Reconnecting to the World
For the sake of party unity, many Democrats last year put aside their differences with John Kerry's foreign policy positions, in particular his tortured support for the war in Iraq. Situating the party as close to the Bush agenda as possible without actually embracing it, it was argued, was a reasonable price to pay for taking back the White House. The gambit--of being long on national security and the "war on terror" and short on the economy and jobs--failed, however, to persuade working-class and suburban voters in places like Ohio and Missouri, reinforcing the public view that the Democrats have no mind of their own on issues of great national and international importance.
Unchastened, the neoliberal wing of the party wants the Democrats to repeat this gambit by toughening their rhetoric and committing yet more resources to the fight against what they describe as Islamic jihadism. In a New Republic essay late last year, Peter Beinart called on Democrats to rediscover their "fighting faith" and to commit themselves to a new generational struggle against "Islamic fascism." More recently, Blueprint magazine, the house organ of the Democratic Leadership Council, published a statement on national security, signed by leading Democrats, urging the party to "make winning the war against Islamic jihadism the party's first priority." The group's agenda--prosecuting the global "war on terror," democratizing the Middle East and increasing the military's ground forces--is echoed by likely Democratic presidential candidates, including Senators Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.
These exhortations are particularly troubling because they come at a time when the Administration itself is being forced to rethink significant parts of its post-9/11 foreign policy and just when much of the nation has reopened its mind to a larger set of international concerns. Rather than seizing the moment to point us in a more constructive direction, much of the Democratic leadership is reinforcing a foreign policy agenda that has divided us from the world, inserted us more deeply into an Islamic civil war and drained us politically and economically, all the while distracting us from many of the real challenges to our security and well-being. The party--indeed, the nation--deserves a better alternative.
The Neoliberal Narrative
If the muscular neoliberal narrative sounds familiar, it is because it is modeled on an earlier triumphant struggle--the one waged against the Soviet Union. As seen in these terms, the world is now threatened by Islamic jihadism, whose determined proponents threaten to overrun the entire Muslim region and sow terror in the United States. Islamic jihadism, we are told, is first and foremost a product of the lack of freedom in much of the Islamic world. Thus the United States must commit itself not just to a global "war on terror" but to a new mission to democratize and liberalize the greater Middle East. This mission, we are informed, must take priority over other urgent public challenges. Sound market economics will take care of much of the rest.
After reading the statement published in Blueprint, one might reasonably conclude that car bombs are going off daily in Washington, New York and Los Angeles and that governments across the Middle East are in danger of falling to jihadist insurgents. But John Kerry, for all his other failings as a presidential candidate, was correct when he intimated to a New York Times reporter that while it may not be possible to eliminate terrorism entirely, it could be reduced to a nuisance. Indeed, the experience of other countries, many of them more vulnerable to terrorist attack, would support that view.
At worst, Islamic jihadism is a regional problem--in Europe, the Middle East and parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. But as Gilles Kepel and other experts on Islamism have argued, even in the case of the Middle East, bin Laden-inspired groups have been remarkably unsuccessful in shaking any government (except for Afghanistan in the 1990s) or in galvanizing the Muslim masses into action. And they would have been even less successful had it not been for counterproductive American actions, especially the war in Iraq. It is not a coincidence that the governments that feel most vulnerable to Islamic jihadism are those that have had a close association with the United States, or on whose soil the United States has left the heaviest footprint.