As Robert Borosage, co-Director of the Campaign for America’s Future, argues in The Nation’s current issue, “the current rage in center-right Democratic circles is to resuscitate Harry Truman, substitute bin Laden for Stalin and jihadism for Communism, and summon America to a new global struggle.”
Peter Beinart, for example, who was a supporter of the Iraq disaster (and has joined New Dems like Al From in urging Democrats to prove their resolve by purging the left from the Democratic party) is a leading proponent of the misleading and wrong analogy between Soviet totalitarianism and Islamic fundamentalism. For this stance, Beinart has been celebrated by leading members of the commentariat axis — Tom Friedman, Joe Klein and George Will among others. More are sure to follow.
But Beinart and his inside-the-beltway crusaders are out of touch with an America that seeks a principled foreign policy that will make them secure — not a messianic crusade that will deplete the nation’s blood and treasure. His fighting faith pledge to “rally the American people” to sustain an “extended and robust” occupation in Iraq, his calls for America to intervene aggressively in the Middle East with a “sweeping program of economic, political and social reform” are more likely to create chaos and, perhaps, breed more terrorism than advance the cause of democracy. It is important to remember that this kind of “fighting faith” has more in common with the least successful periods of US foreign policy — the crusade that led us into Vietnam, our support for the Afghan Muhajedin and Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq. It would be difficult to find a security consensus that is more wrongheaded for the challenges the United States now faces, or more at odds with the best traditions of the Democratic party.
Of course, liberals need an effective national security strategy. But can we please stop with all the hurrahs about Harry Truman and his liberal national security achievements? What we need to do is reclaim another liberal, internationalist and eminently (as well as ethically) “realist” foreign policy tradition. It is the “Good Neighbor” policy crafted and championed by Franklin Roosevelt.
A “Good Neighbor” policy stresses the need for a community of nations to keep the peace and to promote economic dignity and prosperity for people in the developing as well as developed worlds. This liberal internationalist tradition rejects unilateral dominance and favors developing a “community of power” to keep the peace; it gives priority to a system of international law and governance over “preemptive” wars and unilateralism; it understands that to be effective, our foreign policy must work in tandem with reforms at home — to improve security, quality of life and basic rights; it considers military power to be a complement to, not a substitute for, economic power and diplomacy; and it gives a more central role to spreading economic prosperity to ensure peace and stability and environmental sustainability.
It is time to reclaim this proud tradition, update it, and use the Good Neighbor frame to advance a new set of policy goals and principles for a rational security policy. That also means redefining strength to mean smart and strong — not strong and wrong.
What’s encouraging is that recent polls show there is a mandate for such an approach. Polls taken by the Program in International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) find large majorities support “deep cuts in defense spending” and support for using the money to increase spending on education, job training, energy independence and veterans’ benefits. Powerful support also exists for a strong United Nations, reducing nuclear weapon stockpiles, strengthening international treaties and negotiating trade agreements that protect labor and environmental rights.
In a short piece in Sunday’s Washington Post, Beinart nodded to the value of interdependence and international institutions. But it seems slightly opportunistic at this stage — as if part of an effort to distinguish himself from the neocons and to rehabilitate himself with genuine liberal internationalists.
At the core of this alternative to Beinart and other beltway insiders’ messianic crusade is a belief that we spread our values and model chiefly by force of successful example. That does not mean retreat or isolationism. It means challenging this administration — and too many Democratic leaders — who have bought into an over-militarized approach to terrorism, including the establishment of military bases in the Middle East and Central Asia. This policy has been disastrously counter-productive — transforming a limited terrorist threat into a breeding ground for a new wave of more radical Islamic jihadism.
A better approach — and one consistent with a “Good Neighbor” foreign policy — would address the legitimate political grievances of the Arab and Islamic world, lower America’s military profile in the region and put an international face on US policy. Our goals should be to change the conversation from religious and cultural conflict to jobs and human development, and to stress the importance of strengthening the legitimacy and internal capacity of local governments to deal with Islamic militants.
Sadly, it will be difficult to undertake any of these new and hopeful directions as long as we remain mired in Iraq. With virtually no political leadership, Americans have turned against the war. Yet its human and economic costs are spiraling out of control, with no end in sight. We near the day when 2500 men and women will have died in this war and more than 16,000 wounded or maimed. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has estimated that the costs of war, occupation and related expenditures may reach two trillion dollars [pdf].
The best way to support the men and women who are serving in Iraq is to bring them home by the end of this year, as Rep. Jack Murtha, Senators Kerry, Kennedy and Feingold, among the few, have argued. (And as a recent Zogby poll showed, 72 percent of US troops serving in Iraq believe US forces should leave in the next year.)
It will not be easy, but our continued presence, as occupiers, inside the sectarian carnage of an unraveling civil war, and amidst revelations about Haditha, Ishaqi, Abu Ghraib, works against efforts to build stability or any modicum of sovereignty. As liberals we are clear that we do not intend to abandon Iraq or its beleaguered people. But our assistance should come not through military efforts but through international peacekeeping and humanitarian ones — to rebuild the war-torn economic and physical infrastructure.
These are perilous times — ones that raise large and fateful questions: what kind of country does the US want to be? Empire or republic? Global leader or global cop? Where is the America that, as Sherle Schwenninger observed in an important Nation article in June 2005, “is less one of warrior and preacher/proselytizer and more one of architect and builder, less one of imperial cop and more one of community leader.” American foreign policy should be democratically accountable and guided by the nation’s republican principles — and a belief that the US should not only oppose empires but eschew imperial policies.
I believe there are always alternatives in history and politics. But we must retrieve and fight for those traditions that counter the dangerous fantasies and follies of Beltway crusaders like Peter Beinart.
Katrina vanden Heuvel has been The Nation‘s editor since 1995 and publisher since 2005.