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November 23, 2006

Progressive Strategy

On Idealism (or, how Christopher Hitchens Lost the Iraq War)
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Let us talk about moral language. Let us talk about idealism, its dangers and its promise. I fully understand liberals’ (now more acute) fear of unabashed idealism in matters of diplomacy and foreign affairs. This is certainly reflected in our readers’ comments.

Idealism, whether it be of a secular or slightly religious/messianic nature, has played a vital role in American political history. It is the lifeblood of so many of our country’s achievements. Our greatest presidents have been idealists (FDR, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan), but so too have our worst (George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter).

I remember when I first heard the quotation: “Some men see things as they are and say why; I dream things that never were and say why not.” If there was one quote I hoped would define my approach to politics, it was perhaps this. But there remains a lurking, potent danger. Sincerity and idealism can just as easily lead to personal and political destruction. It is all the more tragic because idealism raises expectations so high, only to shatter them. The higher the highs, the lower the lows, and the more acute the sense that we have been betrayed our own ideals, resulting in, first, anger, then dissillusion.

As the last few years have demonstrated, idealism, if unchecked, can lead to the most blatant abuses of power. Why is this? Because idealism gives one a sense that there is one right and one wrong, that the world can be ordered by moral absolutes, that, at some point, one must take a side and stand by it, no matter what the cost. If one is destroyed by this stubborn resolve, then this is what some call "courage."

I want to quickly mention a few examples of this phenomenon. For all his faults, Christopher Hitchens has been a major influence on me. A lot of people seem to think that “we” lost Hitchens to the neo-cons, but I can think of few people who are as defiantly Left as him (which I suppose says just as much about neo-conservatism as it does about the Left). The original Leftist – or, let us say, liberal – impulse has always been something particularly noble, an unwillingness to accept things as they are, and a willingness to right wrongs, more often than not through some kind of “intervention,” whether it be state intervention in the economy or humanitarian intervention to prevent genocide.

The problem, however, is that Hitchens is not only ideological but, in a way, consumed by his own abiding sense of moral clarity. He is an atheist but his brand of morality often, paradoxically, takes on a pseudo-religious tone. Unlike, say, Andrew Sullivan (another major influence), Hitchens does not engage in what one may call the politics of doubt and skepticism. A leftist friend of mine at Georgetown, who regularly accused me of selling out to the “forces of imperialism” or some other such nonsense, would sign his emails off with “there can be no compromise with reactionary forces.” I suspect on this point he and Hitchens would not differ.

Continue reading "On Idealism (or, how Christopher Hitchens Lost the Iraq War)" »

November 22, 2006

Progressive Strategy

Is Moral Language Illiberal?
Posted by Marc Grinberg

Looking back on my last post, I don't think I was fair to Shadi's comments on language.   Whether or not liberals will fight to take back the liberal internationalist tradition from the neocons (which I suspect Shadi would agree with me that they should), another fundamental question arises: Is morally-influenced foreign policy language/messaging inherently illiberal?  More specifically, is it illiberal to talk about right and wrong or about morally inspired goals and purposes in language that explicitly rules out moral relativism?

I would argue that it is not.  That liberal uncomfortableness with moral language is a consequence of the Bush Administration's style of rhetoric and the failures of its morally influenced foreign policy. When Bill Clinton used moral language (strikingly similar to that used by Bush) and when Jimmy Carter rooted his human rights emphasis in morality (even religion - he did say that human freedom is a "fundamental spiritual requirements"), liberals, not conservatives, rose in applause.  But now that the Bush Administration has taken ownership of morality, liberals are running from it, fearful of sounding too much like a neocon. 

So where do we go from here?  Maybe the Bush Administration has tainted moral language so much that liberals need a decade or so of value-less foreign policy debate before they will be comfortable again with the language of morality.   Maybe liberals just need to take it down a notch - a "values lite" language, if you will.  Maybe I'm entirely wrong and moral language is illiberal.  Readers, what do you think?

November 20, 2006

Progressive Strategy

Ok, So I'm Not a Liberal?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

A friend of mine, perhaps egged on by the fact that someone called me a neo-con a couple weeks ago, decides to encourage the rather questionable line of thinking that people like me are not real “liberals."

Here is an excerpt from an email he sent me a few days ago. Enjoy and digest: “Seriously, why do you consider yourself a liberal? I mean what do you believe that you view as distinctly liberal? It can be international or domestic policies. I am just curious.”

At least he is curious. Apparently, he does not read Democracy Arsenal regularly. I am tempted to engage in a spirited defense of my liberalness, but I will not. Doing so, I suspect, would only vindicate the reactionary tendencies of those who appear to increasingly populate liberal ranks, among them the Kossacks, the Chomsky cut-outs, the new neo-realists, the Scrowcroft avengers, the if-Bush-says-it, it-must-be-bad intellectuals, the I-love-Murtha clan, and other such factions. Well, that was a bit of name calling, wasn’t it? In all seriousness, I do not question the good intentions of each of these groups (except perhaps the Chomsky cut-outs), but I wonder exactly why they have let conservatives set the terms of foreign policy discourse for them. I feel a bit silly repeating the same points over and over, but speaking about democracy and doing so in moralistic terms does not make one a neo-conservative. If you think it does, then please explain why and defend your argument using real evidence.

To return to my friend’s question: what I consider to be my “distinctly liberal” positions on foreign policy are discussed in much greater detail here and here. Of course, these are the same two articles which got Doug Bandow, noble defender of the liberal tradition, to say:

[Hamid] might as well be working at the American Enterprise Institute, writing for The Weekly Standard, and advising the Bush administration.

So go figure. I guess you can’t please everyone.


Iraq: Facing the Truth, and Now What?
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

After a few posts about how progressives can build on their recent successes at the polls, readers have had frustration with my inadequate prescriptions for Iraq policy.  Well, I fess up.  I can't promise to solve this any more than the Administration, the Congress, the military or the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group can.  But for those who demand more, here's what I can say on how I see the situation and what we do next:

1.  The scenarios where maintaining current troop levels and adopting various political strategies pay off by producing greater stability seem wildly far-fetched - In short, its tough to imagine a regional conference, a new political bargain among Sunni and Shiite, the involvement of Syria and Iran, an oil trust, the partitioning of Iraq or any of the other steps talked about producing a sustainable agreement that will quell the Iraqi factions and militias.  Not least of the problems is that with our credibility crisis and the Iraqi military's wholesale failings, there's no one obvious to police a ceasefire assuming one could be reached.  In short, it doesn't look like anything that could be tried at this stage stands a reasonable shot of "working."

2.  Talk of a US pullout to put pressure on the Iraqis to "get their act together" simply wont work - Its become very popular to pledge efforts to force Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki and others to take control of their country and wean themselves from over-dependence on US troops.  This is the equivalent of deciding to close down the homeless shelter so that residents will finally just go out and find themselves jobs and apartments.  The reasons are rooted in a tangle of political hurdles, legitimate fears, and probably some personal limitations among the Iraqi leadership, but bottom line is:  the Iraqis can't and won't manage to stem the fighting on their own in the short term.

3.  At least in the near-term, if US troops pull out, conditions on the ground in Iraq will probably get worse in terms of lives lost - There are conflicting figures about how many people are dying daily in Iraq, but whether there are 100 or 300 violent deaths a day, the numbers could go up and with the absence of any force capable of maintaining order, its reasonable to expect that they will.   There are plenty of other risks associated with a pull-out, including the spillover of violence into regions of Iraq that are currently quiet, the encouragement of al-Qaeda to turn the country into a new stomping ground, and the emboldening of a potentially incorrigible Iran.

4.  Putting in more US troops seems untenable at this point, and there's no evidence it would help - Not much more to say on this.  It's untenable both for political reasons and because we don't have the troops available (which ties back to the political reasons, but is also an independent constraint).  When we infused Baghdad with more troops, conditions worsened.  When he testified on before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, General Abizaid offered no hope that more troops was the answer.

5. The US needs to be seen to try everything to end the crisis - From a moral perspective and in terms of our international legitimacy, no matter what we do the fate of Iraq will be on our hands in the eyes of the Iraqi people and the world.  While that doesn't mandate an indefinite commitment to a strategy that's manifestly failing, it does mean that reasonable suggestions - the regional conference, the involvement of Iran and Syria - must be pursued even if the chances of their working are remote.  This does not mean that we need to sustain current troop levels until these avenues have been exhausted. 

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