A Foreign Policy for the Left? Defending the “Default Position”

Aleppo after government shelling, February 2014 (Freedom House/Flickr)

In the following responses to Michael Walzer’s “A Foreign Policy for the Left”(Dissent,
Spring 2014), two interlocutors make the case for the “default position.”

Eric AltermanJeff FauxMichael Walzer responds


Michael Walzer’s historical tour d’horizon of liberal and leftist attitudes about foreign policy is characteristically thoughtful and generous-minded, consistent with everything Walzer has published in Dissent and elsewhere during the past half-century. It is not, however, useful in the task of guiding us toward a foundation on which to construct an effective left-liberal foreign policy doctrine.

Like so many of those whose views he wishes to critique, Walzer misses the fundamental point about foreign policy: the world is what it is, not what we wish it to be. And it is the way it is in most places owing to centuries, if not millennia, of complex, often overlapping sociological, technological, economic, psychological, and of course cultural developments that have shaped regional history. In order to intervene effectively, therefore, in any one of these places, one must first understand and evaluate these forces before trying to calculate the likely effect of one’s intervention. Does this sound like something American politicians might be good at? I didn’t think so.

Take for instance the example that originally inspired Walzer’s analysis: Syria. Walzer writes that “The arguments about what to do in Syria have led me to ask these questions, but I am after a more general answer.” But spend a moment on Syria itself and you will see that the situation there is so complicated, so fraught, and, in most respects, sui generis that it cannot possibly lead to a more general answer. True, Bashar al-Assad is a moral monster who may well have gassed his own people. (But then again, according to Seymour Hersh, he may not have.) Moreover, owing in significant measure to the opportunities presented to it by the United States’s foolish and counterproductive intervention in Iraq—one that was supported by many people who consider themselves liberals and leftists and even a few who contribute to Dissent—Syria spent the first decade of the twenty-first century welcoming jihadist fighters from all over the Arab world, who now dominate Assad’s opposition. As Peter Neumann writes in the London Review of Books:

When the current conflict broke out, it was hardly surprising that jihadist structures first emerged in the eastern parts of the country, where the entry points into Iraq were located, and in places like Homs and Idlib, which were close to Lebanon; or that it was jihadists – not the Muslim Brothers – who could offer the most dedicated and experienced fighters with the skills, resources, discipline and organisation to hit back at the government. They were also the ones who found it easiest to prevail on international networks of wealthy sympathisers, especially in the Gulf, to supply weapons and funding. The clearest example is the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), a viciously sectarian player in the current conflict, descended from Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, which draws on the same networks and supply lines that enabled the transfer of fighters from Syria to Iraq– except that now, of course, the traffic flows in both directions.

So is it the leftist policy to support the murderous jihadists fighting Assad even though they hate us and would like to kill us, and/or destroy Israel and overthrow the rest of our allies in the region, or should we let the hateful Assad fight them and thereby keep them occupied and weaken their ability to damage the United States and threaten our friends? (In retrospect, was it really such a smart idea to help those Afghan rebels repel the Soviet Union?) I’m not saying I know the answer to my own question; I’m just saying there are no clear “principles” that would be likely to lead me to an answer, absent these devilish details.

To take another vexing example, what about Yemen? Not long ago, we learned from CNN.com that “Predawn strikes hit al Qaeda in southern Yemen. A U.S. drone attack is suspected.” The suspected drone attack reportedly killed over thirty “militants.” So again, how to judge this on the basis of leftist or liberal principles? We’re against drone strikes because they circumvent constitutional strictures and often kill innocents. But isn’t that a better way to fight al Qaeda than the way we did in Afghanistan (and allegedly) in Iraq? And if we didn’t fight al Qaeda at all, then wouldn’t its members be free not only to carry out terrorist activities but also institute Taliban-like governments that repress women, persecute homosexuals, and undermine pretty much every democratic principle we profess to support? How to decide this one? Well, it’s complicated, and to be honest, I know next to nothing about Yemen, but based on what I know about the United States, I find it extremely unlikely that we are going to undertake a policy that is particularly sensitive to the myriad forces that helped create that situation, any more than we did in Vietnam, El Salvador, Angola, or Iraq.

In the past, liberal foreign policy views were dominated by the fear of McCarthyism and appearing “soft” in the face of allegedly tough-minded critics. Today, the situation may be even worse. The sad truth is that our own country is increasingly ungovernable, owing to a political culture in which one side refuses to recognize even the most obvious aspects of reality and the other side lacks the courage and/or material support to allow real-world considerations to prevail over purposely ignorant ideological posturing—posturing that almost always demands that politicians shoot first and ask the relevant questions later. Remember Bill Clinton’s lesson that Americans prefer “strong and wrong” rather than “weak and right”—where “weak” implies an unwillingness to kill people. Under such circumstances, it is probably a good idea for us to mind our own business as much as possible—at least when it comes to killing people. True, as Walzer points out, such a policy would have been a disaster had it been adopted vis-à-vis Hitler, but a good rule of thumb I try to follow in all political discussion is that if you have to trot out Hitler, you’ve lost the argument.

It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of threats—ones that will vastly increase human misery, death, and destruction—that do not require military responses, climate change being only the most obvious one but so too increasing economic inequality and the continued oppression of women, to name just a few. Such challenges do not get the blood flowing the way wars do—but given the inherent difficulty of deploying military force in such a way that it actually improves the lives of those on whose behalf we profess to act, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing after all. What’s more, we hardly need go in search of foreign monsters to destroy in order to make the world a better place when we have so much work to do here at home.

–Eric Alterman

I am an advocate of what Michael Walzer calls the “default” left position on foreign policy: minimal engagement, at least until we get democracy right here at home. Still, self-interest and moral obligation require some attention to the world beyond our borders. So I was hoping that his “A Foreign Policy for the Left” would guide me to a more nuanced approach. It did not.

Walzer complains that leftists lean too heavily on “shortcuts”—simpleminded assumptions, such as “America is always wrong,” that they can apply to any foreign conflict in which the United States is involved. Instead, he tells us, we should do our homework: pay “close attention to local circumstances and particular histories.” Only then can we identify our true comrades—“the men and women who really believe in, and who practice, democracy and equality.”

We should all be better informed. But as the article also reminds us, it is a very complicated world. And there is no way that even engaged, thoughtful, and sleep-denying activists—on the left or the right—can possibly learn enough to make their own well-researched, objective judgments about the large number of complex local circumstances in which the American governing class has involved us, often in ways invisible even to themselves. Indeed, the U.S. government, with its thousands of smart analysts and vast human and electronic spying apparatus, is notoriously inept at reading the political intelligence it gathers.

Walzer chides the left for losing interest in Syria, in part because it requires “a close reading and sharp critique of Islamic politics.” No doubt he is better read than most of us, but even he seems to have no answer to the question of which of the shadowy figures in that murky killing field are our comrades who really ”believe in and practice democracy and equality,” and what we can do to make things better.

By default, most of us rely on shortcuts—the press and punditry—to help us through these foreign policy thickets. The question is: who among them is more reliable? Walzer is right: left-wing commentators tend to be too cynical about U.S.humanitarian aid, not cynical enough about the UN, and too willing to give a pass to authoritarians from our side of the ideological street. But, as he acknowledges, the default anti-imperialist position has a pretty good track record, including on Iran,Vietnam, Central and South America, Iraq, and a variety of colonial wars. I would add to the list Indonesia, the settlements on the West Bank, and Afghanistan.

Yet the left has little traction in shaping foreign policy. In contrast, the right’s default position of “America can do no wrong” dominates the debate and, as disaster follows disaster, continues to fuel misadventures that add to the world’s suffering. The problem for the nation is not the left’s lack of sophisticated information, but rather its lack of influence. So at this stage of our history, as unbalanced and knee-jerk as the left default view may sometimes be, it serves an important purpose: opposition.

“Dictators and terrorists are never our comrades,” Walzer writes. Amen.But this hardly completes the list of global bad guys. Most on the left would certainly include the gangster oligarchs of Potemkin village democracies supported by the alliance between theU.S.government and multinational capital. Walzer chides the left for its “infatuation” with Hugo Chávez. Yet Chávez was elected twice in votes considered fair by international observers and was the target of an attempted coup encouraged by the U.S. government. Certainly he seems to have done more for Venezuela’s oppressed than the plutocrats Washington openly favors to topple his successor ever did, and probably ever will. One can make a case against the Bolivarian revolution, but dismissing it as a “dictatorship” without reference to “local circumstances and particular histories” seems like the kind of intellectual shortcut the article criticizes.

In any event, because the world is so complicated, the imperial reach so wide, and our access to information and our capacity to process it so limited, the minimalist default position still makes the most moral and political sense. The physicians’ rule applies here: first, do no harm.

–Jeff Faux

I was happy to receive these two responses because early readers of my article were skeptical about my description of the default position: nobody, they said, actually held that position. But here are two smart and committed leftists who are explicit defaulters. Admittedly, there is a lot to be said for their position, though I suspect that they are not entirely consistent in holding it. Eric Alterman thinks that the Nazi case is too extreme to provide a useful example of defensible American action in the world, but there are other examples about which Alterman, Faux, and I would probably agree: it was a good idea to prevent North Korea from overrunning the South; it was a good idea to defeat Saddam Hussein’s attempt to seize Kuwait; it was a good idea to stop what would probably have been a campaign of rape and murder in Kosovo. And it would have been a good idea to intervene against ongoing massacres in Rwanda and Darfur.

But let’s leave all that aside and focus on the pure default position. Alterman and Faux’s main argument invites a comparison that should worry them. Remember the argument of the early neoconservatives against liberal welfare programs and the war on poverty. It’s all so complicated, they said; we don’t have enough information; there are always unintended and unforeseen consequences of governmental action. Radical uncertainty was a right-wing argument against state action at home, and now it is a left-wing argument against state action abroad. It is a bad argument in both cases. Imagine Alterman and Faux standing in front of the Bastille in 1789 and shouting to the crowd: “Stop. Listen. It’s very complicated. There is no way that even engaged, thoughtful activists like you guys can possibly learn enough to make well-researched, objective judgments.”

That last line (adapted from Faux’s piece) is always true. All political decisions at home and abroad are made under conditions of uncertainty. Everything we do has consequences that we can’t foresee. But that isn’t an argument for never acting. We learn as much as we can, and we do the best we can. Sometimes it’s right to support the use of force, and sometimes—more often, probably—it’s wrong. Even when it’s critically important to urge Americans to mind their own business, as Alterman does here, it might also be critically important to urge someone else to intervene. My key examples of justified intervention involved Vietnam, India, and Tanzania, not the United States.

In fact, my article wasn’t about what the United States should do; it was about what the left should do. We have no influence, Faux says, and he is certainly right. Political influence has to be earned. If we apply our principles to the hard cases, if we argue intelligently, if we don’t duck uncomfortable conclusions, and if we avoid political correctness, we may become more influential. We won’t determine any state’s foreign policy, but we might begin to shape the foreign policy debate. Here is a useful maxim for democratic leftists (the near left, as I call us in my article): when we write about policy questions, we should always write as if we were about to take power and actually make decisions. That’s a way of showing respect for our fellow citizens and acknowledging, as Alterman says, the world as it really is.

So what about Syria? Both Alterman and Faux seem to take that case as the central illustration of all the complications that make decisions about policy impossible (though Alterman actually begins the necessary analysis). Maybe there is, as they suggest, nothing to do right now in Syria, but then we should be arguing about why there is nothing to do. It’s important to figure out how things got to this stage and whether there was anything that might have been done earlier on. I tried to begin a discussion like that on the Dissent blog, but nobody joined it. Arguing about this case is one way to do better next time. Throwing up your hands doesn’t help now or in the future.

“Ideas are weapons,” Max Lerner wrote in 1943 (and someone must have said it before him). We need to work our way to a set of good leftist ideas about when to fight and when not; about the use of force short of war; about the use and misuse of economic sanctions; about the best way to protest human rights violations in other people’s countries (at home too, but it’s other countries, Alterman and Faux claim, that are so hard to figure out); and about how to help democratic dissidents and insurgents in places where we don’t understand and probably can’t understand all “the devilish details.” I am still talking about the left here—what we should do, what we should say. It matters.

A last word about Jeff’s claim that my critique of Hugo Chávez and of populism “seems like the kind of intellectual shortcut” that I criticize in my article. I was relying on Dissent’s long record of analyzing and criticizing populist politics in Latin America (see for example Ignacio Walker’s fine piece in the Fall 2008 issue). But I am more than willing to acknowledge that there are varieties of populism and that we need to attend to “local circumstances and particular histories.” Faux and Alterman are actually arguing that it’s not possible to do that; it’s all too complicated. I think that’s exactly what we have to do. That’s what it would mean to work out a foreign policy for the left.

–Michael Walzer

Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC. He is the author of nine books including the national best-seller What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (2003).

Jeff Faux is the founder and now Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Policy Institute. His latest book is The Servant Economy.

Michael Walzer is the co-editor emeritus of Dissent.

Read Michael Walzer’s original article here.