(The day after I wrote this piece a great NPR show with Newt Gingrich aired that touched on exactly what I discuss here: the growing divergence in how the right and the left view the foreign policy challenges that face us, which I am increasingly convinced will have extremely profound ramifications for our future. In addition, on Saturday, this series appeared in the NYT, which again highlights the wide differences in perception of the problem.)
Perhaps even more than the Iraq War, recent events in the Middle East have highlighted the fundamental differences in how the left and the right view the situation in the region and how America (and Israel) should respond.
For many on the right, William Kristol’s recent pieces in the Weekly Standard (here and here) essentially sum up how they view the current situation: Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel reflect Iran’s aspirations for dominance of the Middle East and the eventual elimination of the state of Israel. In the eyes of the neocons, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad are all parts of a network of extremist groups with ambitions to impose political Islam on the region and ultimately expel all Jews. To the Kristols of the world, these groups are as virulently fascist and extremist as the Nazis of the 1930s; the only rational response is to confront them with overwhelming force and crush them, since in the end negotiation would be fruitless. According to this viewpoint, the Arab and Muslim populations of the Middle East will continue to suffer as long as they are ruled by extremists bent on Israel’s destruction, especially since many terrorist groups use civilians as human shields.
Before discussing the counter views on the left, there is an important point that is often missed in most discussions: if people on the left actually shared the perceptions of Kristol and his ilk (that we are confronting individuals and groups morally equivalent to Nazis), they might very well agree that military force must be the centerpiece of our policy (even if they might wield it somewhat differently). The key is not that the left are generally pacifists and anti-war, but that they do not perceive the political situation, and hence the problems, to be nearly as dire.
Although there is usually less agreement on the left than there is on the right on issues of foreign policy, I think the current editorial in The Nation gets at the essence of how most people on the left view the recent blow-up in the Middle East. What the editorial basically says is that the current violence is due to diplomatic failure; that if only the U.S. (and to some extent the EU) had been more active in trying to negotiate a peace deal, the use of force could have been avoided; and that Israel’s response to the attacks by Hezbollah has been disproportionate and will only further radicalize the region. In this view the right way out of the morass is through multilateral diplomacy, which would include concessions from Israel. The fundamental assumptions underlying such a view are that even the extremist groups are rational actors with interests that can be negotiated, and that lasting peace in the Middle East is possible even in the presence of radical Islamic factions with political and military support.
The left believes that not only is the dominant perspective on the right incorrect, but that its favored solution (aggressive military action) will invariably lead to widespread civilian casualties, stoking nationalist fervor and exacerbating an already tense situation. According to this view, the right’s prescription can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy in which diplomatic windows are shut and military means increasingly become our only recourse. For its part the right believes that the left is dangerously naïve, and that history shows that appeasing aggressors always leads to more bloodshed; in the end, America cannot risk waiting around until the most extreme factions acquire WMD. They point out that the radicals should be taken at their word; to this day, they deny the right of Israel to exist and declare their desire to unify the Middle East under the banner of radical Islam.
In a perfect world, there would be some way of determining which of these views is a better reading of the situation and closest to the truth. Unfortunately, policy makers faced with protecting the security of their countries do not have decades to debate the merits of the differing viewpoints. Decisions with huge ramifications for peace and security have to be made within short time frames.
It’s my belief that anyone who is intellectually honest has to acknowledge that the neocon position may in fact be closer to the truth, and that an Iran with nuclear weapons could be the first step towards WW III. At the same time, diplomatic options have hardly been exhausted and those with a more hawkish view must acknowledge that excessive military force may end up creating worse problems than already exist.
In order to move forward and do our best to bring reason to bear on what are some of the most difficult foreign policy decisions of our generation (and which will be central to the 2008 presidential election whether we like it or not), I recommend the following for all of those who (like me) are unsure of which views of the current conflict are the most accurate:
1. Do your best to read from a variety of sources and take the arguments on all sides seriously. If someone on either the left or right mentions some historical event or quote or political theory that has been particularly instrumental, try to track down the source material and take a look at it; see if you glean the same lessons as they did.
2. As much as history is important (especially in the Middle East), keep reminding yourself that we can’t go back and undo the past. For all of the injustices and bad policies that may or may not be responsible for current events, our leaders have to act based on present circumstances.
3. Try to put yourself (however imperfectly) in the position of the people in the Middle East, whether a family in Haifa when rockets are raining down or one in Beirut trying to escape Israeli bombing. Don’t simply take one side based on instinct or prejudice.
4. Play close attention to the sequence of events as they unfold. Who does what first, and how certain actions are followed by others, is the key to trying to establish a more objective view of how politics works in the region and unlocking the motivations and likely consequences of different policies. (Example: Israel withdrew from Gaza and this did not stop the firing of missiles into Israeli territory from this area.)
5. Recognize that the issues we are dealing with in the Middle East– namely, peace and security– are the top priorities of any government, and that ultimately no nation can tolerate continual attacks on its people without a forceful response.
P.S. A piece by Noah Feldman in Sunday's NYT also does a nice job of laying out the big picture.