What I Want From the Democrats

Michael Totten has a pointer to this good take on the differences over the war on the part of liberals. The author notes that the primary division is over whether one sees neo-imperialism (embodied by America) as the greatest danger in the world, or whether one believes the greatest danger is 21st Century fascism (embodied by radical Islam and its foremost proponent, Al Qaeda). I believe our struggle is with the new fascists, that we are, indeed at war, and that there is no more important fact that we have to deal with. In some ways, this makes me a single-issue voter for the upcoming election: who will most forcefully prosecute this war?

My problem with the Democrats right now is that many of them seem to fall on the other side of this division and believe that America, or at least an America led by the Bush Administration, is a greater danger to the world than Al Qaeda, or, at best, that Al Qaeda is a problem that can be managed away or ignored by clever policy rather than a neo-Wilsonian foreign policy backed by occassional military force. Consider Kerry’s victory speech from last night, about halfway down the page, we see this quote:

And we will meet one of the historic challenges of our generation with a bold new plan for energy independence that will invest in technologies of the future and create 500,000 new jobs, so young Americans in uniform will never be held hostage to Mideast oil.

Granted, this is better than conspiracy theories about Halliburton or a neo-conservative cabal, and is, in the long term, one of the things that we have to do, but it fails to directly address the problem of this war on bad philosophy. The rest of the speech is about domestic issues, and the war isn’t mentioned in passing again. Domestic issues do matter, and nothing is going to change my opinion that the agenda of the religious right of this country is stupid, but, really, America and its Constitution has vast reservoirs of “American-ness” behind them, and no one domestic group can damage this country irreparably in the next four years. Fundamentally, we have debates over whether gay people can get married whereas Al Qaeda and its sympathisizers would simply kill gays with rocks. And that isn’t going to change, no matter how many spurious comparisons are made between the religious conservatives backing the Bush Administration and Islamic fundamentalists. Ultimately, we are Americans, and we believe in liberalism in its various shadings and interpretations.

From time to time, we seem to forget that, in the metrics of intentions and capabilities, Al Qaeda would have killed thirty thousand, three hundred thousand, three million people if they had the means to do so. Thankfully, they do not (yet) have these means. I believe that we’re in a race against time: this “War on Terror” is a golden hour, our last chance to avert catastrophe. Bluntly, what we’re trying to prevent is the use of nuclear weapons on American and Western cities by terrorists in the next decade or two. And the race may be shorter than we had thought even a year ago — possibly, Abdul Qadeer Khan’s actions will have as great an impact on destabilizing the 21st Century as Hitler and Stalin’s impact on destabilizing the 20th. For if such weapons are used against Americans by terrorists, and America faces an unrelenting string of such attacks, then America’s ultimate weapons may be unsheathed, and our best strategy of a slow approach, with limited war and long term political transformation, will be abandoned because we can no longer afford it. This will be an unmitigated disaster for both the rest of the world from the damage we would cause in defending ourselves from loose nukes, and for us at home: our liberalism may not survive such a hot, fast war.

Do I believe the Democrats will come up with an reasonable response to these threats? So far, they’ve failed: they’ve tended to advocate a judicial strategy, where law enforcement will roll up terrorists as they spring up. Yes, part of our response to Al Qaeda and the social pathologies that give rise to it should be more judicial than military. That’s what we’re doing in the countries that have strong states, that are willing to cooperate, in particular the European countries: terrorist cells are broken up by the police, they’re arrested and tried in courts of law. One may argue that the Patriot Act is an attempt to give domestic law enforcement more teeth. But the judicial strategy tends to fail when confronted by recalcitrant states: how does one apply law enforcement strategies to the international system? From the point of realism, you really can’t, since there’s no solid concept of laws between states; at best, you can hope for an alignment of interests between the various state law enforcement agencies. Other theories of international relations may buy you more. However, from an empirical matter, the judicial strategy was tried in the 1990s, had some successes, but was inadequate for the task at hand, as 9/11 ultimately showed.

We further don’t have the luxury of time to retry failed strategies. As noted, the nuclear genie is out of the bottle because the proliferation regime that relied on cooperation with inspectors and UN sanction has been shown to be next to useless. We will need to fall back to deterence, not because Al Qaeda is deterable, but the governments and people who finance them are. While we cannot prevent individual suicide bombers and small groups from causing harm, we can dry up the funding and resources necessary for large scale attacks, or operations that require sophistication. This may be good enough for the short and medium term, while the generations-long strategy of establishing liberalism abroad takes effect.

So who is taking this war most seriously? The Bush Administration has failed in many respects. It has failed to provide adequate troops to pacify Iraq immediately after the war. Its efforts at Homeland Security are not serious. And most importantly, it has failed to convey to the American people the importance of this war, its stakes and its long term goals. It has miserably failed to harness American national will when it was easiest to harness, right after 9/11: I remember a quip from one of our clients (albeit a Wall Streeter whose office would have been less than a mile from WTC) a week or two after the attacks: we should all get back to work, so we can make lots of money, so we can pay lots of taxes, so we can buy lots of bombs. Instead of buying lots of bombs, recruiting lots of troops, and training lots of civil affairs officers, the Administration stuck to its tax cuts and other fiscal stupidities, which may constrain our ability to finance this war in coming years. In terms of national morale, we were told to return to normalcy and shop rather than realize that we are under threat.

But the Democrats have been far worse. Hatred of Bush appears to drive the Democratic base rather than serious considerations about foreign policy. When there is consideration of the Administration’s foreign policy, it has tended to be conspiracy minded, or has contained strains of moral equivalence between Bush and Saddam, or America and Al Qaeda. Consider Dean’s ambivalence about not being glad that Saddam was gone. Consider Gore’s speech about how 9/11 was merely a pretext to engage in warmongering. At least I get the feeling that Bush himself, despite the electoral machinations of Rove, believes that we are at war, and that the end to this war will be decades from now, and only after there has been a political transformation of the Islamic lands. Even if Al Qaeda is crushed by the end of the year, we still have to address the ideological swamp from which it sprang, and the conquest and rebuilding of Iraq are the first steps.

In some sense, the strategy of bringing liberalism to the world is our thinking outside the box, a rewriting of the rules, a winning gambit for the Kobayashi Maru. I think it’s our only way out. The alternative is that we endure an unending series of attacks every few years, when a new group arises to take the place of the one we just crushed, until, at the end, we are struck with ultimate weapons, and we respond in kind.

Comments are closed.