A Superman Approach to Foreign Policy

Round and round the rhetoric went yesterday. Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were, if not masterful in their obfuscation, perfectly adequate. Success was never defined, and thus the conditions for withdrawal were never articulated. A healthier insurgency, we were told, required the presence of our troops to beat it back, and a weakened insurgency required the presence of our troops to press the advantage. Heads we stay in Iraq; tails we never leave.

And either way, we never talk about anything else. Aside from the odd, and very occasional, dip into arguments like whether we'll negotiate with Iran or attend the 2008 Summer Olympics, Iraq exerts near total domination over the foreign-policy discussion. Its presence in the election has actually served to obscure real disagreement over foreign-policy philosophies. Everyone who wants to bring the war to a close is declared a liberal. Those who want to see it continued are considered conservatives. That, however, is a misleadingly narrow space for discussion. There's a difference between being pro-war, anti-war, anti-this particular war, and anti-this kind of preventive war. Opposing our continued presence in a hellish quagmire, in other words, is different than actually articulating your philosophy on the use of force and the point of foreign policy.

Which is why Matthew Yglesias' new book Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats is actually that rarest of election-year tomes: A useful intervention into the debate. (Full disclosure: Yglesias is a contributor to this site and a friend of mine.) Rather than simply re-litigating the argument over the Iraq War, Yglesias situates the war, and the debate that led to the invasion, in the context of longer-running arguments about the proper direction of U.S. foreign policy. In particular, he laments the relative abandonment of the vision liberals have held dear since World War II -- that of a rules-based international order in which America sacrifices a certain amount of autonomy in order to gain a greater measure of legitimacy, and works mightily to create, preserve, and strengthen international institutions that let other countries do the same. Those who would promote liberal values, in other words, need also submit to them. This means, at times, restraining American power and even accepting that our agenda can be impeded by the intransigence of our allies and, occasionally, our adversaries. But better we endure smaller setbacks than revisit the brutal struggle for power that defined world affairs in the pre-internationalist period. Better those bureaucratic struggles than a return to what came before.

This vision underpinned the foreign-policy decisions of post-World War II presidents, but it was rarely articulated. The rhetoric of international affairs has long had a militaristic and even self-consciously heroic character. The "Greatest Generation," after all, is remembered for bravely saving the world from the menace of Hitler, not for the U.N. and Bretton Woods and the Marshall Plan, initiatives that ushered in an era of international cooperation and created structures that largely headed off further violent conflict between great powers. The moment was popularly defined by its heroism, even if its lasting legacy would be the work that went into preventing the necessity of such dramatic interventions in the future. This came out in the cultural products of the moment. Superman, created in 1938, appeared on the cover of his comic book shaking Hitler and Tojo by the scruff of their necks. Similarly, his patriotic contemporary, Captain America, was originally portrayed clocking Hitler in the jaw. Neither one received cover art that depicted diplomacy.

Yet the internationalist vision was more deeply interwoven into our cultural fabric than we often realize. Superman and Captain America were superheroes of an odd sort: tremendously powerful beings whose primary struggle was often to follow the self-imposed rules and strictures that lent their power a moral legitimacy. Neither allowed themselves to kill, and both sought to work within the law. Given their strength, either could have sought world domination, and even if they didn't, they could have been viewed with deep suspicion and even hatred by those who were convinced that they one day would seek world domination. It was only by following ostentatiously strict moral codes that they could legitimize their power and thus exist cooperatively with a world that had every right to fear them. Indeed, soon enough, both were forming communities of like-minded super beings (The Justice League for Superman, the Avengers for Captain America) and generally operating much like, well, the nation that birthed them. As Spiderman -- a later hero who, like so many heroes, bought into the idea that rules and restraint separated the good guys from the bad guys -- liked to say, "with great power comes great responsibility."

That strain of foreign-policy thinking was largely abandoned in the rubble of the Twin Towers. As Yglesias puts it, "9/11 marked the beginning of an enormous psychological change on the part of the American people." With a newfound sense of vulnerability, there was a newfound sense of fear. Restraint was a luxury, a nice ideal when we were primarily dealing with the problems of other people, but less desirable when our own lives were on the line. After 9-11, the country's foreign-policy debate contracted, and liberal internationalists, who had always been better at pursuing their agenda than selling it politically, were largely left out. Instead, the conversation was dominated by those on the right who believed in unilateral U.S military hegemony over the world, and those on the left who believed in a superficially multilateral U.S military hegemony over the world, with the option to revert back to unilateralism if other countries proved disagreeable. It was Michael O'Hanlon versus Richard Perle, and few even seemed to find that strange.

This, too, saw its expression in a new type of hero: Jack Bauer. If Superman and Captain America were the emblems of the national mood directly after World War II, Bauer expressed the national anxieties uncovered by 9-11. Rather than an invincible superhero, Bauer was but a man, one who could perish like any other, and was aware of not only his own vulnerability, but that of his family, his government, and his country. Though there were laws he was supposed to follow, the enormity of the dangers he faced and the ruthlessness of the enemies he encountered led him to break them almost constantly, and so he tortured, killed, and generally let the ends lay claim to whatever means they could think of. Indeed, he did it so often, and with such abandon, that he'll start Season 7 on trial for torture.

This, fundamentally, is the foreign-policy debate in our country. Liberals see America possessing tremendous power that must be tempered and legitimized by the rules we choose to follow and the restraint we choose to apply. Conservatives see great vulnerabilities that can only be assuaged through sufficient application of violence and will. And that's the choice: Do we want the foreign policy of Jack Bauer and John Yoo, or of Clark Kent and George Marshall? It's a question that Gen. Petraeus, sadly, has no answer for.

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