Sunday, June 24, 2007

Fortress America

Notwithstanding widespread opposition to the Iraq War and to military ventures generally, most Democratic Party strategists believe that their party must appear “strong on defense.” They think that a contrary view has been fixed in our political culture since at least the 1972 elections, and that it has hurt the Democrats’ prospects. As late as the Watergate era, Richard Nixon could still get mileage out of linking the Democrats’ purported weakness on defense with “isolationism.” With more than a hint of irony, he accused Democrats of supporting the idea, formerly dear to an important component of the Republican electorate, that Fortress America could “ignore” the rest of the world. [Of course, in practice, isolationists identified the world with Europe; they had little difficulty accommodating to American imperialism elsewhere, especially in Latin America.] The conventional view, back then, was that isolationism had been proven definitively wrong by the Second World War; and that it was a dangerously irresponsible position to take in a nuclear age. Nixon’s scheme was to scare anti-war voters away from voting for George McGovern by linking McGovern’s opposition to the Vietnam War with isolationism – in contrast to Nixon’s own professed dedication to “peace with honor.” Today, with several additional imperialist decades under America’s collective belt, isolationism has become a non-issue, even at a rhetorical level. Nevertheless, Fortress America is back.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, when the Truman administration contrived the major institutions of our national security state, they could and did stir up fears of Communism to help sell their plans. These fears were not concocted out of nothing; but they were, to put it mildly, overblown. The trick worked. The results were mixed. On the one hand, Truman and his successors set the world on a perilous path. Thanks to them, we live, to this day, with the prospect of perpetual war, hot or cold, and in fear of nuclear annihilation; to this day, the perils of empire threaten our basic liberties and our republican institutions. But there was also good that came of the fears they sowed. We got prosperity thanks to military Keynesianism; we got infrastructure improvements, we got vast sums of money for scientific research and education. In short, we got some of what social democracy brought to the “developed” countries we dominated. By the time Reagan became President in 1981, the Democrats had pretty much exhausted their ambitions to use the state for good. All that was left was the effort to be, or at least appear to be, strong on defense – epitomized by Michael Dukakis’s bathetic tank ride in his 1988 campaign against Bush the Father. Inexorably, Democrats acquiesced in the Reaganite view that “big government” is the problem. Thus, with the ascendance of the Clintonites in the 1990s, we got a (generally) kinder and gentler and certainly more competent version of the politics Bush and Cheney would later caricature. If Hillary Clinton becomes President, or if some other Clintonite does, we face the prospect of yet another implementation of the same political line. Needless to say, what we’d get from them would be better than what we now have or what we’d likely get with a Republican – anything would be! But it would not be fundamentally better or, for that matter, good at all.

But what goes around comes around. Even if the struggle against Bush and Cheney ends with nothing better than a Clintonite restoration, might there not still be a silver lining -- in the shape of a more affirmative state? Unlike a decade ago, it is not out of the question. In this regard, it may be significant that, of all our dead Presidents, Harry S. Truman has become an object of affection in Clintonite circles. They have even launched a “Truman National Security Project.” It represents itself as “strong, smart, [and] and principled.” [Somehow they left out “modest.”] “Principled” gives cause for worry. It suggests that the emphasis on “strength” is not there just for opportunism’s sake. It is also worrisome that the neo-Trumanites -- much like the party’s “liberal” leader, Howard Dean – have no trouble with any of Clinton’s own brutal military ventures or with his “humanitarian interventions” or deadly sanctions. They even support Bush’s on-going war of revenge in Afghanistan. The neo-Trumanites didn’t have trouble either with the Iraq War until it went obviously sour. Their saving grace is just that they’re not encumbered with Bush’s Oedipal obsessions, and are therefore able to let the Iraq War, if not Iraq itself, go. In short, their focus on “strength” is, in all likelihood, more than just posturing – however tempting that may be for them, especially should their standard bearer be from “the weaker (i.e. more reasonable and caring) sex.” The neo-Trumanites may actually believe what they say.

The Truman National Security Project’s advisory board runs the Clintonite gamut from William Perry (Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute, and formerly Secretary of Defense) to John Podesta (formerly chief of staff and now head of the “liberal” Center for American Progress). Other luminaries include Gregory Craig (of Williams and Connolly), Kurt Campbell (from the Center for Strategic and International Studies), Leslie Gelb (of New York Times fame and lately of the Council on Foreign Relations), William Marshall (President of the Progressive Policy Institute, the Democratic Leadership Council’s favorite think-tank), Anne-Marie Slaughter of the Woodrow Wilson School and Madeleine Albright (former Secretary of State and notorious defender of Clinton’s Iraq sanctions and Yugoslavian bombing campaigns). Another Albright Group principal, Wendy Sherman, is also on the board. In short, the neo-Trumanite wing of the Democratic Party is comprised of eminences from the Old Regime, awaiting a Restoration that will re-empower them or their acolytes.

Predictably, the Truman Project emphasizes toughness, especially in women. But there is a whiff of nostalgia too for the social democratic spirit of the Cold War liberalism Truman helped shape. The first Clinton presidency famously updated the fiscal conservatism of the Eisenhower administration; would the next be a tad more progressive, taking up where the Fair Deal ran aground?

It is not impossible. Truman may be their object of affection, but the neo-Trumanites are closer in spirit to the arch Cold War liberal Scoop Jackson, the former Senator from Washington State. Jackson was an especially ardent proponent of making the world safe for American corporations (he was said to be the Senator from Boeing) and for Israel. The neo-cons who left the party altogether in the 70s and 80s were, in effect, Jackson’s bastard children. Today’s neo-Trumanites are his legitimate heirs. Significantly, most neo-cons never much liked free market theology with its anti-welfare state biases, though they had no problem accommodating to it. For the neo-Trumanites, social progress is even less of a problem. If classical Clintonism morphs into a neo-Trumanite (Scoop Jackson) mode, perhaps it will also move beyond Bill Clinton’s dedication to completing “the Reagan Revolution.” Maybe, amidst all the harm it does, it may also do some good, just as Truman’s Cold War liberalism did.

Truman realized that, in his time and place, a frightened populace was indispensable for getting anything positive done. But fear is a two-edged sword. Anti-Communism made the Fair Deal possible, but it was anti-Communist fear mongering – with the Korean War abroad and McCarthyism at home -- that did the Fair Deal in. This time around, there is no Communism to fear. Except perhaps for a handful of true believers in “the axis of evil,” everyone today understands that no state or bloc of states threatens the United States. But there is political Islam – jihadism. Thus there is a new kind of perpetual phony war to concoct and exploit. Truman famously proclaimed the need for a bipartisan foreign policy. With Iraq out of the picture, a new bipartisanism – aimed at fighting political Islam -- could be forged. Republicans have already gotten a lot out of the Global War on Terror; it has been the basis of Bush’s entire presidency, and of Rudy Giuliani’s – and increasingly Mitt Romney’s and John McCain’s – candidacies. Democratic voters who know better than their party’s leaders should be mightily concerned that, with the partial exception of John Edwards, none of the major Democratic candidates has a problem with the War on Terror. [See “The Real War on Terror, “ June 12.] What the leading candidates object to is only the incompetent and misguided way the Bush administration has implemented it. Not surprisingly, Hillary Clinton is the most explicit in pressing this view. With her prospects for the nomination depending on her coming around, she finally turned against the Iraq War – but only in order to redeploy America’s military assets elsewhere, the better to fight the Global War on Terror. One can almost hear Madeleine Albright declaring the continuing militarization of American society – and the murder and mayhem it causes -- “a price worth paying.”

Still, as in the original Cold War, won’t some good come of it too? It’s not likely. Communism provided a vision of social progress. New Deal and Fair Deal liberalism, along with LBJ’s Great Society – like post-World War I Social Democracy -- offered an alternative path to a similar destination. The good consequences of Cold War liberalism stem largely from the character of the purported enemy, and the need to compete with it -- not just militarily but also socially, politically and economically. In marked contrast, political Islam offers no vision of social progress. Like other untrammeled expressions of Abrahamic religiosity – Jewish and Christian too – it is a reactionary phenomenon. [To be sure, with the partial and (hopefully) temporary eclipse of secular Left movements in the Islamic world, jihadism is also an expression of anti-imperialist resistance. But political Islam is an anti-imperialism of fools.] It is far from clear that a renewal of affirmative state policies in the United States or anywhere else would counter political Islam’s appeal. Perhaps the neo-Trumanites do have genuinely ameliorative intentions. But if they do, their reforming impulses are far more tenuously connected to their “security” policies than was the case for their counterparts in the Truman era.

Neo-Trumanites like the international institutions the Truman administration helped construct, including those that advanced international law and human rights. This is for the good, though all signs suggest that, to a degree their founders would have found troubling, they would use these institutions more to legitimate than to govern American activities throughout the world. However, like Truman, the neo-Trumanites are unequivocal proponents of military Keynesianism and “enlightened” foreign aid. Along with NATO, they regard the Marshall Plan as Truman’s greatest achievement, and intimate intentions to follow its example – though it is unclear how or even where. This is not the place to show how profoundly and disablingly ahistorical their thinking is. Anyone tempted by their arguments would be well advised to consult, among many other sources, Robert Brenner’s, The Economics of Global Turbulence (Verso, 2006). What worked more or less as intended half a century ago is not transferable to present conditions.

Like the Bush government, the neo-Trumanites also have faith in technological fixes for the insecurity that their commitment to the national security state makes inevitable. There is more to ponder in this facet of their thinking than just the implausibility of their position. In the July 2 edition of The Nation magazine, Naomi Wolff has a fascinating column on how, since 2001, the Israeli economy has flourished by becoming a “laboratory” for a “fortressed world”; developing security technologies that permit peoples who dominate other peoples to live a fairly undisturbed life despite a perpetual threat of terrorism, and while their governments pursue policies that increase the likelihood of terrorist blowback. This, more than a renewed welfare state, is the promise of neo-Trumanite Clintonism. The Cold War, in its own perverse way, fostered progress in the arts and sciences, and even in the arts of living securely and well. The never-ending War on Terror the Bush-Clintonite consensus envisions may, like Truman’s concoction, help enhance a distorted but nevertheless genuine prosperity. But its by-products are likely to be far less ameliorative than in the original version. What will come from them instead is a new Fortress America. The Clintonite hope is that, unlike the fortress of discredited and forgotten “isolationists,” the new version will not require withdrawal from lucrative “foreign entanglements.” If their expectations are fulfilled, corporate America will be free to pursue its predations while “the homeland” remains secure behind high-tech fortifications, contrived by the next generation of entrepreneurs whose imagination and technological prowess will keep the economy in an expansionist mode. Except for these entrepreneurs and their corporate and financial backers, this is hardly an attractive vision. It is not a credible one either. But if lesser evilism is the best we can do, it could be our future.

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