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Expert Conversations on World Events

The Afghanistan Problem

by Monday, November 24, 2008

Eric, Matt and Anne-Marie are right that “dovishness” versus “hawkishness” does not, on its own, get you very far in defining a liberal foreign policy. Sometimes, to my mind, the doves have been right: as on the Spanish-American War, Bay of Pigs, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Iraq. Sometimes the hawks have been: on Panama, the Gulf War, World War II, Korea (although the doves were right to oppose going north of the Yalu), the Balkans. (On World War I, which bitterly split my own magazine, The New Republic, I’m thoroughly confused). And on economic and environmental questions—which seem destined to play an extremely large role in Obama’s foreign policy—the terms themselves are beside the point.

But to pick up on Todd Gitlin’s entry, the old “hawk” versus “dove” split may gain new relevance in the coming years in one place in particular: Afghanistan. For seven years now, Afghanistan—unlike Iraq—has largely united the left. Almost everyone (Michael Moore excepted) believed the war was justified as self-defense, and applauded the fact that we overthrew a hideous regime, and did so with substantial multilateral support. The fact that Afghanistan offered liberals a chance to attack the Bush administration from the right, and remind Americans that liberalism does not equal pacifism, probably boosted support even higher.

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Michael Hirsh Responds

by Michael Hirsh Monday, November 24, 2008

I appreciate Peter’s inviting me into this forum, especially since I’m sure that he suspected I was going to rain on his parade. I am. This is a very reasonable, very intelligent discussion. And to me, that’s the problem. The unspoken premise of forums such as these, and of current questions about how to create a new “liberal” foreign policy, is that America’s current set of foreign challenges—and what President Obama will face after Jan. 20—is in some way the outcome of a normal, albeit conservative, foreign policy direction rather than what we have been going through, which is a catastrophe. Think “Deep Impact,” only the asteroid this time was Bush’s White House. In the history of U.S. politics and statecraft over the past century — let’s confine it to the Wilsonian century — the Bush administration cannot be seen as just another broad swing to the right like, say, Reagan. In other words, a shift to the right to which a “liberal” response is required. It needs to be viewed instead as an aberration so far off the scale, both as an embrace of extremist policy and as a display of incompetence, strategic and tactical, that it is probably unprecedented in American history (I would argue in the entire history of great powers, but that’s for another forum). Not just Bush’s going into Iraq in the middle of his war in Afghanistan, or Bush’s profound misconception of the nature of al Qaeda, but in terms of his complete misunderstanding of the way the world works and America limited power and resources within it, despite our continuing role as the “lone superpower” (a problem neatly captured, most recently, in Niall Ferguson’s concept of “Chimerica”). At least that was true in the first term (in the second, after Condi decorously advised him what a mess he had made, he got a little better.) Rather than being examined as an alternative “foreign policy direction,” the Bush administration needs to be seen as something pathological, a giant tumor of strategic misconceptions, mindless hubris and plain stupidity. And like any tumor, this period in our history needs to be simply cut out so the healing can begin.

That’s why Obama, in his interviews, is not talking about his foreign-policy philosophy. Instead he sounds like a clean-up guy standing in the middle of post-Katrina New Orleans. Whatever works, we’ll do it, he said in his 60 Minutes interview, and we’ll throw out what doesn’t. He doesn’t care if it comes from “FDR or Reagan.” His pragmatism doesn’t mean his world view isn’t philosophically grounded; it’s simply driven by necessity. He knows we can’t AFFORD ideology. When you’re drowning, you don’t have the luxury of conceptual debates about the best lifesaving techniques (though we might end up having a big one in a year or so over redesigning the global financial system).

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Eric Alterman Responds

by Eric Alterman Monday, November 24, 2008

Well, I’m all for history informing contemporary debate, but I fear we liberals have already been condemned to repeat it. Will Marshall’s post sent me back to my old Huey Lewis and Martha and the Muffins albums, back to the days of intraparty fights over Central America, the nuclear freeze, and Jesse Jackson vs. what he (unfairly) called “Democrats for the Leisure Class.”

It’s not as if liberals ever settled the question of just how much saber-rattling is necessary to ensure the trust of the American people regarding issues of national security, but presumably it is a great deal less than it was before approximately 67 percent of the country turned against a war that many liberals felt they had to support, regardless of its merits, to meet exactly these charges.
If the “tough-mindedness” of liberals were the central question facing Obama’s foreign policy, well, … the very notion is a logical non-sequiteur (sp?) because Obama would not be president. He was the more dovish of the two final candidates in the Democratic presidential primary and the more dovish of the two candidates in the general election. Indeed, it was this dovishness vis-à-vis Iraq back when it mattered that powered his candidacy and gave him the daylight he needed to run a credible campaign against Hillary Clinton in the first place. It was her “tough-mindedness” back in 2002 that destroyed her dreams of ever being president.

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Starting Off

by Monday, November 17, 2008

Obviously, no president’s foreign policy fits neatly into an ideological category. Woodrow Wilson, the great forefather of foreign policy liberalism, launched imperial wars in Latin America, brutally repressed anti-war dissent at home, and rejected a racial equality clause at the Paris Peace Conference. Dwight Eisenhower, a supposed conservative, proved more reluctant to send US forces to Vietnam than John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Ronald Reagan proposed a UN standing army while Bill Clinton became the first US president to block a Secretary-General from enjoying a second term.

Doubtless, Barack Obama’s foreign policy will also prove too pragmatic, complex or contradictory (choose your adjective) to conform to any simple ideological label. And yet there is no such thing as pure pragmatism either. All presidents, to some degree or another, are informed by ideological traditions: inherited ideas about how the world works and how America can best shape it. This is particularly true today, in an era when foreign policy debate is more ideologically polarized than it was in the early decades of the cold war. Today, according to polls, self-described liberals and conservatives differ as strongly on foreign policy as they do on economics and culture. And among elites, the bipartisan foreign policy establishment of the mid-twentieth century has long since collapsed, leaving in its wake two distinct groups of foreign policy practitioners, one Democratic and one Republican, one more liberal and the other more conservative.

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The View from Cairo

by Friday, November 7, 2008

I’ve been in Cairo for the last week attending a conference and conducting research. I witnessed the US elections from the Egyptian capital. People here, like others around the world, are happy with the election outcome. Some are even delighted. What is remarkable is that vastly different political groups wanted Senator Barak Obama to win: from senior regime officials to members of the Muslim Brotherhood and of course, ordinary Egyptians. I spoke with government officials, members of the banned Islamist opposition group and ordinary Egyptians before November 4, on election day and after the outcome became certain. And I observed the reaction of ordinary Cairenes to the events in the United States.

People here are amazed that 130 million Americans voted on November 4—despite the long lines they saw on television—and impressed that for the first time in US history an African-American was elected president. Egyptians—like many others—have renewed faith in America and all that is possible in the United States. And like others around the globe, they are impressed with president-elect Obama: with his background and personal story, his politics and eloquence and yes, his name. People are hopeful—although realistic—about the possibility of a new and significantly improved relationship with the United States.

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