Why Don’t Liberals Care About Foreign Policy?
~by Ryan B.
Now, not to pick on Matt Yglesias, because I don’t think he’s necessarily worse than most of the center-left-type bloggers out there, but he recently put up two posts that rubbed me exactly the wrong way.
In the first one, he details all the ways in which George W. Bush didn’t possess magic “make Congress do what I want” powers. I think these bully pulpit arguments are somewhat absurd, as they rely on both sides arguing with caricatures of each other, but that’s not what interests me here. What interests me is that Yglesias gives us a list of major legislation that was either opposed by the GOP or supported in large part by the Democrats, but the list does not contain three of the most important pieces of legislation of Bush’s first term: the Iraq AUMF, the Homeland Security Act (establishing the Department of Homeland Security), and the PATRIOT Act. He even uses the “Mission Accomplished” picture, and then doesn’t bother to mention which mission was “accomplished”. Which is not to say that these things help or hurt his larger point, just that it’s a glaring omission.
In the second one, he dismisses the Clinton/Obama counterfactuals by talking about all the ways in which the Democratic primary didn’t focus on the issues that would come to dominate the policy agenda over Obama’s first term. Fair enough, as far as that goes. But it also elides the actual thing that divided liberals most about the Clinton/Obama matchup: foreign policy. Obama was the guy who ran on his foreign policy judgment, who bludgeoned Clinton over the head with Iraq. He was the guy who promised to close Gitmo. He then turned out to be the guy who expanded the war in Afghanistan, left Gitmo alone, and argued that the president has the authority to target US citizens for assassination.
All of this is by way of motivating the question in the title of this post. Matt Yglesias is not alone among his cohort in trying to stress all the ways Obama’s domestic policy agenda has been derailed by a belligerent Republican minority hell-bent on using every rule it can to stymie the process. He’s also not alone among his cohort in simply ignoring the fact that Obama isn’t really even trying to pursue a progressive foreign policy agenda. What gives?
We can try to ascribe various motives here. Maybe they’re just team players, emphasizing the ways in which Obama (and his party) are pursuing more liberal goals, deemphasizing the ways in which they aren’t. The important thing is not progressive policy per se, but the continued success of the Democratic Party. A slightly less evil-sounding version of this is that these folks, as the voices of institutional liberalism, see the Democrats as their best hope, and so there is no reason to hamstring the one party that is at least trying to fight for their values some of the time.
It’s also possible that there’s just a shortage of foreign policy minds on the left. These folks are more qualified to talk about domestic policy. Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn are health care policy people; why expect them to talk about foreign policy? You can make similar arguments for any number of people, but it does raise a further question: why is there a shortage? There are a million outlets for liberals to blog semi-prominently (ThinkProgress, Daily Kos, the Atlantic, HuffPo, and so on), and to my knowledge none of them feature prominent foreign policy-minded liberals. Glenn Greenwald, as in most discussions, appears to be the exception that proves the rule.
Or, of course, there’s the possibility that what you see is what you get. Maybe our generalist liberal bloggers don’t talk about Obama’s foreign policy heresies because they basically agree with him. But this leads us back to the same place: why aren’t there outlets for the ones who disagree? Sure, there’s Firedoglake, but their membership in the broader institutions of liberalism is not without some controversy.
Whatever the reason, the strangeness of this lacuna strikes me all the time. As you can probably guess from the beginning of this post, I am incapable of reading pretty much anything about the Obama presidency without inserting “…but what about foreign policy?” at the end. It’s a giant elephant in the room during any liberal discussion about his successes and failures, the GOP’s intransigence, the bully pulpit, or whatever inane micro-criticism will be the flavor of next week. In fact, try this at home: when the next intra-party fight is spurred by some column in the New York Times imploring Obama to do or not do X, try to figure out both why foreign policy blows the argument to pieces and why no one is bothering to talk about that fact.