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May 24, 2008

Soft Power, Smart Power, Principled Power

Recently, there's been a debate among some liberal writers about the problems with the term "soft power," which lends itself to misunderstanding as being "soft" in the sense of weak and ineffectual. Others suggest "smart power," which may well be a better term for political leaders to use, and still others prefer "principled power."

If we set aside the question of what's a good slogan and instead consider what's a good conception of power, then I think "principled power" is on the right track. It implies not just that power ought to be used in a principled way, but that the power of a liberal society grows directly out of its principles -- first of all, out of its principles of constitutional constraint (the idea that constitutionally limited power can be more powerful than unlimited power); and second, out of its principles of equality and social inclusion.

The experience of recent years ought to reinforce those convictions. Bush hasn't trespassed constitutional limits with marvelous results; he's degraded American power in both senses of the word "degrade." And a more inclusive conception of our interests (inclusive internationally as well as at home) has a far greater chance to achieve the ends Americans want. This is why I argue in Freedom's Power for a liberalism that takes power (as well as rights and justice) seriously. Among the various conceits of conservatism is that it alone knows power, when it's actually failed on the very ground it sees as its own. There has been no better time to make that case than this election year.

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March 9, 2007

The Pullout Deadline Debate

From a new column at Prospect Online:

The strange thing about the debate in Congress over a deadline for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq is that the objective political interests of the two parties are the reverse of their stated positions.

Republicans are facing a disaster in the 2008 election if the Iraq War continues unabated. But if the Democratic Congress ties the president's hands and forces a pullout, the Republicans would have an excuse for the war's failure, and their party could move on to focus the 2008 election on other issues. If GOP leaders could act on pure political self-interest, they would be secretly encouraging just enough defections by their own members of Congress to pass legislation requiring a pullout.

Conversely, if Democrats succeed in setting a deadline, they would be taking some responsibility upon themselves for what happens in the wake of a pullout, and they would lose the advantage of focusing the 2008 election on the war. The Democrats' political interest lies in demonstrating a determination to end the war without actually passing legislation to require a pullout.

For the time being, the Republicans are nearly united in playing their appointed roles as lemmings on a fatal march to the '08 precipice. They have sufficient votes in the Senate to stop any pullout requirement, and there is always the backup of a presidential veto. All the major Republican presidential candidates have lined up in support of the war and even of the "surge." But what will they call for after that? Like chess players caught in a trap, they seem to have no good options for their next moves.

The Democrats, in contrast, are in the fortunate position of doing both what they believe is right and what serves their political interest—trying to end the war, but at this point without the votes in Congress that could actually cut off the requisite funds and authority.

For Democrats, the big danger in this situation is the illusion that a pullout from Iraq could end our troubles in the region. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. Al-Qaeda grows in strength in nearby provinces of Pakistan. Iran has become more powerful and belligerent, and there is a risk of a larger regional Shia-Sunni war. Public opinion polls are registering high levels of approval for Democratic proposals in Congress partly on the basis of a mistaken impression that if we leave Iraq, we can put the whole mess behind us.

But that won't be possible. One of the reasons against invading Iraq was that the war would divert resources from the fight against al-Qaeda and perversely increase the risks of terrorism. One of the reasons for disentangling ourselves from Iraq is to pursue the fight against al-Qaeda more effectively. That is why a pullout has to be part of a more comprehensive diplomatic and military plan—which, barring a miraculous turnaround before then, only a new president elected in 2008 will be able to carry out.

Paul Starr

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February 23, 2007

War and liberalism

I've got a new essay, "War and Liberalism," just out in The New Republic.

The main argument of the piece is that historically liberal government "has turned out to be stronger and more effective in war than its adversaries have expected, and ... more resilient under the pressures of war than liberals themselves have feared."

One of the main reasons that democracies have a better record in war than dictatorships do is that democracies rarely begin wars that they cannot win, and win quickly According to the historical pattern, the Iraq War should never have happened. Why it did and why it has gone so badly and done so much damage to America's interests are all immensely revealing about what is wrong with the conservatism of the Bush era.

Here is the concluding paragraph:
There is a different way of thinking about power from the one that conservatives in the Bush era have championed, and that way of thinking grows out of the liberal tradition and historical experience. The crucial historical lesson is not that liberal principles and public debate must give way in war for the sake of national defense: constitutionally limited power has proved to be more powerful than unlimited power. Democratic partnerships at home and abroad are critical to the nation's strength. America has risen to its current position partly on the basis of these ideas, and staying true to them would be a victory in itself.

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February 14, 2007

An Olive Branch to Former Hawks

Many Democrats and liberals are now engaged in an unproductive argument about whether those who originally supported the Iraq War but have since changed their minds ought to make an abject confession of their error. The particular focus of this controversy at the moment is Senator Hillary Clinton, who has blamed Bush for misleading Congress and the country and insisted that if Congress had known then what it knows now, there never would have been a vote to authorize the Iraq War in the first place.

I opposed the war from the beginning in the pages of The American Prospect, but I see no point in berating the war’s early supporters and demanding a public confession. During the lead-up to the war, none of us could be certain whether or not Saddam Hussein had a program to build weapons of mass destruction. Nor could we know for sure the difficulties that would confront an American invasion and occupation.

I had supported the Gulf War in 1991 as well as the war in Afghanistan in 2001, and I might well have become one of the liberal hawks who supported the Iraq War—except that I found too many reasons to be skeptical of Bush’s claims and too many reasons to believe that invading Iraq would lead to disaster.

It turned out those suspicions were correct. But it is now time to wind down the argument about who took what position in the past and how members of Congress voted on the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. Remember that Congress was asked to vote on that resolution as the administration was supposedly trying to work through the United Nations to avoid war. As a result, anyone who voted against the resolution might have appeared to be undermine the negotiating leverage of the United States and thereby making war more likely.

The blame for the fiasco in Iraq ought to rest squarely on George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and the conservative foreign-policy intellectuals--both neoconservatives and “vulcans”--who were directly responsible for it.

Those who now recognize the war as a mistake ought to focus their energies on how to bring it to an expeditious conclusion.


January 16, 2007

Reclaiming the idea of American greatness

What is liberalism’s relationship to America--to its traditions and to the vision of the United States as a great nation that can be a force for good in the world? For the past several years, these questions have been at the heart of a debate among American liberals about how they see themselves and what they stand for.

In a recent article in the Nation arguing that liberals need not just intelligent policies but a compelling story of America, Bill Moyers calls my forthcoming book Freedom’s Power “a profound and stirring call for liberals to reclaim the idea of America’s greatness as their own.”

Moyers is alluding to a theme that runs literally from the opening to the close of the book. In the first paragraph of the Introduction, I write: “The proposition that each of us has a right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ remains as good a definition as anyone has ever come up with of liberalism’s first principle and America’s historic promise.” And the final paragraph ends:
The story of America is of a nation that has grown greater and stronger by becoming more diverse and inclusive and extending the fruits of liberty more widely among its people. American liberals do not have to invent something new or import a philosophical tradition from abroad. They have only to reclaim the idea of America’s greatness as their own.

The idea that liberal purposes are closely tied to “the promise of American life” has been a recurring theme through American history. The leaders of the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the New Frontier—TR and Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and John F. Kennedy, as well as many other public figures—conceived and framed their ideas about the future with a keen sense of how to ground them in America’s traditions and build on its achievements. And not all of our politicians have forgotten how to do this: Barack Obama’s June 4, 2005 speech at Knox College is a brilliant and inspiring contemporary example.

But for a long time American liberalism has seemed to distance itself from a vision of America as a great nation. In the opening salvo of his effort to formulate a national greatness conservatism—a speech at the Library of Congress, published in The Weekly Standard in March 1997 as “A Return to National Greatness: A Manifesto for a Lost Creed”—David Brooks implicitly threw down a challenge to liberals.

“For much of this century,” Brooks wrote, “liberals possessed high aspirations and a spirit of historical purpose. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the New Deal, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier—these were efforts to aim high, to accomplish some grand national endeavor. Liberals tried to use American preeminence as a way to shape the world, fight communism, put a man on the moon. But then came the 1970s, and suddenly liberalism became a creed emphasizing limits. Small became beautiful. A radical egalitarianism transformed liberalism, destroying hierarchies and discrediting elitist aspirations. An easygoing nihilism swept through academia, carrying away any sense of a transcendent order.”

Brooks was so dismissive of contemporary liberalism that he said that it should not even be expected to propose any vision of national greatness. And he criticized conservatives too for being so hostile to the federal government that they were unable to conceive of it as an instrument to carry out important national missions, which historically had included “settling the West, building the highway system, creating the post-war science faculties, exploring space, waging the Cold War, and disseminating American culture throughout the world.”

There was nothing in Brooks’s article, nor in a September 1997 Wall Street Journal op-ed with William Kristol, that pointed to foreign affairs, much less war, as the avenue for reasserting American greatness. Indeed, Brooks was a little vague about the mission he had in mind: “It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself,” he wrote, “as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness. The first task of government is to convey a spirit of confidence and vigor that can then spill across the life of the nation.”

The fate of national greatness conservatism shows that, in fact, it does matter “what great task government sets for itself.” With Brooks and especially Kristol cheering him on, George W. Bush has certainly set a great task for America: promoting democracy in Iraq and throughout the world. Rather than inspiring “confidence and vigor,” however, the Iraq War has backfired against the nation, his own presidency, and the Republican Party.

Originally, national greatness conservatism was identified with John McCain and his campaign for the 2000 presidential nomination. But the very notion of a national greatness conservatism—like McCain’s own political career—has now become inextricably linked with Bush’s disastrous, missionary foreign policy.

In using the phrase “national greatness,” I am not suggesting that liberals ought to adopt a belligerent nationalism or the aggressive promotion of democracy favored by neoconservatives and some liberal hawks. In a 2005 TNR article, “The Case for National Greatness Liberalism,” Noam Scheiber writes that Democrats have to “convince voters to trust them on national security,” which I agree with. But Scheiber then goes on to say, “We’re not just talking about calling for a larger military, but something dramatic to signify the shift—like a plan to strike an Iranian or North Korean nuclear facility if need be.” The last thing Democrats ought to do, however, is to show that they can be just as reckless as the Republicans have been in starting wars.

Other liberals have responded more sensibly to the intellectual challenge of restoring greater energy and ambition to American liberalism. In a short 2005 book, Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It (Princeton University Press), Alan Wolfe distinguishes between two ways of thinking about common purposes. On the one hand have been those who have been deeply distrustful of national power and conceived of a good society primarily in local and voluntary terms. On the other are those who have embraced the nation as a positive force and conceived of America as capable of advancing freedom and equality both at home and in the world.

My view of liberalism falls into the second category. I believe that liberals ought to aim high: to set ambitious goals in reforming our society and in seeking to uphold liberal values internationally. That requires a strong and capable national government, bearing in mind, however, that America achieves its strength partly through the protection of our liberties.

Conservative leadership has not only recklessly plunged us into a failed war but weakened those liberties at home and done incalculable damage to America’s good name in the world. And it has utterly defaulted on the problems of climate change, rising inequality, stagnant or declining incomes for the middle class and the poor, increased health costs, and a long-term fiscal crisis threatening programs Americans want to preserve and seeming to rule out new measures in their common interest.

A new leadership will need to confront those problems instead of denying them. At home its program ought to concentrate on creating a shared prosperity and restoring the respect for our freedoms, the integrity of our democracy, and the competence of our government that the Republicans have abused or neglected. Internationally, it ought to rebuild a broad democratic partnership with other nations based on mutual recognition of our shared fate and common interests in prosperity, security, and survival. The Republicans have had their shot at a “return to greatness,” and they have blown it. But it would be a mistake for Democrats to settle for a politics of small ambitions. Liberalism has provided the high aspirations that have galvanized America in the past. America needs that leadership again, and the rest of the world needs that leadership from America.

Paul Starr

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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