For US foreign policy, ‘left’ and ‘right’ have little meaning

Both political parties seek hawkish reputation

June 8, 2014 1:15AM ET
President Barack Obama before delivering remarks to troops and military families at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 2011.
Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

We all know our left from our right, don’t we? This skill, difficult enough in salsa dancing, turns out to be even trickier when applied to American foreign policy, where the difference between left and right is anything but simple.

Remember how in 2008, the candidate promising to expand the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan was Barack Obama, to the horror of GOP candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney? How come the most popular anti-war politician of the past 10 years isn’t a Democrat or even Ralph Nader but Ron Paul, a paleoconservative Texas Republican? How does it happen that Pvt. Chelsea Manning, a WikiLeaks source, gets far better treatment in the pages of The American Conservative, founded by Pat Buchanan, than in liberal Salon? Not even highbrow intellectuals are immune to this disorientation: The late ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain, sympathetic biographer of left reformer Jane Addams, thought the Iraq War was swell and proceeded to muse about “just war” rationales for strikes against Iran. Historian and retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, an uncompromising anti-war public intellectual, identifies himself as a Catholic conservative.

What’s going on here? The difference between war lover and anti-interventionist, hawk and dove, is clearly more complicated than a simple left-right divide. We need a better map for this quirky landscape. Here are three things that scramble the tidy left-right spectrum in U.S. foreign policy. 

Democratic penis envy

Since World War II, the Republican Party has branded itself as steely-eyed and bellicose — the true party of toughness. The Democratic response has often been to outdo the GOP in pugnacity.

Democrats, chronically insecure about not being tough enough, have a hard time saying no to war. Take John F. Kennedy: The young Democrat campaigned for president on accusing Dwight Eisenhower’s administration of allowing the Soviet Union to build up a “missile gap.” (It turned out not to exist, or rather it did but in Washington’s favor.) After promising to be more energetic than the Republicans in fighting communism worldwide, JFK launched a failed attack on Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Then the Vietnam War began.

Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan was guided at least as much by domestic politics as by strategic or humanitarian benefits (which have been negligible). And today Democrats love to inflate foreign threats just as much as Republicans do. Looks at New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s hyping Iran as an “existential threat” to the United States. Gillibrand may be donkey-state blue to the core, but give her a chance to demonize a foreign nation and she sounds just like Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin.

Any war that can have ‘humanitarian’ or ‘human rights’ slapped on it will be easy to swallow for Democratic media and intellectuals.

It is tempting to say that these Democratic displays of bellicosity are cynical, performed merely to wimp-proof the party. But this is too charitable. Much of the bloodlust — think Hillary Clinton crowing over the death of Muammar Gaddafi or Madeline Albright asking “What’s the point of having this superb military if we don’t use it?” — is perfectly sincere.

La mission civilisatrice

For centuries, missionaries have been the humanitarian lubricant for imperial violence. Today the American center-left will be likely to consent to any application of military violence if it can be portrayed, however implausibly, as a charitable endeavor. Any war that can have “humanitarian” or “human rights” slapped on it will be easy to swallow for Democratic media and intellectuals.  

This explains how the conservative Sen. John McCain and the liberal Rev. Jesse Jackson are as one in wanting to send Marines into Nigeria to search for and rescue those kidnapped schoolgirls. It also explains the popularity of waging war to “help” Libya by toppling its government. (That Libya is now “drowning in a swamp of terrorism, darkness, killing and destruction,” in the words of Libyan former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, is not something liberal interventionists care to discuss.)

On a larger scale, missionary zeal is how American liberals easily convinced themselves that our long Afghan war campaign is, at heart, a feminist Peace Corps project. Blinded by the sugar rush of good intentions behind the night raids, the checkpoint shootings, the aerial bombardment of wedding parties, liberals have by and large supported Barack Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan. (So too, of course, did most conservatives.)

We’ve been here before. For many Cold War liberals, the Vietnam War was a philanthropic project, a way of saving a third world country for liberal democracy. The chief hawks of the JFK–Lyndon Johnson war effort were dynamic philanthropists: Walt Rostow was a leading development economist; national security adviser McGeorge Bundy went on to helm the Ford Foundation; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara later took charge of the World Bank. Today, similarly, USAID is often an tool of economic domination and interventionist skullduggery.

The civilizing mission, for all the fine feelings involved, has a way of shading into  bellicose militarism.

About Israel

Nothing sets the political compass spinning like Washington’s sponsorship of Israel — which turns the fiscal conservative into a Keynesian, the liberal peacenik into an apologist for ethnic cleansing, the ultraconservative into a humanitarian.

It ought to be so easy for American liberals to say unequivocally that lavishly arming Israel at $3 billion a year should stop, as it fuels ethnic cleansing in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and is a strategic liability for the U.S. to boot. And yet on the American center-left, as on the center-right, attitudes toward Israel toggle between passionate support and acquiescent murmurs of “It’s complicated.” While the question of arming Israel is strenuously ignored, the American center-left cannot stop talking about the “peace process” which, measured by budget size and actual impact, has always been a wilted sprig of parsley alongside the 16-ounce slab of unconditional military aid.

That Washington is more of an accomplice than an honest broker in this conflict is not lost anyone in the world — except Americans. For this we can blame consistently abysmal media coverage, even at the highbrow level. For instance, prolific liberal journalist and author Peter Beinart is quite comfortable with the massive U.S. military subsidy. And as he emphasized to The Atlantic, he is “actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.” This easygoing attitude toward illiberal ethnocracy is congruent with what The National Review wrote about Mississippi in the 1950s — but today Beinart passes for a bold progressive voice, marking the outer limit of acceptable discourse in The New York Review of Books and defended in the left-liberal Nation. 

The Democrats, especially when in power, have a hard time saying no to war

This discombobulation of the foreign-policy axis should not be pushed too far. It could and should be noted that by any other standards, Democrats are not actually center-left but solidly center-right, with the Republicans a hard-right nationalist alternative. And though a comparison of Democratic and Republican foreign policy agendas is usually like one of those tedious “spot the tiny difference” picture games, occasionally there is a significant split. It is for instance impossible to imagine a Mitt Romney administration engaging in Team Obama’s nuclear rapprochement with Iran — one of very few instances of enlightened foreign policy leadership from this president.

But foreign policy differences between the parties should not be exaggerated either. Huffy assertions that a post-9/11 Democratic president would never have been so foolish as to invade Iraq conveniently forget that this war was at one time or another supported by both Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and countless others. The Democrats, especially when in power, have a hard time saying no to war.

Political mongrels

If the pro-war consensus has blurred the difference between left and right, so have various anti-war coalitions, then and now. The Anti-Imperialist League that fought the U.S. annexation of the Philippines consisted of prominent Americans of all political stripes, from Harvard philosopher William James to steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to Mark Twain. Today dissent against the United States’ permanent state of semi-war come from across the board: the Black left, traditionalist conservatives, the realpolitik school of international relations, radicals, libertarians, even liberals. These groups don’t always play nicely together, but they do have much to learn from one another.

If you meet someone at a café in Northampton, Massachusetts, who’s against an interventionist foreign policy, the odds are, he’ll probably identify as on the left. Meet someone with the same views at a bar in San Antonio, she’s likely be on the right. Most Americans are political mongrels: They do not seamlessly fit into any single box. Any effort that would seek to demilitarize U.S. foreign policy is going to require alliances across political tribes and a great deal of local knowledge about our lumpy, uneven political landscape. 

Chase Madar is an attorney in New York and the author of “The Passion of [Chelsea] Manning: The Story Behind the WikiLeaks Whistleblower” (Verso, 2013).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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