Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Good Guys

A few days ago, Kevin Drum posted about Richard Dearlove, former head of Britain’s MI6, and the Downing Street Memo, citing an Atlantic Monthly blog by James Fallows, reporting on the Aspen Ideas Festival. I encourage you to read Fallows' article - it is short and interesting. What I want to tease out of it, following on my post yesterday about the continuing presence of al Qaeda, is the nature of the conflict the civilized world, and specifically the US portion of it, is engaged in.

Fallows shows Dearlove making a crucial point:
... the Western world, notably the United States, was doomed unless it reclaimed “the moral high ground.” By the end of the Cold War, he said, there was no dispute world wide about which side held the moral high ground. As a professional spy master, he said that reality made it so much easier for him to recruit operatives – they would volunteer to come to him, because they believed in the cause. Therefore, as a matter of pure strategic necessity, the United States needed to behave according to its best traditions, not the exigencies of an open-ended wartime emergency. (I’m paraphrasing a little, but not taking too many liberties.)
This may be the single most important loss of the neocon war - the loss of moral high ground. With the invasion of Iraq, they can't even claim self-defense as Iraq was no threat to us. Invasion of a country for no reason except to demonstrate military might, continual assaults on international conventions to defend human dignity, casual use of methods and practices that were (and are) the favorite tools of dictatorial regimes (kidnapping, torture, surveillance of general populations, use of military for police functions, etc.) ; all of these serve to undermine what may be the most effective weapon in the US arsenal, the knowledge that we are dedicated to doing the right thing. Mistakes can be forgiven. Deliberate policy cannot.

This matters for domestic politics as well. When the grounds for action are the "one-percent" standard and nothing else, then the raw power of the state can be unleashed on any person or group found to fall within that one-percent possibility. When the language of "traitor" is casually used to place valid oversight and opposition into the realm of the criminal, such as the investigative reporting done by the NYT, LA Times, WaPo and other, less dominant news outlets, the foundation of western liberal democracy - the idea of a loyal opposition - is endangered.

Wes Clark in a number of speeches, articles and appearances over the last few years has pointed out something that I think gets to the heart of why it is so hard to hold on to the very real "Good Guy" position. We no longer have a coherent strategy of how to meet this global assault on the existence of western liberal democratic society. In the Cold War, we had containment, deterrence, and a statement of principles. The weapon that worked best was the quality of life, which we could very legitimately say was a result of commitment to our liberal principles. It was this combination that could produce situations like the one cited by Dearlove, the ability to recruit operatives because they believed not only in our might, but even more deeply in our principles. Regardless of the party in power, the US needs to have a strategy to meet the growing threat of anti-modernism, anti-liberal democracy. It is not just al Qaeda who is trying to mobilize these ideas to establish their own power.

What is the price of no strategy and no principles? We're left with might makes right, and whomever has the bigger army makes the rules. We cannot defend the idea of a loyal opposition, and thus of a general commitment to resolve very real conflicts over resources and social goods through political compromise. We are ourselves rudderless, unwilling to rein in the greed-is-good mentality that expands the gaps between the obscenely rich and the rest. We cannot argue convincingly for social justice and the rights of the minority. We lose our distinction from authoritarian regimes, like China, who are very real competitors for resources, markets and hegemony.

The Republican party of Tom DeLay and Dick Cheney, of the royal-wanna-be Bush clan, of the theocrats Dobson and Falwell, and of the profiteers Abramoff and Reed, is explicitly opposed to the principle of a loyal opposition. They will brook no expression of dissent to their desires and wants. This is their core, and the reason why, at heart, they are failing to protect American lives and interests in any substantive way. They don't believe in the foundational principle of our society.

Oddly enough, opposition to them is handicapped by our commitment to our "Good Guy" principle. We cannot demonize. We cannot refuse to at least hear them out. It is the Achilles heel of western liberal democracy, that we will tolerate intolerance. It is not, however, a fatal flaw if we are determined to protect the principle as such.

We are also handicapped by misguided and, in the case of the neocons, deliberately bad faith patriotism. The US, with good reason, is used to thinking of itself as the "Good Guy" in international affairs. The authoritarian right has done what the authoritarian right always does, invert the argument that we become the good guys by doing good into what we do is good because we are the good guys. (Works the same way in religion, of course.) In this reconstruction of a moral principle into a rationalization for power, patriotism is used to transform the good very swiftly into its opposite, an uncaring cruelty.

To reclaim the high ground, which is another way of saying to defend the core organizing principle of our society, we need a strategy that is at once realistic and idealistic - something that deals with the very real physical threat of terrorist movements and also presents to those caught in the middle the reasons why they should choose our side, even when doing so may endanger their lives.

Clark has a short, excellent summation of where the true war on terror occurs: "You see, the problem is that terrorism is spawned by an idea, by a passion, by a commitment. Its mistaken idea but it's an idea. And you don't win it by killing people. You win it by changing people's ideas."

That's how you get to be the Good Guys.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post! Am glad that someone is acknowledging comments by Wes Clark. He is a treasure that the Democratic Party should be turning to more often.

His clear, simple explanations of the underpinnings of our current problems are worth getting out there more by Democrats in DC.