Against Disengagement

Today’s progressives are often as muddled in their thinking about U.S. involvement in the world as conservatives are divided.

By Brian Katulis

Tagged Foreign Policyprogressivism

The Syria debate last fall offered the latest indication that U.S. foreign policy has entered uncharted political territory. The partisan lines in Congress were scrambled when lawmakers responded to President Obama’s request to authorize military force against Syria for using chemical weapons—a request that was withdrawn after Syria agreed to dismantle its arsenal. Strong public opposition to the proposed military action resonated in a polarized Congress that has become increasingly disengaged from national security, especially compared to the decade after 9/11.

Had the Syria vote happened, President Obama probably would have lost it. But the vote’s likely outcome was less interesting than the varied responses his request provoked. The arguments that the Syria debate produced within Republican and Democratic camps indicated that the old battle lines in the politics of U.S. foreign policy are being redrawn. Labels like “neoconservative” and “liberal interventionist” have less political relevance as their camps have decreased in size and political clout.

A big reason for this: The American public has grown more skeptical about U.S. engagement in the world. A recent Pew poll found 52 percent of Americans say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best that they can on their own,” with only 38 percent disagreeing. By contrast, at the height of the Cold War in 1964, only 20 percent agreed that the United States should mind its own business; 30 percent said the same in 2002 at the beginning of the war on terrorism. But progressives must resist the lure of simply focusing inward; instead we should lead the American public toward embracing the current wave of geopolitical change underway in order to guide and shape that transformation. We need to put forth a compelling moral and strategic argument for U.S. engagement in the world. America has an interest in advancing a rules-based international system that strengthens the global common good and supports basic human freedoms and rights. Doing so won’t be easy given the need to focus on our problems at home. But without stronger American leadership, the challenges percolating around the world—whether it’s Syria’s civil war, global economic instability, or the looming threat of climate change—might one day affect us as well.

The current public mood is the continuation of a decades-long breakdown of bipartisan support for international engagement. After World War II, such consensus led to the creation of programs and institutions that defined the postwar era: the Marshall Plan, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This vital center started to collapse in the 1970s due to sharp conflicts over the Vietnam War and economic downturns at home, and the breakdown accelerated with the end of the Cold War.

After a brief moment of national unity following the 9/11 attacks, polarization on national security rose to new levels over the Iraq War. Beyond just deepening the division between progressives and conservatives, the foreign policy mistakes of the Bush era produced major fissures among conservatives on national security. Republicans are now split into three camps: neoconservative defense hawks like Lindsey Graham, Tea Party libertarian budget cutters like Rand Paul, and endangered traditional Republican internationalists like James Baker and Colin Powell. The divisions among conservatives on key foreign policy questions leave progressives with an opening to redefine America’s leadership role in the world for the coming years—but progressives must want to seize this opportunity and articulate their worldview more clearly. If conservatives are divided, today’s progressives are too often muddled in their thinking about U.S. engagement in the world.

The impulse to circle the wagons is strong and understandable with so many pressing issues facing us at home. Fixing these domestic problems will take money and attention, but it would be a tragic mistake to turn away from the challenges and opportunities of the world. The liberal order that America helped construct over 70 years faces new threats as governments around the world are under increasing pressure from citizens to fulfill basic needs, and more countries go their own way on issues like energy, food supply, and climate change. Progressives should renew the call to advance the common good at home and abroad that we supported during and after World War II.

We’re witnessing a global transformation similar to that period. The world needs our vision and ideals. But some on the broad left believe America can do little good in the world. Many have wrongly concluded that the failure of overwhelming military force in Iraq and Afghanistan has proved the futility of deploying America’s diplomatic, economic, and military assets. This is a reflexive, wrong, and even dangerous outlook. Yes, the Bush Administration made grievous, costly errors—and the Obama Administration’s attempts to correct those mistakes are incomplete—but the Bush Administration’s overreach certainly doesn’t mean that we should retreat overseas. Progressives need to remember that our military plays an essential role in deterring wars with North Korea and Iran and providing a security umbrella for the global commons that keeps Americans safe and prosperous. It’s all the more reason to engage with the world in the right way.

The country is on more solid footing than it was five years ago. Our economy is stronger, we’re producing more energy at home and using less of it, and we’re now out of unnecessary ground wars of choice. Considering how much we need to get done, leading from behind will no longer suffice. It’s time to renew our purpose and lay out a vision of America as a force for good in the twenty-first century.

The Obama Era: A Mixed Record

Certainly one factor complicating America’s public attitudes toward U.S. global engagement has been the Obama Administration’s mixed foreign policy record, which does not fit easily into the usual frameworks—it’s neither “hawkish” nor “dovish.” President Obama ended America’s involvement in the Iraq War but escalated the Afghanistan War. He has prosecuted a deadly and effective campaign against Al Qaeda and used controversial measures such as drone strikes and kill lists; he also continued the massive surveillance program run by the National Security Agency (NSA). Obama’s reactive crisis management and sometimes erratic response to events abroad has often left the public confused, which was evident in his handling of Syria last fall. It’s no surprise that the American public was skeptical about his request for authorization to conduct targeted and limited strikes on Syria’s Assad regime—the President’s public case for the strike was puzzling and bore the Administration’s own skepticism about the venture.

After five years in office, President Obama can point to several major accomplishments overseas, like ending the Iraq War and killing Osama Bin Laden. But many goals remain unmet—among them closing the Guantánamo Bay prison, bringing stability to Afghanistan, achieving a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. Furthermore, the ongoing turmoil and uncertainty in many parts of the Middle East show that the President is far from instituting the “new beginning” in that region he envisioned in his 2009 speech in Cairo.

The Obama Administration’s mixed record is due in part to the significant challenges it inherited from its predecessor. The damage done by the Iraq War was considerable. But part of the problem has been the Obama Administration’s own lack of clarity about the values it stands for globally, revealed most explicitly in its unsure response to political change in the Middle East and its heavy reliance on targeted drone strikes. The North Star of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy has been pragmatism—doing what works (and what is politically salable at home) to achieve results in the world at any given moment. This approach has helped address the aftermath of the disastrous Bush years, but it has not provided much clarity on what America stands for, or what our strategy should be.

More than halfway through Obama’s tenure, America finds itself in an uncertain geopolitical moment. America is safer from conventional military threats, and the risk of a major, 9/11-style terrorist attack on the homeland is lower than it was a decade ago. The war in Iraq is over, and our combat role in Afghanistan is coming to an end this year. But possible security threats from regional conflicts and instability in Syria, the Central African Republic, Libya, and Afghanistan remain. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda have mutated into ever more splintered networks and continue to pose a challenge. These threats could harm our peace and prosperity, and we should be prepared to meet them. The global unemployment crisis, austerity measures, and the lack of basic freedoms have produced chronic social unrest in countries like Brazil, Turkey, and China. New cybersecurity threats loom and could weaken the digital infrastructure and technology essential for the global economy.

A New Four Freedoms Moment

At this moment of global transformation and uncertainty, progressives are better equipped than conservatives to articulate a new vision for global engagement that advances American interests and values. It’s not simply that conservatives are divided over what they stand for on national security, and are mired in post-Iraq War malaise in the way that many Democrats were for years after the Vietnam War. It’s that the conservative worldview—a lack of faith in the idea that effective government can promote the common good, a disdain for international institutions and treaties—is inadequate and unsuitable for today’s global challenges.

Progressives have long been champions of the common good and the idea of promoting it through collaboration with allies. That moral imperative has not been as clear and consistent as it could have been in Obama’s first five years. We need to revive it today.

At the start of 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt used his State of the Union address to propose his famous Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Roosevelt delivered this speech at a time when non-interventionism was ascendant at home while threats loomed abroad. Today, we don’t see threats on the order of Nazi Germany, but we do see challenges to basic freedoms in places like Egypt and problems like climate change and nuclear proliferation. Today, we need to shape our own “Four Freedoms” moment and articulate a new vision of progressive global engagement.

To do so, progressives need to illuminate their positions on four issues that will define U.S. leadership in the world: taking a clearer stance on global political change and the possibilities for democratic transitions around the world; defining a pragmatic and flexible form of multilateral collaboration; reforming the U.S. national security architecture at a time of budget cuts; and outlining a progressive economic agenda that preserves our leadership in global commerce and finance.

A Progressive Global Values Agenda
Around the world, the struggle to advance the freedoms FDR championed continues in a wide range of contexts. The waves of democratic change that started in the 1970s and continued for 30 years throughout Latin America, Asia, and Central and Eastern Europe face multiple challenges. The reassertion of authoritarianism in reaction to social and political protests in many countries across the globe is worrisome, and the alternative models of authoritarian state capitalism represented by countries like China compete with America’s model. Democracy’s appeal is still dominant. But the push for democratic progress is under considerable strain, especially in the unfinished upheavals in the Middle East.

More than three years into the Arab uprisings, the chaotic results from the first waves of political change call into question whether the United States, or anyone else for that matter, can influence these struggles for power and legitimacy in the Middle East. Tunisia and Yemen have staggered toward political change while Syria continues to disintegrate and Egypt backslides into authoritarianism. Extremist Islamist ideologies remain a key part of the landscape, and repressive forces are trying to squelch dissent in countries that have seen political openings (like Egypt) and countries that have not (like Saudi Arabia). Progressives need to revive a national conversation about the battle of ideas and how to defeat the lure of extremist Islamist ideologies with nonmilitary means. This discussion about the battle of ideas loomed large in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, but it was quickly forgotten in the wake of Iraq and the global war on terror. Unfortunately, as the Arab uprisings went through their “terrible twos” and passed their third anniversary, the United States was viewed as indifferent, disengaged, and inconsistent in its voice and role in the Middle East.

A progressive values agenda entails four fundamental ideas. First, it requires pushing back against the Obama Administration’s tendency to shy away from the tough issues of political change in the Middle East. For example, the Administration’s reticence in calling out the repressive and anti-pluralistic moves by both the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of former President Mohamed Morsi and the military-ruled governments has left America with few friends in Egypt.

Second, we must articulate a form of engagement with the region that uses the full range of our powers. This means eschewing simplistic calls from some neoconservatives either to use military force or to threaten cuts in security collaboration with partners in the region as a tool to force democratic change. It also requires substantial reform in America’s democracy promotion infrastructure. After more than a decade working on the ground in multiple Middle East countries, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations have not been able to enrich civil society and economic life in the ways we saw in previous waves of democratic change in Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America. The U.S. approach to democratic development in the Middle East needs to do more to take into account the importance of economic change and the need for comprehensive political and economic reforms to help societies alter basic power structures. It needs to wrestle with challenges associated with the rise of religious political forces and these groups’ stances on pluralism, religious freedom, and inclusion. One issue that deserves more attention from progressives is the status of Christians in the Middle East; the oldest Christian communities in the world are disappearing from the lands where their faith was born and first took root. If Christian communities with deep roots in the region are not respected, then there is little hope for other religious minorities and nonbelievers, and respect for pluralism, a core progressive value, will continue to erode. Along these lines, the U.S. approach also needs to encourage actors in the region to develop stronger political ideologies that go beyond elite personality politics, Islamism, and vague ideas of Arab nationalism, and instead offer concrete ideas for solving social and economic problems in a richer political paradigm.

Third, it means enhancing partnerships with key regional powers. For example, Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia have been instrumental in providing economic and diplomatic support to Yemen’s ongoing democratic transition. The United States needs to continue backing such efforts. While it is tougher to apply such a model to a case like Egypt—the Muslim Brotherhood is simply too polarizing a force—it is nonetheless essential for the United States to have a candid dialogue with such countries.

Finally, it requires the United States to assume the risks of broad engagement in today’s Middle East. Such risks are sadly all too familiar to us: Think of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his sacrifice in service to his country in Libya in 2012, an example now obscured by a highly politicized debate over conspiracy theories surrounding the Benghazi attacks. Stevens and his colleagues were on the front lines and trying to help shape a positive outcome in postwar Libya. Their loss has had the unfortunate consequence of making America less inclined to engage in the toughest battles.

The most difficult challenge facing America in the Middle East right now is Syria’s civil war. The Obama Administration’s often confused and confusing approach has not advanced U.S. interests and values in the region, and the lack of a clear strategy from 2011 to 2013 was alarming. The Administration has taken a step in the right direction in pushing a diplomatic effort to end the conflict, but it must go further. The United States must come up with a coherent plan to support the moderate elements of the Syrian opposition. Because we currently lack one, retrograde extremist elements have come to dominate the opposition. The United States also needs to work with close regional partners to prepare security and military options that may at some point become necessary to support diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, in the way that the Clinton Administration used targeted force with political objectives in Bosnia and Kosovo to attain a sustainable peace agreement.

Progressives should shun the magical thinking that U.S. military force might be the panacea for this conflict. But we should also remember that the threat of force in 2013 produced a tangible result: a process for eliminating Syria’s deadly chemical weapons arsenal. When force and the threat of force are part of a strategy with clear political ends, it can achieve results. It’s true that the process of turning over the weapons isn’t going as quickly as expected, but the process is still alive and it has boosted the confidence of key allies in the region. When I was in Israel and Jordan in January, the leaders of both countries were praising the agreement, with Israelis saying that the chemical weapons deal led them to stop a program for distributing gas masks to the public.

Pragmatic Multilateralism and the Global Common Good
In this period of budget cuts, America’s bilateral military relations with reliable partners and cooperation in international organizations will loom larger. Getting other countries to pull their weight and contribute to resolving shared security challenges is not just desirable but necessary. A multipolar world means that American leadership is more important, not less. In a world where other powers are stronger, America’s leadership style must now privilege genuine listening and consensus building.

We need to listen—but we also need to lead. At times during the Obama years, it has seemed as if America had overlearned the lessons from the Iraq War and leaned away from telling the world where we stand and what we want to get done. Leading from behind hasn’t worked. We have an unmatched ability to form global coalitions and mobilize resources—but to do this, we need to ground our strategy in a clear purpose, telling partners what’s at stake and what values we are trying to advance.

In many corners of the world, regional powers are rising. India continues to see impressive economic growth, but it will face internal political challenges and a need to implement a wide range of economic reforms. China is now established as an economic powerhouse, but its global role is untested, and the dramatic rise of a middle class there will test the new government. In the Western hemisphere, Mexico is playing an important role in the regional economy. The United States needs to broaden its engagement with these societies. America will also have to better signal how it will deal more effectively with the rise of the rest than we have to date—and do it in a way that doesn’t send a message of America in decline.

A new approach would pursue multiple avenues for international cooperation. One key avenue is bilateral strategic relationships with rising powers such as China and India. The United States has already opened dialogues with these countries on how to work toward common goals, but it needs to deepen those discussions. A second avenue is cooperation with regional organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the African Union. The recent announcement by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that the United States intends to work more closely on security issues with the Gulf Cooperation Council is an example of how the United States might seek to demand more out of existing multilateral organizations.

Security Institutions in a Time of Budget Cuts
Progressives need to continue making the case for an overhaul of U.S. national security institutions, with a focus on three areas: defense transformation, intelligence reform, and continued efforts to strengthen diplomatic and development institutions.

Defense transformation. After years of military overreach, many progressives are naturally skeptical about the use of force abroad. But to advance freedom from fear and to keep Americans safe, we need to maintain a strong military that can develop the capacities of partners so they can do more.

After the defense budget grew at an unprecedented rate for a decade, we are starting to see that trend slow. Initial defense budget-cutting efforts have focused on waste, duplication, and unneeded weapons programs. But the Pentagon still needs to make structural reforms in several key areas where substantial cost savings are possible: the weapons-system acquisition process; compensation for service members and retirees, especially in health care; and operations and maintenance costs. Progressives can continue to play an important role in reducing the defense budget, working with libertarian conservatives who support smaller government.

Intelligence and special operations reform. Reform in our intelligence and counterterrorism institutions should focus on intelligence collection, targeted military strikes, and terrorist detainees. On collection, there are two urgent matters. First, the United States must address the privacy and civil liberties issues at stake in NSA surveillance activities. The revelations about the NSA’s activities have raised important questions about the very nature of our democracy and have dimmed America’s image around the world. Second, the U.S. intelligence community has been overly focused on counterterrorism over the past decade, and this was part of the reason the Arab uprisings took us by surprise. We need to build the capability to understand and interpret changes underway—including rising Islamist militancy, which presents a threat to security and to core progressive values.

Progressives should continue the debate over the use of force against terrorist targets, especially drone strikes. With the end of combat operations in Afghanistan set for later this year, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force will likely require amendments to ensure a legal framework for strikes against terrorist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. [See “Battlefield Earth,” Issue #31.] The coming end of the Afghanistan War presents an opportunity for us to partner with some conservatives in establishing a stronger oversight framework on executive branch activities to target terrorist networks with a global reach. We must also push to close the Guantánamo Bay prison and other detention facilities and establish new bilateral arrangements and international means to deal with terrorism suspects under the rule of law.

Strengthening Development and Diplomatic Institutions. Between 2006 and 2013, the United States moved from the “shock and awe” militarism phase of the Bush era with the surge in Iraq and started talking more about “smart power”—an effort that has led to mixed and incomplete results.

In Afghanistan, the much-touted civilian surge of 2010-11 that accompanied the troop increases did not leave an enduring imprint. Counterinsurgency efforts failed to keep Afghan civilians safe and did not produce lasting institutions. In Pakistan, the Biden-Lugar bill (later named the Kerry-Lugar bill) tripled nonmilitary assistance to that country, but the creaky structures of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) lacked the capacity to disburse large portions of this additional aid in a timely fashion. After trillions were spent in the past decade in military and civilian development efforts to stabilize Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries, many of these countries do not appear more stable. Unless we intend to leave a trail of failed states behind us, we must rebuild the capacities of USAID and other institutions and ensure that they’re having impact on the ground for the long haul.

Rebuilding America’s Economy

A top priority in advancing a progressive national security agenda is rebuilding a key source of American power—its economy. Progressives should make the case that freedom from want at home is linked to freedom from want abroad.

The traditional tools of fiscal and monetary policy have less impact than they did three decades ago due to the increasingly interlinked nature of the global economy. With America’s economy on more solid footing than when President Obama entered office in 2009, progressives should make the case that policies shaping health care, education, infrastructure, and social safety nets affect America’s global standing and leadership in the world.

It also means reckoning with the thorny issue of free trade. In his three remaining years in office, President Obama hopes to reach a trade agreement with Europe that would create the largest trading bloc in the world, as well as a 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty that would cover 40 percent of world economic output, from Chile to Japan. This global economic agenda has the potential to create economic growth and jobs in America, but the Administration must take great care in negotiating these deals to ensure that they benefit the common good and help American workers and consumers.

Many progressives see the turn toward globalization in the 1990s as a grim development that led to outsourced jobs and benefited only a small group of multinational corporations. There are similar worries about the Obama Administration’s approach on the proposed European and Asian trade deals; consequently, learning the lessons from previous expansions in global trade will be critical. There should be enforceable rules that prevent trading partners from manipulating the value of their currencies to obtain unfair competitive advantage. In advancing an agenda that helps strengthen America’s position in the next phase of globalization, progressive leaders can mediate between large multinational corporations and key constituency groups such as labor unions, and in doing so build tactical alliances with Republicans who favor free trade. Expanding U.S. access to emerging markets at a time when the middle class is growing in those countries presents great opportunities for win-win economic growth—but it must be done with agreements that avoid a race to the bottom on wages and standards.

The End of Strategic Drift

After more than a decade of unnecessary wars, economic problems, and persistent talk of America’s decline, it’s easy to forget that America remains a great power and that we’ve done a lot of good things—that is, when we’ve been true to our values and clear about what costs we’re willing to bear to keep the country safe and prosperous.

The United States is in the midst of a major transformation in the politics of national security, and progressives are well positioned to construct a new style of international engagement that appeals to the American public and advances a new type of leadership in the world. Conservatives will likely face stronger internal forces requiring them to focus inward and make fewer arguments for American engagement overseas. Rand Paul and the Tea Party are tugging the party toward retrenchment and away from the neoconservatism of the George W. Bush years and the internationalism of Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell. What we may see is a Republican Party in which the conservative foreign policy elites and commentators become increasingly disconnected from the base of the party. Progressives will need to build a series of tactical alliances with the competing conservative foreign policy camps—making common cause with Republican internationalists on supporting international organizations like the United Nations and expanding free trade, and working with libertarian voices to institute sensible defense budget and intelligence community reforms.

Among Democrats, there is an internal debate emerging about Obama’s legacy and what he has achieved in the world. There will be voices that are more critical of Obama’s record on Afghanistan and the changes in the Middle East as well as those expressing serious concerns about the NSA’s massive surveillance program. With so much uncertainty across the Middle East, how the current policies on Iran, Syria, Egypt, and the Arab-Israeli peace process develop in 2014 and 2015 are bound to have a major impact on this internal debate.

For progressives, this period of global transformation offers opportunities to make the case for a more pragmatic, measured engagement in the world while America continues to deal with problems at home. Some progressives seem to want to avoid the world’s most pressing problems and shun the opportunities that could benefit America’s security and economy through a new vision of global engagement.

For example, a number of Democrats in Congress joined Republicans and came out in favor of more sanctions on Iran at a delicate phase in the diplomacy that’s attempting to put an end to that country’s nuclear program. This was a mistake—because it would close off the possibilities created by the Bush and Obama Administrations’ painstaking efforts to engage Iran.

Another missed opportunity over the past three years was the Middle East uprisings. Democrats joined Republicans in Congress in not backing a proposal for funding a Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund, a pot of money that would have created incentives for countries in the region to implement economic, political, and trade reforms. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration announced it was cutting back on its plans in this area of democracy promotion in the Middle East, another missed opportunity. Now, it is understandable why many progressives were skeptical about Obama’s proposed use of military force in Syria last year—the risks were high, and the arguments coming from the Administration weren’t as clear as they could have been. But deciding to unilaterally disarm in the battle of ideas is a mistake that will undermine our security in the long run.

The concept of national security is broader and more challenging in a globalized, interdependent world than it was during the Cold War. For decades, our vision and engagement have helped advance freedom and dignity. We’ve seen bastions of brutal authoritarianism like South America and Central and Eastern Europe become home to flourishing democracies. And though it doesn’t feel like it, the world has gotten a lot safer, with the end of major-power wars in places like Europe and East Asia, the spread of vaccines, the advances against polio and AIDS, and improved access to health care globally.

Finally, progressives should stand with oppressed people everywhere—whether it’s democratic opponents of Assad in Syria, women and girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Christians in the Middle East, and both Palestinians and Israelis who want to end their historical divisions. Some argue that it’s not worth it and don’t believe America can be a force for good in these complicated situations. That view sells America short and abandons these people to their fate. Freedom of speech; freedom of religion; freedom from want; and freedom from fear: These are lofty ambitions and there are many forces worldwide trying to blunt them. We must take wise steps to keep them alive.

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Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at CAPAF, where his work focuses on U.S. national security strategy and counterterrorism policy.

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