Divided We Stand


Yesterday I said I’d offer up some fuller thoughts on Kevin Drums notion that Democrats actually are in agreement about national security matters. One slight problem with Kevin’s view, I think, is that it comes with the proviso that only “if you take out, say, the Chomsky wing on the left and the Lieberman wing on the right,” then you find that “there’s a surprising amount that the rest of us agree on.” In part it gets a little tautological to say that if you take a political movement, then remove its dissident elements, what you’re left with is unity. That aside, though, there is something to Kevin’s notion. But also, I think, something wrong with it.

The unity he’s talking about has been purchased at the price of a great deal of vagueness. Now there’s always going to be vagueness coming from politicians who have an understandable desire to avoid getting themselves pinned down. Which is fine, politics is politics. But if you watch the community of non-politicians in the progressive camp, you’ll find people who do articulate more specific ideas. And while either set of ideas can be fitted into the same overarching framework of platitutdes, they’re genuinely different ideas. I thought one useful way of exploring this might be for me to talk a little bit about Peter Beinart’s book, The Good Fight. There are a few reasons for this. One is simply that the book took a lot of criticism from bloggers for what I think were sort of the wrong reasons. Another is that my book is going to be on a similar sort of subject, but is going to reach substantially different conclusions. Last, Beinart’s a good case precisely because he’s fully disavowed the Iraq War, but I think still falls on the “hawk” side of an enduring divide within mainstream liberalism so looking at his ideas is a good way of showing that disagreement isn’t just disagreement about Iraq.

On the relatively specific issue of combatting the al-Qaeda movement, the crux of the issue is this. Beinart, like many most progressives who found themselves in the pro-invasion camp, has developed a certain degree of skepticism about the utility of military force in coping with the problem. This is all to the good. He retains, however, a belief in the basic view of the problem that drove support for the invasion of Iraq. Specifically, he continues to believe that America’s strategy toward confronting the al-Qaeda movement should be centered around trying to bring about large-scale socio-political transformation of the Islamic world. This is a view that some people who were never believers in the Iraq War also maintain in one form or another. Shadi Hamid’s recent article for The American Prospect Online qualifies, I would say.

On this view, the Muslim world is afflicted by a kind of cultural sickness that, thanks to globalization, immigration, and the open nature of western societies is capable of infecting us. To cope with the threat we need to act aggressively to treat the patient. This could take the form of military action (unilateral or otherwise) or “transformational diplomacy,” efforts to fund certain groups here or there, big Marshall Plan-style funding campaigns, or any number of other things.

Basically, I would dispute that analysis and adopt an analysis closer to the consensus I saw on view at an enlightening panel discussion I attended this morning.

On my view, the central problem vis-a-vis the United States and the Muslim world is the enduring legacy of imperialism. There are a number of modalities to this. The continuing American occupation of Iraq is one. The Israeli occupation of Arab lands is another. The secessionist conflicts in Kashmir, Chechnya, and the Philipines also count. So does the American habit of locating military bases in Arab countries with the consent of the local monarchs (typically installed by retreating British colonial authorities) but against the will of the local population. All this, in turn, relates in a broad sense to American efforts to micromanage the balance of power in the Persian Gulf region in increasingly intrusive ways.

Mitigating the threat posed by the al-Qaeda movement, on this view, requires us to wind down the various concrete political conflicts that al-Qaeda stitches together into a generic clash of civilizations narrative. It also requires us not to transform our Arab allies into democracies, but to broadly disentangle ourselves from our perceived role as regional string-pullers and the power behind the throne.

Beinart, conveniently enough, does me the favor of labeling what he regards as the left-deviationists within the Democratic camp as the “anti-imperialist” faction of progressive politics. I think it’s a good label, since “imperialism” is precisely the label I’d like to pin on folks on the other side. Unfortunately, Beinart seems to see a fairly crude sort of isolationism as the only viable alternative to imperialism. I would say that liberals have at our disposal an appealing third option — liberalism — the continuing effort to slowly-but-surely construct a liberal order in which international affairs are increasingly governed through institutions.

In his book, Beinart — like Francis Fukuyama coming at the problem from a different direction in his book — has engaged in a kind of rediscovery of institutions. But he sees the value of institutions as overwhelmingly instrumental. They help grant American actions legitimacy, or perhaps the appearance of legitimacy, which, in practice, turns out to be important. This drives what I would characterize as an undue level of interest in institutional proliferation, what Fukuyama calls multi-multilateralism. What this amounts to, I think, is a desire to open up as many opportunities as possible for forum shopping so that the United States can appear to have subordinated its will to rule-governed institutional processes while, in fact, retaining the substance of unilateral hegemony.

That’s the attitude I called “smarter, more effective imperialism” with reference to Nancy Soderbergh. And I think it really is smarter and, for a while, would genuinely prove more effective than the extraordinary crudeness of Bush’s conduct of the country’s affairs. It would be better to see the country move to that kind of position. I don’t, however, think that those sort of policies will genuinely solve the problem or provide a long-term basis for peace, prosperity, and security.

I also don’t think a political argument that’s predominantly about techniques is especially promising. From moment one, you essentially wind up too thick in the weeds for voters to listen to what you’re saying or care about what you’re trying to do. The upshot of that is going to be a GOP advantage simply because they have a generic edge on national security issues and have for a long time. A bigger, broader argument about vision and principle would, by contrast, be hard to win. But I think it would at least be possible. And it would also serve the country better.