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January 11, 2007

Power party versus peace party?

According to an analysis of public opinion by Matthew Continetti in the Weekly Standard, the Republicans today are the “power party,” while the Democrats are the “peace party.” It’s a familiar conservative framing of the differences over foreign policy. And last night’s speech by President Bush may have seemed to fit the pattern. A conservative president calls for more American muscle, and those weak-willed liberals shy away from it.

But is that really what is going on?

Far from making the United States stronger, Bush’s policies have dissipated American power. In his speech, the president suggested that if the United States failed in Iraq, Iran would be emboldened. But Iran has obviously already been emboldened because its leaders believe that an America mired in Iraq can make only empty threats.

To use power ineffectually is to destroy it. Conservatives may have believed that the unilateral assertion of American military might is the best way to extend American influence abroad and promote democracy. The experience of the past several years, however, show how limited an understanding of power that is. The Bush strategy has undermined not just America’s soft power--its ability to attract support throughout the world--but its hard power as well.

Despite the conservative stereotype, most Democrats and liberals who have opposed the invasion and occupation of Iraq have not done so because of an instinctual pacifism. They have opposed the war because of doubts, first of all, that it was justified as part of the “war on terrorism,” and, second, that it could succeed in establishing a “beacon of democracy” in Baghdad.

Those doubts have, alas, proved to be well-founded. Personally, I would have liked to have been wrong about the war. A multi-ethnic democracy in Iraq would be a good thing. But the war never made sense, and the president’s new strategy is unlikely to turn things around.

In support of his view that Republicans are the power party and Democrats the peace party, Continetti cites polls that show sharp partisan differences on the use of force and other questions. But public opinion surveys tap attitudes toward immediate events on respondents’ minds. The split in public opinion today is an effect of the Bush presidency and the deep partisan divisions that Bush has created. If Al Gore had been president these past six years, we would probably have fought the War in Afghanistan successfully and not invaded Iraq at all. And the partisan differences on the use of force might have been minimal.

The true objective of foreign policy, as Walter Lippmann argued years ago, is neither power nor peace but security. Power and peace may be means toward that end, but neither ought to be confused with the end itself. Peace can never be an absolute requirement, lest aggressors elsewhere in the world know that they can act without fear of retaliation.

Each political party today has a wing with a narrow and distorted view of America’s role in the world. Among the Democrats, there is a pacifist faction on the left, just as among the Republicans there is a faction that favors the aggressive, unilateral use of force. The difference is that the leadership of the Democratic Party is not drawn from the pacifist left, whereas the current occupant of the White House has followed the policies of the unilateralist wing of his own party.

Last night’s speech showed once again that Bush will not be able to end the unfolding disaster in Iraq. That will be left to his successor, who will need not only to bring the soldiers back home, but also to bring American foreign policy back to the hybrid of realism and liberal internationalism that served the country so well in the critical years of the Cold War. How to adapt that outlook to the conditions of our time is the great challenge in America’s foreign relations.

Paul Starr



Blogger Jake - but not the one said...

I come to your site from Tapped. I have been thinking about power, liberalism, illiberalism, socialism, Veblen, Smith, Marx and Galbraith. All prompted by "The Best of Galbraith". So it is opportune that Tapped plugged your site and book.

I ordered the book. I look forward to reading your thoughts on power, liberalism, inequality, etc.



January 15, 2007 3:09 PM  

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