Libya is not Iraq (Or: how the Left keeps losing on foreign policy)

With Hillary up comfortably in the polls (for now! don’t get complacent) and the Democrats owning Republicans on the party unity front, seems like a fine time to prod the left a little with some ideas about foreign policy I’ve been mulling over since the Democrats’ testosterone-fueled, flag-waving extravaganza of a convention.

Our next president will either be more hawkish (Hillary) or more hawkish and buffoonish (that’d be Generalissimo Drumpf of course!) than our current one. That’s remarkable given how critical Obama’s Iraq War dissent was to his rise just eight years ago. How did we end up here?

Allow me to suggest that the Left’s inability to articulate a comprehensive foreign policy that goes beyond anti-war sloganeering has ceded the space to everyone else, from realists to reviled “neoconservatives”. As much as Americans criticize the forward positioning of the US military, they also often want the US to demonstrate “leadership” whenever a crisis arises, which usually means leading a military coalition to defeat some far away nemesis. For all the consternation about military spending and being embroiled in foreign conflicts, America benefits immensely from its alliance structure. The left often confuses genuine isolationism with the Jacksonian impulse in American foreign policy thinking. (For those unfamiliar with the Jacksonian instinct, it basically boils down to “We don’t care ‘bout them for’ners, but if they attack us, blow ’em all to smithereens!”)

Hillary’s key rival in the Democratic primary had little to say about foreign policy (except to harangue her for Iraq and Libya). And the Vice Presidential pick progressives rallied around was also ambivalent or even hawkish herself (google Elizabeth Warren’s foreign policy positions). Lincoln Chafee, who was supposed to offer a foreign policy critique of Hillary, failed spectacularly as a candidate, so maybe the messenger was just wrong. But I suspect there’s more to it than that…

The left’s lazy foreign policy thinking is illustrated by the frequent conflation these days of Libya with Iraq. Sure, they’re both wars Hillary supported that turned out badly. Beyond that though, the similarities mostly end. Libya was driven largely by exogenous factors — the Arab Spring, toppling of nearby regimes, the insistence of our European allies that we act, Quaddafi’s immediate threat to massacre people of Benghazi — whereas Iraq was a totally American-driven effort dreamed up by neoconservative intellectuals. If the left can’t at least appreciate and speak to those distinctions, their foreign policy critique will always come across as detached from real world concerns.

There is, I believe, a genuine growing appetite among Americans for a more restrained foreign policy. I would like a more restrained foreign policy, and I’m more hawkish than most of my liberal friends. It concerns me that a former director of the CIA is endorsing Hillary in part because she had the “foresight” to know early military involvement in Syria would’ve made the situation better. Hillary is attracting several Republicans of the neoconservative bent (an ideology begun, by the way, in part by Democratic senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson — neocons moved to the Republicans after the New Left shut down LBJ’s presidency over the Vietnam war). Unless the left wants to be reduced to shouting “No More War!” every four years when some general speaks at the DNC, they need to start trying harder.