Vision Gap, Part I

“Don't doubt yourselves. We know who we are.” Senator Barak Obama said those words to an audience of progressives in a well-received speech at the Take Back America conference in June. If only it were true. When it comes to foreign policy, we do not know who we are, at least not yet.

Today, significant fault lines divide the left on a host of major foreign policy questions. If such disagreements were simply a matter of differing policy prescriptions, that would be one thing. But the divisions are of a more fundamental nature -- a product of competing meta-narratives liberals hold to understand America's role in a post-9/11 world.

There have been sustained efforts by Democrats of late to close ranks and present a unified front. Bill Clinton has said that “we ought to be whipped if we allow our differences over what to do now over Iraq divide us.” Even despite these differences, most progressives now agree that the Iraq adventure, for all the promise it might have once had, has proven a disastrous mistake. And over the past year, Democrats in Congress have done a much better job of coordinating their opposition to the Bush administration's innumerable national security missteps.

An artificial, contrived consensus based on the lowest common denominator might suffice while in the opposition. However, if Democrats win back Congress this year or the presidency in 2008, a more clear vision will be necessary. Ideas are imperative -- but while it is easy to argue that Democrats need “big ideas,” it is more difficult to figure out what those might actually be.

In recent months, there have been several noteworthy attempts to provide an intellectual and ideological frame for progressive policy. Here, in the pages of the Prospect, Michael Tomasky as well as John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira have offered the most cohesive arguments to date, proposing the “common good” as a foundation for a new progressive vision. Unfortunately, both these efforts reserve their focus for domestic policy. Their foreign policy suggestions are vague and, for the most part, avoid tackling the challenging questions that have sowed division within liberal ranks.

Just as the Vietnam War would define a generation's worldview, leading to the Democratic Party's much-noted ambivalence about the uses and abuses of American power, there is a profound risk that the failure of Iraq might precipitate a similarly destructive intellectual shift. Neoconservatism, with its dogged reliance on the transformative power of military force, has found itself discredited after a series of embarrassing failures. Realism -- along with a renewed sense of pessimism and a more brittle regard for America's ability to reshape the internal politics of other countries -- is ascendant. In the September American Prospect, Flynt Leverett argues that "realism has become the truly progressive position on foreign policy."

An assertive democracy promotion posture, a central component of neoconservative ideology, was sullied in the eyes of liberals by the Iraq War. In light of Islamist electoral gains throughout the Middle East, the wisdom of promoting democracy -- in a region where illiberal, anti-American forces command the loyalty of the masses -- has been called into further question. Fundamentally, the tragic misadventures of the Bush administration have fanned a pervasive distrust of grand projects, long-term commitments, and, more generally, “interventionism."

The leadership of the Democratic Party shares this shift in outlook, albeit to varying degrees. When leading Democrats actually do mention democracy promotion, it sounds more like a concession than a commitment. In March, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt that while “we of course acknowledge that democracy is our goal … we first have to have stability.” Similarly, the congressional Democrats' national security plan, released on March 29, did a good job of talking “tough” (i.e. kill terrorists and strengthen the military) but was a document without ambition, reflecting the banality and amoralism that have come to afflict Democrats' foreign-policy vision. The plan, entitled “Real Security,” did not even once mention the word “democracy.”

To a great extent, Democrats already have clear policy prescriptions for homeland security, Iraq, energy, and the war on terrorism. If Democrats came to power, they would be competent. They would begin to undo the accumulated damage of the Bush era. But what is the one idea that unifies the distinct (but interrelated) subsections of progressive national-security policy? Do we have a story to tell to the American people, one which embraces our country's founding ideals and our enduring sense of moral purpose?

Neoconservatives, for all their faults, were guided by a useful, if overly simplistic, understanding of the causal relationship between autocracy and terrorism. The animating force of the Bush administration, for a while at least, was the radical notion that democracy -- by allowing people to express their grievances through a meaningful political process -- would defeat the frustration and impotence that are incubators of political violence. This is a bold idea. It is also, however, a costly one, fraught with risks and difficulties that may be hard to stomach after the misguided adventurism of the Bush era.

Such difficulties will remain impossible to address effectively as long as progressives continue to lack clarity and consensus regarding American power and primacy. The central question for progressives is whether we intend to be a country that relegates itself to traditional, interest-bound forms of diplomacy and ad-hoc international maneuvering or an interventionist state, with a set of strongly-held ideals and principles and a commitment to promoting them -- with care, but without apology.

Unless these tensions are addressed, liberals will find themselves at a loss to articulate a compelling vision to the American people and the world. A return to the dank grayness of realpolitik, moreover, will prove little more than a stopgap measure, a fleeting reaction to the recklessness of the neoconservatives.

To be sure, we will not be able to resolve these issues in time for November or even 2008. But we will have to start -- and a growing number of progressives, so far mainly limited to a small subsection of elite liberals, have done so. The Truman National Security Project, a group founded in 2004, attempts to articulate a robust internationalist vision, channeling the idealism and moral resolve of past Democrat presidents like John F. Kennedy, Woodrow Wilson, and, of course, Harry Truman. Michael Signer, a Truman principal, in a brilliant article for the new quarterly Democracy, has given the progressive alternative a name, “exemplarism,” while Peter Beinart, former editor of The New Republic, in his new book The Good Fight, has written the closest thing interventionist liberals have to an alternative long-form manifesto. And Robert Wright, writing in The New York Times, offers a less ambitious but still useful contribution to the question of how to balance American interests and ideals.

In many ways, what is being offered is a middle way between a more narrow realism and the missionary (some would say messianic) activism of neoconservatism. This alternative attempts to reclaim the democratic idealism of the neoconservative movement while wedding it to a more multilateral framework that recognizes the importance of alliances and international institutions. It also recognizes that without our moral prestige (which President Bush and the Republicans have squandered), securing our national interests and promoting the ideals that define us as Americans will prove far more difficult.

While the Middle East, today, is coming apart under the Republicans' watch, the central components of a progressive foreign policy alternative may very well be coming together. Tomorrow I'll make the case for why democracy promotion needs to be at the center of that progressive vision.

Shadi Hamid is founding member and associate at The Project on Middle East Democracy. He is a contributor to Democracy Arsenal, the Security and Peace Initiative's foreign affairs blog.

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