With the U.S. invasion of Iraq under way, American liberals seem at a loss for how to respond. In recent months, most lined up against unilateral war; now that war has begun, the only semi-coherent message emerging from progressive ranks is one of rejectionism. But that tack is a mistake. And it is one liberals could pay for dearly -- at the ballot box and in the department of intellectual credibility -- in future years. When it comes to questions of war, Iraq and reconstruction, liberals need to start thinking constructively, and fast.
Liberals held a wide variety of views on the necessity of war during the months leading up to invasion. We were no exception: One of us fully supported the administration's war plans while the other was critical of the president's unilateral course. But that is all in the past. War is now a reality. And it seems to us that the only moral and practical option for liberals is to begin immediately campaigning for a more ambitious, comprehensive and compassionate reconstruction of Iraq than the one the Bush administration is likely to embrace -- while supporting the war effort that will lay the groundwork for such plans to be enacted.
Millions of people will soon be freed from a yoke of cruelty and dictatorship. One might have expected liberals to use this moment to cheer the prospect that the war's aftermath could lead to a better life for Iraqis, as well as for those Arabs, Israelis, Turks and Kurds who have for more than two decades lived under the threat of attack by Saddam Hussein. One might have expected liberals to begin making the case for a lengthy and serious rebuilding of Iraq -- a process that is hugely complicated and that no one knows whether the Bush administration will commit to wholeheartedly. But neither of these things has happened. Instead, on the brink of the ouster of a dictator who is the very embodiment of illiberal values, too many liberals are on the sidelines throwing beer cans at the proceedings.
It's time for progressives to make an eleventh-hour effort to correct this mistake. Some may continue to criticize this administration's treatment of its allies, but such criticism is no substitute for pushing a set of progressive ideas for a new Iraq. Chiding the president for allocating funds to rebuild Iraqi schools while allowing American public schools to languish -- as we have heard some liberals do -- is not a foreign policy; it is the absence of a foreign policy. Any fair-minded liberal should admit that Iraqi rebuilding and American domestic priorities are not mutually exclusive; both carry a strong moral imperative and both are clearly in our country's national interest.
In order to carve out for themselves a constructive position on Iraq, liberals will have to reclaim the optimism that once animated the progressive spirit but seems now to be a casualty of the build-up to war. Since September 11, progressives have become infected with a reflexive dread on questions of foreign policy -- first, dread of an imaginary quagmire in Afghanistan, now dread of instability in Iraq, dread of Hussein's demise leading to increased terrorism and dread of what other Arab leaders might think if, God forbid, our actions put pressure on their regimes to liberalize or reform.
Well, we have news for our progressive friends: Dread isn't going to fly with the majority of American voters -- and it isn't progressive. In two months, U.S. forces will have liberated Iraq from Hussein's rule. How will a temperament of permanent dread look then? Imagine the line George W. Bush will land over and over again on the campaign trail: "For those who said we couldn't plant the seed of democracy in the Middle East, I say, 'Never doubt the resolve of the American people.'"
Optimism is an invaluable political commodity in America, and it is nearly impossible to win elections without it. Right now Bush has it, and liberals don't. Consider the recent history of presidential elections. In 1976, Jimmy Carter offered a moral vision of American life that stood in stark contrast to the perceived dirtiness of Nixonian politics; in its own way, Carter's implicit promise to American voters was a powerful sort of optimism. Four years later, his moralism came to be seen by voters as a kind of self-righteous negativism, and one that America could never be worthy of. So Ronald Reagan -- despite an agenda that was anything but moderate or mainstream -- won over those voters by sunnily conveying that the United States was meant for great things in the world. In 1992, Bill Clinton triumphed by using a similar optimism to speak to the economic aspirations of the middle-class. (Remember "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow"?) And since 9-11, Bush has won over many moderates with his confident message that Americans are a resilient people who will not just survive terrorist strikes but exhibit bravery in preventing future ones.
American progressives need to reclaim their sense of optimism on foreign policy. And if they are looking for some inspiration to escape the temperamental and political corner they have painted themselves into, then they need look no farther than their own history. From the American Revolution to the New Deal to the civil-rights movement, the crusading spirit of liberalism is decorated with victories won on behalf of democracy and the common good.
Liberals have the skills that will be most needed in nurturing an Iraqi democracy: fostering tolerance and multiculturalism, building mixed and well-regulated economies, creating social safety nets, promoting public health and environmental cleanliness, fighting for civil liberties and beefing up education. Liberals will also be more likely than conservatives to demand that Iraqi oil be turned over to those who rightfully own it, that is, the Iraqi people. Can progressives really afford to leave these important objectives in the hands of Dick Cheney, Richard Perle and their corporate cronies?
Some progressives have contended that liberal nation building doesn't work, but this argument simply doesn't square with the experiences of the last 10 years. Yes, Haiti and Bosnia and Kosovo and Afghanistan continue to experience problems. The operative question, however, is not whether those countries are perfect -- no country, after all, is -- but whether American interventions have in the end left those countries better off than they otherwise would have been. The answer in each case is an unequivocal "yes." Rather than denigrating the concept of nation building, progressives should be trying to figure out how to make it work better so that America will be not be criticized in the future when we employ it as policy. Iraq ought to be the laboratory for proving that nation building -- a concept coined by liberals -- can offer justice to those who have suffered for so long. It is the ultimate policy of optimism and hope, and liberals should invest themselves in proving it can succeed.
Thousands of anti-war protesters continue to take to the streets; many liberal writers and pundits are still attacking what they see as an illegitimate war; political strategists continue crafting complaints about a U.S. occupation busting our domestic budget. But meanwhile, American soldiers are putting their lives on the line to crush tyranny, and Iraqi dissidents, diving into the rich history of democratic liberalism, are gearing up to draft a constitution that could become a cornerstone for the eventual transformation of the Arab world. Which is why we suggest that the true liberal posture at this moment should not be one of reflexive dread. It should be one of overwhelming hope.
Nick Penniman is the executive editor of TomPaine.com. Richard Just is the editor of The American Prospect Online.