It is a shame there will never be a debate about foreign policy between the George W. Bush who ran for president in 2000 and the one who now occupies the ofﬁce. As a candidate ﬁve years ago, Bush said that the United States should act as a “humble nation” toward the rest of the world and avoid any involvement of our armed forces in nation building. He could have had a lively argument with the current president over the use of the military for nation building in Iraq, and he might have raised an eyebrow over the president’s declaration, at his second inauguration, that it is American policy to “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” The original Bush appealed to an insular Americanism with a constricted conception of the national interest; the new Bush appeals to a missionary vision of America’s role. As much as the ﬁrst understated America’s obligations, the second risks overextending them. In our hypothetical debate, the two would nonetheless ﬁnd they had a lot in common: an us-and-them view of good and evil in the world; an indifference toward allies and international institutions; and, of course, a readiness to use force.
Bush’s worldview and instincts served the country well enough in the immediate aftermath of September 11, at least with respect to foreign policy: The terrorists were indeed evil, and the war in Afghanistan was a fully justiﬁed response. But the limitations of the president’s approach to the world have been evident ever since. He undertook the Iraq War on false and misleading premises, with overoptimistic expectations and inadequate post-invasion plans, undermining our credibility, alliances, and focus on al-Qaeda. It was only as his original rationale for invading Iraq weakened and ultimately collapsed that he reframed the war as a crusade for democracy. If the Iraqis now establish a stable, democratic government, it will be a great positive step for their country and the region, but there is a considerable risk of an unintended and perverse result: a pro-Iranian Islamic state hostile to liberal values and American interests and willing to hold free elections only as long as they produce results acceptable to the Shia clerical hierarchy.
Moreover, even if Iraq’s government does not go the way of Iran, the Iraq War will not have removed the perils that led to the direct engagement of the United States in the Islamic world. Three and a half years after September 11, Islamist terrorists remain a threat, U.S. military forces are stretched to the limit, anti-Americanism has intensiﬁed in Europe and the Middle East, and our traditional allies are increasingly distrustful of U.S. leadership and are setting an independent path in foreign affairs.
In other ways, the Bush administration has also undermined American power and inﬂuence. Its ﬁscal policies have created a dangerous dependence on foreign borrowing to ﬁnance our budget and trade deﬁcits, and its energy policies have increased our dependence on foreign oil. The inevitable result is a double standard vis-à-vis China and unsavory Middle Eastern regimes. Bush’s defenders like to portray liberals, particularly those who opposed the Iraq War, as weak and unserious about national security. But the truth is that the war itself and other administration policies are weakening our power and security, undermining our alliances and freedom of action.
These problems with the administration’s policies -- and the absence of an overall strategy in foreign affairs from today’s Democratic leaders -- invite liberals to offer a compelling alternative in the spirit of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, George Kennan, Dean Acheson, and John F. Kennedy. Mixing liberalism with realism in foreign policy, these leaders were not afraid to use power. They knew when to apply military force, when to “arm to parley” (as Kennedy liked to quote Churchill), when to use diplomacy backed by the threat of force, and when to pursue genuinely humanitarian initiatives such as the Peace Corps -- the 1960s’ version of “soft power” -- to further American interests. In that tradition, we believe that America can and should be an assertive force for good in the world. And, as liberals, we also believe that America faces a mortal threat from Islamist terrorists that will require every asset we can bring to bear, including military force.
In his second inaugural address, the president set out an attractive vision of the United States as a liberator of oppressed nations. Woodrow Wilson and FDR would have recognized the sentiments. We can imagine a Democrat in Bush’s place upholding the same aspirations (though the Republican reception would have been altogether different); indeed, we anticipate that liberals in the future will have more occasion to quote Bush’s speech than conservatives will. But the president’s glittering generalities were not a policy. Will freedom now weigh more heavily than trade in our relations with China? More heavily than stability in our relations with Pakistan or Egypt? More heavily than support for the war on terrorism in our relations with Russia? If the speech signaled no change in policy -- as senior White House advisers said afterward -- was it merely another retrospective justiﬁcation of the Iraq War? Was it the ﬁrst shot in a new war aimed at regime change, this time in Iran? Or did it serve mainly to obscure the real nature of the policy toward the world that Bush is pursuing?
While trumpeting the spread of democracy, Bush has also claimed a singular position for the United States. The administration has repudiated long-standing principles of international law, downgraded multilateral institutions, and rejected a series of international treaties regarding the International Criminal Court, global warming, and other issues. The United States emerged from the 1990s as an overwhelmingly dominant military power, and to the rest of the world, Bush now appears intent on exploiting that position to advance American interests and demand exemptions from the rules that other nations follow. Growing opposition to U.S. policy was already on the rise throughout Europe and elsewhere in the world long before Iraq. In much of the world, the banner of democracy looks like a deceptive cover for American hegemony.
In reaction against Bush’s embrace of Wilsonian rhetoric, some liberals may be tempted to go to the opposite extreme, downplaying any democratic aims of American foreign policy and asserting only the goals of peace and stability. That is not our view. In charting an alternative to Bush’s foreign policy, liberals should uphold liberal aims. But those aims are not well served by a policy that has discarded the framework of international law and institutions built up since World War II and has made American power appear illegitimate in the eyes even of traditional allies. We need to distinguish carefully between what realism demands in the short run, particularly when dealing with terrorism, and longer-term possibilities for freedom in the world. Those possibilities ought to include the advance of democracy and human rights, along with goals entirely missing from the Bush administration’s agenda, such as the protection of the global environment and the reduction of global poverty.
The ﬁrst imperative of America’s defense and foreign policy, however, is to protect our security, and today Islamist terrorists with global reach pose the greatest immediate threat to our lives and liberties. We -- the United States, the advanced world generally, and liberals in particular, who value the rule of law, equality, open-mindedness, tolerance, and secularism -- face a struggle with the jihadists that we have no alternative but to win. The fanatical nature of Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorism it has spawned should be clear to all of us. Its goals for the world are so profoundly inimical to ours, and its methods so intolerable, that negotiation, of the sort the United States engaged in with its best-known ideological foe of the last century, is impossible. The terrorists not only threaten liberal values in Islamic countries; they also imperil the survival of freedom in ours. If they launch further major attacks on our shores, the PATRIOT Act and Guantanamo Bay will likely prove mere prelude to much worse. Defending our liberties and best traditions at home, then, depends directly on defeating terrorism abroad.
Our call for clarity in dealing with terrorism reﬂects the urgency of a historical moment that demands we sort out the things that are genuinely important -- the conditions that are necessary for the ﬂourishing of liberal values. The lines that separate liberal principle from fundamentalist design have rarely been clearer, and they are lines that liberals must defend unambiguously, and with force when necessary. President Bush has been wrong, often calamitously so, about many things, but he is right that America must do all it can to prevent another 9-11. When facing a substantial, immediate, and provable threat, the United States has both the right and the obligation to strike preemptively and, if need be, unilaterally against terrorists or states that support them.
Because of the direct threat of Islamic terrorism to liberal values, liberals ought to be particularly conscious of the need for an effective defense. But some have drawn the wrong lessons from history. Beginning with the Vietnam War, many progressives instinctively opposed any assertion of American power. They pointed, accurately enough, to instances where the United States engineered the overthrow of democratically elected left-wing governments while supporting dictators of convenience, such as the shah of Iran. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, too few liberals saw that a war was a just and necessary response. Many, however, were more favorable to the use of force later in the decade, when Bill Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo stopped ethnic cleansing and prevented Serbian aggression from spiraling into a wider war in the region. September 11 solidiﬁed the growing conviction among liberals that the United States had to be prepared to use force to defend security and liberal values.
Still, some on the left opposed the war in Afghanistan, and just as Vietnam led to an overly broad rejection of force, so the misconceived invasion of Iraq now lends credence to a reﬂexive hostility to American power. We understand the historical roots of this mistrust, but today’s world presents problems that require different habits of mind. The real problem in Afghanistan was not that the United States sent in troops but that it did not send in enough to complete the job and capture or kill Osama bin Laden. Iraq was the wrong war waged the wrong way; it began on false premises and may end badly -- but we can neither walk away from it nor become complacent about other dangers.
Liberals are bound to disagree about these questions, and sometimes disagree strenuously. Lobbing rhetorical grenades at one another is always a tempting pleasure; recently, liberal hawks seem especially to be enjoying the sport, to the harrumphing approval of commentators on the right. But, at the end of the day, liberals have to offer an alternative capable of dislodging neoconservatism as the nation’s governing ideology. That alternative can embrace, in our view, both a commitment to building an international structure of cooperation and a recognition that, where terrorism is concerned, preemptive, unilateral, and decisive force may be legitimate.
The right of preemption, however, is not the same as a blanket entitlement to preventive war to overthrow hostile regimes that pose no immediate threat, particularly where other countermeasures, international in scope, may be sufﬁcient to achieve the purpose. As the Iraq experience shows, mistakes in preventive war have enormous costs in the lost credibility of American leadership, lost resources, and, not least of all, lost lives. The United States has unmatched military power, but our armed forces are relatively limited in numbers, and even this country will ﬁnd itself overextended if it tries to use force to squelch all potential threats.
The larger problem, moreover, arises from the environment that has fostered terrorism. The jihadists can lay claim, it is sad to observe, to deep intellectual roots in the Muslim world, the indirect support of schools and cultural institutions, and a signiﬁcant body of public opinion. A resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conﬂict would help remove a major source of inﬂammation between Islamic fundamentalism and the West, but the terrorist threat wouldn’t end there. We have a stake in the success of liberalizing educational and cultural forces in the Islamic world, and we ought to be using our resources and inﬂuence to bolster those movements.
Some liberal hawks today invoke the liberal anti-communists of the Cold War as a model for the struggle against the jihadists, but the analogy would support their position, including the invasion of Iraq, only if the United States had triumphed over the Soviet Union by attacking and “rolling back” communism. In fact, success in the Cold War came as a result of containment, deterrence, multilateralism, and patience -- liberal policies tempered by realism. The Cold War, however, offers us only an inexact parallel for the challenge we face today. Containment and negotiation will not sufﬁce against terrorist networks; we are effectively in a state of war against them and must use every means available to bring about their defeat. But even in that struggle, we need the strongest possible international cooperation and legitimacy, and the legacy of international institutions from the Cold War provides us with a foundation and a model for further efforts.
As the sole superpower in the world, the United States is in an extraordinary position to shape the rules and practices of the international system. That system can augment our power, as it did during the Cold War, through a system of partnerships with other countries, based on consultation and joint decision making. Instead, under Bush’s leadership, the United States is intent on setting a unilateral course, which other countries are welcome to join if they accept our terms. That approach appeals to a deep, conservative nationalist tendency in America. From the insular conservatism that Bush advocated in 2000, it is but a short step to the missionary neoconservatism that he espouses today. Both are dismissive of a cooperative international framework. But acting unilaterally, the United States will face twin problems of its own making at home and abroad. First, as in Iraq, American taxpayers will assume an outsized share of the military burden of maintaining world order. And second, we will continue generating hostility elsewhere in the world and spurring other countries, including our traditional allies, to do what they have already begun: strengthen their own partnerships, like the European Union, separate from and perhaps increasingly in opposition to us. The liberal alternative to Bush is not to lessen our power but to listen to the world and, in the process, to add to the power that we and other liberal democracies can marshal to strengthen our security and freedom and to get on with the forgotten agenda of protecting the global environment and alleviating the poverty and misery that are still the fate of hundreds of millions of the world’s people.
Paul Starr and Robert Kuttner are co-editors of The American Prospect. Michael Tomasky is the Prospect’s executive editor.