A DEMOCRATIC WORLD: Can liberals take foreign policy back from the Republicans? (GEORGE PACKER, 2004-02-09, The New Yorker)

The Democratic Party hasn’t always been stymied by foreign policy. A half century ago, the Party’s ideas were ascendant, transforming America’s international role in the postwar years as dramatically as President Bush has since September 11th. In 1945, the United States had more relative power and prestige than it has today. Instead of seizing the occasion to strip the country of constraints and dominate the world, the ruling Democrats, most of whom were New Dealers, realized that the global fight against Communism required partners. The postwar Democratic leadership under President Truman helped bring into being institutions and alliances—the United Nations, nato, the World Bank—through which the country’s goals could be met. These goals were as much economic and political as military. The thinking behind Truman’s speech in March, 1947, asking Congress for economic as well as military aid to Greece and Turkey against Communist insurgents, and the speech by his Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, a few months later, calling for a massive reconstruction package for a devastated Europe was the same: containing and ultimately defeating totalitarianism required an investment in countries where conditions made Communism a threat. It also required the participation of Americans at every level of society. Anti-Communist liberals in the labor movement and the Democratic Party funded social-democratic parties in Western Europe as alternatives to Communism; politicians and intellectuals organized themselves in associations like Americans for Democratic Action and around magazines like Encounter to fight the war of ideas. These liberals understood that the new war could not afford to be rigidly doctrinaire; it required a practical effort to understand realities in Europe and elsewhere, in order to know what would be necessary to prevent Communism from winning over individuals and countries. It had to be wise as well as tough. Above all, it needed the help of other democracies—there had to be alliances, reciprocity. This is what was meant by liberal internationalism.

Vietnam, of course, badly divided Democrats, turning some into Republicans and others into pacifists. And here is a remarkable fact: since the nineteen-sixties, the Democratic Party has had no foreign policy. […]

In treating the war on terrorism as a mere military struggle, the Administration’s mistake begins with the name itself. “Terrorism” is a method; the terror used by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka is not the enemy in this war. The enemy is an ideology—in the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer’s phrase, “Islamist totalitarianism”—that reaches from Karachi to London, from Riyadh to Brooklyn, and that uses terror to advance its ends. The Administration’s failure to grasp the political nature of the war has led to many crucial mistakes, most notably the Pentagon’s attitude that postwar problems in Afghanistan and Iraq would essentially take care of themselves, that we could have democracy on the cheap: once the dictators and terrorists were rooted out, the logic went, freedom would spontaneously grow in their place. As Lakhdar Brahimi, the former United Nations envoy to Afghanistan, recently told the Times, “There is now a very well-meaning and welcome Western interest in supporting democracy everywhere, but they want to do it like instant coffee.” Instead, in both countries the real struggle has just begun, and it will last a generation or more, with little international help in sight and victory not at all assured.

“They don’t get it, because they don’t believe this is an ideology,” Ivo H. Daalder, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, said of the Administration. “They believe that this is a state-based threat—that if you get rid of evil people, who are in finite supply, you will have resolved the problem. And the proof of the pudding is a very simple statement that the President keeps repeating: ‘It’s better to kill them there than to have them kill us here.’ Which assumes there are a finite number.”

Remarkably, this narrow approach has met with no systematic criticism from the Democratic Party. Democratic leaders attack the Administration for its unilateralism, but, with a few exceptions, they have been unprepared to reckon with the nature and scale of the conflict; and this has to do with the Party’s own intellectual shortcomings. Certain mental traits that have spread among Democrats since the Vietnam War get in the way—not just the tendency toward isolationism and pacifism but a cultural relativism (going by the name of “multiculturalism”) that makes it difficult for them to mount a wholehearted defense of one political system against another, especially when the other has taken root among poorer and darker-skinned peoples. Like the Bush Administration, the Democrats have failed to grasp the political dimensions of the struggle. They, too, have cast it narrowly, as a matter of security (preferring the notion of police action to that of war). They’ve pushed the Administration only for greater effort on the margins, such as upgrading communications equipment for firemen and federalizing airport security. And the Iraq war let Democrats off the hook, allowing them to say what they wouldn’t do rather than what they would do.

Another approach remains available to the Democrats—one that draws on the Party’s own not so distant history. The parallels between the early years of the Cold War and our situation are inexact. The Islamist movement doesn’t have the same hold on Westerners that Communism had. It draws on cultures that remain alien to us; the history of colonialism and the fact of religious difference make it all the harder for the liberal democracies of the West to effect change in the Muslim world. Waving the banner of freedom and mustering the will to act aren’t enough. Anyone who believes that September 11th thrust us into a Manichaean conflict between good and evil should visit Iraq, where the simplicity of that formula lies half buried under all the crosscurrents of foreign occupation and social chaos and ethnic strife. Simply negotiating the transfer of sovereignty back to Iraqis has proved so vexing that an Administration that jealously guarded the occupation against any international control has turned to the battered and despised United Nations for help in dealing with Iraq’s unleashed political forces. Iraq and other battlegrounds require patience, self-criticism, and local knowledge, not just an apocalyptic moral summons.

Nonetheless, for Democrats and for Americans, the first step is to realize that the war on terrorism is actually a war for liberalism—a struggle to bring populations now living under tyrannies and failed states into the orbit of liberal democracy. In this light, it makes sense to think about the strategy and mind-set that the postwar generation brought to their task: the marriage of power and coöperation. Daalder said, “The fundamental challenge—just as the fundamental challenge in ’46 and ’47 and ’48 in France and Italy was to provide Italians and Frenchmen with a real constructive alternative to Communism, to defeat it politically—is to provide people in the Islamic world with an alternative that gives them hope in a period where they have only despair.” He pointed out that America now spends forty times more on defense than it does on foreign aid, and that half of this aid goes to Israel and Egypt. “This is like the new Cold War, and we’ve got to fight it as a generational fight in which we need to invest,” he said. […]

“Why does not democracy believe in itself with passion?” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., asked in “The Vital Center,” his 1949 book about totalitarianism and America’s anxious postwar mood. “Why is freedom not a fighting faith?” The only hope (Schlesinger turned to Walt Whitman for the words—who else?) lay in “the exercise of Democracy.” The process of struggling for freedom, accepting conflict, tolerating uncertainty, joining community—this would allow democracy to survive and not die. What if we now find ourselves, at this stage of thickening maturity, in the middle of a new crisis that requires us to act like citizens of a democracy? It’s impossible to know how the public would respond to a political party that spoke about these things—because, so far, no party has.

You have to feel sorry for the folk of the Decent LeftMichael Walzer, Paul Berman, Mr. Packer, and a very few others–who find themselves in a state of denial over the fact that George W. Bush is pursuing the global democratic vision that they wish the Democrats would. And, bad enough that it’s Mr. Bush, even worse is that he’s so obviously succeeding.

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