Criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the current Libyan crisis, following hard on the heels of similar criticisms of its approach to the dramas of Tunisia and Egypt, has tended to focus on the president’s personality and his alleged incapacity for global leadership. There’s doubtless an element of truth in this, but the problem is likely far worse. The dithering, indecisiveness, feckless multilateralism, and lack of strategic vision that have been on sad display in recent weeks are the logical, if very dangerous, by-products of a cluster of ideas that have come to dominate the Democratic foreign-policy establishment.
Those ideas have a precise and definable origin: They first emerged when the New Left challenged the Truman/Acheson/Kennedy/(Scoop) Jackson Democratic consensus during the Vietnam War. In softer forms, they then became the new orthodoxy among Democratic foreign-policy mandarins like Cyrus Vance and Warren Christopher. Despite the fiascos to which these ideas led during the Carter and Clinton administrations (cf. the Iran hostage crisis and the American inability to prevent genocide in the Balkans), and despite the efforts of some in the old Democratic Leadership Council to change the intellectual template of Democratic foreign-policy thinking, these bad ideas have shown a remarkable resilience. They remain operative at all levels of the Obama foreign-policy team; they explain a great deal of what otherwise seems inexplicably stupid over the past several weeks; and they must be challenged by any 2012 Republican presidential candidate serious about American leadership in the world.
In briefest compass, eight ideas have shaped the foreign-policy perspective of today’s Democratic establishment. Different leaders will emphasize one or another of these ideas, and circumstances will dictate the ways in which these ideas are applied to real-world situations. However, anyone wanting to dig into the subsoil of the incompetence, ineptness, and just plain bad judgment currently on display had better be prepared to reckon with these eight ideas — and with the fact that people in power actually swear fealty to them.
1. Conflict is not the normal political phenomenon that it was assumed to be for millennia. Conflict is an aberration, and if there is conflict between nations or blocks of nations, or within nations, it must be because of some palpable injustice, the remedying of which will assuage the conflict in question and restore the natural order, which is peace. The idea that conflict results from the inevitable clash of interests and values in a plural world — which political thinkers from Augustine to Acheson assumed — is in fact not true. Moreover, the insights of psychology and psychiatry are of special utility in understanding the character of political conflict.
2. Peace is not a matter of a rightly ordered and law-governed political community; rather, “peace” is a state of mind that can be willed into being. The classic notion of the peace of order, which dominated Western thinking about the politics of nations from The City of God through the drafting of the Charter of the United Nations, is far too beholden to antediluvian ideas about the importance of power. There will be peace if all men learn to get along, and the redressing of what those who appear to be our foes deem to be their grievances will help hasten that day. In other words, peace is not a matter of the use of law and politics to resolve conflicts in an equitable way; peace is a matter of mutual understanding, to which structures of power are often an impediment.
3. The notion that the United States should actively seek to shape world politics is pernicious, not for the old isolationist reason that it’s bad for us, but because we tend to be bad for the world. Thus the United States should withdraw from the leadership role it has played in world affairs since 1941, scale down its military commitments, eventually end its work as global sheriff, and act as one among equals, not first among equals, in the affairs of nations. This will be good for the world, and it will keep in check that in-born American aggressiveness that led to debacles such as Vietnam.