Tweedledum, Tweedledee

In the October print issue of the Prospect, James Lindsay reviewed two new books offering alternative progressive foreign policy visions -- Michael Lind's The American Way of Strategy and Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman's Ethical Realism. Today, those books' authors reply to Lindsay. Lieven and Hulsman's response is below. See Lind's response here.


Having indignantly denied that establishment Democrats like himself are “playing Tweedledee to the Republicans' Tweedledum on foreign policy,” James Lindsay goes on to play the part of Tweedledee to perfection. After his brief and pro forma denunciation of the Bush administration's “many missteps,” he condemns our proposed alternatives as no better, without saying in detail what they are.

Much more importantly, neither in this review nor in any of the rest of his published work that we can find does Lindsay say in detail how his own future strategy would differ from that of Bush. If we remember rightly, it isn't recorded in the nursery rhyme whether it was Tweedledum or Tweedledee who eventually got the "nice new rattle" -- probably because the rhyme's authors thought that it really didn't matter much. We would very much like to believe that it will make a really significant difference if Tweedlejim replaces Tweedlecon as deputy assistant secretary for something or other in 2009, but there is little in Lindsay's own writings to suggest it.

Lindsay's condemnation of the Bush administration is limited to the easy target of that administration's gross incompetence in Iraq, a condemnation in which he is of course now joined by many Republicans. He calls the invasion of Iraq “unnecessary and disastrous.” But to the best of our memory, he himself was careful to sit on the fence in the debate preceding the invasion. He does not discuss this, or say whether he was wrong not to have taken a stronger stance, or what his wrongness on that occasion might say about his wider judgment, and the beliefs on which his judgments are based.

In general, Lindsay in his public writings is extremely careful never to commit himself to any specific new or different policy towards Iran, Palestine, China, Russia, North Korea or the various other very difficult challenges facing U.S. policy today -- because of course to do so might attract serious criticism from colleagues and actual or potential patrons. How much easier and safer to restrict oneself to uncontroversial ideological generalities about “American leadership,” “building effective international institutions,” and “spreading democracy.” Lindsay does not even address one of the greatest lessons we draw from the Truman-Eisenhower record, with the greatest and most obvious implications for present policy: namely the rejection of preventive war.

As a matter of duty, we by contrast -- like Michael Lind -- describe in considerable detail the specific policies we recommend in various parts of the world. Lindsay says that “some of these proposals are good, some not,” but because he does not say which he thinks are which, he yet again evades taking a concrete and courageous stand on anything controversial. For example, Lindsay says that all parts of the U.S. political spectrum say that they “want a foreign policy that is prudent” and “weighs costs and benefits.” In our book, we argue very strongly that, for example, an offer of NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia would be the very opposite of such a policy.

What does Lindsay think? Does he himself regard such an offer as “prudent”? Or is he prepared to break with much of the present leadership of the Democratic Party by opposing this strategy? Lindsay accuses us of not being able to decide whether aid is “a blessing or a curse for poor countries.” On the contrary, we go into considerable detail about which countries in our view are appropriate recipients for U.S. development aid and are likely to use it successfully, and which are not. What does Lindsay think about this?

Finally, Lindsay accuses us of not tying our specific policy proposals to our ethical realist philosophy. On the contrary, they are directly derived from that philosophy. This is true for example of our insistence, following Morgenthau and other ethical realists, that American policymakers learn to place themselves in the shoes of other nations, to understand and appreciate the patriotism of other peoples, and above all to recognize that it is the patriotic duty of the leaders and officials of those nations to defend their own national interests, not those of the United States, or ones defined by Washington.

Lindsay's own utter incapacity in this regard is shown by his grotesque statement that “the Clinton administration sought to enlist Russia as a strategic partner” -- a suggestion that would be greeted with incredulous scorn by the vast majority of Russians. What the Clinton administration did was to demand Russian submission on every significant point of disagreement, including the expansion of NATO and the destruction of Russian influence in the former Soviet Union, while giving ideological and propaganda cover to the looting of the Russian state by Russian oligarchs and their liberal allies, and the transfer of much of the proceeds to U.S. banks and real estate.

Now maybe if he were forced to, Lindsay could make a tough realist case that this U.S. strategy was in America's national interest. But to argue that it was in Russia's is either deceit or self-deceit. In the new circumstances of growing Russian strength and relative U.S. weakness, such an argument does nothing to win Russian support for U.S. national goals -- and is certainly not in accordance with ethical realism.

In our book, we set out the main principles of ethical realism: prudence, humility, responsibility, study, and patriotism. On this basis, we develop a concrete plan for placing U.S. power in the world on a more limited but firmer basis, through a mixture of regional concerts and compromises with other major regional powers. This we call “The Great Capitalist Peace.” We describe what this would mean in terms of new U.S. policies towards the Middle East, Iran, Russia, and China, as well as new U.S. development aid and trade policies. We call on all Americans, of both parties, who truly recognize the disastrous nature of the Bush administration's policies, to rally behind a clear and concrete alternative strategy. We are not trying to settle old scores, and we would be only glad to see liberal hawks recognize their past errors and develop a truly new and practicable strategy of their own. To judge by Lindsay's essay however, the policy of all too many of them remains to stick their heads even deeper in the sand and keep on burrowing.

Anatol Lieven is a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation. John Hulsman is a contributing editor to The National Interest.

* * *

If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The American Prospect here.

Support independent media with a tax-deductible donation here.