More On "The Antitotalitarian Left" [hilzoy]

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I agree with Steve Clemons' response to Jamie's post 'Whither the Antitotalitarian Left?'. But I am also puzzled by one other point that Jamie makes:

"With the impending realist takeover of the Democratic Party, anti-totalitarianism will recede, and this is unfortunate. Whereas once the AFL-CIO had a large and effective international office, you'd be hard-pressed to hear, for instance, what they're doing for Iraqi trade-unionists. (...)

Liberal interventionism, as a doctrine, has worked and ought to stay alive in the hearts of those claiming to be liberals--in spite of the failures of Iraq. Beyond the particularities of specific military interventions, what is most worrying is that the left has become so embittered by the response to 9/11 that it has withdrawn into a feral crouch from which it is more suspicious of what the Western democracies do to protect themselves than it is with the plight of oppressed people abroad. (...)

We may very well have a Democratic president. But what will inform their foreign policy values now that the Democratic Party is not animated by the anti-totalitarianism of old, but rather a mere hatred for the president and a serious lack of faith in even the potential role America can play in the world?"

I do not question the claim that "anti-totalitarianism" has receded in the Democratic Party. This is surely true. And there's a good reason for it: totalitarianism is no longer the major danger that we face abroad. Despite George W. Bush's attempts to paint al Qaeda as a totalitarian group bent on imposing a Caliphate on the world, al Qaeda is not a totalitarian organization, and its natural allies are not totalitarian regimes but failed states. In fact, there are not that many totalitarian states presently in existence; of those, some (e.g., Myanmar) pose no threat to us, while others threaten us not because they are totalitarian, but for some other reason. (E.g., North Korea threatens us because of the possibility that it might export its weapons, not its ideology.)

Our central foreign policy problems -- for instance, failed states and the violence they foster, the rise of China, Iraq and the risk of further destabilization in the Middle East and Pakistan, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the collapse of our moral standing in the world in general and the Middle East in particular -- have very little to do with totalitarianism. For this reason, it would be odd if anti-totalitarianism were still the driving force behind liberal foreign policy -- not quite as odd as if we were all animated by fear of German militarism or the Bonapartist menace, but odd nonetheless.

I am, however, puzzled by the claim that the Democratic Party is about to undergo a "realist takeover", and that it is animated by "a mere hatred for the president and a serious lack of faith in even the potential role America can play in the world." What is the evidence for this claim? As best I can tell, the only evidence Jamie provides for his assertions about what motivates Democrats is his link to this article about a new foreign policy think-tank. It describes the people in that think-tank as believing that Democrats ought to be less interventionist and more realistic. But it presents very little evidence that Democrats are in fact following that prescription; in fact, when the article Jamie cites characterizes Democratic foreign policy as a whole, it is carefully noncommittal (e.g., "Just how much influence their argument is having on the front-runners in the Democratic presidential race is not immediately apparent.")

The article does argue that some Democratic candidates have moved in realist directions, but its evidence is fairly weak. For instance, to support the claim that this is true of Hillary Clinton, it notes that in a recent speech on her foreign policy priorities, she "listed national interest first and values last, a slight shift, but a significant one to the finely-attuned ears of the foreign policy establishment." As causes for concern go, the order in which Hillary Clinton lists her points doesn't rank very high on my list. Moreover, as the article notes, and as I argued earlier, Barack Obama is not a foreign-policy realist at all. In general, the article describes the Democratic Party as one in which there is a "a genuine clash of worldviews", not one that's about to be taken over by anyone. So I'm not sure how linking to this article supports Jamie's position.

There are Democrats who think that the idea of promoting democracy abroad has been so tarnished by George W. Bush that we should leave it aside for now and concentrate on rebuilding our own moral credibility. This is not exactly foreign policy realism: many people who hold this view think that rebuilding our moral credibility involves doing straightforwardly good things in other countries, and generally reclaiming the right to stand for our values. Others, myself included, think that we should make the case that George W. Bush has never been serious about promoting democracy to begin with, rather than ceding the term 'promoting democracy' to him. Some Democrats (and Republicans) are tempted to conclude that the United States has neither the patience nor the wisdom to try to promote our values abroad at all. But I don't think many of us are animated solely by "mere hatred for the president and a serious lack of faith in even the potential role America can play in the world", especially not if we're talking about policy makers and advisors, as any discussion of a "takeover" of the Democratic Party must. I'd be interested in any evidence to the contrary that Jamie might present.

That brings me to my next point, which I'll discuss below the fold.

On several occasions, Jamie has made serious claims for which he has provided very little evidence. There was, for instance, his claim that "Syria and Iran have effectively declared war on us", a declaration I must have missed, especially in the case of Syria. Similarly, his posts bemoaning our lack of grit brought to mind Tonto's great (and probably apocryphal) line: "What do you mean, 'we', white man?" Practically every generation I know of has believed that its members lacked the grit and purpose of the generations that came before. Is there any evidence at all to suggest that this is more true of our generation than it was of, say, Caesar's or Nietzsche's?

And, as I noted earlier, Jamie's post on Obama, and his related column, made claims about Obama's views on genocide that were difficult to square with Obama's record, his positions, or for that matter with a simple Google search of Obama's website for a word like Darfur.

Jamie's response to my post puzzled me. While he wrote in his column that "Judging from his statements thus far, it appears that Illinois Democratic senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama though many steps away from becoming leader of the Free World has presciently formulated his own doctrine: The United States will remain impassive in the face of genocide", he now claimed that "I'm not really sure if there is an Obama Doctrine, but was hoping to be provocative and stir some debate." Here I agree with Steve Benen's take:

"Really? Kirchick wrote a piece for publication in a newspaper that accused a top presidential candidate of being indifferent towards genocide. He got basic facts wrong, and confronted with his mistakes, Kirchick argues that he simply wanted to “stir some debate”? (...) Professional writers aren’t supposed to submit pieces for publication with errors of fact and judgment just to get people talking."

We live in a time in which it is virtually impossible for ordinary citizens to get all the information they need to make informed political decisions. It's hard to know all that we need to know about the effects of various changes to Social Security, or the history and political culture of Iraq, or what effects our mounting debt is likely to have in the future. For this reason, people who write about politics for public consumption have, I've always thought, a responsibility, as citizens, to write things that illuminate and inform, or at the very least do not spread misinformation, however provocative. We all need help trying to figure things out, and for that reason we should at the very least try to make sure that what we say is true. And that in turn means that when we say something that we do not clearly mark as mere supposition, opinion, parody, etc., we have an obligation first to check and see whether it is true, and second, to link to the evidence for our claims if we write for a medium (like blogs) that allows us to do so.

An uncharitable way to take Jamie's posts would be as manifesting a disregard for this duty, either (as in the posts on grit and on the demise of the antitotalitarian left) by repeating myths without bothering to ask whether they have any basis in fact, or (in the case of the Obama post and column) by making a very serious charge without having any real basis for it, in order to "be provocative", even though many of those who read his original article might not be aware of any debate it provoked. Since I do not particularly want to be uncharitable, I'll just ask: Jamie, how do you conceive of your role as a journalist and blogger? What responsibilities do you think it involves? And how has your view of those responsibilities informed the posts I've mentioned above?

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