Friday, June 22, 2012

American foreign policy and chronic Democratic defensiveness on national security

Joan Walsh brings up an important historical point about the effects of the post-Second World War Red Scare and the heavy role of Cold War polemics in creating the Democrats' more-than-annoying and often debilitating habit of apologizing for being Democrats, especially on foreign policy (Are liberals national security hypocrites? Salon 06/21/2012):

Liberals had to declare they weren’t Communists or Soviet-loving pacifists in the 1940s and '50s, until John F. Kennedy saved them by out-hawking Richard Nixon about a fantasy "missile gap." Then they went from having to separate themselves from New Left antiwar revolutionaries in the '60s and '70s, to fending off Reagan's claim that they'd appeased the Soviet Union by refusing to build his beloved Star Wars boondoggle. Bill Clinton's tough strikes against the former Yugoslavia and Iraq shook that image a little bit (in fact, Republicans became the anti-interventionists). But after 9/11, Republicans were back to charging that Democrats appeased the enemy, and Democrats were back to groveling to prove that wasn't true. A stunning 29 Senate Democrats voted to authorize the Iraq war, including John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. Now I know it wasn't just about Vietnam, but about China. Liberals have spent the last 60-plus years pleading with the nation to understand they’re not un- or anti-American.
She's referring in particular to the analysis of Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson in their book, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama (2012).

Swords to plowshares: a favorite symbol of the democratic opposition  in East Germany 

I won't try to rehash the Cold War in this post. While Joan's sketch in that paragraph just quoted is true as far as it goes, there is another side to the Democrats' defensiveness and the Republicans' verbal belligerence. Both the Korean War, prosecuted first by the Truman Administration, and the Vietnam War, prosecuted first by the Kennedy and Johnson Administration - following a policy background laid by the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations.

There is a lingering nostalgia for Dwight Eisenhower's Presidency among some left-leaning political analysts. Truthdig's Robert Scheer periodically writes nostalgically about Ike's skepticism of militarist assumptions. However, the Eisenhower Administration's nuclear posture of "tripwire/massive retaliation" actually was a high-risk strategy. Reducing the likelihood of nuclear war under the operative assumptions of the Cold War meant pursuing a policy of diversifying military options away from the Eisenhower level of reliance on nuclear weapons. And most Democrats in 1960 actually did believe that there was a "missile gap" with the Soviet Union, though the belief was incorrect.

It's true that the Cold War political history left the Democrats too defensive on foreign policy for their own good and the country's. But the more proximate cause is the bipartisan acceptance of the post-Cold War foreign policy of global dominance, or global hegemony, as analyzed by Realist foreign policy theorist like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. (See Dan Drezner, You can't generalize from George W. Bush 12/28/2010; Mearsheimer, Imperial by Design The National Interest Jan/Feb 2011Walt, More to read from Mearsheimer Foreign Policy 12/20/2012) American dominance pre-dated the fall of the Berlin Wall, of course. Gareth Porter's Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (2005) shows how that fact seduced the US into disaster in Vietnam.

As Mearsheiner puts it in the article just cited:

The root cause of America’s troubles is that it adopted a flawed grand strategy after the Cold War. From the Clinton administration on, the United States rejected all these other avenues, instead pursuing global dominance, or what might alternatively be called global hegemony, which was not just doomed to fail, but likely to backfire in dangerous ways if it relied too heavily on military force to achieve its ambitious agenda.

Global dominance has two broad objectives: maintaining American primacy, which means making sure that the United States remains the most powerful state in the international system; and spreading democracy across the globe, in effect, making the world over in America’s image. The underlying belief is that new liberal democracies will be peacefully inclined and pro-American, so the more the better. Of course, this means that Washington must care a lot about every country’s politics. With global dominance, no serious attempt is made to prioritize U.S. interests, because they are virtually limitless.

This grand strategy is "imperial" at its core; its proponents believe that the United States has the right as well as the responsibility to interfere in the politics of other countries. One would think that such arrogance might alienate other states, but most American policy makers of the early nineties and beyond were confident that would not happen, instead believing that other countries — save for so-called rogue states like Iran and North Korea — would see the United States as a benign hegemon serving their own interests. [my emphasis in bold]
The bipartisan consensus around a global-dominance/global-hegemon foreign policy includes a lot of self-deluding overconfidence, aka, arrogance from politicians of both parties. As Walt observes in The Myth of American Exceptionalism Foreign Policy Nov 2011:

Finally, any honest accounting of the past half-century must acknowledge the downside of American primacy. The United States has been the major producer of greenhouse gases for most of the last hundred years and thus a principal cause of the adverse changes that are altering the global environment. The United States stood on the wrong side of the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa and backed plenty of unsavory dictatorships -- including Saddam Hussein's -- when short-term strategic interests dictated. Americans may be justly proud of their role in creating and defending Israel and in combating global anti-Semitism, but its one-sided policies have also prolonged Palestinian statelessness and sustained Israel's brutal occupation.

Bottom line: Americans take too much credit for global progress and accept too little blame for areas where U.S. policy has in fact been counterproductive. Americans are blind to their weak spots, and in ways that have real-world consequences. Remember when Pentagon planners thought U.S. troops would be greeted in Baghdad with flowers and parades? They mostly got RPGs and IEDs instead.
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