Opinion

When will centrist Democrats account for their foreign policy failures?

Democrats should not be the party of military intervention

The war between left and center over the control of the Democratic Party continues apace. The latest salvo comes from one of the OG centrists who helped rout the New Dealers out of the party: Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute.

In a sympathetic profile, Paul Kane of The Washington Post describes Marshall as having founded a new think tank and PAC in order "to reimagine the party's brand in regions where Democrats have suffered deep losses." His effort to keep Sanders Democrats out of the party has gotten a lot of attention — but his absolutely odious record on foreign policy, not so much. It's long since time centrist Democrats answer for their record of belligerence and cataclysmic failure.

But before I get to foreign policy, it's important to realize that contrary to claims of rethinking, Marshall and his co-ideologues are trying to push the exact same brand of rich-friendly neoliberalism inflected with white identity politics that they made into hegemonic party doctrine back in the 1990s. They barely even changed the name — going from New Democrats back then to "New Democracy" today. Their manifesto is the same tired neoliberal program of deregulation, innovation, and skill-building — and against "economic victimhood and business-bashing" — coupled to wink-nudge accommodations of white bigotry, especially against immigrants. Or as the manifesto puts it, "we also should take seriously public concerns about the breakdown of public order, the impact of low-skill immigrants on native workers' jobs and pay." (In reality, immigrants are less likely to commit crimes and studies have found a negligible or actually positive impact from immigration on native workers' wages.)

Things aren't much different when it comes to foreign policy. Marshall has long been one of the most belligerent Democrats allying with neoconservatives to push military intervention and wars of aggression. He was an honorary co-chair of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq pushing invasion in 2002-03, along with John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Newt Gingrich, Bill Kristol, and Richard Perle. He was a signatory to several letters from the neoconservative Project for a New American Century, which was pushing invasion of Iraq as of 1997.

The gruesome catastrophe that the Iraq invasion quickly became barely dented his interventionist enthusiasm. In 2006 he edited a selection of hawkish liberal essays calling for a "muscular liberalism," which was glowingly reviewed by the conservative Weekly Standard. In 2007 he was still insisting that "the activist left is out of sync with the American public. Americans don't want to concede [Iraq] is a total debacle." In 2011 he was pushing intervention in Libya, and in 2012 he was calling for regime change in Syria, though at least stopping short of ground troops. (To be fair, he did at least support the Iran deal.)

It's almost impossible to imagine an alternative recent past that would have more discredited this sort of knee-jerk belligerence. Every single major American intervention since the turn of the century — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria — has been a comprehensive and bloody failure. We're well into the longest period of continuous open warfare in American history with nothing to show for it but thousands of American soldiers killed, tens of thousands more wounded, hundreds of thousands of dead foreigners, trillions flushed down the toilet, and a slew of violent extremists running riot across multiple wrecked countries. All of that is not completely America's fault, of course. But intervention made things worse in every case, and in some directly caused all the worst horrors.

Yet Marshall's new project is still trying to get to Republicans' right on foreign policy. The manifesto calls for Democrats to "close this security confidence gap," referring to polling giving Republicans an edge on patriotism and confronting terrorism. Pointing to Trump's endless bungling of American alliances and trade deals, they argue for reaffirming "the animating principle of liberal internationalism — that a freer world is a safer world for America." They want to "stand resolutely against the tide of illiberal nationalism," and "give no quarter to Islamic terrorists…" Finally, they favor loudly demonstrating resolve "to keep our armed forces strong and qualitatively superior to those of potential adversaries."

Some of those points are decent enough. But there's not a whisper of a reckoning with the past 16 years of catastrophic hawkish bungling. This matters not only because it's, you know, morally wrong to get hundreds of thousands of people killed in neo-imperialist wars of aggression, but also because this sort of blinkered foreign policy badly harms the Democrats.

For one, it sharply divides the party. Democratic base voters hated the Iraq invasion, which was supported by 39 percent of the House Democratic caucus and 60 percent of the Senate caucus in 2002. The following several years of intra-party politics were dominated by savage battles over supporting the war, culminating in the 2008 primary, in which the war supporter (Hillary Clinton) was defeated.

More fundamentally, submitting to the conservative frame on wars and the national interest sets the Democrats up for long-term defeat. Republicans argue that constant overseas intervention is simply what must be done to keep America safe in a dangerous world. The reality is that every recent intervention both directly harmed American interests, poisoned America's moral reputation, and enabled the growth of terrorism at least as much as it cut it back. (ISIS, for example, is a direct and obvious product of the Iraq invasion.)

A truly humanitarian internationalism, by contrast — meaning, above all, a drastic reduction in the overseas use of force, as well as a return to serious diplomacy and obeying international law — actually would serve the national interest. George McGovern once made such an argument about Vietnam. But if Democrats can't or won't make it, voters will continue to lean towards high-test Republican militarism. Liberals will be stuck playing second fiddle to neoconservative warmongers who will, sooner or later, wear the military down to a stump and bankrupt the national treasury.

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