I strongly agree with two of the points Ilan Goldenberg makes about the politics of foreign policy. He’s right that “today Democrats have an opportunity to seize the national security mantle back from Republicans and potentially own the issue for the next generation” and he’s right that it simply can’t be fully seized except by actually winning an election and then having a Democratic president prove that progressive policies can deliver results. As Ilan says, “All the chest thumping and tough talk in the world is meaningless without a Democratic President who is successful on this issue.”
I don’t, however, think his interim solution of “more fear mongering” is all that sound. “Democratic fear mongering,” he says “needs to focus on how scary it would be to have another Republican President and how much that could endanger all of us.” There’s room for some of that kind of thing, but fundamentally one thing I think Ted Nordhause and Michael Shellenberger get right (unfortunately their book, which says a lot of insightful things, is yoked to some pretty dubious policy ideas about climate change) is the idea that “resentment and apocalypse are weapons that can be used only to advance a politics of resentment and apocalypse.” And, indeed, I think Ilan’s example of LBJ’s famous “Daisies” ad sort of makes the point — Lyndon Johnson won the election, but while ’64 set up great liberal advances on the domestic front it led to a fiasco in foreign policy terms. Similarly, the Democrats’ somewhat demagogic campaign for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security just set the table for a much-more-demagogic and ultimately much-more-successful GOP counter-campaign.
At any rate, I have a whole book that’ll be coming out about what kinds of mistakes I think Democrats have been making, but the main thought I’d leave you with for now is that you do need to return to the initial two points: Ultimately, the most helpful think would be for a progressive president to successfully implement progressive ideas under circumstances (unlike those of the Clinton administration) when the public is paying attention. That means dropping the assumption that liberal ideas won’t fly politically and need to be kept hidden under layers of macho posturing and, instead, actually try to build progressive messaging around progressive ideas.
It’s remarkable the extent to which you almost never see leading Democrats articulate commonplace notions like “starting a war with Iran would be a strategic disaster for the United States,” “expending finite resources investigating people who there’s no probable cause to suspect is probably a waste of time,” “we should focus on fighting al-Qaeda rather than other Muslims who haven’t attacked us,” “invading Iraq was a huge mistake,” “Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt founded the UN because a strong UN is good for America,” “getting other countries to follow non-proliferation agreements is going to require us to follow them too,” or “reviving the Israeli-Arab peace process would make ti easier for us to find Muslim allies.” Now I’m not going to promise anyone that those exact phrases are ones it would be smart to use. But the ideas are important ones, and the real political professionals need to think about finding the best ways to express them.
More generally, I think progressive politicians — but also progressives more generally — need to make the point that good things can happen inforeign policy and will happen with smart leadership, it’s not just a realm in which scary people do scary things and we try to stop them.