The Duck of Minerva

It’s 1972 all over again! Not.

10 August 2006

LGM has been doing the important work that I might be tackling if I weren’t in the middle of moving: taking on the “ghosts of 1972” interpretation of Lamont’s victory over Lieberman. Scott tackles the problems with the underlying story (Marc Schulman articulates a more reasonable version of the 1972 analogy, but I still think he’s wrong). Rob eviscerates Jacob Weisberg’s muddled column.

I have to wonder what kind of political activity Jacob Weisberg DOES find acceptable. It’s not as if one cannot assert that invading Iraq was a mistake, because Weisberg himself does so in this column. To base one’s vote on this question, however, is to be a hippie pacifist. I am left to conclude that acknowedging the error of the invasion of Iraq is a route only available to those who supported the war in the first place. If attacking Iraq sounded like a terrible idea in 2003, likely to undermine the campaign against Al Qaeda, then you’re a hippie. If you believed George W. Bush’s nonsensical rhetoric, and fell for the notion that Iraq could be turned in short order into a utopian liberal paradise, then you’re a sober, well-informed commentator on the political scene. In other words, you become serious about fighting global jihad by not being serious about fighting actual terrorists.

Rob also takes Kevin Drum to task for ignoring the significant amount of serious foreign-policy thinking in the left-of-center blogsphere, including the intellectual hothouse that is the Duck of Minerva.

I find all of this extremely puzzling because a progressive liberal alternative to Bush foreign policy already exists. It isn’t particularly complicated either. The problem for progressives isn’t how to handle global jihad, but what to do about Iraq.

Progressives believe that terrorism represents a threat to US interests, but disagree with the right about the magnitude of the threat. Terrorism does not present an existential threat in the sense that terrorists are likely, particularly if we take appropriate steps, to destroy the United States. So what should the US do against jihad?

1. Treat the terrorist problem as, above all else, a global policing, intelligence, and covert operations problem. Right-wingers mock this approach as “soft,” but it turns out be rather effective. Outside of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan (see below), policing has done the most damage to anti-US and anti-European terrorists. On the other hand, the Iraq War dealt a major setback to American counter-terrorism policy by increasing hostility towards the United States, leading to ongoing and deadly terrorist attacks in Iraq, and undermining the US ability to project power against states and regions that do harbor terrorists of the kind we really need to worry about.

2. Use force when appropriate and necessary. The invasion of Afghanistan was a good idea. The Taliban harbored the core of a terrorist network that committed acts of war against the United States. An easy American victory was far from assured–and remains elusive–but the benefits outweighed the costs. An attack on Afghanistan would, and did, severely disrupt the operational capabilities of Al-Qaeda. It put other states on notice that the US would use force if necessary. Every important ally recognized the legitimacy of the moral and pragmatic rationales for the war.

3. Improve domestic security.

4. Set realistic goals. Terrorism is a strategy, not a “thing.” It cannot be eliminated from the world. We should be clear that our aim is to reduce the risks it poses and make terrorist attacks less likely. We should avoid counter-productive rhetoric. Framing the struggle against terrorism as a global war, no matter how much doing so appeals to domestic audiences, has the perverse effect of legitimating–as warriors–those who deserve to be seen as criminal thugs.

5. Take a pragmatic view of the civil-liberties/security tradeoff. It is necessary to sacrifice some civil liberties to enhance security, but the Bush administration’s position goes too far. What is particularly troubling about Bush policies, from a progressive standpoint, is that the administration justifies them through reasoning that implies limitless state and executive power.

6. Recognize that most important way in which the “war on terror” is a “war” involves the realm of “ideas.” The US has to restore its legitimacy by placing itself back inside the international rule of law. This does not mean handing over a “veto” to the UN or even insisting that the Security Council is the final arbiter of the justness of a war. Rather, it means taking seriously the fact that the preservation of domestic civil liberties and international treaty obligations plays an important role in showcasing the superiority of liberal democracy. It also makes domestic audiences in allied nations more likely to support US policies, cooperate with global efforts to reduce the threat of terrorism, and less likely to see US primacy as a malevolent force.

Preserving the American international order is not only our highest priority, but a crucial condition for reducing the threat of terrorism. But the US cannot sustain primacy in the face of military overextension and relative economic decline. The PNAC crowd misunderstand the central importance of alliances and global institutions in insulating the US against the potential dangers posed by a rising China and other alterations in relative power.

The central failure of Bush foreign policy is that it seeks to destroy and refashion and order that, whatever its faults, has served American interests quite well since 1945–and since the end of the Cold War. The single largest force multiplier was never Reagan’s “moral clarity,” but the fact that a great many states and domestic populations saw the American order as, if not completely legitimate, better than its alternatives. The US, in consequence, has often been able to count on financial, diplomatic, and even military support from a broad range of second-tier powers. In trashing that order, running roughshod over allies, and otherwise making a hash of American diplomacy, the Bush administration seems hell-bent on convincing the world that US primacy is dangerous and intolerable.

There remains, however, no consensus on Iraq. Why? Because the scale of Bush administration incompetency leaves very little room to salvage the mess. This, and the deteriorating situation in the Middle East, is where the energy in progressive foreign-policy thinking needs to focus. A competent administration–whether under any number of Democrats or the old internationalist wing of the Republican party–will be able to reduce some of the surrounding problems and thus give American policy in Iraq a fighting chance, but the measure of a good Iraq policy is not a matter of how much “tough talk” politicians can churn out or how much they “understand the Islamofascist threat.” I admit to being stumped about what to do, but I’m sure smarter minds than mine are working on the problem now.

Addendum: Despite being a scholar of international relations, I find it difficult to put into words the amount of damage the Bush administration has done to America’s global position. We really are in worse shape than we’ve been in for a long time. I think most observers, in their heart of hearts, recognize the danger. Those who deny it for partisan reasons need to take stock and make sure that the Republican candidate they support promises a break from the failed policies of this administration.

Second addendum: I make no claims that any of the above represents an original take on US foreign policy. But that’s the point: I’ve described long-standing progressive views on foreign policy.

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