We Need Liberals on Foreign Policy—Whether Israel, China, Iraq—to Lead the Way

Whatever you may think of the left, it is liberals and moderates who are asking the right questions about where we should go on national security policy. Agree or disagree, we have to pay attention.

Liberals, progressives, left wingers, and even sometimes moderates—the center and left of America’s political circus—barely register on the power scale of U.S. foreign policymaking. That’s been true since World War II, with a brief exception at the end of the Vietnam War. The general public, the media, and the foreign policy establishment consider the center left too starry-eyed for international evils, too weak as negotiators, and too fearful to use military force. But whatever their reputation, they are the ones today, practically the only ones today, who are asking the essential policy questions—about domestic versus international priorities, the utility of land wars in inhospitable countries, the role negotiations need to play with adversaries. Those are the issues that truly matter now. They (moderates like Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, Strobe Talbott of Brookings, and Jessica Mathews of Carnegie, as well as liberals like House Democrat Howard Berman) deserve a full hearing by the media, Congress, and the public. Otherwise, we’re just going to get a lot more of the same bombastic rhetoric from right wingers and neoconservatives. That chest thumping makes no sense anymore, and we can’t afford it. But it’s precisely the chest thumping that’s still getting most of the attention.

On Afghanistan, the moderate-liberal coalition managed to produce a decision by President Obama and his NATO counterparts to relinquish the burden of combat by the end of 2014. Even then, it’s far from clear what that means. Thousands of troops could remain for training and other missions. Worse yet, moderates and liberals don’t even possess the clout to push conservatives to answer the key questions: why more war in Afghanistan makes sense when terrorists abound all around the globe. How on earth U.S. vital interests are involved when Afghans barely fight for themselves and when it’s unclear if we’re fighting for or against Pakistan. Isn’t the burden of proof on those who want more of the same?

Republicans and neoconservatives are attacking Obama for withdrawing all American troops from Iraq in two months and accusing him of giving the store to Iran. Forgotten is the carnal fact that the Baghdad government said “Get out!” and that Iraqi and President George W. Bush’s officials signed an agreement three years ago mandating full withdrawal. The Republicans and neoconservatives didn’t say a word of criticism about that deal. They just pile on Obama with the media’s help. And it’s perfectly clear that Bush destroyed the U.S. position in the Gulf when he destroyed the Iraq government and Army, leaving no counterweight to Iran. At least the center-left is asking what needs to be done next to bolster U.S. interests.

The media also let the conservatives jump all over Obama on his plan for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. What the president was mostly saying was that the territorial arrangement had to be adjustments of the 1967 lines. That’s been the position of every U.S. administration since 1967 and so stated publicly for almost two decades. But the voices of moderates and liberals noting that historical fact are simply swamped by Republicans.

The debate over China policy follows the same pattern. Conservatives control the dial with their constant refrains about the growth of Chinese military power. Indeed, it’s growing, but as moderates correctly point out, Beijing remains decades behind in quality of weaponry and especially in the command and control and experience necessary to operate an effective military machine. Where’s that balance in the public debate?

The main prize goes to the conservatives on the defense budget. Key Republicans are arguing to kill whatever the so-called supercommittee on deficit reductions recommends—and increase military spending. And don’t think they can’t. Whatever the supers do, Congress can still legislate. And Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former Pentagon budget slasher, now battles to prevent reductions. Instead of jumping through these hoops again, it’s time to look hard at the new threats facing America and decide upon new strategies. It’s the worst time to just pile on good money after bad political budget scheming.

For decades now, the right has more or less called the national security shots. They even attacked the strong anticommunist policies of presidents Truman and Eisenhower. Nothing satisfied them, and they never altered their views. Democrats bent to their constant pounding and success with the public and press. When John F. Kennedy ran against Adlai Stevenson for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, he did so as a hawk. His main pitch was that Stevenson was too left and too weak to manage the Cold War. Jimmy Carter didn’t play the pretend-hawk game, but as his administration went on, and with Iran and Afghanistan, he turned rightward. Most Democratic presidents have steered away from looking liberal and from choosing liberals to people top posts in their foreign policy establishment.

Remember that Obama’s campaign trail call for withdrawing from Iraq was always followed by his advocating escalation in Afghanistan. For his top advisers, he selected retired Marine Gen. James Jones for NSC adviser, Hillary Clinton for state, and kept on Robert Gates, a Republican, at defense. Clinton, who lived most of her political life as a foreign policy liberal, turned conservative and hawky once in the Senate. Even today, probably her closest adviser on wars is retired Army Gen. Jack Keane. Nor should anyone lose sight of current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s rightward drift.

Two factors are at work here. First, most Americans just don’t feel safe with liberals and even moderates running the national security show. To most Americans, liberals seem too trusting and too weak. Second, most Democrats with power don’t trust their liberals either. They know liberals will give them a “bad” name with the foreign policy establishment, legislators, and the media.

There’s plenty to quarrel with liberals and centrists about. I find myself mostly in the realist camp, looking hard at achievable goals and usable power. But the liberals and lefties are leading the charge on reviewing fundamentals. They’re doing something good, something important. Give them a hearing.