Left Behind

Obama has turned his back on us liberals. So why aren't we screaming about it?

In May 2009, Barack Obama delivered a speech in Prague about global threats that required, he said, "action coordinated across borders." This not-so-ringing phrase he intended to apply to "a global economy in crisis, a changing climate, the persistent dangers of old conflicts, new threats and the spread of catastrophic weapons." To address the global economy, he called for "investments to create new jobs ... [and] a change in our financial system, with new rules to prevent abuse and future crisis. "We must confront climate change," he said, "by ending the world's dependence on fossil fuels, by tapping the power of new sources of energy like the wind and sun, and calling upon all nations to do their part." He declared that the United States would lead the world away from nuclear weapons and "seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons." Most of these imperatives emanated from an agenda of the American left -- albeit one that was not inclined to give him much credit for these words.

When President Obama spoke at Cairo's Al-Azhar University one month later, much of his rhetoric, again, derived from the American left. He deplored colonialism and the former habit of treating Muslim-majority countries as "Cold War proxies." (Later in the speech, he specifically deplored the fact that during the Cold War "the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government.") Addressing Islam, he invoked "common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings," along with the rights of women. He declared that the United States would hold to a presumption against the use of force, quoting Jefferson: "I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be." He spoke of withdrawing American troops from Iraq, closing the Guantánamo prison camp, and ending torture. He declared Holocaust denial "baseless, ignorant, and hateful" and denounced "vile stereotypes about Jews." In the next breath he spoke of the "humiliations -- large and small -- that come with occupation," declared that "the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable," opposed Jewish settlements, and affirmed a Palestinian state. The tone was modest; the hand was outstretched; the finger hit RESTART. Little of this won him points from neoconservatives.

Not that these were the speeches that Noam Chomsky would have delivered. In Cairo, Obama defended a continuing war role for the United States in Afghanistan. He did not call for cutting America's military budget, or winding down American bases, or discontinuing drone attacks; nor did he promote international treaties to improve the lives of the poor billions, or do much to reverse the galloping power of global finance, or announce major initiatives to reduce the world's dependency on fossil fuels and therefore the scope of the carbon dioxide excreted into the atmosphere. Still, he did not shake the big stick. His tone was conciliatory. He displayed some awareness that America's troubles in the world were at least in part of its own making. If he did not proclaim a doctrine of his own, he brought George W. Bush's unilateralism and his preventive war doctrine to a screeching halt. He seemed to take seriously the proposition that negotiations with Iran, combined with smart sanctions, could dislodge Tehran from its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Yet Obama's post-Prague and post-Cairo policies have proved anticlimactic. In the early stages of the Arab spring, he seemed to waffle about democratic commitments. (It was no secret that Tunisia's Ben Ali and Egypt's Mubarak were staunch U.S. allies who were cut loose only reluctantly.) Moreover, Obama had rejected withdrawal from Afghanistan before he supported it, deferring the actual event until 2014. (If it does materialize, it will still have been preceded by a "surge," the installation of hundreds of military bases, and a thousand American deaths, more than twice as many as took place under Bush.) After Obama's Cairo speech, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu successfully faced him down on Palestinian questions (although at this writing the United States seems to have restrained him from attacking Iran). Guantánamo still harbors prisoners under dreadful conditions, if only because of vehement objections to sending them stateside, Obama having judged it unwise to invest political capital in overriding them. The military budget remains a gargantuan drain. The security-industrial complex rides high. Drones have come to symbolize the impunity with which America resembles a sort of Death Star, meting out punishment from afar -- often enough against innocent targets, whatever precautions are taken. America ranks high in emissions of carbon, yet Obama takes only minor steps to reduce them. He deferred a final decision on the Keystone pipeline but refused to stop it. Fossil fuels still reign supreme. Global financial regulation is stalled. All in all, from a left-wing point of view, the magnitude of Obama's failures is considerable.

The question is why, then, his foreign and energy policies meet with so little resistance from the left. Why so few demonstrations against ongoing and impending wars? As fracking divides New York's Southern Tier and adjacent Pennsylvania, Governor Romney blithely promotes a drill-and-gouge plan on behalf of a chimera called energy independence, while the Obama campaign skirts the energy and environmental issues which, in truth, amalgamate into a single issue. There are no sizable attempts to inject military or environmental questions into the elections.

One reason that should not be discounted is plain relief. Among the small minority who pay attention to foreign affairs, relief is an emotion that lasts. Obama garners no small advantage from not being George W. Bush. Biographically, Obama is a man of the world. Bush's clumsy pugnacity and ignorance were so damaging to America's reputation that his very absence played for most of Obama's term like a formidable coup de theatre.

Once the White House was liberated from Bush and Dick Cheney, then what? Diminishing returns set in. There must have be other reasons why the public has been pacified and the remaining left restrained in its reactions to Obama's defaults. The usual inattention to foreign affairs doesn't suffice to explain the whereabouts of the dog that does not bark on the left. The small scale of Obama's environmental initiatives can be blamed on the fact that the other party is mired in climate change denial -- that is, fantasy -- and that the political capital to override it is, to put it mildly, elusive. The wars are offstage, insulated from everyday life, and however unsavory some of the military efforts, there is no sympathy for those who will likely emerge as victors as American power retreats. There is a lot of grumbling about Obama's defaults, which some see as betrayals and others, as reflections of his political weaknesses and his distraction by domestic travails. What remains to be understood is the absence of concerted pressure from the left. Critical reactions fall short of conspicuous, unremitting opposition.

Not least, the left is divided on the use of force. One wing affirms that when civilian lives are menaced in brutalized countries, there is a moral imperative, an international Responsibility to Protect, which trumps any absolute prohibition of military force. In this view, championed by Samantha Power and, until her departure from Washington, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the United States should exercise moral leadership. Hard power can serve soft power and also save lives. American power is a given, but not to be enjoyed complacently: it entails the responsibility for judicious threats of force. Without the occasional use of force, threats of force are empty. It follows, then, that the United States ought to play a part -- not a minor part -- in collective efforts to limit the punishment that tyrannies administer to their people. Thus, from this point of view, in the skies over Libya, the NATO intervention that failed to materialized in Srebrenica finally arrived -- and proved effective. This line of argument would have been more compelling, of course, had so many liberal hawks not discredited themselves by embracing the Iraq expedition.

At the same time, another -- probably larger -- left-wing current, far more prevalent in the universities than in Washington, deplores all military force as a buttress for imperial domination by global elites decidedly uninterested in a more egalitarian world. In this view, American power is itself the primary menace. Aiming for global domination of resources and capital, it deploys gratuitous violence in the name of an ongoing campaign against al-Qaeda style Islamism -- a campaign that is no longer called by the clumsy acronym GWOT, for Global War on Terror, but is still pursued tenaciously on many fronts. From the anti-imperialist point of view, preventing the massacre of civilians is no more than a pretext for overextensions of power; the intervention in Libya was as reprehensible as the one in Iraq, even if the former came at the call of the Arab League and the latter most assuredly did not.

It must be said that one factor that limits the base of the anti-imperialist left is popular awareness that a defeat for American power is not necessarily, not even likely, a boost for global enlightenment. This is a big change from the romances of older lefts. Under current circumstances, insofar as American power retreats, the vacuums that open up are likely to be filled by brutal misogynists and tribalist gangsters. It is hard to think that defeats for American power automatically point to better lives for millions of people. Heroes are scarce. (There is a reason why T-shirts display the face of Che Guevara, dead for 45 years. It is easier to overlook the sins of a dead man than a living one.) Hugo Chavez sets few North American hearts aflutter. It was one thing, generations ago, to advocate American withdrawal from Vietnam, with the understanding that the successor to Saigon's corruption would surely be a Communist government. Whether naïve about Ho Chi Minh's Communism or not -- some were, some were not -- the antiwar left of the ‘60s and ‘70s was utterly right in its judgment that the American war was the worst of all possible worlds. But much of today's antiwar sentiment cannot be so confident.

As a political force, if not intellectually, the left also suffers in stark contrast with the right. For most of the past half century, the Republicans, in style if not substance, always kept a foreign policy posture on the shelf ready for their next roll-out. Their worldview was, and remains, essentially Manichaean -- "If you're not with us, you're with the terrorists." Parochialism is a point of pride for a party that harbors deep suspicions of policies practiced on other continents and legal principles affirmed there. In keeping with the truculence they rank as high "exceptionalism," the Bush Doctrine was the closest thing in post-World War II America to an explicitly imperialist stance. More force ready, more threats of force, more use of force -- that was a political program easily stated, recognized, and renewed. Clichés about the virtues of "leadership," on conspicuous display at the Republican convention, are as irresistible as they are empty. The pursuit of enemies has an ideological starkness. On the left, by contrast, there is no alternative nearly so well-defined or compelling. Not being Manichaean is preferable to being Manichaean, and negotiation is preferable to war, but simply not being neo-conservatives is not so exciting an option. The left endorses certain policies and opposes others, but it affirms no more or less coherent policy beyond a general disposition for negotiated peace over unilateral war and a suspicion of globalized and globalizing corporate elites. Perhaps this qualifies as a policy, but it is more like a prejudice.

Despite widespread disillusion with Obama on the left -- a disillusion that frequently crosses the line into outright distaste and outrage, as in Occupy Wall Street -- the energy is not there for resolute opposition. No matter how much they disapprove of particular policies, Americans on the left are residually aware -- even if they do not wish to be -- that the alternative to Obama would be distinctly worse. They observe the clustering of neo-conservatives around Mitt Romney's foreign policy team. They observe the Republicans' undiminished enthusiasm for swollen military budgets, and the bombast about "leadership" as if the costs were negligible and as if it were clear where to lead. All told, then, they feel throttled. Willy-nilly, they have made a sort of cold peace with Obama. He is not the angel some of them hoped for, but neither can they deeply believe that he is the devil. For the left, there is no luminous -ism on the horizon-unless one counts realism as an -ism, a status for which, in the wake of the Bush Doctrine, it may qualify.



Renewing America’s Fighting Faith

Barack Obama's correction to the excesses of the George W. Bush years was necessary. But cold-blooded realism is not enough to safeguard America's interests and promote its values.

One of the most striking aspects of the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign has been Barack Obama's ability to neutralize the Republican Party's traditional advantage on national security. Voters see Obama as a better commander in chief than Mitt Romney and have more confidence in his ability to handle foreign policy.

How much this will matter in an election dominated by economic anxiety remains to be seen. But closing the national security confidence gap that has dogged Democrats for nearly 50 years is no mean accomplishment -- if it lasts.

Republicans, meanwhile, have splintered into rival camps. Centrist internationalists like Dick Lugar are out of favor, leaving realists, neocons, Tea Party nationalists, and neo-isolationists to battle it out for the party's soul. Romney hasn't even tried to weave a coherent story about America's global role from such incongruous strands, confining himself instead to scattershot criticisms of Obama's polices and hackneyed slogans about "American exceptionalism" and "peace through strength."

The Republicans' disarray gives Democrats a chance to occupy the pragmatic center on security and foreign policy. To do that, they should look beyond Obama's "realist" correction of his predecessor's mistakes. With the excesses of the Bush-Cheney years fading mercifully into memory, the party needs a post-realist outlook grounded in the liberal convictions of the American people. Such a policy would combine Obama's resolve in defending Americans against terrorism with new strategies for using U.S. power, soft and hard, to bend history's arc toward freedom.

Too many Democrats seem terrified that affirming the liberal internationalist tradition they invented will make them sound too much like George W. Bush. This has left them tongue-tied at precisely the moment when America needs to wage and win a battle of ideas against Islamist extremism and China's model of autocratic capitalism.

Obama's Realist Correction

Obama was dealt a lousy economic hand in 2008, but the security portfolio he inherited wasn't much better. After eight years of Bush's belligerent unilateralism, America was an overextended, war-weary and debt-burdened superpower that had alienated old friends and rattled potential foes. Obama saw his job as repairing the damage, not devising some new foreign-policy doctrine. His main goals were to defeat al Qaeda, end two wars and rebuild America's standing in the world. We'll see what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he's made undeniable progress on the other two fronts.

By narrowing the panoramic scope of Bush's Global War on Terror to al Qaeda, Obama has reassured nervous allies and undercut the jihadi narrative that America is leading a new crusade against Islam. At the same time, hunting down and killing Osama bin Laden has convinced Americans that he will give our enemies no quarter. Obama's surprising metamorphosis from anti-war candidate and premature Nobel laureate to warrior president has confounded the GOP's attempts to caricature him as just another liberal softy.

Facing a new kind of asymmetric warfare in which terrorists spend small sums to provoke America into spending vast sums, the administration has responded with some asymmetry of its own. It has leveraged U.S. technological prowess to shift from conventional wars to a new counterterrorism model that uses global surveillance systems, drones, air strikes, and Special Forces to launch highly precise attacks on terrorists. By shrinking America's military footprint, this model saves U.S. lives and money, and minimizes civilian casualties.

At the same time, Obama has extricated U.S. forces from Iraq and is winding down the war in Afghanistan, which most Americans now see as unwinnable, at least at any cost they are willing to pay. It's too early to weigh the strategic consequences of these withdrawals, but their political popularity is not in doubt. Romney's charge that Obama is "retreating" from Afghanistan hasn't struck much of a chord.

On matters less vital to Americans' security, Obama has emphasized multilateral diplomacy over unilateral U.S. action, engagement with autocratic powers over moral censure, and attempts to change the behavior of troublesome regimes over regime change. All this has made the United States seem less arrogant and threatening abroad. In one key respect, however, the administration's policy of reassurance and strategic humility has overcorrected for its predecessor's errors. It has overlooked what Mark Lagon calls the "values dimension" of American power as well as the ideological wellsprings of conflict in today's networked world.

Dimming America's Beacon

Early on, the administration served notice that it would reorganize U.S. foreign policy around diplomacy, development, and defense. The pointed omission of another "d" -- democracy -- underlined its distaste for anything that might sound like Bush's "freedom agenda."

Rosa Brooks, a former senior Pentagon official, recalls what happened after she inserted an anodyne reference to "accountable democratic governance" in Afghanistan into a Defense Department official's testimony to Congress in 2010. "It brought the wrath of the White House down on us all: We were not, under any circumstances, to suggest in any way that promoting democracy was a goal of the Obama administration."

More recently, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have spoken eloquently about universal aspirations to freedom and democracy. But at critical junctures -- the emergence of Iran's "Green Movement" after a rigged 2009 election, and the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011, -- the president seemed to lose his voice. The new imperative of "engagement," along with the old policy of supporting friendly despots in the Middle East  seemed to take precedence over solidarity with people rising up corruption and tyranny.

Likewise, the administration's desire to "reset" relations with great powers like Russia and China too often has meant hitting the mute button on disputes over human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. To autocrats, U.S. reticence on values comes across as weakness; to the people they misrule, as a betrayal of their hopes. Obama has been described as a rhetorical idealist but an operational realist. Democrats, however, cannot live by realism alone. The party has served America best by fusing U.S. might to liberal purposes, and acting on the strategic insight that a freer world is a safer and more prosperous one, for America and other countries. Amoral, balance-of-power realism is the doctrine of Republicans like Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, George H.W. Bush, and Brent Scowcroft. This kind of "realism" is blind to the reality that a country's internal politics decisively shapes its external conduct -- that regimes that are not accountable to their own people are more likely to be bad actors on the world stage as well. Democrats should look instead for inspiration to tough liberals like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Bill Clinton.

In a world where capital, people, and information flow freely across national borders, the competition of political ideas and narratives matters more than ever. This is especially true in the Muslim world, which is convulsed by an historic struggle to redefine the relationship between religion and politics. Although the administration has announced a strategic "pivot" toward Asia, the United States cannot safely turn its back on what Aaron David Miller aptly calls an "angry, broken, and dysfunctional Middle East."

The United States, moreover, is likely in for a long spell of declining or at best flat military spending as it unwinds a massive national debt. This will put a premium on more creative uses of America's ideological strengths to advance its interests and organize collective responses to global security and economic problems.

Countering Violent Extremism 

For example, the administration urgently needs to broaden its concept of counterterrorism to include countering the ideology that motivates our enemies. Even as U.S. forces smash al Qaeda central in Pakistan, groups inspired by its vision of global jihad have found footholds in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Morocco, Gaza, and Mali, and reportedly are playing a growing role in Syria's civil war. U.S. officials are particularly concerned about al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, which is implicated in several terrorist plots against U.S. targets, including the 2009 Fort Hood rampage that claimed 13 lives.

The United States since 9/11 has marshaled its military and intelligence services, law enforcement agencies, diplomats, development specialists, and financial experts to disrupt and disable diffuse terror networks. What's lacking is a strategic ideas campaign aimed at discrediting the beliefs that draw people into violent extremism, whether as terrorists, funders or fellow travelers. If we don't attack the problem at its ideological roots, we risk getting caught in a never-ending game of global Whac-a-Mole as terrorist groups recruit new members faster than we can kill them.

This campaign needs a corps of specialists trained in the arts of winning hearts and minds, and they need a home. Some have called for resurrecting the U.S. Information Agency, which was dismantled foolishly after the Cold War ended. Others have proposed a new White House office, or an independent entity, modeled loosely on the National Endowment for Democracy, dedicated exclusively to countering hostile ideologies.

A key task for such an entity is to mobilize multilateral efforts to entrench norms against violent extremism in international law and institutions. For example, the United States should press for a new Geneva Convention -- the fifth -- to provide a common legal framework for combating, detaining, and trying terrorists. This would help resolve the "neither soldier nor criminal" quandary that has bedeviled two successive U.S. administrations. It would categorize terrorists unambiguously as unlawful combatants and stigmatize violence against civilians on whatever pretext, including "resistance" to occupation.

A tough new anti-terrorism convention would give the international community new weapons in the struggle to discredit violent extremism. By designating mass-casualty and suicide terrorism as crimes against humanity, it would take some of the glamour out of jihadist violence and its cult of martyrdom. It would also provide the legal basis for international tribunals to indict those who recruit the killers and plan the attacks.

While defending Americans against attacks, the United States should never let the world forget that Muslims are the main victims of terrorist atrocities committed by Islamist fanatics. Rather than wait for some future Robert Conquest to document the mass murder of innocents, a new strategic ideas agency could create a digital memorial to all victims of jihadist terrorism. This should include a registry of suicide bombers and the terror chiefs who dispatch them on their murderous missions, which could provide the basis for indictments in both national and international courts.

Arab Spring or Islamist Winter?

The Obama administration was caught off guard by the Arab Spring. The popular uprisings forced Washington to confront the contradictions, not to say hypocrisy, of its longtime support for supposedly stable Middle East dictatorships.

After initially fumbling its response, the administration eventually endorsed the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. However, it was more circumspect about Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based,  and Saudi Arabia, where officials were probably relieved to see street demonstrations fizzle. This case-by-case approach allows Washington to apply a risk-benefit calculus to each country and await developments before committing itself to a course of action. In Libya, the administration let others -- Britain, France, the Arab League -- make the case for military intervention before climbing aboard. In Syria, however, where the stakes and risks are immeasurably higher, the administration has been unable to "lead from behind" and unwilling to lead from the front.

Despite its caution, some realists (and Israelis) complain that U.S. support for political change in the Middle East merely opens doors to Islamic fundamentalists. It's true that religious parties, which swept democratic elections in Tunisia and Egypt, often have a record of resistance to secular strongmen, as well as the moral legitimacy and broad social base that liberal parties can only envy. The key question is whether or not they will respect the democratic mechanisms that have brought them at last to power, and submit to the new disciplines of political power-sharing and accountability. The more acute danger, moreover, comes not from established parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, but from new Salafi parties that want to impose a rigidly puritanical interpretation of Islam and strict sharia law on their societies.

A "Salafi Crescent," says the writer Robin Wright, is spreading rapidly across the Middle East and North Africa. "The variety of Islamists in the early 21st-century recalls socialism's many shades in the 20th. Now, as then, some Islamists are more hazardous to Western interests and values than others. The Salafis are most averse to minority and women's rights." Despite the new wave of Sunni extremism, surveys show majorities in key Muslim countries want personal freedoms and competitive elections, and believe that democracy is the best form of government. They also favor a larger role for Islam in political life. Central to the great drama unfolding across the Muslim world will be the struggle to reconcile Islam with aspirations for freedom, economic opportunity, and democracy. The United States can't dictate the outcome, but it should throw its political, economic, and moral weight behind moderate Muslims struggling to transcend religious, ethnic and tribal divisions -- and the subjugation of women -- that have held their societies back. Washington should be prepared to play a long game, trading short-term advantages on security and energy for the deeper structural and cultural changes necessary to integrate Muslim countries into the liberal democratic community.

Obama's course corrections have set the stage for Democrats to craft a realistic and principled strategy for supporting ground-up democratic change in the Muslim world (and East Asia too, but that's another story). It's time they came home to what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called liberalism's "fighting faith" -- the seamless defense of freedom at home and abroad.