Michael over at Oleh Musings has an interesting post wherein he dissects a column from Dennis Prager accusing the Democratic Party of having lost its way, foreign-policywise. Prager accuses liberals and Democrats of abandoning what Prager calls "the war against evil." Obviously I don't buy this, and here's why.
(Here's the link to Prager's column, though Michael hits all the important parts.)
Let's first dispense with the major flaw in Prager's argument, which is made crystal clear near the middle of the column. He laments liberalism's "embrace of the immoral doctrine of moral equivalence" and compares that to the good old days when liberals like Kennedy and Truman were anti-Communist. Perhaps this is true of some on the far left, but I simply don't see this runaway postmodernism out of modern liberals. Even those who I would argue do embrace some aspects of moral equivalence still draw a line between right and wrong, between good and evil. No sane liberal or conservative would claim that America is morally equivalent to Stalinist Russia or jihadists like al-Qaeda. So Prager's claim that Democrats are unwilling to oppose Russian Communism or terrorism is just plain factually inaccurate - and without that claim, his argument essentially collapses.
But there's a more interesting point to discuss here, and that is this: Prager, as would most conservatives, asserts that there are only two sides to any foreign policy issue: "good" and "evil." The misperception that Democrats don't want to "do battle with evil" comes from this idea. The change that has occurred within liberalism, and within the Democratic Party, is this: we have begun to appreciate that there are more than two sides to any foreign policy issue. The world's not as simple as "good" and "evil."
In Prager's world, Communism is evil. But what sort of communism? The Stalinism of Russia, to be sure, and perhaps China's Maoism. But how about the socialism of Latin American populists like Arbenz or Allende? Or the anti-colonial communist-leaning nationalism of Lumumba or, yes, Ho Chi Minh? Or the utopian communism of the Israeli kibbutz? Certainly not all incarnations of communism were connected, despite Marx's globalist rhetoric. How do we determine which implied expansion of the Soviet threat to America - and which were simply benign popular movements that threatened us none?
In Prager's world, fighting Communism is good. But does that make thugs like Rios Montt, Pinochet, Mobutu, and Diem "good"? Can we excuse genocide (in Rios Montt's case) and totalitarian oppression (in the case of the other three) - and can we excuse supporting them, as the US did in each case? And assuming that Prager (like anyone sane) sees jihadist terrorism as evil, would Saddam Hussein have then been "good" for maintaining a secularist society? And would he have been "good" for continuing to offset Iran? And would the Taliban have been "good" for fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan? Furthermore, are we currently "evil" for trading and having good relations with communist China and Vietnam?
Foreign relations aren't a football game. You don't pick teams and fight the guys on the other team while protecting the guys on yours. You have to look closer at each player in order to determine whether they are "good" or "evil." And frequently, each player will have a little of both.
Because, let's face it, evil and good come in a lot of different flavors. As far as evil is concerned, we have al-Qaeda. I'll give you Palestinian terror groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the governments of Iran and Syria if you want to make that claim. I'd throw the Burmese and Sudanese governments in there too, along with the rapists of the eastern Congo. Probably Kim Il Jong as well. There are any number of other unsavory characters out there who occupy varying degrees of sketchiness. But not everyone who doesn't subscribe to a liberal democratic pluralist ideology is "evil." And not everyone who opposes jihadism or nationalist terrorism or the governments in Burma, Sudan, and Iran is "good." What do we make of Jundullah, for example, an al-Qaeda affiliate that opposes the Iranian government? And what of Musharraf and Islam Karimov, cruel dictators who oppose Islamist terrorism? What of the Saudis, who hate al-Qaeda and Iran but also hate Israel? And what of China, which props up murderous regimes in Sudan and Burma but also props up our economy? Should we treat this motley crew of global players to the same one-size-fits-all policy of "bomb the bad, help the good?"
Prager fails to understand that there is more than one way to "fight evil." Another thing that the Democratic Party has recognized since Vietnam is that our military power and our espionage power have their limits. We cannot impose an ideology on an unwilling people, even if we believe that ideology to be absolutely good and beneficial to all. We were never going to convince Vietnam to embrace democratic capitalism via military force - indeed, by attacking the popular nationalists who were responsible for the communist movement there, we likely hurt the cause of American ideology rather than helped it. We have to be willing to use diplomacy and the power of popular persuasion in order to keep "evil" in check. And we have to be very careful about who we're calling "evil" - calling someone names isn't a particularly effective method of persuasion.
It's easy to look at conflicts as simple chess games between good and evil. It's simple to say that there's only one way to fight the bad guys, and that's with bombs and stubbornness. It's easy, but it's not true. The Great Lie perpetrated on America is that those who see the world as a complex place are weak, naive, helping the evildoers, and to praise simplicity as "moral clarity." But I present you, Michael, and Mr. Prager, and Sen. Lieberman, and whoever else might give voice to the myth of liberal "weakness," the following choice. Are we made stronger by the kind of "moral clarity" that led us to support Pinochet, and Diem, and Hussein, and Bin Laden, and that led us into wars in Iraq and Vietnam that damaged our credibility as purveyors of good? Or are we made stronger by a more analytical foreign policy that seeks to understand each foreign policy player and the true threat that they pose, and that seeks to solve diplomatic problems in the most effective and least morally questionable way? Is "winning" measured by defeating those who we claim as our enemies, or by making the world a better, safer, more moral place?