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Saturday, January 3, 2004

We're all nationalist liberals now.

James Traub's very long, very important essay in tomorrow's New York Times Magazine rehashes the history of the Democratic Party's perceived weakness on national security issues. It's provocative reading. One basic contention is that leading Democrats aren't really divided on foreign policy fundamentals — none of them is really a new McGovern — but the Party's base, on the other hand, seems to want them to be.

Traub concludes that the Democratic candidates' "nationalist liberalism" stands solidly within the foreign policy mainstream — unlike President Bush's machismo:

There are two very large inferences that can be drawn from comments like these and, more broadly, from the current debate over national security issues in policy institutes, academia and professional journals. One is that the Bush administration stands very, very far from the foreign-policy mainstream: liberal Democrats, conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans have more in common with one another than any of them have with the Bush administration. The other conclusion is that the administration's claim that 9/11 represents such a decisive break with the past that many of the old principles no longer apply is right — but the new principles need not be the ones the administration has advanced. A different administration could have adapted to 9/11 in a very different way. And this is why national security should be, at least potentially, such a rich target of opportunity for a Democratic candidate.

So will the Democrats be able to hit this target? Traub suggests that all the candidates (except Kucinich) share a common vision:

[Last spring, a group of] foreign-policy thinkers from the conservative side of the Democratic spectrum proposed a doctrine of ''nationalist liberalism,'' which would ''consciously accept the critical importance of power, including military power, in promoting American security, interests and values,'' as the neoconservatives had in the 1970's. But the doctrine would also recognize that America's great power ''will create resistance and resentment if it is exercised arrogantly and unilaterally, making it harder for the United States to achieve its goals.'' The authors laid out a ''generous and compelling vision of global society,'' which would include ''humanitarian intervention against genocidal violence; family planning; effective cooperation against global warming and other environmental scourges''; foreign aid; free trade; and large investments to combat AIDS.

All the major Democratic candidates could be considered nationalist liberals. And it's no surprise: since this is more or less the consensual view of the foreign-policy establishment, practically everybody the candidates have been consulting takes this view. With the very important exception of Iraq, the major candidates hold essentially the same views. Hawkishness or dovishness on Iraq thus does not correlate with some larger difference in worldview, as, for example, the left and right views on Vietnam once did.

And yet, this isn't the impression one gathers from the party base:

Dean may well be a nationalist liberal, but his audience members — the activists, the students — often are not . . . . This is the cliff that Democratic thinkers fear the party is heading over. As one Senate aide tells me, ''I don't see how a Democrat who is easy to stereotype as soft, even if it's unfair, is going to win.''

("The Things They Carry," James Traub, New York Times Magazine 1.4.04; see also Heather Hurlburt's essay, "War Torn: Why the Democrats Can't Think Straight about National Security", Washington Monthly 11.02.)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 3 January 2004 at 8:54 PM

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January 4, 2004 05:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

Stirling Newberry has a fairly tough critiqe of Traub's logic today at The Blogging of the President. Stirling thinks Traub missed a fundamental paradigm shift. Stirling is the go-to guy on technology, politics and philosophy, as well as being a terrific letter writer. Worth a look.

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