Foreign Policy & The Left

Yesterday, and prompted by Ross Douthat’s column, I looked at the growing cleavage within the Republican Party on foreign policy between the libertarian isolationists and the neo-conservative hawks, and why both tendencies take a sound idea and push it too far. Today, in the interest of fairness, I shall consider the foreign policy views of the Democrats. In a word, the Dems are so hopelessly confused on foreign policy, I almost wish they were having the kind of clarifying intellectual fight the Republicans are having. The GOP, at least, is debating ideas. The Dems, and the Left generally, seem to be swimming in hash.

For most of the last decade, it was enough for Democrats to be opposed to George W. Bush’s policies, and there was much to oppose. But, there were good reasons to oppose bush and bad ones, and they all got mixed in together, creating the hash in which the party is still swimming. On the one hand, men like General Wesley Clark opposed the Iraq war as a distraction from the on-going struggle in Afghanistan and, accurately, predicted that the immediate consequence of U.S. involvement in Iraq would be to strengthen the much more dangerous regime in Iran. On the other hand, and the whole netroots nation thing seemed to impute the worst motives to Bush and his advisors, charging that the war in Iraq was really about oil and foolishness like that. Obviously, because of the oil reserves there, the entire Mideast is of enormous strategic interest to the U.S. but the netroots nation saw more sinister motives than national interest at work in the deliberations of the Bush White House.

In 2004, I worked on a congressional campaign in Connecticut, which entailed traveling to many Democratic town committee meetings and other gatherings with my candidate or on his behalf. Nothing so chocked me as the growing anti-Semitism on the Left. At least a half a dozen times in as many months I found myself talking with someone who ignorance about the State of Israel was matched only by their venom towards it, and who blithely repeated some of the most odious canards among the many tropes of anti-Semitism without the blink of an eye. Anti-Semitism, once the province of extremists on the right, had been exiled from those precincts, in large part by Christian conservatives and the Moral Majority, and found a new home in the pseudo-intellectual Left.

Briefly, during the 2008 primaries, there was the outline of a debate about America’s role in the world between then-Sen. Barack Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, but that debate got focused on one narrow issue – Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq War – and the party did not have the kind of ideological debate it needed to have.

But, then, something big changed. Obama won the White House and suddenly a new calculus – responsibility – was interjected into the mix and the activists, freed from such responsibility, had trouble grappling with that fact. They also seem not to understand that a President is not a dictator and cannot govern by fiat. I watched with a strange admixture of horror and bemusement the other night as a gay rights activist from the netroots refused to acknowledge that the President’s involvement in the gay marriage issue was limited by the fact that most marriage laws are state, not federal, laws. The Left wanted the war in Iraq to end and end now. The Left wants the war in Afghanistan to end and to end now. The Left wants Guantanamo closed yesterday. I want these things too, along with the eschaton.

There is a proud Christian tradition of pacifism, but that is not what animates the Left today. Take, for example, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, the leading anti-war voice on Capitol Hill to be sure. That voice was a lot more credible when he also defended the human dignity of the unborn, and issue he dropped like a hot potato when he decided to run for President, evidently passing the potato to former Gov. Mitt Romney who was traveling in the other direction on the abortion issue. But, Kucinich is hysterical, not clairvoyant. He evidences no knowledge of history. He seems still to be stuck in the 1970’s with the idea that American military intervention is always a bad thing. I wish Kucinich would go to Sarajevo and to Kosovo and try to repeat such foolishness.

Still, Obama’s most forceful critics are now on the left. This morning, Eugene Robinson pens these words:

Do we use military force to protect civilians who are in imminent danger of being massacred by forces loyal to a despotic regime? That was the rationale for intervening in Libya. But what about Syria, where a massacre of freedom-seeking civilians has been underway for weeks? What about Yemen, where civilians have been dying in the streets?
And what about the civilians who are being killed accidentally, such as the nine who reportedly died Sunday when an errant NATO missile strayed into a residential neighborhood of Tripoli? Is there a point at which the death and destruction of a drawn-out civil war surpass anything Gaddafi’s forces might have done had they rolled unopposed into rebel-held Benghazi?”

Robinson is usually clear and concise in his views but here we see evidence of the hash the Dems are swimming in. The first indictment seems to be that we should not help prevent the slaughter of civilians anywhere unless we can do it everywhere, an argument made by isolationists for years, but a foolish argument nonetheless. When a man has an heart attack right in front of you, go ahead and call 911 even thought you may not be able to help all the people having heart attacks in the world. Robinson’s second argument is simply bizarre: One missile goes astray and kills nine innocent people and he compares this with what Qaddafi could have done in Benghazi, a city of several hundreds of thousands of people?

President Obama has tried to negotiate between the twin poles that have shaped most post-war foreign policy, realism and liberal internationalism, keeping in the best traditions of the bipartisan foreign policy that governed this nation from the late 1940s until the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Harry Truman created NATO; Obama is using it today in Libya. Dwight Eisenhower recognized the stalemate in Korea and entered into negotiations, and it appears that it what Obama is recognizing in Afghanistan. &c. President Obama has been much better on foreign policy than I feared he might be, but he needs to do a better job explaining his decisions, and combating the crazies within his own base. The conservatives at least are having a debate. The Left is only having a fit.

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