mass insanity that followed September 11th.

The approach can be summed up as, "Do good things, using appropriate tactics that are actually capable of achieving the goal." Isn't a brilliant, paradigm-changing insight? Can I have my fellowship now?

Attention Democracy Arsenal posters: please stop conflating "Truman Democrat" with "Member of the Truman National Security Project."

The way to determine what is a Truman Dem is not to go to the Truman Project website, for chrissakes.

This has been a public service announcement.

Your #1, active involvement in the world with every powerful weapon we have, is utterly incompatible with #5, legitimate international behavior. Which of those will you give up?

#2, promoting democracy, is a fine goal but anything we do to promote democracy beyond trying to convince individual citizens is likely to be counterproductive. Show us evidence that the US government has any clue whatsoever toward promoting democracy, and maybe we can support that part. In general, if it takes the CIA or the army to promote democracy, then it's real unlikely that democracy will actually get promoted.

#3, we should get the military and intelligence capabilities we can afford, to handle the missions we need. Beyond a nuclear force of perhaps 500 warheads for whicht we actively develop methods to overcome whatever foreign ABM systems get developed, we need to develop weapons and munitions that we can rapidly build, and training methods we csan use to quickly train masses of skilled troops. Currently we're the only nation in the world that can project massive power, and it turns out we can't project all that much. Who do we need to invade on short notice? That tells us how much of a standing army we need. Who do we need to invade after 4 months of training and building up inventory? That tells us how much of a training surge we need to be able to do.

#4, strong alliances, well that depends. Mostly strong alliances are good as long as nobody needs them. About the time we're really depending on an ally is when they cut us loose, and the time they depend on us tends to be the time they're doing stuff that we wouldn't agree to if we were in our right minds. We have no earthly use for a strong alliance with israel. And nobody will want a strong alliance with us until they're reasonably sure we aren't going to go crazy again.

#6, free trade is one of those ideas like communism and disarmament and christianity that the USA is just not ready for. It might be a great world if everybody was a dedicated communist, it would surely be an improvement if every nation disarmed, and a world of christians would be just fine. But we definitely aren't going to be communists until everybody else does, we aren't going to disarm, and we sure the hell aren't ready to turn the other cheek.

We're only willing to do free trade when nobody else does, because we don't understand the consequences. The more the US public sees consequences the more they'll turn solidly against it. Not that it isn't a great idea. We just aren't ready to suffer for it.

#7, the big thing that hinders international development is government policies by foreign nations. We can change our own policies to stop hindering it, but what should we do about theirs? Invade them and force them to do free trade etc? I'd be interested in development proposals, particularly things that can work on a small scale and expand from there.

#8, I have no idea what you mean by comprehensive policy coordination.

I tend to be less a realist than a nominalist. realists get these abstract ideas and believe they're the reality, they consider the real world to be a collection of imperfect representations of the real ideas. I say, look at what it is in the world the names are referring to. "Intervention" sounds so innocent, but when it refers to "send in heavily-armed young men to kill people and blow things up" then the abstract meaning maybe gets a little blood in it.

Why do they hate us? Because of people like you, advocating the "pursuit of American national interest" in places that you never mention, but I will: Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, and going back in history to all the other places that Americans have invaded and colonized starting with the Native Americans.

Perhaps, like Bush, you don't care if they hate us, that our national interest trumps every other consideration. If this is what you believe then say so. Is this why we need a strong military, to overcome these objections by force, as we are doing with your approval in Iraq?

Your "incessant and persistent nattering" (from Swopa) about PolSci 101 theories always fails to mention not only these particulars but also fails to recognize that other people in the world, whom you consider to be lesser beings to you Truman types, also have national interests. The Borgenites will chime in here and say that those interests are economic, and our capitalistic society will put bread on their tables and chickens in their pots, but the strongest national interests go beyond economic needs. They deal with their rights of self-determination and their resistance to the kinds of foreign (US) domination that you promote.

Remember this? "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . "

Th universality of human rights dooms your Truman Doctrine. It is doing it right now in Iraq, which you people thing was a fine idea. Iraqis are resisting US military occupation and the talk now about improving their economic lot as a means to lessen their resistance won't work because of their belief, which we would share should the situation be reversed, that their basic human rights are being violated by foreign occupation. Basic human pride. It's as simple as that.

Looking at this from the outside -- since I am not a Democrat -- I wonder if Truman's name isn't being used here as a kind of amulet, waved around by people who want to avoid being identified with McGovernism or Jimmy Carter's ineffectual moralizing, and aware perhaps that the Kennedy Democrats who first laid claim to Truman's legacy and subscribed to all the points listed here led the country into Vietnam and made a hash of foreign policy generally.

It seems to me that faithfulness to the actual foreign policy of the Truman administration requires coming to terms with its architects, principally the towering figures of Acheson and Marshall. I'm not sure either self-professed Truman Democrats or their critics within the party have ever tried to do that. No doubt this is partly because they were in their time somewhat intimidating figures; they must remain so for many of the more specialized residents of the foreign policy community today. Marshall, of course, was also not a partisan Democrat; though Acheson was, he was exasperated with the Democratic leaders who followed Truman, once comparing Kennedy to an amateur boomerang thrower practicing his art in a crowded room.

Acheson never considered the Democrats (or, of course, the Republicans) who succeeded Truman to be up to the standard Truman had set. It wasn't doctrinal differences that made him feel this way, but rather issues of character (secondarily Truman, who had been a successful and honest administrator of major construction projects in a Missouri rife with corruption, accepted from General Marshall orderly and straightforward procedures for making foreign policy decisions, to which later administrations, especially Johnson's, did not adhere). God knows what he would have thought of the current battle among adherents of "Ismism," the belief that doctrine or at least doctrinal orientation is more decisive in foreign policy than facts, institutions and personalities.

Well maybe Truman Democrats aren't exactly synonymous with the Truman National Security Project, but I'm loving the fact that the website actually mentions an attitude towards legitimate behaviour and international institutions.

This is a decent post, and isn't caught up in the kind of strawmaning of the left that is disappointingly commonplace amongst certain sections of the Truman aspirations.

I'm also elated to note that the principles you state as being Truman-like mention nothing about 'exceptionalism'.

does international development mean ending poverty as a means by which to develop? i hope so because it is time to end poverty. what's our excuse? the millennium goals have arrived, let's achieve them. At least that what the Borgen Project wants!

As I understand it, the Truman National Security Project is not really a "movement", as much as its members may wish to build it up into one. It is a non-profit enterprise of some kind - and specifically a consultancy. The self-assigned tasks of the Truman National Security Project are to "create policy and messaging products supporting strong national security strategies infused with progressive values." and to "train progressive leaders, politicians, staffers, state and local officials, and progressive infrastructure around the country in how to talk about national security in a way that makes Americans feel safe."

The Project is mainly about teaching political pros how to talk the national security talk - how to use words like "strong" and "firm" and "resolve" to good political effect. That is why so many of their actual policy discussions are vague, abstract and malleable. Many of the leading figures appear to be lawyers, professional message massagers and other communications specialists, not foreign affairs area experts, for example, and the "message products" they produce - at least the ones I've read - rarely carry the stamp of deep and experienced engagement with some practical global problem. The typical Truman missive is of the form "What we should say about..." or "Questions progressives should be asking about..."

Here's more of the Truman rap:

The Truman Project creates messaging materials so that politicians can articulate our strong, progressive security messages to America.


Our National Security Boot Camps deepen the national security knowledge of senior congressional staff and key groups of progressives who are crucial for getting our national security message out to Americans. Our policy and messaging materials form the basis of these boot camps, which will feature modules run by leading progressive policy experts, pollsters, media trainers, and political consultants.


And through our unique next generation programs, we build the progressive national security leadership of tomorrow.

Frankly, this kind of talk has all the intellectual gravity of a marketing brochure. But that's what the Project itself chooses to emphasize on its website.

I have been following the Project since it first appeared, and it seems to me that while the points of emphasis have changed just a bit, the overall goal of the project is to move Democratic national security rhetoric in a more hawkish direction, and shore up the standing of Democrats with military types by promoting networking between progressive activists and politicians on the one hand, and military professionals on the other. They also want to get more rich kids to join the military, and expand the size of the military.

The Truman Project came on the scene following the 2004 election, and was full of bravado about the need to give Democratic party national security rhetoric a more militaristic edge. I see it as emerging from the same context as Peter Beinart's notorious New Republic article, which took Democrats to task for insufficient hawkishness, and called for a purge of the left from the party, similar to the purge of the Henry Wallace forces in the early days of the Cold War. Indeed Beinart is one of the fellows of the project. The project presents itself as basically a marketing effort - a project for "re-branding" Democrats. Fair enough. But I'm not about to take lessons about the nature of the world from the marketing department.

Michael Signer posted here in June of 2005 about an annual meeting of the Truman Project:

So, all last weekend I was at the annual meeting in D.C. of the Truman National Security Project (website here) -- an extraordinary new group of young people who want the Democratic Party to reclaim strength on national security and foreign policy as a basic progressive value.

I have to mention that the fact that Truman Democrats are "young people" is mentioned by them incessantly, and there is a snooty generational edge to their rhetoric - as though they represent the new wave of patriotic, virtuous and gung-ho millenials ready to replace the degenerate, Vietnam-addled peaceniks and anti-American socialists of the previous generation.)

The project has made a point of its youth even to the point of self-defeating silliness. Signer writes in the same piece:

It was perhaps no coincidence that a lot of our discussion focused on superheroes as metaphors for the U.S. -- whether Spiderman (we got a little punchy reciting Uncle Ben's "with great power comes great responsibility") or Superman (we're a leader for the world, but we're still vulnerable -- Cheney as Kryptonite? something like that).

Yes, and after we attack Iran, let's not gorget to toss the Evil Ayatollah's ring into the fiery pit of Mordor.

According to Signer:

At least six values grounded our discussion, and showed how Truman Democrats improve on both the left and the right.

Here are the six values Signer describes. The first three values, he says, "share some similarity to principles currently claimed by neoconservatives":

1) American exceptionalism: Like the neoconservatives, we believe that America is the greatest country the world has known. We are historically, morally, and intellectually unique. Unlike the necons, however, we believe we must constantly earn our exceptionalism through our moral conduct. Our uniqueness stems from our values, and so we bear a unique responsibility for living up to those values in shaping and influencing the world.

2) The use of force: Like the neocons, we're comfortable with the use of force for morally good ends. Unlike the neocons, as a general matter, we believe force shouldn't be the default choice for achieving our ends. We're neither reflexive doves nor pacifists; rather, we're pragmatists on the use of force.

3) American hegemony: Like the neocons, we want America to retain its supremacy as the military, political , and economic leader of the world in order that we can maintain our own security, help strengthen the world's safety and stability, and accomplish morally right goals. We are and should be a unipolar power. Unlike the neocons, however, we believe we must constantly earn and affirm the right to exercise that power.

But, Signer says, Truman Democrats "also add three new principles of their own":

1) The world community. The traditionally conservative (rather than neocon, but still threaded through the current Administration's foreign policy) viewpoint borrows heavily from libertarian principles. As a matter of right and obligation, conservatives often believe people are and should be fundamentally selfish and individualistic, and that collective action is wrong. Truman Democrats believe, on the other hand, that the world is a community. America can lead that community -- but, to paraphrase John Donne, we are not an island, and any death diminishes us, because we are involved in mankind. To switch to a more prosaic metaphor, America is like a quarterback for the world. Although he's the most critical member of the team, the quarterback can't win alone; he needs the confidence and loyalty of his teammates, which he earns through leadership.

2) Liberal-mindedness: Neoconservatives believe that the discovery of ideas is basically finished. That's why they constantly return to the ancient theorists and ancient values in search of some lost nobility and greatness. Truman Democrats believe instead that knowledge is constantly expanding, and that to conclude that we have finished knowing, or that ideas are presumptively wrong because of where they come from, is both arrogant and dangerous. We believe in a resilient, flexible national mind, avoiding the calcification of ideology. We believe in learning from events and fitting our thinking to facts, not the other way around. This is why democracy (which encourages the growth of knowledge) is our political system of choice.

3) Helping the least well-off: Conservatives and realpolitikers have generally believed that wealth and power should be the key determinants to foreign policy decisions regarding other countries. Following philosophers like John Rawls, Truman Democrats believe we should instead help the least well-off before we help the most well-off. So building up the economies in many developing nations, or addressing the AIDS crisis, is not only a matter of stability -- it's a matter of moral right. Moreover, helping the least well-off also helps us. Being the only wealthy house in a poor neighborhood makes us the target. Helping the whole neighborhood become richer makes us a leader.

It strikes me that the Truman project used to make more of a point about describing themselves as a sort of middle way between neoconservatism and liberalism, but that as the neoconservative movement has fallen deeper and deeper into discredit, they have run away from that side of the street. They continue to tweak their message, because the times keep changing. In 2004, hawkishness looked to some like the way to go politically. Things look different in 2006, and probably will in 2008.

Websites are fine. But they are not the acid-test of who some group of people actually are. I have encountered a number of the Truman fellows and principles in my reading here, throughout the internets and in magazines and policy journals. I know the positions they have advocated. I know the things they have been wrong about. And I know what I don't like.

And vague statements of principles aren't enough. The proof comes in the sides people choose on concrete, real world issues. My sense is that Truman Democrats are disposed to be rather reckless with human life, because their thinking eschewes nasty, gritty and ugly realities, and dwells in an ivory tower fairyland of superheroes and knights errant, saving the princess of the Exceptional Empire. I suppose there is a touching naivete in all this: the ingenuousness of the sap who believes everything his mommy ever told him about America.

However, the project seems to have a fair number of prominent patrons, and presents an image of America's ruling class passing the torch to the next generation of young emperors. So I suspect we'll have to deal with these folks for a while, and that they will keep coming back - just as the neoconservatives have haunted Republican ranks for a few decades now.

Thanks, Dan

All of this Truman crap, I'm sure, is mightily interesting to for example the Chinese, who call their country Tsung-Kuo, Central Kingdom, and look back on 5,000 years of achievement, and the Greeks, who still enjoy the physical proof of their long and illustrious history, and countless others in the world who look at the United States and see a young country with people of amazing initiative living in a country with significant social problems and an overriding proclivity for interfering in other peoples' affairs while shouting: We are exceptional, you'd better believe it (or else).

These non-Americans blanch at the US super-superior mad bombers who, despite their national faults, thrill in exercising their world hegemony. Ugly Americans. Well, it's all reflected in the polls which reflect the abysmal standing of America in the world, isn't it? But who cares. We're right and the world is wrong. We're exceptional, don't you know? Special.

The "use of force" is okay with these people. Don't be an isolationist, kill some women and children in Slobovia, or Iraq. Be comfortable with it because the ends justify the means. You can't make an omelet without breaking some aggs. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill.

I like Harry Truman as a person. A simple haberdasher who accidentally became president. But Harry screwed the pooch when he incinerated all those innocent Japanese people in the only use (I hope) of the atomic bomb in human history. So give Harry the hook--bad symbolism.

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