Democracy Arsenal

December 15, 2006

Progressive Strategy

Refusing to Accept "Reality"
Posted by Shadi Hamid

While I’ve been off-roading in the Emirates and relaxing on the gorgeous beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh, it appears that Ali, Marc, and Lorelei have been busy with something infinitely more useful but perhaps less fun – provoking a serious, fascinating debate on the future of liberal interventionism.

I’m late to the game, but let me say a few things. First of all, I’m not convinced, as Lorelei and Marc suggest, that there is anything approaching a broad consensus among progressives on foreign policy. There is a real, significant divide on crucial questions regarding the uses and abuses of American power, the role of idealism in foreign policy, and, yes, democracy promotion in the Middle East. Now, it may make sense in the interest of unity to de-emphasize these differences, but that doesn’t make them any less real. I’ve made similar points before here and here, so I'll leave it at that.

I think one of the most interesting "dividing lines" not only among those on the Left but between realists and anti-realists such as myself is how we perceive “facts on the ground.” Rachel Kleinfeld, co-founder of the Truman Project, wrote in comment #20 to Ali Eteraz’s original (flame-throwing) post that “belief should never trump facts on the ground.” Now, I know exactly what Rachel means by this and it’s an important thing to say after 6 years of an administration that doesn’t seem to have any grasp of reality.

However, if we take the statement literally, then I actually disagree with it. I think there are cases where belief should trump facts on the ground. And I think this is fundamentally what separates interventionists from anti-interventionists. Interventionists look at the way things are in, say, the Middle East, and say: dictatorship is not right and, therefore, we cannot and will not accept it. We cannot accept it (from a moral standpoint) because then we are complicit in a grave injustice. More importantly, accepting the “facts on the ground” in such a case would be a betrayal of the very essence of what it means to be American. This is not why our parents came to this country.

Quite often, when I bring up democracy promotion, people will say exactly what I expect them to say: “be realistic, Shadi.” Then they go on to explain in a very long-winded way why the Arabs are incapable of democracy or why Americans are incapable of promoting it. They say, “America has been supporting Arab dictatorships for the last 60 years. Why do you expect that to change now?” Or worse: “maybe democracy isn’t appropriate for the Arab context” (presumably because Arabs are somehow less deserving of the one thing that God has granted all men: the inalienable right to make their own decisions and to determine the course of their own destinies).

Continue reading "Refusing to Accept "Reality"" »

December 14, 2006

Progressive Strategy

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.

December 12, 2006

Progressive Strategy

Left Realists or Exemplarism?
Posted by Ali Eteraz

Any language that contains the name "Truman" sends shivers down progressive spines. I don't necessarily blame them. While I think the six principles (American exceptionalism, the use of force, American hegemony, the world community, liberal-mindedness, and helping the least well of), if used in a balancing test, are a meaningful way of conducting foreign policy, and far more effective than any cooperation-first method, I don't think it really matters if you take the "Truman" out of there (sorry Rachel).

In his now oft-cited piece, Shadi suggested that the term to employ was Exemplarism. I think it is a wonderful term. I have nothing metaphysical against it. I just think we can do better.

I remember when I read that piece by Shadi, one particular line (among many) made me think. It was this:

In many ways, what is being offered is a middle way between a more narrow realism and the missionary (some would say messianic) activism of neoconservatism. This alternative attempts to reclaim the democratic idealism of the neoconservative movement while wedding it to a more multilateral framework that recognizes the importance of alliances and international institutions.

I remember thinking: isn't "narrow" realism really just conservative isolationism a la Buchanan? And isn't "missionary activism" really just hyper-idealism? I remember thinking: doesn't that just make Shadi a realist? That is what I, a guest blogger, finds so hopeful at the Security and Peace Initiative: a group of people whose domestic policies are egalitarian and civil libertarian and whose foreign policy is realist but not trigger happy.  It makes me want to call myself a Left Realist.

Problem is, when we use the term "Realist" people inevitably think this is a code word for Neo-Con. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, it is precisely because Neo-Cons are not Realists that when they claim to be so the results are so absurd and laughable. I recently read a piece by Fouad Ajami where he makes this argument:

It was not naive idealism, it should be recalled, that gave birth to Bush's diplomacy of freedom. That diplomacy issued out of a reading of the Arab-Muslim political condition and of America's vulnerability to the disorder of Arab politics. The ruling regimes in the region had displaced their troubles onto America; their stability had come at America's expense, as the scapegoating and the anti-Americanism had poisoned Arab political life. Iraq and the struggle for a decent polity in it had been America's way of trying to extirpate these Arab troubles. The American project in Iraq has been unimaginably difficult, its heartbreak a grim daily affair. But the impulse that gave rise to the war was shrewd and justified.

Really? This is news to me! If Iraq was a way to assure that the Arab world would stop unleasjing its discontent upon the world i.e. terrorists, then why was it Iraq that was chosen? Why not Saudi Arabia, UAE, even Pakistan? Hell, Osama's entire pre 9/11 MO was his hatred of the Saudi regime. No, Ajami is wrong and he is misconstruing the Neo-Con position just to fit under the Realist banner. It was the Realists from the Left who said that by broadening  the conflict to a post dictatorial Iraq you would create the space for more terrorists; a Babylonian Belt of cviolence filled with mercenaries more violent than the Hessians and Barbar coast pirates. The Realists from the Left turned out to be right. It wasn't because they are from the Left that made them such astute readers of the situation.  It is because they were Realists.

Today, those Realists are saying that we must begin to create democratic institutions in the Middle East (peacefully) no matter what our current state of mind with respect to promoting democracy. We must begin to talk to the Islamists and see if we can turn them democratic. Hint, they are already there: read their principles.

Today, those Realists are saying that we cannot just leave Iraq at the drop of a dime because a human catastrophe might occur. It might not, but we, as members of the International Left, do not roll dice with Life. Our concern for the individual, and our humanitarianism, is what sets us apart from others.

This is Left Realism: taking to task those that erred; but not forgetting to set things aright. A commentator said that the best we can do is return to the pre 9/11 world. You know what? If that is the first step to  undoing what Bush has wrought then sign me up.

December 11, 2006

Progressive Strategy

Truman Democrat II
Posted by Ali Eteraz

See update I below.

There has been a lot of feedback to my inquiry whether Truman Democrats could become a movement. In the comments. By Mathew Yglesias. And a snark by Atrios who has labeled me among the "silly" people.

The majority of the replies have argued that my dichotomy between "Isolationist Leftist" and "Truman Democrat" is false. They prefer to be referred to as "anti-interventionists." Their assumption is that since the word "anti-intervention" is not as insular sounding as "isolationist" they can't be accused of being self-obsessed Americans. This is an altogether meaningless game of semantics. Why? Because there is no such thing as a pure anti-interventionist. Even Kossacks have a favorite intervention: Darfur (these are the 432,00 results when you type "Darfur Daily Kos" into Google). So, very quickly it is established that in this global world, every American is an interventionist. (By the way, what exactly is "interventionism" anyway? Is foreign aid a form of interventionism? In that case we've been "intervening" in Israel since '67 and in Egypt since '79 both as Republicans and as Democrats). So those who don't want to be called Isolationist need to come up with a better term for themselves than "anti-interventionist."

Second, Yglesias'  reply and the Atrios snark are predicated on their antagonism towards "hegemony." (In my post I stated that American hegemony was principle # 3 of a Truman Democrat). But hegemony, by itself, is not bad. It is what is done with hegemony that matters. This is the most significant point at which Truman Democrats differ from the Neo-Cons that the ultra-Left wants to paint them out to be. Neo-Conservative hegemony was rooted in the idea that the first step in "improving" relationships with the the third world was to use military means to depose its dictators (which we ironically previous supported), and simply wait for those third world savages to run around in backbending thanks for being "liberated." Neo-Cons thought that once you put a good licking on a country (Japan 1945) that country's population did what you wanted them to do. Truman Democrats differ from this. It is disingenous for the ultra-Left (which is what I'm calling them since they don't like Isolationist and aren't anti-interventionist) to characterize a Truman Democrat in this manner as they do when they use the word "hegemony" as an epithet (or as Yglesias does when he reduces my entire post to "Democratic Hegemonists").

Now, to his credit, after Yglesias reduces a Truman Democrat to a "hegemonist" and concludes that the ultra Left is not Isolationist either, he offers a third way out: he calls it Liberalism.

The alternative to hegemonism and isolationism is, well, liberalism a policy of global engagement based on the attempt to create and sustain a liberal world order. To take a specific example, for the United States to join the International Criminal Court would be neither an isolationist policy nor a hegemonic one, but rather a liberal policy in which we submit to an egalitarian framework of rules and cooperate with others in the effort the enforce those rules. Generally speaking, the concept of cooperation is what's missing from the "Trumanite" world-view.

Ok, but I have no idea what a "liberal world order" means, especially since the rallying cry of the hawks since 2001 has been that they are out to create a liberal world order. Besides, isn't talking in terms of "world orders" so Condi Rice circa 2005? Any suggestions on how to wrest "liberal" back from the hawks? If I am not mistaken, it was precisely because the hawks were so firmly in control of the word that the term "progressive" became so popular. Yglesias thinks that it is sufficiently clarifying to say that one is a liberal when one joins the International Criminal Court since that kind of stuff demonstrates the sort of "cooperation" he believes is missing from the Truman Democrat worldview. Well, if that's the case, then Yglesias is a Truman Democrat because it just so happens that the Truman Democrats are backed by such people as Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is one of the foremost proponents of an internationalist legal regime. Not only that, but her recent work has involved talking about "soft-law" (the kind of legal relations between judges and lawyers from various first and third world countries which help promote, oh, what was that, oh yes: cooperation. (In fact, my 6 part definition of what is a Truman Democrat comes from her definition). So either Truman Democrats are liberals, or the self-styled left liberals are Truman Democrats. Point is: the ultra-Left needs to take a breather each time they see the word "exceptionalism" and "hegemony" because they will often find that not everyone is out to use these principles in a way that Bush used them in Iraq.

Truman Democrats do, however, believe in the use of force, and that is, to me, where the crux of the matter lies. I think the rank and file in the American Left today are very wary of any foreign policy position which takes the use of force as a given -- this is due to Iraq. This is understandable. However, Truman Democrats have to honestly say that the use of force that they would engage in would be a) circumscribed by international norms, b) in line with American tradition pre-Bush's pre-emptive war ideology and c) in line with Western natural law theory. What Truman Democrats are very clear about is that even if a, b, and c are satisfied, the use of force may still be necessary. It may, for example, be necessary to put gunships in Iran's mouth if it makes a strategic bid to cut off the Persian Gulf. Just as, it would be (and is) necessary, to send troops to Darfur. Power is a fact. If our foreign policy presumptively discounts the use of power politics, we will be outstripped by the illiberal Chinese and the protectionist Europeans.

With respect to the Middle East, Truman Democrats are driven by the idea that building institutions in the Middle East, with a diplomatic and hardheaded push for democracy, an activist engagement in the human rights regimes, and a resolution to the issue of Israel are of utmost importance to our American security (since it is accepted that the absence of freedom creates the conditions for fanaticism and terrorism).

With respect to Iraq, for the most part, Truman Democrats are of the opinion that what was a war that we didn't support, and was a war that exceeded acceptable human rights norms, has, due to our -- American -- hubris, now set the stage for a potential human catastrophe if we withdraw without giving the Iraqi government adequate tools to fend for itself. I fail to understand why the ultra-Left would not support a strategic presence in Iraq for the simple reason that the alternative is a human catastrophe potentially like Darfur (except with suicide bombers instead of machete-men). Truman Democrats want to create the conditions -- by using resources and man power -- to help create civil society. Ultra-Left/Isolationists/Cooperationists/Left-Liberals think that if you leave people alone, they can do these things on their own. It is true, people can. But they can do these things faster when they have backing. Neo-Cons wanted to back them with guns. The ultra-Left wants to back them with spirit. Truman Democrats want to back them with resources. 

Leadership often requires fixing the errors of our predecessors. The War in Iraq was an erroneous war, and to make matters worse, the predecessors were not ones we chose. But the fact is, with the Left in charge of the House and the Senate, it has to exhibit the leadership qualities which ameliorate the errors of the predecessors. And it has to do so by working with the people available to it in the real world, not the people it imagines could exist once everyone else got their house in order. It is for this reason that projects like Eteraz and Conflicts Forum get political importance by Truman Democrats but get only symbolic importance ("good for dialogue") by the ultra-Left.

Update I: Some thoughts on why I concur that dropping Truman is wise and Left Realism is better.

December 09, 2006

Progressive Strategy

Can "We" Be A Movement?
Posted by Ali Eteraz

I apologize for the inordinately long delay between postings. I was busy getting Eteraz.Org: States of Islam up and running. It is an interactive blog community related to the religion and politics of Islam, as well as general political discussion, and is open to all. It's existence ties in with what I'm going to talk about here.

I have been pretty actively reading the debates at various smaller progressive blogs, as well as a lot of the foreign policy discussions taking place at DailyKos. In the post-victory atmosphere, I'm not exactly seeing very much that makes me hopeful. It is my contention that the "left" is now firmly split between the Truman Democrat and the Isolationist position, and the former is in danger of being overrun because it does not exist as a cohesive movement, but only as something that "DC insiders" know about.

Today's Isolationist Leftist shares almost nothing with a Truman Democrat in terms of foreign policy. Here are the six foreign policy "principles" that define a Truman Democrat: American exceptionalism, the use of force, American hegemony, the world community, liberal-mindedness, and helping the least well off. Today's Isolationist Left rejects the first three of those without a thought (because they are presumed to be solely belonging to the Neo-Cons). The other three are accepted as long as they do not require having to affirm any of the first three principles.

Perhaps nowhere is this split better reflected than in the issue of Iraq. The Isolationist Left wants an immediate withdrawal. Let the chips fall where they may afterward. A Truman Democrat wants to use diplomacy to engage the regional powers, wants to engage the Iraqi police so the country does not descend into nefarious sectarianism (and to prevent a potential human catastrophe), and would, in the future, provide for financial support of all democratic elements in Iraq. In the event that Iran make a military move over Iraq, the Isolationist Left would conclude that such assertiveness by Iran was an unavoidable consequence of us having entered the war. A Truman Democrat would, on the other hand, agitate for immediate quasi-military action to push Iran back (though likely to withhold from all out war).

In other words, it is time we accepted that vast gulf between a Truman Democrat and an Isolationist Leftist. This is hard to swallow, I know, because a Truman Democrat shares many many many principles of importance with the Isolationist Left within the domestic sphere -- shares views on immigration, civil liberties, women's rights, minority rights, labor, regulation, and so on. So the question becomes, if the gulf on the foreign policy issue is really insurmountable, but unity on the domestic front almost necessary (in order to keep the conservatives at bay), how can Truman Democrats ever do the kind of foreign policy they want to engage in?

It's pretty simple: Truman Democrats need to become a "movement" that covers not merely foreign policy, but extends itself to all elements of the domestic sphere. Right now, I am labeling this post "progressive strategy." Yet, I have to be honest. When I think of "progressives" I don't think of a Truman Democrat. No, I think of the Isolationist Leftists (with whom I share a domestic agenda), whose biggest foreign policy issue right now is whether to impeach Bush or not and who have virtually no qualms in leaving the Iraqi and Afghani populace in the midst of massive civil wars (that our country begat). As I see it (from the rank and file position as I am no wonk), Truman Democrats need a movement.

Are they to choose Centrism? Center-Leftism? "Liberalism?" (careful there, the center-right hawks already took that one over). My very simple fear is that we -- all of us on the Left -- are and have already, by virtue of having declared ourselves "progressives" bought into supporting the Isolationist Leftist big-whigs. I am looking at the Democracy Arsenal blogroll right now (and admittedly it doesn't reflect an ideological affiliation), but I am seeing the names of a bunch of progressives whose views on foreign policy are largely driven by negation: we will do the opposite of what those cursed conservatives do.

I'm afraid to say, but I think the Truman-Democrats need to start to diversify. They need to make mini celebrities out of themselves. They need to start to touch the rank and file. Thing is, they know full well that they are lacking in this department and do make occassional efforts to take their position populist. But they need to do more. They need to create a viable netroots. They need to start showing up in progressive webzines (like Counterpunch and Cursor) and try and create a dialogue on the issue of foreign policy with their Isolationist Leftist brethren (with whom they have a shared domestic agenda, I reiterate).

It is not too late to do this. But it can get out of hand. In UK, the split between the Isolationists and their equivalent of the Truman Democrats is complete. If anyone even so much as suggests that he/she would like to remain in Iraq to prevent a catastrophe that would be caused by our presence there, they are immediately labeled fascist and Nazi. I know this because while I am not British I followed the Euston Manifesto very closely. You'd think that the Eustonites -- if you listened only to the British Isolationist Progressive -- were a bunch of neo-imperialistic colonizers.

This is what the Truman Democrats are going to be called by their Isolationist Leftist brethren. Unless they do something. Unless they create a broad and wide-ranging social movement (which means it has to be more than just a foreign policy movement).

I have some idea on how this can be accomplished. I'll lay out some pointers right now:

  1. Destroy the illusion (and that is all it really is), that you guys (wonks) are merely elitist wonks. There is only one way to do this. You have to get your message out to as many people as possible (I'm talking about sheer number). You do this by relaying on what I am going to term "intermediate authorities." (People who are not wonks but do tend to think that the wonks have something meanginful to impart).
  2. Write in those publications which are currently dominated by Isolationist Leftists -- where the only view on foreign policy is the one where the Left does what the Right is not doing.
  3. Try to reach out to those people in the Center-Right who are turned off by the Right at the moment. This is a brief moment but the opportunity is out there right now. A Truman Democrat does this by peddling not the first three of the six principles listed above (they already agree with you on this and will tell you that you are nothing more than a Neo-con), but by peddling the last three. A large part of the Center-Right is very concerned about the fact that our heavy handed policies are turning an entire religion against us. We can go in and say (and prove) that we are willing to work with forces in that religion which support us. This will warm many hearts on the Center-Right.
  4. Reach out to the large Muslim bloc in Western English speaking nations. This is almost common sense. Muslim communities in England, Canada, UK, are almost dogmatically anti-Bush. But they are not Isolationist because they don't really like to see their co-religionists kill each other. One place to start this project is at Eteraz.Org.
  5. Reach out to the reeeeeally well established netroots of self-proclaimed "Centrists." They are dying to hear the Truman Democrat message on foreign policy. This is the ideal place for a "movement" to begin. Right now, the only foreign policy view that these "Centrists" have available to them is a Neo-Con tinged one.

Me and fellow activists are more than willing to offer our rank and file services in the pursuit of these endeavors. However, it means that more active engagement will be required from the experts (you guys). Democracy Arsenal has been self-enclosed long enough. So has Qahwa Sada. So has the Truman Project. I really have no doubt that you guys have got all the theoretical problems ironed out (and those that you don't, you can figure them out later).

I can do my part. I can offer to make Eteraz.Org a launching pad for the dispersion that is necessary. I think of you as elites. I want to have you come over and talk to the housewives, defense contractors, students, and librarians that hang out (in great numbers) within our community. The site has demonstrated success in touching Centrists and Center-Rightists as well as vast numbers of English speaking Muslims. 100,000 page views in three weeks. As great as Democracy Arsenal and the Truman Project are, they are not places where people like me do too well. We prefer plain-speak and really have very few facts to back up what we think is the "right" thing to do. When we come to places like this we become stiff.

At some point the Truman Democrats have to become a movement. At the expense of sounding like a pompous revolutionary I have to say that the movement is now.

Please share your thoughts in the comments, via email, or telepathically.

November 30, 2006

Progressive Strategy

Realist Means and Neo-Conservative Ends
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Marc’s last post on using realist means to achieve non-realist (liberal, idealist, neo-conservative) ends is interesting. Unfortunately, Marc is all over the place on this one and ties himself in more than a few knots.

First of all, I wonder how clear-cut a distinction one can make between means and ends. Presumably, such distinctions might lead to an acute case of schizophrenia and/or large helpings of cognitive dissonance. In any case, means and ends are intertwined and, often, inextricably so. In other words, even if it would be somehow ideal (and I’m not sure it would), I have trouble conceptualizing how a policy defined by realist means and idealist ends might actually operate in practice. What are realist “means” anyway?

Ok, say our long-term objective in Iraq is to establish democracy. Perhaps, then, someone with a realist knack for policy might say, well, the only way we can get from point A to B is to temporarily install a brutal dictator who will keep the rowdy citizens in check until circumstances are more amenable to democratic governance. Would such a policy be advisable from a moral standpoint? The ends do not justify the means. Or do they?

Marc also stumbles when he assumes that George W. is actually committed to democracy promotion. He says: “Granted, history has yet to show that you can make a realist design and implement policies in pursuit of decidedly anti-realist ends.  But if anyone can do it, I'm going to put my money on someone as stubborn and ideologically driven as Bush.”

The evidence suggests otherwise. I must confess that I used to think President Bush had an ideology. However, now I'm not so sure, unless doing the exact opposite of what you're supposed to do is, in fact, an ideology. In any case, I can't seem to think of one president who has betrayed the democratic aspirations of Arab reformers more than George W. Bush (except maybe his father, guided by the steady, fisted hand of Brent Scrowcroft). Perhaps Marc is essentially trying to say that Bush has really good speechwriters. And, yes, that much is true.

If anything, the neo-cons’ commitment to democracy promotion, in practice, has been incredibly spotty. The problem is that neo-conservatives don’t just believe in democracy promotion; they believe in the promotion of a distinctly liberal kind of democracy in places where liberalism is non-existent and/or a bad word. The problem with some liberal interventionists is that they too will support democracy abroad only if it passes some imaginary liberal litmus test. Unfortunately, “liberal democracy” in the Middle Eastern context, is an oxymoron, because if Arabs are allowed to vote, they will vote overwhelmingly for parties that are illiberal. For someone who believes in liberalism more than democracy, this is unacceptable. Well, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. The whole point of democracy is to allow people to freely express their own conception of the “good,” even if it is different than our own. If we don’t like it, then that’s why there are elections every 4, 5, or 6 years. I hope I’m stating the obvious when I say that you can’t force people to be liberal, even if liberalism is, somehow, the holy grail of healthy political life (and I’m not sure that’s always the case).

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.

November 16, 2006

Progressive Strategy

Stop the Murtha-Mongers
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I find it baffling why any liberal would readily lend his or her support to John Murtha, who hopes to win the post of House Majority Leader later today. Let’s pray he doesn’t. If he did, it would provide only more evidence that the Democratics are devoid of a moral core or any recognizable set of principles or ideas. Murtha is not a liberal. He doesn’t claim to be a liberal. The only reason progressives like him is because he stuck it to Bush presumably when no one else would. That’s a pretty crappy reason to vote someone in as Majority Leader of your party. It would be one thing if Murtha’s opposition to the war was based on a distinctly progressive vision for US foreign policy. It isn't (as Bradford Plumer explains in an excellent post).

Murtha remains a perplexing mix of realist and neo-con, taking perhaps the worst of the two trends and fusing them together. I can’t think of one time where I’ve heard Murtha talk about the importance of democracy in Iraq and the Middle East. That may be because he doesn’t really care (there are, apparently, dearer things to his heart). Can someone tell me what distinguishes Brent Scrowcroft from John Murtha in this regard? Not much, except that Murtha is actually more of a hawk, but in the worst sense of the word. Every now and then, he will give us a Michael Ledeen-ish nugget like: "The big problem in the Middle East is Iran. We went to the wrong place." How reassuring.

Opposition is not vision. It’s simply criticism, and that’s all Murtha has offered the House on the issue of Iraq. He wants us to get out now. For many liberals, apparently, this is the only position that matters. Hatred of Bush and opposition to the Iraq war have become the litmus test for a good chunk of the Democratic base. These activists, in any case, have always been united more by tactics than belief. It is not clear what they believe. It is, however, clear that this war is all that matters to them, even if it means putting aside the liberal values and principles that supposedly define us - or at least the ones that once did.

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