Thursday, April 20, 2006

Recasting the War on Terror

This week brought with it two new attempts by Democratic thinkers to jump-start a 2006-2008 campaign message and articulate a broader Party rationale.

One was published at The American Prospect by Michael Tomasky. The short version is Tomasky outlines two variants of liberalism, the first a nationalistic and communitarian "responsibilities over rights", "we're all in this together" paradigm, the second an individualistic-rights-equality-justice paradigm that supposedly came out of the late 1960's and whose one-issue-interest group nature has been responsible for driving many white Democrats to the Republican Party. Tomasky favors Democrats going "back" to the first paradigm, which he says was the heritage of the good old Democrats like FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Clinton. Tomasky makes a fair share of good points in the essay, but overall his message sounds an awful lot like DLC-light.

The second was drawn up by Democratic economists Roger Altman, Pete Orzag, and Robert Rubin. This group of Clinton era administrators has billed itself and its approach as "Hamiltonian". The authors favor balanced budgets, and greater government "investments" in education, health care, and worker retraining.

The best that can probably be said about each piece is they at least say something; they're a start. But both strike me as largely "political" approaches to recasting the party's message as opposed to viewing the party as a means of addressing the greater, structural problems the nation faces.

One example of this is that neither set of authors says much about the "war on terror" or national security. How should Democrats approach the "war on terror"? Or better yet, the question should be, what do Democrats actually think about the 9-11 attacks, Al Qaeda, and the threat of "terrorism"? Not how should Democrats spin national security as a policy matter but what do Democrats actually think about the threat of terrorism and perhaps more broadly, radical Islam?

Since I'm a progressive Democrat I'll give it a shot. There are three primary lessons I draw about Al Qaeda from 911 that would seem important for Democrats to articulate and address.

First, the terror attacks remind us that our problems are as much global as domestic. The World is Flat, as Thomas Friedman says. In other words, while improving our education systems, reducing marked income inequality, and expanding access to health care within the U.S. are important, our major challenges, particularly from the point of view of the federal government, continue to lie outside our borders. And what are these challenges? Ultimately, "oil dependency" generally, but something more serious and alarming--the disparity of well-being and resource-use between between us and the rest of the world. A NY Times article and editorial this week pointed out that the U.S. consumes 20 million gallons of oil per day, while our nearest "competitor", China, consumes 6.5 million. And China has about one billion more people than we do. Bluntly, we're consuming too much of the world's stuff. No amount of war-mongering or sabor-rattling is going to ensure our dominance in this area. Gas is back up to $3 a gallon in the U.S. If the party isn't over, the fat lady is about ready to sing. And needless to say, the issue of global income and opportunity disparities is a key contributor to the vitriolic immigration debate.

How will the U.S. begin to address these disparities? Is working towards greater free trade and open trade borders the answer? This is not an invitation to Democrats to pander to local constituencies, as legitimate as that might be, or to revert to knee-jerk protectionism rants. It's an invitation for Democrats to evaluate how our trade and international business policies are working, not just for our own immediate "good" but for the well-being of all mankind. This is not just being altruistic, although that would be OK, too. It's vital for our survival that other countries be successful economically and create the right kinds of opportunities for their populations.

Helping ourselves by helping others is important because if the Iraq war has shown us anything it's that Military Force as the one and only instrument of fighting "terrorism" is rather limited at best, badly flawed at worst. This is the second main lesson I draw from the 911 attacks on our shores. Tough talk and shock and awe will only get us so far. We can't blow up every country, or legitimately even threaten to blow up every country we think might endanger us. Liberals expressed a deep concern with the Bush administration's "pre-emptive force doctrine", but the truth is, no matter what our stated policy, military force can't be used in all, or even most cases. In fact, it can only be used rarely if at all. Three years after toppling Saddam Hussein, we have every indication that from a terrorism perspective, we may have left that country, and by extension ourselves, worse off as a result of the invasion. Nation building ain't easy. Rather than ape Republican rhetoric about being "tough" Democrats should unashamadly argue that the military is a greatly limited tool in the fighting the "war on terror" and that we need to begin to address other means of assuring other nations and their populations that we have their well-being in mind.

The third lesson is that religious fundamentalism is very dangerous. While the 911 attackers were radical Islamists, religious fundamentalism of various stripes has caused a considerable amount of bloodshed throughout history. We have an interest in ensuring that no one religion gets a monopoly on public policy or civil society. Radical Islam, like other variations of puritanical religions, is predicated on the notion that it is the only valid form of human salvation. Once that attitude is given free reign, non-believers can be cast as non-human, as The Other. True religion will protect the freedom of all religions to worship and participate equally in our democracy. Some Republicans give evidence of supporting a regressive, un-Constitutional Christian Reconstructionism. Democrats should ask their opponents if this extremism and exclusivity is what they believe in. Naturally, addressing the problems and role of faith in the public square is controversial. But one of the Democrat's greatest problems in recent years has been a seeming unwillingness to offend anyone. But the growing influence of radical religion in American life can't be ignored in the hope that it will go away. Ignoring the role of radical religion in America will be just as fatal as ignoring it in Afghanistan.

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