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November 21, 2008

The Inappropriateness of Using a Left-Right Spectrum on Foreign Policy
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Many of you have probably seen the interesting back-and-forth between Matt Yglesias and Ross Douthat regarding Obama’s foreign policy orientation. I just wanted to comment that, while I understand what Ross is saying, I still find this part somewhat baffling:

Here's a fearless prediction: On an awful lot of issues, the Obama foreign policy will end cutting to the right of Bill Clinton's foreign policy, which was already more center-left than left. Even with the GOP brand in the toilet, Republicans are still trusted as much or more than Dems on foreign policy, mostly for somewhat nebulous "toughness" reasons.

It’s never really made sense to me to use a left-right spectrum when talking about foreign policy. What does it mean to have a “leftist” foreign policy approach? I assume that people use “leftist” as a proxy for “weak.” But, even the “weak/dove” – “strong/hawk” spectrum is a weird one. I think the last 8 years would indicate that hawks have made us weaker, while doves would have made us stronger. Is a willingness to coddle dictators a sign of weakness or strength? And if it’s the former, then why do so a significant number of “neo-cons” have, contrary to what their ideology would suggest, a particular fondness for “moderate” Arab dictators? If we’re talking about the left’s foreign policy tradition, then a “moralist” concern with supporting human rights and democracy abroad is, I would say, distinctly “leftist.” But then we run into a problem: democracy promotion > leftist foreign policy approach > weak.

What about caring about what other people think about us? If you say something like, “it would be nice if Arab publics liked us,” you’re apparently weak on national security. But it would seem to me that our ability to fight terrorism would be strengthened if we had the support of target populations. The problem is our whole discourse on foreign policy has been, for some time, shaped by the Right, and many of the definitions we use are products of a post-9/11 sensibility. In other words, much of it is distorted.


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Well, when certain hawks on the right, or among liberals, might use the term "left" or "leftist" to describe a dovish foreign policy. But the connection isn't airtight.

Leftists are levelers or egalitarians. Leftism in general is a political tendency devoted to the promotion of economic equality or economic justice, to alleviating the economic plight of the poor or lowly, and to challenging the power and prerogatives of wealthy elites. A leftist foreign policy might be one that seeks to advance those egalitarian values abroad. On the other hand, some leftists are economic nationalists, and a leftist movement in one country may only be concerned to advance egalitarian values and the interests of the lower orders in their own country, even if the agenda for doing so damages the interests of poor workers in other countries.

Leftism is sometimes associated with dovishness, because a standard leftist critique of foreign policy is that war between states is typically an exploitative enterprise, in which the powerful, wealthy elites who run those states tend to use their power to drag the poor into soldiering, and to throw them into wars that are fought mainly to advance the economic interests of the few. Leftists often tend to think that states spend too many resources on guns in these wars of imperial aggression, and not enough on butter. But certainly not all leftists are doves.

Liberalism, on the other hand, is a political tendency devoted to the promotion of the liberal values of free speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion or secularism, free association, limits on judicial and prosecutorial powers, free markets and free trade, and other liberal human rights. Liberals also come in hawkish and dovish varieties. Since liberal tend to prize free markets, they might be associated with the left when those market forces are breaking down established economic power, and providing new opportunity for the many. But those same free forces tend to create tremendous inequalities of their own, and immiserate and exploit many people who are simply employed as poorly paid workers by wealthy capitalists.

Classical liberalism was initially a challenge to established elites, and was the outlook of a rising class of bourgeois businesspeople who gradually displaced the ancient aristocratic and clerical order. But as liberals achieved more wealth and gradually took over the leadership of Western countries, the more successful liberal barons became themselves the new national elite. They then attenuated their commitment to liberal values, other than the commitment to the degree of unregulated commercial freedom necessary to allow the strong to stay strong, and became adept at using the traditional tools of military force, anti-intellectualism and the promotion of traditional religious views and religious obedience to solidify their place in society. I take it this is what many people now mean by "conservative".

In the last century, a broad but uneasy coalition of leftists and liberals was formed in the Western democracies to challenge conservatism, especially fascism, it's most extreme and pathological form. That coalition was very successful for many years, but was strained and tended to come apart during the neoliberal era post-Reagan and post-Thatcher. However, I have some hope that it might be re-forming in response to the dead-end of modern conservatism reached in the Bush years.

Shadi, your argument makes a lot of sense, but unfortunately common sense isn't too common.

It reminds me of the scene from My Cousin Vinny:
*Judge Haller: Mr. Gambini, that is a lucid, intelligent, well thought-out objection.
*Vinny: Thank you.
*Judge Haller: Overruled.

The unfortunate fact is that most Americans, spurred on by a belligerent government/media team, think that to be strong on national security (rightest) the US has to bomb the crap out of some piddling country. That's just the way it is. Care about other people (leftist)? How many Americans care about dead Iraqis, Afghans and Somalis, the victims of US bombing? They're (the victims) all terrorists, as even some DA contributors have written. Barry whatsisname.

Excellent post - to extend your argument even further: What is this nonsense about "national security"? There hasn't been a conflict since WWII that is about America's "security". They have all been wars of aggression. You really think Iraq posed a threat to America's security? Really? Was Saddam about to rent a flotilla of pontoon boats to come over and attack us? Iraq didn't even have a navy, for fucks sake, before we destroyed their country. Ditto Afghanistan.

People who buy into this "national security" nonsense are misinformed or stupid. Period. Full stop.

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