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Liberal Hawk Down | The Nation

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Liberal Hawk Down

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The Bush Administration has sought to develop a political strategy--or at least the appearance of one--to accompany the war on terrorism, and has called it "democratizing the Middle East." In line with their own liberal messianism, and belief in a "struggle of ideas" as a central part of the war on terrorism, this "strategy" has also been espoused by Berman and most of the other authors featured in The Fight Is for Democracy. I place "strategy" in quotation marks, for rather than a serious approach to the region, its problems and pathologies, this approach is rather something between a Potemkin facade and a deliberate diversionary tactic.

This essay is adapted from Anatol Lieven's next book, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, to be published this month by Oxford University Press.

About the Author

Anatol Lieven
Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College, London, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author...

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It has been suggested that in accordance with the view of the war on terrorism as a struggle against totalitarianism, useful parallels can be drawn between this strategy of "democratization" and the Helsinki process in Eastern Europe, which did something to undermine Soviet rule there. But these parallels overlook one rather important fact, which both "experts" like Berman and the majority of even the most educated Americans appear to be incapable of recognizing: In the view of most ordinary Arabs, the role the United States is playing in the Middle East is closer to that of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe than to that of a liberating force. And given the history of US (and British) involvement in the region over the past fifty years, Arabs have excellent grounds for this view.

The "strategy" of democratization has also been adopted by the Progressive Policy Institute and the Coalition for a Progressive Internationalism. This is a group of liberal hawks, devoted in domestic politics to a Blairite "third way," who in October 2003 produced a set of proposals titled "Progressive Internationalism: A Democratic National Security Strategy." The signatories included Ron Asmus, Kenneth Pollack, Michael McFaul and Philip Gordon. Most supported the Iraq war.

The language of democratizing the Middle East, and the liberal hawks' brand of internationalism, are very attractive to the Washington political elites and indeed to many ordinary Americans, for they are rooted in what has been called the "American Creed" (a term coined by G.K. Chesterton and since employed by a range of writers from Gunnar Myrdal to Samuel Huntington). The American Creed involves passionate and absolutist belief in democracy and "freedom," and is a critical element in American civic nationalism. Language derived from the creed therefore has a tendency to command the automatic and unthinking assent of many Americans, irrespective of the particular national, regional or historical circumstances.

The diversionary element in the "democratization" line on the part of both Republican and Democratic policy elites relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the US role in it. A truly intelligent and rational American strategy for the war on terrorism would require a wholly new approach to this conflict. The new strategy would have to involve a very different approach to the terms of the US-Israeli relationship and a drastic diminution of hardline Israeli influence in Washington. This in turn would permit another essential part of a rational strategy, which would be the active pursuit of reconciliation with Iran and Syria. Finally, a US and European strategy that truly took the Islamist and extremist threat seriously would require vastly increased economic assistance to various parts of the Muslim world, coupled with the genuine opening of both US and European markets to their exports. Yet the sums envisaged for the "Greater Middle East Initiative" are paltry compared with those spent in strengthening South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand against Communism from the 1950s to the 1970s.

These are, of course, all steps that would be very difficult for any US administration to take. They would be bitterly unpopular with many Americans, and would face determined opposition in Congress. How much easier, then, to evade these issues by making cost-free speeches about how democracy is the answer to every problem.

What is strange and well-nigh surreal is that the liberal hawks profess to believe that the gospel of muscular liberal democracy represents a radical alternative to the publicly expressed strategy of the neoconservatives and the Bush Administration. Thus, in his contribution to The Fight Is for Democracy, Michael Tomasky declares:

The hard part is backing up the critique [of the Republicans] with an alternative vision. That, too, should be simple, and for consistency's sake it should follow from the critique: The world's leading democracy should support...democracy. The Cold War is over; the twentieth century, the century in which all the "isms" became "wasms," is over; it's the twenty-first century; the United States should declare it to be--American liberals should declare it to be--the century of democracy.... Picture a Democratic president, or even a presidential candidate, making such a case forcefully on the world stage.... There will be initial resistance, but ultimately, who can afford to buck the United States? The world will start, in its lumbering petulant way, to change.
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