Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Response To A Fellow Blogger

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?

17 comments:

Michael said...

Jeff:
Thanks for the hat tip; you've got a lot of good points here to talk about.

My own response is also predictably long winded, but it'll have to wait until hol hamoed.

Andy said...

Jeff: "Is "winning" measured by defeating those who we claim as our enemies, or by making the world a better, safer, more moral place?"

I'd say if a country wants to eradicate us or one of our allies, say Israel, they get to join the Enemy List. If every airplane hijacking and embassy bombing in the past 25 years or so is performed by the same group, they get a spot on the Enemy List. And what prize do you get for being on this list? Bombed, usually.

Look, if you don't want to protect your country, fine. Someone else will. But don't be ignorant. Hamas doesn't want to sit down and talk to you and give you a hug. They want to eradicate you. Or worse, convert you.

Ben said...

"Look, if you don't want to protect your country, fine. Someone else will."

Did you read a thing Jeff just said? I believe he referred to claims that he, Democrats, or liberals in general don't want to defend their country as "just plain factually inaccurate"....a statement that is stunningly obvious to anybody who doesn't see the world through partisan blinders.

The question is, of course, what is the best way to protect our nation and what it stands for in a world that has plenty of entities that are hostile to our nation and its ideals.

Of course, Hamas is an enemy of Israel, which is in turn an ally of our country, the United States. The question then, is what is the best way to oppose our enemy. Let's say you're right and bombing is called for. Who should be bombed? Who counts as Hamas? Just the top party officials? Anybody with a gun? Palestinians who haven't participated in violence but voted for Hamas?

And let's say we (or Israel) bombs Hamas. What is the goal in doing so? To wipe out the Hamas military infrastructure? To convince Palestinians they must do a peace process through Fatah and abandon the extremism of Hamas? To entirely entirely wipe out Palestine as an entity and replace it with Israeli settlements (an idea advocated in all seriousness by commenters on Michael's blog)? Depending on your goal, different methods of violence are called for.

Jeff's points are (1) we can't simply assume the world is divided into "good" and "evil" and act accordingly, and (2) even for those whom we can label as "evil" or "enemy", we still need to figure out the best way to respond to them. That way won't always be violence. Sometimes it may be, but bombing shouldn't be our first resort. Aside from the obvious consequence (human beings dying) it has collateral consequences.

To acknowledge these complexities is not weakness. And, for the love of God, it certainly isn't the equivalent of abandoning one's country to those who wish it harm.

Andy said...

ben said: "Did you read a thing Jeff just said?" I did. My favorite part was "Another thing that the Democratic Party has recognized since Vietnam is that our military power and our espionage power have their limits." Clearly the wrong conclusion. What we learned from Vietnam is that Democrats can't be trusted running a war.

As for who or what should be bombed, you give a long-winded answer that, let's be honest, sounds like you're trying to win a court case. Hamas doesn't want to debate you, Iran isn't going to sit down for tea. The world is split into good and evil so we have to deal with it. "That way won't always be with violence." Nice speech, Prime Minister Chamberlain.

Ben said...

Okay, now I'm certain that you're joking.

Andy said...

You got me. What I meant to say was "What we learned from Vietnam and Somalia is that Democrats can't be trusted running a war."

The rest though, I stand by it. Does the above surprise you?

Andy said...

From Hillary today: Clinton further displayed tough talk in an interview airing on "Good Morning America" Tuesday. ABC News' Chris Cuomo asked Clinton what she would do if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons.

"I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran," Clinton said. "In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them."


Good for her. Figures it would be a woman that would have the first pair of balls in the Democratic Party with regards to Iran.

Jeff said...

Andy, I'm kind of worried that, when I return to work a week from Tuesday (I'm out of town), the area around our desks is going to be covered with hay from all the straw men you've been building.

I don't think anyone disagrees with the idea that if Iran attacks Israel, they should become Iraq's parking lot. I'm just saying that when we back away from the extremes, there's a lot of fuzziness, and we have to look at each situation carefully to determine who's the bad guy, how bad they are, and how best to deal with them.

And also, there are a lot of people who don't like us, but not all of them are honest threats. I hear they're real anti-Americans in Turkmenistan... but I don't think they're going to be hurting us.

Andy said...

Jeff, you must have imported the straw yourself; at no point have I called for a preemptive strike against any country.

I've basically reiterated two points: 1. If you attack us or an ally, you get bombed. 2. (Tied closely to 1) Democrats shouldn't be allowed to run wars.

Somalia is the proof of both. Clinton, being less of a man than his wife, withdrew his troops because people were upset a few troops got dragged through a street. He "pulls out" and you can almost hear the Middle East laughing at American "the weak". Funny, shouldn't the response to US soldiers being drug around be more firepower not less?

But don't debate these points. You'll find something else to debate in my response like Somalia was a UN mission not US. The fact is Democrat foreign policy is weaker than France's -- thankfully, American voters typically remember this.

Andy said...

Another point Prager brings up which you've omitted, I have said on here myself (usually in regards to Lieberman), is how the Democratic Party has moved Left. Prager notes he never voted Republican until Reagan but now hasn't gone back. Lieberman (paraphrased) says "This isn't the party I devoted myself to".

On a personal level, I didn't vote for W since I believe in the personal liberty issues Democratic typically protect. But the Democratic Party keeps going left, first Kerry, now Obama, who's the 2012 candidate if Obama doesn't win? Lenin?

The truth is my values haven't changed that much at all -- I used to be nice and in-the-middle. Strong fiscal responsibility and a military from my Republican side; and no wiretapping, pro-immigration, pro-education from the Democrats. But I look to the Left now and it's Marxism over there. What happened? I think this is the generation of liberals who grew up in the 60s thinking it was cool to admire Che and Fidel and other terrorists -- now they're in charge or running for President.

Mike said...

Yeah, Democrats really fucked up World War II. As opposed to Republicans, who have been absolutely top notch in Iraq to date. The claim that one party is better than another at running wars is ludicrous. And incidentally, a war is run as follows: you try your damnedest to obliterate the fuck out of the other country. So in Vietnam, Somalia, etc., what exactly is the "war" of which you speak? America, regardless of which party occupies the White House, has historically been very good at winning wars. Military police actions (MPAs), which we have haphazardly termed "wars", have been less successful, which has been largely due to bad management from the top. (Also, if you will indulge me in a brief immature moment, I think we all know about Bill Clinton's propensity to "pull out". Sorry, I'm done.)

Jeff cites examples of both Republican- and Democrat-backed fuck-ups. In general, neither party has really shown me a tendency toward the "more analytical foreign policy" Jeff suggests. An understanding of nuance is certainly necessary for our foreign policy, but it's important to express nuance without coming off like a wimp. As Andy points out, even in the gray world in which we live, there are still cut and dry things such as "if Iran or any other Middle Eastern country attacks Israel unprovoked, their ass is grass and the U.S. is the nuclear-powered lawn mower".

Like Andy, I too used to be "nice and in-the-middle", with essentially the same basic values. And while I don't really see "Marxism" on the Left, some of the talking points are a little troubling. But I also don't quite see "strong fiscal responsibility" on the Right (except McCain, who if he truly vetoes every bill with pork would become both my hero and the first president ever to not sign a single bill during his term of office). And while I generally like the Republicans' focus on defense spending, it is disrespectful to our military to send them into unnecessary MPAs with ill-defined goals and spread them too thin. So where are we to turn? Is there a Logic Party?

Andy said...

Mike, sorry for the confusion about WWII. I certainly meant conflicts since then like Vietnam or Somalia.

Anyway, to answer your question about party identity: you and I seemingly agree about the troubling rhetoric from the Left and the clear lack of fiscal responsibility from the Right. So what party? Since the Libertarian Party is essential a philosophy now, I guess I lean toward the Constitution Party.

Things I like: stance on taxes, no social security or welfare, gun rights, drug laws fall under states ' jurisdiction, no federal debt, pro nuclear power, no socialized medicine, strong borders.

Things that give me pause: Anti-abortion, using 1st Amendment to attack pornography, anti-gambling, zero foreign aid.

Still overall, I could vote for this. It certainly is better than current Democrat leanings and better than what the GOP is becoming.

Mike said...

No apology necessary, I was just jabbing at you a bit.

Yeah, those are pretty much the exact issues that have kept me away from the Constitution Party. Interestingly, I actually know a few people who tend to align themselves with the Constitution Party because they are "libertarian, except for the whole abortion thing". Personally, I'm looking for what I call a "practical libertarian" party - one with generally conservative ideals that recognizes certain realities about the current state of government (and the attitudes of the governed) and can work within that framework while still moving toward a more limited federal government.

All of which is moving entirely too far away from Jeff's post, but oh well.

Ben said...

I still want to know what Michael's going to say. Is the religious holiday finished yet?

Help, Michael! Bring us back to the original topic of the post!

Andy said...

[Instead of waiting for Michael or Jeff to return to chair the argument, can we keep going?]

Anyway, the topic initiated by Jeff (or someone before him) is that liberals didn't abandon the war on evil. Obviously I disagree. The bulk of the blog is spent describing the varying shades of gray by which "evil" can appear. He even sets aside some regimes that maybe we all agree are clearly evil: Iran, Syria, PRK, Dick Durbin. Alright, I faked one of those, fine. It's a good idea but still never answers "Are liberals soft on evil?" Saying you know who the enemy is is patently different from doing something about it (hence, the Chamberlain reference). Where is the evidence that liberals would actually take a stand against evil? (Which is why I pasted the Hillary quote about Iran, it's saber-rattling but at least she's rattling.)

The irony is that the few times the Democrats look tough on terrorism or appear willing to fight in Iraq come around because Republicans forced them to. After months and months of bloviating about withdrawing troops from Iraq, the Republicans forced Dems to vote on it. The result: 403-3 to keep fighting. Democrats not only didn't want to fight for peace and democracy in Iraq, they wouldn't even stand up for their own convictions in America. And since then (2005 I think), funding for the war has yet to be cut. Once again, I repeat, liberal foreign policy is weaker than weak.

Mike said...

Some might argue that peace and democracy in Iraq are two separate things. We in the United States need to decide what we want more -- our own safety, or the spread of democracy. Hamas was put in power in by far the closest thing Palestine has had to a democratic election. And as Andy points out, they don't exactly want to hold hands with us and sing "Kumbaya".

Again, I'm definitely put off by the Democrats' seeming wussiness, but the Republican "shoot first and ask questions later" approach recommended by Dubya doesn't exactly seem like a wonderful alternative. As much as I silently disagreed with my liberal compatriots during the initial Iraq invasion (indeed, equating their hesitance to that very wussiness), ultimately it seems they were vindicated. The main point I think Jeff is making is about picking battles wisely, and it's a point I agree with. If we had devoted more resources toward finishing the job in Afghanistan rather than moving the battle to Iraq we'd be better off.

(Which doesn't mean I'm not sick and tired of the whole "we were right and you were wrong" BS about Iraq. I'll bake you some cookies later, but right now, who cares? We're in this, now how do we go forward?)

But anyway, I certainly don't believe liberals have "abandoned the war on evil" any more than I believe conservatives have embraced it. They're just taking different approaches. And like with most things the Pubs and Dems differ on, the best approach is to take a little from Column A and a little from Column B.

Mike said...

I realized there is one key point I failed to note, which is that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have taken any sort of action against the greatest evil the world has ever known. I refer, of course, to the Dallas Cowboys.

Show me the anti-Cowboys candidate, and I will show you someone who truly recognizes evil. He/she will have my everlasting support.