The Labyrinth Of Liberal Foreign Policy

Liberals have a terrible reputation on foreign policy matters. They are also often bitter that Republicans can get away with mistakes in the foreign policy arena that would quickly sink a liberal. Just try and imagine the national mood had Democrat Al Gore been at the helm of the nation when 9/11 occurred. When the Christmas bombing failed in 2009, President Obama was quickly lambasted by his critics in a jumpy nation, but back on 9/11, we heard Mayor Rudy “9/11” Giuliani say that he felt glad that a Republican was in charge when we came under attack.

You would think that the event itself was proof of failure, and if a repeat happens under Mr. Obama, that is exactly how the conservative mainstream media will play it. Do we remember that President Carter did order military action to rescue the hostages in Iran? The failures in that mission laid the groundwork for the current successes the U.S. has with its special operations teams, but most Americans were lured into the delusion sponsored by Saint Ronnie the Gipper that Jimmy Carter was weak.

Beyond the chest-puffing escapades of the Republicans, and completely aside from the less gun-friendly motivations of the Democrats, lies the real reason that liberals struggle so much with foreign policy. They, and I use that pronoun under caution, have no idea what it is that is needed in the world. Many of the traditional foreign policy paradigms held dear in modern liberalism are, at various times, contradictory. There is at once a profound desire to steer clear of military action and so avoid bloodshed, while also using the influence of the United States to improve the lives of oppressed classes around the world.

Christopher Hitchens ran headlong into this paradox at the outset of the Second Iraq War. The lifelong liberal was (and remains) a passionate advocate for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, regardless of whether the Iraqis possessed weapons of mass destruction. His position is that dictators must be challenged militarily by free democracies, and so be purged from the Earth. He is prepared to argue that the loss of life (now in the hundreds of thousands) is acceptable when set against the damage inflicted by such dictators on their people over time.

It is an interesting and difficult to surmount argument, and one that those pushing for help in places like Darfur, Myanmar (Burma), Somalia, and Nigeria must come to terms with. The nations of the world that still view women as chattel, take a dim view of personal property, or use violence as a means to all conflict resolution, would all be better off as democracies in the model of America; or so we believe. We sometimes feel, here in these United States, that the rest of the world should instantly learn from our history and jump to what we feel is our advanced understanding of the world. We forget that children must learn for themselves despite their parent’s pleadings, and that not all we do is better than the rest of the world.

But how do you affect such change? We tried to feed Somalia and help them reestablish a functioning government and economy. Local warlords (we would call them businessman here in the U.S.), remained less than convinced that foreigners had any business in their business. It took 20,000 U.S. Marines to keep enough peace to get food to the people, when they inevitably left, the hunger returned. Should this pattern be repeated to end the genocide in Darfur? Should we sacrifice our professed (we are liberals, remember) religious tolerance on the altar of going to a country like Iran or Afghanistan and telling them to give their women property rights? I ask these questions less as an attack on liberal values and more as a question of principle.

When is state-sanctioned violence permissible? When is the flexing of U.S. military muscle appropriate? Where do we draw the line on cultural and religious tolerance, understanding, and respect? Should the U.S. democracy simply defend its homeland, extend that defense to its business interests and foreign charities, or do both and add a preemptive defense of our morality? The questions don’t end with security, crime, and individual rights. Countries like Nigeria have allowed contractors (most of them from the West) to rape the nation’s natural resources and spew volumes of pollution that eclipse the worst events we have seen in our enlightened side of the world. The environmental degradation there has the potential to kill far more than the sad episode in Darfur; should we not then take action in West Central Africa?

These are all, I realize, questions of principle that many feel are isolated. The reality is that all are inextricably linked to the nation that principle demands take some form of action. What are our shared responsibilities to the world, and to what extents should we go to live up to them? Liberals, far more than the monolithic Conservatives, are the people who need to answer these questions. The answers will be the definitions of U.S foreign policy in the 21st Century.

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