A Proud Wartime Liberalism

By now, many of you are aware of Peter Beinart’s article on national security & liberalism ("A Fighting Faith", this week’s issue of TNR; if you don’t have access, email me and I’ll send you a copy). You’ve also read Kevin Drum, Matt Yglesias, Duncan Black, and Ezra Klein, as well as sundry others. Having read all those, plus mine, here’s my contribution to the debate, given that I’m a liberal and someone who’s had first-hand experience with the issues at hand.

If I had to pick a camp, I’d have to go with Ezra, with Matt to a lesser degree. That’s the short take.

Here’s the longer take. Warning: this is a LONG post. You may want to print this out. Here’s a quick reference guide, too: Kevin is Kevin Drum of The Washington Monthly. Matt is Matthew Yglesias of The American Prospect. John is John Emerson of Seeing the Forest. And of course, Peter is Peter Beinart, the senior editor at The New Republic. GOP stands for "Grand Old Party", the name by which your friendly neighborhood Republican party wishes to be known. Got it? Good.
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If I had to guess, I think that Peter is saying that, for the foreseeable future, the big issue is going to be national security & terrorism, as far as what induces voters to cast their votes for one party or the other. If that is the case, then we owe it to ourselves to come up with credible policies which reflect this concern, and to aggresively show the world that we take those concerns seriously. And you know what? He’s right, in the only court that counts in politics–the court of public opinion.

By a larger margin, over the last two elections (2002 and 2004), voters have ranked national security as the most important issue. We, as a party, chose not to contest those elections on that issue, and instead chose to concentrate on domestic issues for both of those election cycles. This was more apparent in 2002, but the end result was the same–we lost ground.

Whether we want to accept it or not, the ground has shifted under our feet, and the reason for that tectonic shift was 9/11/01. Domestic issues, for better or worse, don’t resonate as much with voters when they’re seized by an inchoate fear of the terrorist under their bed.

If that is the case, then what we have to do is, at worst, neutralize any concerns that voters may have over our stands on national security issues so that we can then pivot onto ground that is favorable for us. And the way we neutralize those concerns is not by ignoring them, but by meeting them head on.

That’s what Peter’s article boils down to. The fact that only 4% of Democratic convention delegates, as opposed to 38% of Republican convention delegates, thought that terrorism/national security was an important issue, speaks volumes about the two parties’ hard-core enthusiasms.

And I heard it again when listening to Al Franken interview Peter on AAR this afternoon (that’s how I’m making my inferences about what Peter was thinking when he wrote the article). Franken kept sidestepping his points, as if national security was such a boring issue that no sane Democrat could be bothered with. And I could sense Peter’s increasing frustration, as he kept on trying to make the same points, and they kept on getting swatted away.

So that’s one block of liberals.
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But here’s the one that really vexes Peter, and to a lesser degree, myself. And it’s that wing of liberals who dismiss what Peter has written as mere pro-war agitation. And it’s not.

By and large, most liberals embraced the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, and many were even more aggressive about it than most (for example, Howard Dean). But there were a few who either dismissed the threat of terrorism (Michael Moore, for one), or who were advocating an essentially pacifist stance towards al-Qaeda and the Taliban (Eli Pariser and much of the leadership, if not the rank-and-file membership, of MoveOn).

To argue that terrorism isn’t a threat, as Moore as written, simply begs for you to be dismissed as unserious, no matter what else you have to say. On 9/11, 3,000 Americans died, as a result of four terrorist attacks–and you’re going to say terrorism isn’t a threat? I understand what Moore, et al, are trying to say–that the Bush Administration and its supporters have used the terrorist threat as an excuse to execute their agenda. But that’s not the same thing as saying that terrorism isn’t a threat, and to say as much is going to obscure the point you’re trying to make.
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Now, the argument can be made, as some have (notably, John Emerson), that 1) Peter is politically wrong, and 2) is wrong on the policy front as well. Let’s look at this.

Whatever your moral inclinations may be vis-a-vis pacifism, in this day
and age, it’s not a realistic stance to take if we’re the sole military
superpower in the world. We have to be prepared to take aggressive
actions in this world–aggressive military actions, if the time and place calls for it. And after 9/11, the time was late 2001 and the place was Afghanistan. But more on that later. Let me address the political considerations first, and follow that by addressing the policy considerations.

John says that Democrats cannot win as a "war party", and as evidence, he marshals the following:

1. 10% of the entire electorate is "antiwar". Is this chunk of voters against all wars, or are they against the Iraq war. That’s a massively important difference, and it’s not one he illustrates.If John’s going to use that as evidence of how to do good politicking on this issue, then he needs to elaborate on that chunk of voters. If it’s the former, see what I wrote above. But if it’s the latter, and I would fall into that camp, I have to say that that doesn’t obviate our need to have a credible national security policy–in fact, it makes it more important, by showing that we have the judgment to know when to go to war and when not to go to war, as opposed to the other side, who seems to reflexively go to war as a default option.

I suspect that John believes that this chunk of the electorate is against all wars, but while he elucidates this argument, he says that the "anybody but Bush" argument led most of those voters to vote for Kerry. Given that Kerry was advocating some policies which were, if anything, more aggressive than what Bush has proposed, either this group of voters was breathtakingly ignorant of what Kerry’s foreign policy proposals or, more likely, it’s not as reflexively anti-war as John would like to believe.

2. The electorate is polarized, and we only have to convince a small percentage to switch. I’m not so convinced that there’s that much polarization, or at the least, more than the norm. Regardless of how polarization there is, how do you convince that small percentage to jump the fence? It’s hard to see where to begin here. John goes from saying that 90% of GOP support is due to war, terrorism, and values, that that’s the GOP hard-core, and that we needn’t bother addressing those issues, to saying that we can cleave 2 to 4 percent of the GOP vote, and that many of those voters have serious doubts about the incumbent, but that they won’t want to change horses in midstream, and that the President has the power to set the agenda.

First, John’s making a breathtaking assumption about what animates the GOP faithful. From my own experience, both as a former GOP member and as someone whose in-laws voted for the party standardbearer the last few elections, it’s moral issues like abortion and gay marriage which really get the juices flowing. War and terrorism are important only insofar as they believe America is a pretty wonderful country ("my country, right or wrong"), and their desire to support the troops. Otherwise, it just doesn’t come up.

Second, if we want to cleave that small chunk from the GOP, then we have to address the issues of war and terrorism because, after 9/11, that’s what put them into the GOP camp! One side was talking about those issues, and one side wasn’t. Our continuing failure to talk about national security and terrorism means that small chunk will continue to vote for the GOP, and in time, they will then begin to buy into the rest of the GOP agenda, thus putting them beyond our reach.

Third, the President can set the agenda. He can even reshape the agenda. But he can’t change reality. And if his agenda is on a collision course with reality, reality will win–but not until after a nasty collision. If what we’re talking about goes hand in hand with reality, our agenda will win. Again, if we fail to discuss the war or national security, then we’re doing the country a real disservice.
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Now, for the policy.

John, and others in his camp, basically believe that the pro-war arguments are bunk, and that they mask a hidden agenda to establish an American Imperium, along the lines of the British and Roman Imperiums. As evidence, they bring up PNAC* and policy wonks such as Niall Ferguson.

Now, that may be the case. But it’s entirely possible to have been in favor of going to war against Iraq (as I was), on the one hand, and on the other, be entirely convinced that Ferguson and PNAC are utterly wrong. I was in favor of going to war because I believed then (and still do, for what it’s worth) that our best response to militant Islam is the spread of freedom and democracy. Was Iraq the right place to do it? I believed it was; I no longer do so, having been there. But my earlier support for the war does not mean I supported the establishment of an American empire.

And many of us (Peter, Matt, Kevin Drum, et al) felt, and continue to feel, the same way. There were many arguments that could be made, and that were made at the time, and were given various degrees of emphasis, as to why going to war with Iraq made sense–the humanitarian argument, the WMD argument, the regional stability argument. Kevin Pollack wrote a whole book about why we needed to go to war–a very reasoned book, I might add.

John and other anti-war liberals have the luxury of having been proven right in their opposition by events. Having been proven right, they’re now proceeding to crow–rather loudly, I might add–about it, and to crush with the hammer of righteousness everyone and anyone who disagreed with them. But, the thing of it is, it very easily could have turned out differently. I’ve written about how I was wrong, but I’ve also pointed out, time and again, where, if we had made certain decisions the other way, Iraq could have been fairly stable at this point. Had that been the case, anti-war liberals would have been very much in the fringe. That’s clearly not the case now, but given how easily it could have been, and given how much of the Bush antipathy is due to his arrogance, it’s certainly strange to see that same arrogance in display among certain commentators on the left.

Anti-war liberals, such as John, have said that militant Islam isn’t a threat on the par with Hitler or Stalin circa 1942. I’m willing to grant that. I’m not willing to grant that militant Islam is not a threat at all, which is what I think John is insinuating, through a long recitation of how divided the Islamic world is.

That’s bunk, and here’s why. A threat, in this day of interconnected markets and tightly-woven together countries, need not be expansionistic in order to be gravely serious. Ezra, I believe, used the following example. Suppose the Saudi royal family was desposed tomorrow by a fanatical clique of Muslim clerics. And suppose that same junta decided, that since Saudi Arabia didn’t need the oil revenues in order to support a highly corrupt, pro-Western monarchy, they would cut oil exports by half.

Would that not cause severe, if not extreme, dislocation in the world financial markets, thus leading to economic ruin here in the States? Economic ruin, I might add, that would affect the vast majority of Americans? Imagine being an 80-year-old widow, living in Philadelphia, dependent on the low-income home energy assistance program (LIHEAP) for your heating needs in the depths of winter, but not being able to receive any heat because the energy bill’s just too darn high. Impossible, you say. All too probable, I respond, because that very scenario is already taking place. Now, thanks to the Saudis’ move, imagine that same scenario repeating itself, across America.

Is that not a threat? I would say it is–an extreme threat, at that. Yet, the Saudis didn’t invade anyone. They made only one move. But what a move! It’s led to all kinds of other edifices we take for granted crashing to the ground. And you say militant Islam isn’t a threat? And lest you say that they wouldn’t dare, remember, the Arab oil monarchies have cut exports to America before–in 1973 and 1979. It’s not farfetched to say it would happen again.

Anti-war liberals also say that we need to bring the America into alignment with, as John put it, "60%-70% of world opinion", and that we need to "unfool" the American people. It bears reminding that, immediately after 9/11, world opinion was fairly massively on our side (Le Monde’s Nous Sommes Tous Americains headline on 9/12 comes to mind), that the invasion of Afghanistan had similar levels of support from the rest of the world, and that it wasn’t until after the President’s "axis of evil" speech (which began our public targeting of Iraq) that world opinion began to swing against us.

As for lifting the scales from the eyes of the American public, I would say the following are the three pillars of how to do just that:

First, the American public, as a result of 9/11, and other attacks around the world, rightfully feels that there’s a threat from miliant Islam. Any process of changing American minds has to begin there, recognize that, and respect that. Without that, we’re not going anywhere.

Second, we have to point out where the President, and by extension, the GOP, have erred grieviously in fighting this threat.

Third, we have to say what it is that we would do differently, and better. This does not consist of hectoring voters about the other side’s incompetence. It means we have to argue the positive case for a Democratic national security policy. 
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Which brings me to the conclusion. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations.

In the end, the third pillar was what Peter was aiming for when he set out to write his TNR article. Much as the Cold War featured many sanguinary hot conflicts, but was generally peaceful, this war against militant Islam will mostly be a cold war, with several hot wars punctuating it. Our advantage is that many of us recognize this, while GOP adherents, so far, have reflexively gone for the hot option.

Unfortunately, many of us liberals have gone down the same route the President has, and conflated the Iraq War with the much wider struggle against militant Islam. In their eyes, if you held the wrong (read: pro-war) position on Iraq, then you’re wrong about the wider struggle, much as GOP stalwarts believe that if you were anti-war on Iraq, then you were objectively pro-Saddam, and by extension, pro-terrorist. 

In the eyes of American voters after 9/11,  the latter belief is currently winning out. Liberals are either reflexively against all wars, as John and MoveOn’s leadership are, or don’t consider terrorism to be a threat, like Michael Moore. It doesn’t help that we’ve given sort of a pride of place to Moore, thanks to his bashing of the Bush Administration, or that MoveOn membership was responsible for much of the energy present this election year.

But that image can be changed, as it was in the past, and it can allow us to take charge of this country again, and to enable America to move forward again, out of the shadows of fear (in which one party skulks and resides) into the bright shining sun of confidence and hope (in which liberalism has taken delight).

I’ll write later about what my policy proposals are, and why I think this is a war worth fighting. But for tonight, this is enough. If you’ve read this far, I thank you.

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3 responses to “A Proud Wartime Liberalism

  1. Great post, Arkhangel. I’m proud to say that I’m a liberal and a Democrat and I have been since I became politically aware during the first Gulf War. Back then, I was basically a pacifist, a “no blood for oil” kind of guy. My position at the time was admittedly informed by my age — around 20 — and my fear that things would escalate to the point where a draft would be required and I’d end up fighting. I’ve since re-evaluated a lot of my thinking, and even though I still define myself as a liberal, I’ve come to realize that the absolute pacifism of many on the left just doesn’t work in the real world, especially the post-9/11 real world.

    One of my great frustrations with my party is the inability of the Democrats to shake off their reputation for being a bunch of lily-livered peaceniks. I pray that someone in the party leadership will be able to come up with a way to do that in the next couple of years. I myself have no good ideas on how to do it, and I look forward to reading yours…

  2. Excellent post. And it’s great to see you posting again.

  3. Quite a few good points here. I think one of the biggest problems in opposing GWB and his party is that his simplistic if-you-ain’t-with-us-you’re-agin-us views translate perfectly to sounds bites and hence are easy to get across in campaign ads and on the news. Furthere, when the nuances of every issue are reduced to a black or white monolith it becomes harder to argue particular points. If there’s a grain of truth in the monolith (i.e. “terrorism is a threat” or “Saddam is a bad man”) then it’s easier for its adherents to argue that the whole thing, all relevant corollarys and reactions, must be true because they won’t separate its constituent parts.