A Way Forward
Now that the site has been updated to include previous columns and essays, I'm ready to start posting fresh material. Here's my very first original post:
As a liberal hawk, I have watched the events of the last several years with increasing dismay. Caught between the deranged rants of the loony leftists who are hijacking the Democratic Party and the painfully worsening incompetence and incoherence of the Bush Administration ever since the premature victory lap on May 1, 2003, those like myself, who recognize the existential danger of radical Islamic fundamentalism and the centrality of American ideals & resolve to the free world’s defense, have become marginalized as dark clouds have gathered.
I started this blog to offer a forum and platform for constructive criticisms of current policy paired with hopefully pathbreaking ideas that hitch reality to vision. While I am a liberal, I want President Bush to succeed, because his failure at such a critical time in history, will be a failure for America with potentially catastrophic consequences. So let me put my 2 cents worth of perspective on the table.
While the received wisdom is that Bush’s difficulties stem from poor postwar planning (not securing the border and ammunition dumps after the war, insufficient troops, various political stumbles), I think an equally big yet perhaps unrecognized problem was his lack of putting forward a positive vision. He missed 2 critical opportunities to do so, after 9/11, and in April/May 2003. What do I mean by this? Bush’s thesis – that a lack of democracy/freedom/opportunity feeds resentment and dysfunctional societies which tolerate and foster the crazies who want to take over the world in the name of Islam, has value as a diagnosis. But there has not been a coherent approach to addressing that. We won the Cold War because our country came together, as a society, to offer not only resolve but also a positive goal to aspire to, for Americans and for others.
After 9/11, recognizing that we faced a generational war of arms and ideologies, Bush could have gotten just about anything he wanted. A call to national service would have been a tremendous and transforming opportunity to engage young people from all walks of society and would have provided much-needed resources many of our current challenges in service personnel – military, border patrol, teachers, nurses, first responders, etc. as well as provided a mechanism to encourage young people to go into science and engineering. Further, it could have been used to promote American ambassadorship abroad by the young for efforts in civil society development, health care delivery, seeding of infrastructure, and so on. I bring up these “soft” efforts not as a “touchy-feely” criticism of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” but to make the point that the military is doing everything in Iraq, and having a foreign service corps could have sped up reconstruction and smoothed the American presence abroad while relieving the military of non-core responsibilities.
In the international arena, Bush, like Clinton, suffered from a huge blind spot in marrying objectives to ideals. Clinton, casting about after the Cold War for “a big idea”, settled on free trade as one of his signal achievements in foreign policy – NAFTA and the WTO are probably 2 of his most long-term achievements. Bush was greeted with disaster soon after entering office and rose to the challenge militarily, but he too has failed to transform the ideals of America into aspirations for others. While the Republicans recognize the deep flaws of the UN, a credible alternative, one that would be great for the world and great for America, has so far been incredibly missed. After 9/11, Bush rightly saw that the attacks were an attack on freedom, in the sense that freedom and democracy are an alternative world-view irreconcilably opposed to the Islamist utopia, and the only antidote the toxins of the Middle East. Recognizing the danger to freedom, Bush could have marshaled an Alliance of Democracies. This is not as hare-brained or pipe-dreamy as it sounds. How marvelous it would have been for Bush after 9/11 to summon the democracies of the world – the US, India, Britain, Brazil, Japan, Germany, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, Israel, Turkey, Indonesia, Italy, the East European countries, Spain, Mexico, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand? (I am of course deliberately excluding France). Such an alliance, a D-NATO if you will (Democratic Nations Against Terrorism Organization) would have had great potential – a common front against terrorism, mutual support against threats such as Iran and North Korea, interlinking of political bases to help support the secular democrats in Turkey and Indonesia and pro-US forces in Spain, Germany, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, etc., Such an alliance would have several purposes:
- Foreign affairs: mutual military assistance and support, a united system of economic sanctions against rogue states, cooperativity on energy independence
- Economics: most favored nation status for countries that were free at home, an orderly system of immigration among the democracies
- Social: a round table of exchange and cooperation on health, education, and scientific issues (again, sounds soft, but would have significant benefits)
What I am proposing then is a union of military, economic, and political objectives in a Democratic Alliance. Clinton’s mistake in the WTO was thinking free trade would free China. Rather, linking free trade and orderly immigration to freedom and good governance at home would allow economics to leverage ideals into actionable goals. Having the democracies united would be a powerful message against Chinese expansionism, Islamic fundamentalists, and assorted tyrants. The diplomatic cover and advantage of international support for military action would be much easier and much more morally relevant than with an ethically bankrupt and kleptocratic UN. Last but not least, a union of democracies would also offer substantial support to the emerging democracies threatened by non-democratic forces (e.g., Turkey, Indonesia), to build up vulnerable poor democracies (e.g., Botswana, Mongolia, Mozambique) and to embattled democrats in places like Iran and Venezuala. What I am proposing would be a means to transform beacons of freedom into magnets of investment and bulwarks against terrorism and tyranny.
I do not subscribe to the “it’s all America’s fault” crowd. The cheap canard that invading Iraq after 9/11 would have been like invading Mexico after Pearl Harbor is nonsense – we actually invaded North Africa after Pearl Harbor to fight the Axis in a place favorable to us. But the true problems are to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and not to repeat them. The Iranian coup of 1953 leads in a straight line to Khomeini, American support of Saddam against Iran, having to deal with Saddam, and not having to deal with Iran. American support of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan enabled and fostered Islamic fundamentalism. I bring these up not to say that America is evil, but to recognize that America has a unique responsibility to fix the problems of our past policies, and just as important, not to repeat them with our current support for Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and the Saudis. The America-bashers gain credibility whenever we hypocritize not only our long-standing principles but also our current statements on the importance of freedom.
Dealing with the America-bashing crowd and with the fence-sitters is essential to America’s future. And dealing means not yelling or ignoring, but turning a negative into a positive, to harness our promise to powers of persuasion. Wretchard at Belmont Club touched on this by commenting on the war on terror’s sterility in new concepts for marrying strategy to law, for not developing a new rulebook in how to deal with terrorists so that American need not always seem arbitrary and unpredictable. But the problem is more than that. Forgive me for quoting from Al Gore, but a cynic is just a dreamer yearning to dream again. America can reinfuse the dream of America with the clarity of challenges facing the 21st century and a forward-looking vision. Continued small-mindedness and inability to acknowledge mistakes will hobble that effort. Bush, or his successor, must find the means to invoke Kennedy’s call to service and a twilight struggle against the night, and FDR’s ability to bring together peoples and nations.