You'd think it would be a great time to be a small-L liberal: human freedom is on the march in such unlikely places as Iraq, Afghanistan, and even among the Palestinians. The president of the United States can't seem to go five minutes without praising the virtues of liberty, and realpolitikers have been banished to the policy wilderness. Liberal principles have never before been so proudly proclaimed in framing U.S. foreign and security policy.
The only problem for liberals, of course, is that the architect of all this is named George W. Bush, and this poses a considerable conundrum. It's been instructive to watch the shifts of opinion at The New Republic, long the flagship of responsible foreign policy liberalism in the Democratic party. Originally strongly supportive of the invasion of Iraq, the magazine's writers have become increasingly disenchanted as the interest-based arguments for the war -- Iraq's presumed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction -- have collapsed.
In fine retreat-from-the-face-of-success form, New Republic associate editor Spencer Ackerman argues in a front-page essay in this week's issue that the recent elections are actually the perfect opportunity for the United States to bug out from Iraq. Ackerman asserts that it's the time to give the insurgents "a light at the end of the tunnel," as though our view of victory and theirs somehow converges.
Ackerman mourns that the Bush administration -- and the majority of Iraqis, evidently -- did not heed Sunni calls to postpone the elections, claims that the elections are dangerously illegitimate and -- get ready for it -- will create even more violence as growing numbers of Sunnis come to accept the results. The insurgents, Ackerman writes, "will fight even more ferociously if the political process receives Sunni legitimacy." Ackerman, who also writes a blog devoted to hyping whatever bad news is coming out of Baghdad on a day-to-day basis, thus captures one intellectual response to the Bush administration's foreign policy liberalism: absolute conviction that it does not, cannot, and will never work.
An alternative response to the Bush administration's liberalism emanates from the Center for American Progress, the brainchild of former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta. On the occasion of Condoleezza Rice's make-nice speech in Paris, the Center published a critique by Suzanne Nossel asserting that the left had to "take back freedom." The Bush administration, Nossel concedes, "has adopted traditional progressive principles and policies, such as fostering liberal democracy and nation-building abroad, and put its own imprint on them to the point where progressives have virtually abandoned concepts that they used to develop and own. The concept of spreading liberty did not feature in the progressive punditry's criticism of the State of the Union."
No kidding. Minority leaders Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi spent their rebuttal time whining about the costs of war in Iraq and urging withdrawal as fast as possible. For Nossel, this was enough to raise the question: "Shouldn't the left cheer the administration's embrace of liberal principles?"
Alas, Nossel informs us, the answer is no. Her rationale isn't to claim the Bush administration's commitment to liberalism is insincere or catastrophically counterproductive, as Ackerman does, but rather to attack it on the margins. For starters, she takes to task President Bush's "selectivity" -- also known as "strategy" -- which has left freedom-lovers in Zimbabwe, Russia, and Saudi Arabia "out of luck." But Nossel must surely recognize that the U.S. government can't eliminate every outpost of tyranny at once (although, ironically, the president's inaugural was criticized for championing precisely this). And if the Bush administration can't help everyone equally and simultaneously, what criteria should it use in setting priorities? Nossel doesn't offer any prescription, other than to say that President Bush doesn't have the right one.
And there's that annoying necessity to exercise power and, horror of horrors, from time to time, military force, in the face of tyranny. So "even a triumph like the vote in Iraq is not enough to convince the world that the administration is using liberal rhetoric as principle rather than as a euphemism for neo-imperialism." Rather than using the U.S. military, "the State Department's diplomatic corps should be the frontline of efforts to fortify vulnerable democracies worldwide." Apparently liberalism can only be principled if you're not willing to fight for it.
If the Republicans have not yet fully come 'round to being the party of Lincoln again, the Democrats have never been further estranged from the tradition of Truman. It remains to be seen if liberals in the Democratic party can fashion a coherent response to President Bush's foreign policy agenda. For now, however, the cause of international liberalism is no longer theirs.
Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.
By Tom Donnelly