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.