Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Liberals and American Power

In the leftist British paper, the Guardian this past Sunday, Nick Colson writes regarding the liberal understanding of Islamic terrorism: “the twin vices of willful myopia and bad faith…have disfigured too much liberal thought for too long”. There is much evidence of this in the comments and posts on the Daily Kos, especially in response to the London bombings; but there also is an increasing number of individuals who have begun to break loose from these “liberal” habits who are also active on the Daily Kos.

There are many sources for and reasons why these habits are prominent in liberal circles. They stem from a number of thoughtful insights into America and American power that most conservatives willfully turn a blind eye to: namely, the moral ambiguity that comes with the enormity of America’s power in the world today and the evil that is always unleashed in any violence and especially in any war. One of the basic principles of what passes for conservatism today is that “American power [is] a force for peace and security” (from Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us From Evil, page 277). This phrase is echoed by Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the National Review, and on and on. The point is, many conservatives see American power as a force for good. Democrats, they say, see “American power as a source of arrogance and violence”. This is a simplistic view that works well in a 15 second spot even as it distorts the reality of what many liberals actually think. American power is a source of violence in the world—no one can deny that. It has often been seen as arrogant in the hands of this administration. At the same time, American forces have worked around the world for peace and have historically provided security in a number of troubled regions—from Kosovo to Haiti.

The problem that liberals tend to appreciate that many conservatives are blind to is that even when we intend to do good, any use of power creates unintended consequences. We drive Saddam out of Kuwait leading an enormous coalition and backed by the entire world; Bin Laden is infuriated that the Saudi government did not call of him to expel Saddam and declares jihad on America.

On the other hand, many liberals seem to have a purist attitude towards American power. As a conservative commentator once mimed his impression of liberal foreign policy: America can only use power when it is against our self-interest. Some liberals demand that America’s intentions be pure and unselfish before it acts. Looking back on history, they see how American economic and strategic interests have led us to support tyrants and overthrow democratically elected leaders. They rightfully rail against this rank hypocrisy.

Re-Imagining the Opposition

I believe that we as liberals and progressives need to re-think and then re-formulate our opposition to Bush’s war on terrorism. Because Bush’s war is flawed; his administration’s execution of it has been feckless. The conspiracy theories building up around why we went into Iraq giving Bush and company nefarious motives distract attention from the stupidity of the move: Iraq was a reckless gamble with American lives; but it is one that we must now ensure succeeds—there is no pulling back. It was a war of choice against an evil dictator without whom Iraqis are better off; but Bush did not prepare the American people for a long war; he did not supply our troops adequately for their forthcoming task; he did not commit enough resources to win the peace.

Liberals and progressives should be encouraging Bush’s foreign policy successes. We must praise Bush’s role in the many peaceful democratic revolutions in the Middle East. We should be determined to leave Iraq and Afghanistan firmly in the hands of democratically elected governments. We should applaud when Bush pledges to bring morality back into foreign affairs. We should encourage the use of American power to promote democracy. We cannot attack America for acting in its self interest. We cannot rule our war and other violent means as a last resort. We should not affix blame on our policy-makers for provoking the terrorists by not responding to their blackmail.

This is not what we need to say to be taken seriously on national security. This is what we need to believe, and believe deeply, in order to have any moral authority or coherence in criticizing and eventually running America’s national security policy. If we do not honestly acknowledge the successes of our opponents, then people will believe we exist only to oppose. If we believe a peaceful democratic revolution is tainted by the American government’s influence, then we have no business proposing any government programs at home. If we reject morality in foreign affairs in favor of real-politik, then how can we defend progressive taxation and Medicare at home?


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