Beyond Left: The Principles of Democracy

Why progressives should reject knee-jerk ideology, and organize along real-politik lines.

| Mon Oct. 21, 2002 3:00 AM EDT

Perhaps most significant, however, were the common threads in that criticism. With very few exceptions, public opposition to the Bush Administration's plans for "regime change" has not been colored by any concern for Saddam Hussein or his job prospects. The Iraqi dictator is a profoundly unappealing figure, as almost every opponent has taken pains to acknowledge. The war's probable cost, and its impact on a fragile economy, hasn't figured prominently, either.

Rather, this debate is about how a US invasion would be received globally -- especially in the Islamic world and among Washington's closest allies -- and about the precedent of "preemptive" (i.e., unprovoked) military attack. And, while most people haven't read the document, public concerns about war with Iraq are squarely based on the principles laid out in a recent Bush Administration report to Congress entitled "The National Security Strategy of the United States."

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The Dubya Doctrine represents, on several fronts, a radical departure from past stated US foreign policy. It is based, at least rhetorically, on the promotion of four pillars: "freedom, democracy, free enterprise, and free markets." The very first sentence calls this the "single sustainable model for national success."

Thus, in the first sentence, we already have two clues that something is seriously amiss: the promotion of free enterprise -- an economic system -- and free markets -- a trade policy -- as equally fundamental to the human condition as freedom or democracy; and the notion that the United States should care about imposing any model, let alone a single one, for another country's "national success." Another warning sign can be found in the absence of an equally critical right of all peoples and nations: the right to self- determination.

While the advocacy of preemptive attack has attracted the most notice in this report, for good reasons, these other elements should also strike terror into anyone committed to the idea of a world of greater peace, freedom, democracy, and economic opportunity. Over 30 pages, the White House lays out in astonishing detail how, exactly, we expect countries to toe our line.

On page 15, for example, we learn that America wants everyone to practice "pro-growth legal and regulatory policies to encourage business investment, innovation, and entrepreneurial activity; Tax policies -- particularly lower marginal tax rates -- that improve incentives for work and investment;...Strong financial systems that allow capital to be put to its most efficient use; Sound fiscal policies to support business activity;...and free trade that provides new avenues for growth and fosters the diffusion of technologies and ideas that increase productivity and opportunity."

Strike those regulations! Slash taxes! Tie your currency to ours! And don't you dare sidetrack a factory to preserve that wetland!

Are you ready to have your son or daughter die for lower marginal tax rates in Zimbabwe?

Countries are also to play ball by handing over their resources -- especially, and not surprisingly, oil. Page 18: "We will strengthen our own energy security and the shared prosperity of the global economy by working with our allies, trading partners, and energy producers to expand the sources and types of global energy supplied, especially in the Western Hemisphere, Africa, Central Asia, and the Caspian region." (They left out Antarctica.)

Democracy, of course, rests not on the presence of more than one Washington-approved name on the ballot, but on the ability of ordinary citizens to influence public policy. How can citizens have a say in their government, if that government itself is not permitted, upon threat of "regime change," control over basic domestic policy? Bush's foreign policy is, by definition, profoundly anti-democratic.

If its rhetoric is to be taken seriously, Bush's report is the source of countless contradictions like this. But the rhetoric is an afterthought; this is the policy template of an empire. The report reassures us that America "does not use [its] strength to press for unilateral advantage," and technically, this might be true; these security policies may enrich the wealthiest among us, but they will make most Americans and the country itself notably less safe. Still, many in the Bush camp genuinely believe that America's iron boot is used only to better the world; that America does, in fact, better the world; and that the world is correspondingly grateful.

That's wrong on all counts. If US policy were genuinely based on such ideals, our past failings would have been inconceivable: The widening gap, at home and globally, between rich and poor; America's persistent alliances with and support for some of the world's most brutal and dictatorial regimes; the multifaceted harm caused by the War on Drugs; and on, and on. But far from being examined, let alone disavowed, the policies behind such failures are being redoubled.

Oddly, for what is advertised as a comprehensive overview of policy, Bush's policy document omits the single most obvious threat to our national security -- the kind of small terrorist band that struck last September. Instead, aside from a nod toward cracking down on the financing of terror networks, almost the entire document focuses on nation-states -- a peculiar sort of Cold War-era thinking for a document that purports to address a radically new security environment. A war against terror -- or any long-term attempt to prevent terrorism -- must necessarily focus on people, not nation-states, and therefore on persuasion, not conquest.

Finally, Bush's foreign policy fails because its means aren't consistent with its ends, which is the source of much of the instinctive public discomfort over how this administration has handled global affairs during the past 20 months. Whatever America's failings (and triumphs), most of us believe very deeply in the ideals that make us a mythological place for much of the world. The yawning gap between America's stated ideals and its actual behavior has long incited charges of arrogance and hypocrisy around the world. Now, the Bush administration's bluntness about its intentions is provoking the same sort of ambivalence at home. Put simply, "The National Security Strategy of the United States" does not describe the country we want to be.

For nearly a half-century, abusive American behavior was excused by the urgency of containing the Soviets. In their absence, America's established penchant for installing dictators, training and arming secret police, exacerbating global poverty, and treating other countries' resources like our own is no longer being tolerated -- abroad or at home. The use of war as a first resort is a tactic of conquest, antithetical to dearly held American values like freedom and democracy. Ultimately, most of us sense, if such principles can be discarded in how we treat the rest of the world, they can also be discarded at home.

For progressives opposing invasion, such concerns should be paramount. This is not a time to trot out decades' worth of policy complaints in the hope that "they'll finally get it." (Most people got it -- they just didn't agree or didn't care.) The current upsurge in public concern isn't based on past foreign policy sins; it's about where the country is going now.

Any broad-based opposition must start with an alternative vision of what we stand for. Many progressives have forgotten that public policy doesn't have to inexorably get worse; it can actually create good things, too. In this case, the best of what we can work toward requires not isolationism (an option that is both irresponsible and no longer possible) or a reflexive criticism of America or of war. Instead, it means embracing this country's ideals and proposing policies based on mutual international respect, interdependence, and the good America could accomplish if it tried.

Across the ideological spectrum, people sense that Bush's policies are dangerous, to us and to America. Progressives have an opportunity to name those dangers and to help provide leadership. This is not a time for sneering about racist wars and redneck patriotism and monstrous SUVs. This is a time for finding common ground, and then organizing, quickly, to make the world a better, safer, and more just place. And to save lives.

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