For all of the failings of the neocon foreign policy, the one charge against the Left that still holds is that the Left is largely bereft of its own grand foreign policy doctrine(s). It is one thing to criticize the Bush foreign policy, but another to actually put forth an alternative vision.
Peter Beinart in his book the Good Fight has tried to resurrect the Left’s historical roots, when it led the charge against global communism, in the hopes of rekindling an affirmative and decidedly non-isolationist vision within the Democratic ranks. While Beinart makes some good points, his views are not easily distilled into straight-forward foreign policy doctrines that are easy for the average citizen (both here and abroad) to understand. This has been one of the greatest weaknesses of the Bush years; lofty and abstract rhetoric, but little besides “stay the course” when it comes to how to achieve any of the Wilsonian democratic ideals that Bush has consistently championed.
The time is ripe for an alternative foreign policy that sets clear and transparent markers for military action, and which provides people around the world with clear incentives to move their countries in ways that do not threaten the United States or its allies, while at the same time promoting democracy and human rights (which are not always consistent).
This vision should not be isolationist, but neither should it be premised on military adventurism and occupation as the cure for global terrorism. It should be realistic, but not callous towards the suffering of those living under oppressive totalitarian regimes. Perhaps most of all, it needs moral legitimacy and a basis in common sense principles.
Here’s my two-pronged strategy:
1. The Doctrine of Retaliation
The U.S. reserves the right to treat any country which sponsors terrorism against U.S. citizens or our allies, or which provides direct support in any way to groups or individuals that do so, as legitimate targets for swift and decisive military retaliation. The U.S. reserves the right to target foreign leaders and military installations in any nation that is complicit in such conduct. The U.S will not invade or occupy foreign nations, but it reserves the right to cripple the military and organizational capabilities of any overtly hostile regimes. The only reason large numbers of ground troops will be deployed is for peace keeping and humanitarian missions or to repel hostile aggression. (For example, if Iran continues to fund Hezbollah and Hezbollah continues to attack our ally Israel than the U.S. has the right to target the leaders of Iran along with Iran’s military capabilities.)
2. Democracy and Human Rights Promotion
Having established the clear boundaries of what policies or actions will result in military retaliation by the U.S., the U.S. government and its people want to make clear that we empathize with the plight of all those who live under autocratic rule and are denied basic human rights. The U.S. openly invites all nations to the negotiating table that are willing to sign non-aggression pacts with the U.S. and its allies and promote democracy and human rights within their respective countries. Such conduct will be rewarded in the strongest terms in the form of large sums of development aid, preferential trade agreements, increased security guarantees, cultural exchanges, assistance with institution building; everything that can be done to accelerate the entry of these nations into the community of advanced democratic societies.
This two-pronged approach provides clear incentives to the governments and citizens throughout the Arab and Muslim world (and other regions as well). Citizens who vote for regimes with expansionist and extremist ideologies must recognize the potential risk that this poses to their safety and the stability of their societies. Citizens who are currently denied a say in their government have an added incentive to push for reform, given both the positive potential benefits and to avoid the potential risks if their governments continue to pursue hostile actions against the U.S. and its allies.
As to the Iraq War, which is clearly not consistent with this new foreign policy vision, the first step is to admit unequivocally that it was a mistake. While the U.S. and its allies had the right to pressure Saddam, renew inspections, and even strike at Saddam’s military capabilities, we did not have the justification to invade and occupy the country for the sake of regime change. In addition, we invaded without a clear plan, anywhere near the required number of troops or allies, and we completely underestimated the sectarian tensions that would rip the country apart once Saddam was toppled. Our current strategy is entirely counter-productive because we are helping to prop up a government that is fueling the militias and carrying out a large portion of the sectarian violence.
At this juncture we must view our mission as minimizing the civilian casualties and promoting humanitarian assistance, while at the same time, continuing to try to broker a peace deal among the warring factions. Abandoning Iraq completely would be morally wrong since we have helped to create this dire situation. We need to make clear to the Europeans that we will not be in Iraq indefinitely and that a massive civil war near their border is not in their interest, and therefore, they should help establish an international peace-keeping force. Only after we admit that the war was a strategic miscalculation will this possible. If necessary we should work with the Iraqis to divide their country in order to prevent all-out civil war. The bottom line: we must acknowledge that now we are in damage control mode, trying our best to do right by the millions of Iraqis who have been caught up in this catastrophe.