During the 2000 campaign, candidate George W. Bush proclaimed that America must be “humble in how we treat nations that are figuring out how to chart their own course.” But that was then. September 11 opened up a door through which such rhetoric might be unceremoniously tossed. Its replacement: a decade-in-the-making, neoconservative national security strategy envisioning a global US military empire and a degree of imperial ambition with few, if any, historical parallels.

What makes the new policy’s promulgation politically possible is the lack of interest most Americans evince in foreign affairs, save matters of war and peace. The market-minded media follow suit, and the net result is a thoroughly undemocratic state of affairs, in which the politico/military resources of the most powerful nation in human history become the plaything of a tiny group of shifting “players” whose identities change with every issue: AIPAC gets the Middle East; Miami gets Cuba; multinationals get the WTO and the destruction of Kyoto; Christian fundamentalists (these days) get population planning, etc.

If the enunciation of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/ Perle Pax Americana doctrine is to have any benefit, it will be in finally forcing the consideration of an alternative vision. Somewhat amazingly, essays questioning the costs and value of the new American empire recently graced the simultaneous covers of US News & World Report (by Jay Tolson), The New York Times Magazine (by Michael Ignatieff) and Mother Jones (by George Packer and Todd Gitlin). Packer, addressing himself primarily to liberals, properly points out that the Democrats have had no foreign policy since Vietnam. He notes, “The usual response is to moan about the party’s spineless leaders, but…they can’t stand up because they have nowhere to stand, no alternate vision of what purpose America’s enormous power in the world should serve.”

Packer speaks for many liberals when he writes: “A truly liberal foreign policy starts with the idea that the things American liberals want…for their own country–liberty and equality ensured by collective action, through government and civil society–should be America’s goal for the rest of the world as well.” He imagines “nation building on a far greater scale than we’ve seen–not just peacekeeping in Afghanistan, but economic development in Uganda and support for democratic forces in Iran.”

Yet these were exactly the goals Lyndon Johnson hoped to achieve in Vietnam. As the liberal realist Stanley Hoffmann observes in the January 13 American Prospect, there is no indication we are any more competent to carry this kind of thing off now. Hoffmann warns, “We don’t have the skill or the knowledge it would take to manipulate the domestic politics of many countries, or even to choose the right leaders for other people. It is blind hubris to assume that we will ‘improve’ the world by projecting on others a model of democracy that has worked–not without upheavals–in the rich and multicultural United States but has little immediate relevance in much of the rest of the world.”

What’s more, given Americans’ lack of interest in this kind of adventure, even if we did possess the requisite knowledge, skill and patience to pull off these worthy goals, it’s unclear where the necessary popular support would come from. As I argued in Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy, good foreign policy is a lot harder than it looks (and than most liberals are willing to admit). Tocqueville observed that in foreign affairs, “democratic governments do appear decidedly inferior to others,” as foreign policy demands none of the good qualities peculiar to democracy, and insists on the cultivation of those sorely lacking. Democracies find it “difficult to coordinate the details of a great undertaking and to fix on some plan and carry it through with determination,” and have “little capacity for combining measures in secret and waiting patiently for the result.” The historian Walter LaFeber calls this “the Tocqueville problem in American history.” How can a “democratic republic, whose vitality rests on the pursuit of individual interests with a minimum of central governmental direction, create the necessary national consensus for the conduct of an effective, and necessarily long-term, foreign policy?”

When Bush claims Ariel Sharon to be a “man of peace” and appoints the Iran/contra criminal Elliott Abrams to head the Middle East office of the National Security Council, he makes a mockery of both the English language and human decency, but he risks nothing politically. The sources of support for a Likud-driven US foreign policy are real and identifiable. Where are the mobilizable political armies on the liberal team?

Consistently negative polling data convinced Karl Rove and George Bush not to risk the launch of an unprovoked war against Iraq without the cover of the United Nations Security Council. These data confirm the unstinting and largely unreported dedication of the American public to multilateralism in foreign policy. At this writing, thanks to the demands of the public, the war has been delayed, somewhat tamed and possibly may be avoided. But while a mass public intervention can prevent or delay a war here and there, it cannot successfully upend the Administration’s drunken unilateralist bender that has (so far) undermined the Kyoto agreement, the International Criminal Court, the small arms treaty, the ABM accord, the chemical and biological weapons convention and virtually every other collective effort to insure a more peaceful, prosperous world. To win those battles, the public requires representation for its values within the foreign policy establishment. This is almost entirely lacking today.

In other words, yes, we have no foreign policy. But more important, we have no political strategy, period. We need the former before we can enjoy the luxury of attempting to sell the latter. This means paying heed to what Americans genuinely want from the world, as well as what the world wants from us. Those “humble” words might just have been the wisest ever uttered by George W. Bush. Perhaps liberals might begin the task ahead by figuring out how to take them back.