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February 19, 2008

The Things We Don't Talk About on Foreign Policy
Posted by Shadi Hamid

It’s really quite amazing when you think about it how little foreign policy has figured into this Democratic primary. Yes, there is the standard talk about multilateralism, the importance of diplomacy, getting out of Iraq, and generally not launching random wars – in other words, lowest common-denominator liberal internationalism. But Democrats, as a collective, have failed to provide anything resembling a vision or narrative on foreign policy. It is one thing to have solid policy prescriptions (and we usually do), but the more important question is do we, as liberals, have a foreign policy orientation that is distinctly different in both means and ends from conservatives? 

Considering how messed up the Middle East is, there is a disconnect between the extent of our problems in the region, and the boldness needed to confront them. To be bold, though, you have to be willing to question the assumptions of our national security discourse. Here is a short list of things we aren't talking about that we need be talking about:

1. The war on terrorism (lowercase): What are the root causes of terrorism? How do terrorists come to be? Once we understand that, are there, then, actions that policymakers can take to address these causal factors?

Republicans would like us to believe that extremists/terrorists hate us for who we are, as if they stumbled upon the bill of rights one morning and went berserk. Of course, anyone with even the least bit of knowledge knows this is absolute rubbish. But there is a public perception that we’re at war with crazed lunatics and there’s nothing we can hope to do but destroy them through sheer military might. This results in a smugness where we underestimate our enemies and the force that their narrative holds with mass publics in the Arab world and beyond. The fact of the matter is that while the vast majority of Muslims deplore the methods of Bin Laden, they tend to agree with his basic narrative that America is out to weaken and divide the Middle East and destroy Islam. Now, we can be smug and self-righteous and think that these are irrational sentiments, but if large majorities believe them, then we should at least make the effort to understand how and why they came to hold these perceptions about America and American power.

2. The role of democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy

Democracy is a dirty word. Democracy promotion is not particularly popular. The Bush administration – through its cynical, and ultimately insincere use of our country’s greatest weapon, our ideals – has tarnished “democracy” and made it synonymous with militarism and hypocrisy. This may very well prove to be one of the greatest and lasting tragedies of the Iraq war. It will take Democrats to change this (don't hold your breath).

Democracy promotion must be revived and reinvigorated. This is not just a luxury for those of us who still insist on our idealism. No, it is national security imperative of the highest order. The only way to defeat terrorism and religious extremism in the long run is to support democratic development in the Middle East. As long as millions of frustrated young Muslims lack peaceful, democratic means with which to express their grievances, they will be more likely to resort to violence. For all its faults, the Bush administration once appeared to realize this, that the Middle East would have to be transformed from what it currently is to what it still has the potential to become. Liberating Arabs from the destructive grip of their dictators who have sucked the life out of their people would need to be part of the equation and the U.S. would have to do its part.

Unfortunately, the Bushies chose to do this by force, when there were easier, less costly ways to begin this process, namely by using the leverage of economic aid to put pressure on autocrats to reform. No need to start invading countries with long histories of sectarian division.

3. Islamic thought and practice needs to reformed/ engaging with moderate Islamists

This is connected with 1 and 2. It’s more sensitive for non-Muslims to talk about this for fear of offending Muslim sensibilities. Still, it needs to be talked about, especially in light what's happening in Europe now. America, with its uniquely integrated and patriotic Muslim population, is in a good place to talk about how Islam is compatible with democratic pluralism.

In the Middle East, the U.S. has a role to play in encouraging moderates while marginalizing extremists. Before doing this, though, we have to first figure out who the moderates are. American policymakers are holding out hope for a secular third-force in the Middle East that is pro-American and thoroughly liberal. Here as elsewhere, we tend to view things through our distorted lens. There are facts on the ground. Secularism, at least for the time being, is dead in the Middle East. Instead of aligning ourselves with tiny Westernized, secularized elites who have little influence with their broader publics, let’s get smart about it and build bridges with those groups and organizations that command mass constituencies. Mainstream Islamist groups - such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islamic Action Front in Jordan - have the potential to move in more moderate directions, and they have already committed themselves to many of the foundational components of democratic governance. This is something positive and instead of shunning them, we should find ways to encourage this process of reconciliation between Islamists and modern secular nation-state. This has happened in Turkey and it has the potential to happen throughout the Middle East.


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Regular DA readers will have seen the equation "Muslim=Arab=Middle East" so often here that they might start to ask whether this is one of the things we ought to start questioning about American foreign policy, or at least about some of the commentary on it.

But the initial question in this post had to do with the relatively small role foreign policy has played in the Democratic campaign so far. It actually is not hard to understand. One reason for it is that John McCain is basically right: other things being equal, if American casualties in Iraq are down, the American public's interest in the war will be down as well. And American casualties in Iraq have been down for the last several months. The war is not on the tube every night, and since only a tiny fraction of the public is directly connected to the men and women who have to fight it, other issues have become salient.

That's no more than common sense, really, and if the violence in Iraq spikes once again we should expect media coverage of the war, and public discontent with Iraq, to increase as well. But the phrase "other things being equal" was used above deliberately. Even without 100 American combat deaths a month, the war is still enormously expensive, burning through more money in a few weeks than all the domestic pork barrel spending McCain rails against in a full year. This gets mentioned on the campaign trail, and occasionally the other disadvantages of the administration's emphasis on Iraq does as well -- but they don't get much more than a mention, a couple of items in the usual stump speech laundry list. Why?

The most obvious explanation is that the remaining Democratic candidates are more interested in domestic policy. That's not an accident; most Democratic candidates for any kind of federal office are mostly interested in domestic policy. In low-turnout elections -- party primaries and mid-term Congressional elections -- candidates need to appeal to the organized groups best able to fund their campaigns and get voters to the polls. These organized interests all have policy agendas, and those agendas are almost entirely domestic. Actually, it's even worse than that, because the policy agendas of organized Democratic interest groups don't intersect with defense or intelligence policy either.

This has bred a generation (actually, one full generation and part of another) of Democratic politicians who would rather talk about almost anything other than foreign and national security policy. They don't know much about either, and to the extent they are primarily concerned with their next election campaign, they don't care. This helps explain why Democratic Congressional criticism of the Bush administration's Iraq policy was so ineffectual for so long.

A large amount of spin (by the Clinton and Obama campaigns) and an even larger amount of projection (by Democrats outside the Clinton and Obama campaigns) credits the remaining Democratic candidates with, respectively, great experience and great insight into foreign policy. It is all nonsense. Both Clinton and Obama are conventional Democratic politicians; they talk about health care and job retraining because they think it is important,