[This article was published in the March/April Columbia Political Review]
Conservatives dismiss anyone who opposed the war to unseat Saddam Hussein as a liberal, and many on the left refer derisively to those who supported the Iraq war as “neocons.” But such name-calling obscures the interesting fact that many of the heirs of the progressive tradition support the idea of democratizing the Middle East and were willing to condone military action in Iraq if it meant ending a murderous and tyrannical regime. These liberals, often called human rights hawks or democracy activists, oppose the conservative domestic politics of the Bush Administration, yet find themselves strangely agreeing with his drive to change the focus of American foreign policy from maintaining stability to promoting democracy and liberty.
“The choices that one has to make in politics are not always the choices one would want,” said Mitchell Cohen, co-editor of the leftist journal Dissent and a professor at Baruch College. “If I were given the choice of supporting a policy of a conservative government in a liberal democracy that would serve a constructive purpose, even if I disagreed with that government in general, it would trump simplistic anti-imperialist rhetoric.”
One of the charges brought forth by the large part of the left that organized under the antiwar banner in the lead-up to the Iraq war is that American foreign policy has done more harm than good, especially in the past century. Yet these ideologues have apparently missed one of the more important foreign policy pronouncements in recent American history: “For too long, American policy looked away while men and women were oppressed, their rights ignored and their hopes stifled. That era is over, and we can be confident. As in Germany, and Japan, and Eastern Europe, liberty will overcome oppression in the Middle East.” Many would assume the speaker of these words hailed from the progressive left. But in fact, President Bush made the pronouncement in a speech in February at the Library of Congress.
True, they are just words, but setting aside personal political views and Bush’s domestic agenda, one would have to admit that this administration has begun a process of addressing America’s previous errors and setting American foreign policy on a potentially progressive course. Much more needs to be done, but it is a start. Neither President Clinton nor President Carter dared challenge the very idea of stability in the Middle East by admitting to the world that the regimes there were tyrannical, oppressive, and unjust. And while the left was quick to condemn the U.S. for not doing more to safeguard civil liberties and human rights around the world, now that these issues are on the table, much of the left has switched gears to support the sovereignty of dictatorships.
This is not to say that Howard Zinn & Co. should go out and buy a Bush pin and wave the American flag; from a progressive perspective, there are a great deal of things politically and morally wrong with the Bush Administration. The administration certainly bungled, to say the least, the reconstruction of Iraq. And there is a lot to say about the Administration’s propensity for centralizing power and misleading the public. But to agree with some policies and disagree with others, all the while working together, is the essence of democracy and the paramount duty of loyal opposition. Dissent is key, but without cooperation between ideological streams, politics would be no more than a partisan death match—as it is quickly becoming at present.
It is in the realm of unseating dictators and empowering human beings around the world that the left should have the least problem compromising with the Bush Administration. And there certainly needs to be more of a debate regarding the means for global democratization.
One of the key departure points between conservative and liberal proponents of the war stems from the way the two streams view the involvement of government. Conservatives tend to focus less on the positive effects “soft” government power can have in international relations, and tend to view military action as key. Liberals, on the other hand, advocate using diplomatic and developmental tools first and military might only when necessary to bring about democratization. But one could argue that even in terms of using soft-power tools, the left should be more aggressive.
“Events triggered by 9/11 showed that it is impossible to sustain the freedoms of the globalized world when there are bad neighborhoods in the world,” said Mark Malloch-Brown, director of the United Nations Development Program, at a lecture hosted by Columbia’s Earth Institute last year. Domestic problems, in very real ways, have become international issues. “Countries can no longer hide behind the walls of their borders. Their security depends on the security of the world. Thus, hawks aren’t only in security but also in development: one must reach across borders to fix international problems.”
Indeed, instead of marching in the streets to oppose U.S. policy in general, progressives should be putting massive pressure on the Bush Administration to follow through on its rhetoric about building democracy around the world, and demanding that the Administration do much more to compel tyrannical regimes to undertake political reforms. By simply forming an opposition without putting forth a practical alternative path to promoting democratization, the antiwar left has in fact become rather conservative, in that it works to retard or even halt what could be a huge push for human rights. The left focuses more on opposing Bush than working with him to end atrocities—such as, for example, the largely ignored genocidal crimes raging this very moment in the Sudan. On issues of such urgency, the left remains silent.
This should change. “What I would like to see,” Cohen said, “is people with certain common values in terms of democracy and economic fairness, working together on a global level.” Only such progressive international cooperation to safeguard human rights and to free peoples from oppressive regimes will ensure a future for democracy and the freedoms we hold dear.