An expert's point of view on a current event.

Renewing America’s Fighting Faith

Barack Obama's correction to the excesses of the George W. Bush years was necessary. But cold-blooded realism is not enough to safeguard America's interests and promote its values.


One of the most striking aspects of the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign has been Barack Obama's ability to neutralize the Republican Party's traditional advantage on national security. Voters see Obama as a better commander in chief than Mitt Romney and have more confidence in his ability to handle foreign policy.

One of the most striking aspects of the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign has been Barack Obama’s ability to neutralize the Republican Party’s traditional advantage on national security. Voters see Obama as a better commander in chief than Mitt Romney and have more confidence in his ability to handle foreign policy.

How much this will matter in an election dominated by economic anxiety remains to be seen. But closing the national security confidence gap that has dogged Democrats for nearly 50 years is no mean accomplishment — if it lasts.

Republicans, meanwhile, have splintered into rival camps. Centrist internationalists like Dick Lugar are out of favor, leaving realists, neocons, Tea Party nationalists, and neo-isolationists to battle it out for the party’s soul. Romney hasn’t even tried to weave a coherent story about America’s global role from such incongruous strands, confining himself instead to scattershot criticisms of Obama’s polices and hackneyed slogans about "American exceptionalism" and "peace through strength."

The Republicans’ disarray gives Democrats a chance to occupy the pragmatic center on security and foreign policy. To do that, they should look beyond Obama’s "realist" correction of his predecessor’s mistakes. With the excesses of the Bush-Cheney years fading mercifully into memory, the party needs a post-realist outlook grounded in the liberal convictions of the American people. Such a policy would combine Obama’s resolve in defending Americans against terrorism with new strategies for using U.S. power, soft and hard, to bend history’s arc toward freedom.

Too many Democrats seem terrified that affirming the liberal internationalist tradition they invented will make them sound too much like George W. Bush. This has left them tongue-tied at precisely the moment when America needs to wage and win a battle of ideas against Islamist extremism and China’s model of autocratic capitalism.

Obama’s Realist Correction

Obama was dealt a lousy economic hand in 2008, but the security portfolio he inherited wasn’t much better. After eight years of Bush’s belligerent unilateralism, America was an overextended, war-weary and debt-burdened superpower that had alienated old friends and rattled potential foes. Obama saw his job as repairing the damage, not devising some new foreign-policy doctrine. His main goals were to defeat al Qaeda, end two wars and rebuild America’s standing in the world. We’ll see what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he’s made undeniable progress on the other two fronts.

By narrowing the panoramic scope of Bush’s Global War on Terror to al Qaeda, Obama has reassured nervous allies and undercut the jihadi narrative that America is leading a new crusade against Islam. At the same time, hunting down and killing Osama bin Laden has convinced Americans that he will give our enemies no quarter. Obama’s surprising metamorphosis from anti-war candidate and premature Nobel laureate to warrior president has confounded the GOP’s attempts to caricature him as just another liberal softy.

Facing a new kind of asymmetric warfare in which terrorists spend small sums to provoke America into spending vast sums, the administration has responded with some asymmetry of its own. It has leveraged U.S. technological prowess to shift from conventional wars to a new counterterrorism model that uses global surveillance systems, drones, air strikes, and Special Forces to launch highly precise attacks on terrorists. By shrinking America’s military footprint, this model saves U.S. lives and money, and minimizes civilian casualties.

At the same time, Obama has extricated U.S. forces from Iraq and is winding down the war in Afghanistan, which most Americans now see as unwinnable, at least at any cost they are willing to pay. It’s too early to weigh the strategic consequences of these withdrawals, but their political popularity is not in doubt. Romney’s charge that Obama is "retreating" from Afghanistan hasn’t struck much of a chord.

On matters less vital to Americans’ security, Obama has emphasized multilateral diplomacy over unilateral U.S. action, engagement with autocratic powers over moral censure, and attempts to change the behavior of troublesome regimes over regime change. All this has made the United States seem less arrogant and threatening abroad. In one key respect, however, the administration’s policy of reassurance and strategic humility has overcorrected for its predecessor’s errors. It has overlooked what Mark Lagon calls the "values dimension" of American power as well as the ideological wellsprings of conflict in today’s networked world.

Dimming America’s Beacon

Early on, the administration served notice that it would reorganize U.S. foreign policy around diplomacy, development, and defense. The pointed omission of another "d" — democracy — underlined its distaste for anything that might sound like Bush’s "freedom agenda."

Rosa Brooks, a former senior Pentagon official, recalls what happened after she inserted an anodyne reference to "accountable democratic governance" in Afghanistan into a Defense Department official’s testimony to Congress in 2010. "It brought the wrath of the White House down on us all: We were not, under any circumstances, to suggest in any way that promoting democracy was a goal of the Obama administration."

More recently, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have spoken eloquently about universal aspirations to freedom and democracy. But at critical junctures — the emergence of Iran’s "Green Movement" after a rigged 2009 election, and the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011, — the president seemed to lose his voice. The new imperative of "engagement," along with the old policy of supporting friendly despots in the Middle East  seemed to take precedence over solidarity with people rising up corruption and tyranny.

Likewise, the administration’s desire to "reset" relations with great powers like Russia and China too often has meant hitting the mute button on disputes over human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. To autocrats, U.S. reticence on values comes across as weakness; to the people they misrule, as a betrayal of their hopes. Obama has been described as a rhetorical idealist but an operational realist. Democrats, however, cannot live by realism alone. The party has served America best by fusing U.S. might to liberal purposes, and acting on the strategic insight that a freer world is a safer and more prosperous one, for America and other countries. Amoral, balance-of-power realism is the doctrine of Republicans like Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, George H.W. Bush, and Brent Scowcroft. This kind of "realism" is blind to the reality that a country’s internal politics decisively shapes its external conduct — that regimes that are not accountable to their own people are more likely to be bad actors on the world stage as well. Democrats should look instead for inspiration to tough liberals like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Bill Clinton.

In a world where capital, people, and information flow freely across national borders, the competition of political ideas and narratives matters more than ever. This is especially true in the Muslim world, which is convulsed by an historic struggle to redefine the relationship between religion and politics. Although the administration has announced a strategic "pivot" toward Asia, the United States cannot safely turn its back on what Aaron David Miller aptly calls an "angry, broken, and dysfunctional Middle East."

The United States, moreover, is likely in for a long spell of declining or at best flat military spending as it unwinds a massive national debt. This will put a premium on more creative uses of America’s ideological strengths to advance its interests and organize collective responses to global security and economic problems.

Countering Violent Extremism 

For example, the administration urgently needs to broaden its concept of counterterrorism to include countering the ideology that motivates our enemies. Even as U.S. forces smash al Qaeda central in Pakistan, groups inspired by its vision of global jihad have found footholds in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Morocco, Gaza, and Mali, and reportedly are playing a growing role in Syria’s civil war. U.S. officials are particularly concerned about al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, which is implicated in several terrorist plots against U.S. targets, including the 2009 Fort Hood rampage that claimed 13 lives.

The United States since 9/11 has marshaled its military and intelligence services, law enforcement agencies, diplomats, development specialists, and financial experts to disrupt and disable diffuse terror networks. What’s lacking is a strategic ideas campaign aimed at discrediting the beliefs that draw people into violent extremism, whether as terrorists, funders or fellow travelers. If we don’t attack the problem at its ideological roots, we risk getting caught in a never-ending game of global Whac-a-Mole as terrorist groups recruit new members faster than we can kill them.

This campaign needs a corps of specialists trained in the arts of winning hearts and minds, and they need a home. Some have called for resurrecting the U.S. Information Agency, which was dismantled foolishly after the Cold War ended. Others have proposed a new White House office, or an independent entity, modeled loosely on the National Endowment for Democracy, dedicated exclusively to countering hostile ideologies.

A key task for such an entity is to mobilize multilateral efforts to entrench norms against violent extremism in international law and institutions. For example, the United States should press for a new Geneva Convention — the fifth — to provide a common legal framework for combating, detaining, and trying terrorists. This would help resolve the "neither soldier nor criminal" quandary that has bedeviled two successive U.S. administrations. It would categorize terrorists unambiguously as unlawful combatants and stigmatize violence against civilians on whatever pretext, including "resistance" to occupation.

A tough new anti-terrorism convention would give the international community new weapons in the struggle to discredit violent extremism. By designating mass-casualty and suicide terrorism as crimes against humanity, it would take some of the glamour out of jihadist violence and its cult of martyrdom. It would also provide the legal basis for international tribunals to indict those who recruit the killers and plan the attacks.

While defending Americans against attacks, the United States should never let the world forget that Muslims are the main victims of terrorist atrocities committed by Islamist fanatics. Rather than wait for some future Robert Conquest to document the mass murder of innocents, a new strategic ideas agency could create a digital memorial to all victims of jihadist terrorism. This should include a registry of suicide bombers and the terror chiefs who dispatch them on their murderous missions, which could provide the basis for indictments in both national and international courts.

Arab Spring or Islamist Winter?

The Obama administration was caught off guard by the Arab Spring. The popular uprisings forced Washington to confront the contradictions, not to say hypocrisy, of its longtime support for supposedly stable Middle East dictatorships.

After initially fumbling its response, the administration eventually endorsed the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. However, it was more circumspect about Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based,  and Saudi Arabia, where officials were probably relieved to see street demonstrations fizzle. This case-by-case approach allows Washington to apply a risk-benefit calculus to each country and await developments before committing itself to a course of action. In Libya, the administration let others — Britain, France, the Arab League — make the case for military intervention before climbing aboard. In Syria, however, where the stakes and risks are immeasurably higher, the administration has been unable to "lead from behind" and unwilling to lead from the front.

Despite its caution, some realists (and Israelis) complain that U.S. support for political change in the Middle East merely opens doors to Islamic fundamentalists. It’s true that religious parties, which swept democratic elections in Tunisia and Egypt, often have a record of resistance to secular strongmen, as well as the moral legitimacy and broad social base that liberal parties can only envy. The key question is whether or not they will respect the democratic mechanisms that have brought them at last to power, and submit to the new disciplines of political power-sharing and accountability. The more acute danger, moreover, comes not from established parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, but from new Salafi parties that want to impose a rigidly puritanical interpretation of Islam and strict sharia law on their societies.

A "Salafi Crescent," says the writer Robin Wright, is spreading rapidly across the Middle East and North Africa. "The variety of Islamists in the early 21st-century recalls socialism’s many shades in the 20th. Now, as then, some Islamists are more hazardous to Western interests and values than others. The Salafis are most averse to minority and women’s rights." Despite the new wave of Sunni extremism, surveys show majorities in key Muslim countries want personal freedoms and competitive elections, and believe that democracy is the best form of government. They also favor a larger role for Islam in political life. Central to the great drama unfolding across the Muslim world will be the struggle to reconcile Islam with aspirations for freedom, economic opportunity, and democracy. The United States can’t dictate the outcome, but it should throw its political, economic, and moral weight behind moderate Muslims struggling to transcend religious, ethnic and tribal divisions — and the subjugation of women — that have held their societies back. Washington should be prepared to play a long game, trading short-term advantages on security and energy for the deeper structural and cultural changes necessary to integrate Muslim countries into the liberal democratic community.

Obama’s course corrections have set the stage for Democrats to craft a realistic and principled strategy for supporting ground-up democratic change in the Muslim world (and East Asia too, but that’s another story). It’s time they came home to what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called liberalism’s "fighting faith" — the seamless defense of freedom at home and abroad.

<p> Will Marshall is the president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute. </p>

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