Liberals In Search of a Foreign Policy: Imperialism as democracy?

is very interesting watching the liberals seek a foreign policy
position that will differentiate them from the conservatives. After
all, they can’t just go along with Bush, who, as Michael Tomasky
acknowledges in his chapter “Between Cheney and Chomsky”
in George Packer’s edited volume The
Fight Is for Democracy
, is throwing aside all international
agreements and restraint and has announced “a prescription
for empire.” Of course most of the liberals went along with
Bush on the Afghanistan attack, but they began to splinter in the
months leading up to the Iraq invasion, some like Paul Berman favored
it, others liked the idea, but only with UN sanction and collective
action. Some didn’t approve it on any basis. 

has the solution: liberals can fight for “democracy” abroad
as the basis of U.S. foreign policy. This is the theme of the Packer
volume, as suggested by its title, with Tomasky’s lengthy chapter
immediately following the introduction by Packer, and with Berman
providing the concluding chapter, which features his Bush-compatible
vision of the struggle between Islamic totalitarianism and democracy. 

never explains why we should take on the project of fighting for
democracy abroad, as opposed to leaving foreigners to work out their
own destinies, concentrating on building democracy at home, and
diverting resources from the military-industrial complex to pressing
needs here. Tomasky advances the project as a political
strategy for the Democrats, who need a foreign policy that will
prevent the conservatives from effectively tagging liberals and
Democrats (and Tomasky merges the two) as wimps and incapable of
defending our “national security.” So the power structure
dictates an interventionary foreign policy and the problem for the
liberals is to construct their own distinctive rationale for interventionism
that is presumably compatible with liberal values and will not be
“a prescription for empire.” 

kind of idiocy arises from the inability of liberals to question
the basic structures of power. They can’t challenge
the immense military establishment and a forward foreign policy
because these are built-in to a political-economic order that they
take for granted. This power structure has tightened its control
over society and badly weakened democracy at home. In his introduction
Packer acknowledges that growing corporate power and inequality
has caused “money and its influence [to] claim a greater and
greater share of political power,” so that “for thirty
years or more the musculature of democracy has atrophied, culminating
in 2000 with a stolen presidential election.” This suggests
that the big challenge for U.S. liberals should be establishing
a real democracy at home, rather than looking for places abroad
where their own atrophied democracy can bring a supposedly good
one to somebody else by military intervention. 

other absurdity here is the pretense that the Democrats are potential
vehicles for this policy of intervention-for-democracy. Common sense
and history tell us that the huge U.S. military apparatus was not
put in place for do-gooder purposes, but rather to serve those same
business and financial interests that Packer concedes have obtained
“a greater and greater share of political power.” The
Democrats draw their campaign funding from those same interests
and have become more conservative as their dependency on these funders
has increased and as the corporate media has pressed them away from
“populism.” Can anyone but a fool or self-deceiver believe
that these admittedly strengthening power interests are going to
accept a policy of spending large resources to bring democracy
to the benighted, as it shrivels at home and contrary to systematic
historical practice up to the present?

we must recognize that it is always possible to rationalize attacking
some target on the grounds of dedication to enhancing democracy.
Most, if not all, countries have very imperfect democracies, quite
a few don’t even have a nominal democracy, and many
countries have dissident ethnic or other sub-national groups who
feel put upon and whose cause can be taken up in the alleged
interest of democracy or human rights; and the dissident group can
be funded and encouraged to rebel more forcibly to justify external
intervention in an alleged good cause. So the “democracy”
objective can easily be fitted to serve the same ends as a strictly
geopolitical or economic objective, or even to play a “wag
the dog” political function. Thus a “liberal” like
Clinton can attack Yugoslavia on the alleged grounds of principle
while simultaneously servicing Turkish ethnic cleansing of the Kurds
and appeasing our good friends in Indonesia as they upset
the UN-sponsored referendum in East Timor—and the liberals
at home are pleased. They argue that it is better to have selective
humanitarian intervention than none at all. They easily swallow
claims of humanitarian purpose and effects that are fraudulent
(as in the Balkans wars). They fail to see that the claims of
humanitarian purpose in case A provide a cover for supporting inhumanitarianism
in cases B, C, and D. After all, they say, we can’t do everything,
while they ignore the technical ease of simply terminating support
for our goons of convenience. 

the democracy project will be able to serve as a cover for an imperialist
projection of power in the same way as stopping communism did for
the Cold War era, for Democratic and Republican leaders alike. Both
have regularly engaged in foreign policy actions that served corporate
and geopolitical interests, very often at the expense of democracy.
In their weakened, more corporate-dependent position today, there
is a snowball-in-hell’s chance that the Democrats will alter
their traditional pattern. 

devotes much space in his chapter to an attempted showing that liberal
leaders (Democrats) have been better in the foreign policy arena
than the conservatives (Republicans), so that presumably getting
them into power would make the democracy project feasible. He argues
at length that Lyndon Johnson didn’t want to fight the Vietnam
War, but was driven to it by the belief that if he withdrew he would
be vilified and suffer electoral defeat. So it was really
a conservatives’ war: they pushed him into escalating and invading
Vietnam. Tomasky supports this by a few quotations of Johnson speaking
with friends in private saying the war was a losing proposition
and that political considerations forced his hand. 

proof is worse than puny. Johnson made hundreds of statements that
fluctuated with his mood. The crucial fact about Johnson is that
he did escalate the war. It was his war and whether he was doing
it because he believed in it or for political reasons is beside
the point. Tomasky fails to recognize that if a liberal Democrat
will go to war contrary to his/her beliefs for political reasons,
this condemns him/her even more than if he/she did it based on true
belief. If fear of conservative backlash dominates policy decisions,
why should we want a liberal Democrat in office? But Tomasky also
misses the fact that Johnson was surrounded by liberal advisers
who urged him on. Joseph Califano claims, “All Kennedy’s
top advisers save one pressed him [Johnson] to escalate more”
(The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson). This was liberals
in power making these decisions. We may note also that it was Nixon
who eventually withdrew from Vietnam, not Kennedy or Johnson
(and that it was Eisenhower, not Truman, who ended the Korean

also ignores the fact that Lyndon Johnson invaded the Dominican
Republic in 1965 to prevent the return of the democratically-elected
Juan Bosch; that his Administration supported the Colonels’
takeover of Greece in 1967, displacing a democratic government there
with a regime of torture; and that he helped Suharto impose
a military dictatorship on Indonesia in 1965, the liberals
in power celebrating this takeover and massacre of perhaps
a million civilians, an event described by James Reston as “a
gleam of light in Asia” and by Robert McNamara as “a dividend”
from our investment in military aid to Indonesia. 

also supported the military overthrow of the elected government
of Brazil in 1964, quickly expressing his “warmest good
wishes” to the coup leaders and congratulating them that the
matter had been settled “within the framework of constitutional
democracy.” U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, and later, president
of Johns Hopkins University, Lincoln Gordon, described the new regime
as “totally democratic” and the imposition of
the military dictatorship as “the single most decisive
victory for freedom in the mid-twentieth century.” During the
liberal Kennedy and Johnson administrations there were 18 turnovers
of government in Latin America, 11 of them displacing elected governments
with dictatorships. 

puts a similar positive gloss on other Democrats from Truman onward,
with comparable selectivity and bias. On Truman’s murderous
counterinsurgency war in Greece that killed several hundred thousand
people and established a right-wing dictatorship run by important
remnants of the World War II Nazi collaboration, Tomasky
says “it probably did save Greece from becoming a Communist
state, which was handy for Americans and rather more than that for
the Greeks.” It doesn’t bother Tomasky that we didn’t
allow the Greeks to decide this for themselves (Stalin was honoring
Yalta and not intervening in Greece at all); and as noted earlier,
after the Greeks finally succeeded in ousting the U.S.-sponsored
collaborationist regime in 1967, another liberal Democrat, Lyndon
Johnson, supported a right-wing military coup, again on the spurious
claim of saving Greece from becoming a Communist state. Tomasky
of course does not mention that it was under Truman in 1947 that
the United States began to organize and subvert the new democratic
regime in Guatemala, timed, as Blanche Wiesen Cook has shown, with
the regime’s recognition of the rights of workers to form unions. 

argues that the Cold War was righteous, although it did have bad
features and its rhetoric led us into the Vietnam War. But it “contained
an idea about liberal democracy that was grounded in Enlightenment
principles and tried to bring those principles to life in the institutions
it built.” So liberals can view the late 1940s as the beginning
“of a struggle on behalf of defending and spreading
the values of democracy.” As in Greece and Guatemala? As in
Thailand, where the Truman administration in 1947 supported “the
first pro-Axis dictator to regain power after the war?” As
in the Kennedy-Johnson era support and underwriting of the
rise of the National Security State in Latin America? 

brings me to Tomasky’s juxtaposition of the two extremists,
with Tomasky and his allies situated “Between Cheney and Chomsky.”
Tomasky says that “liberals must make a clear break with Chomskyism,”
which represents a worldview that suggests “equivocation about
America’s capacity as a moral force,” but also involves
“a matter of adapting to the world as it now is.”
On these points Tomasky is clearly much closer to Cheney than to
Chomsky. Cheney doesn’t equivocate on U.S. capacity as a moral
force; he would certainly agree with Tomasky that bringing democracy
everywhere is at least one of our objectives in force projection,
and the Bush government has moved further on that point, making
liberation our alleged chief objective in Iraq. Tomasky is explicit
that the aim of spreading democracy would have been a reasonable
basis for attacking Iraq. Cheney and his associates have in the
past acknowledged geopolitical and economic grounds
for the attack, and of course in the runup to the war constructed
a series of lies in their effort to gain public and UN support.
Tomasky liberals in power would have been less open and crass:
while gaining support and doing what the power structure and main
lobbies wanted done for their own reasons, the liberals would have
focused more intently on democracy and human rights. 

Packer, Berman, Gitlin, and company hate Chomsky for many reasons.
One is that he so effectively undercuts their claims with facts
and coherent analyses, which is why they always mention him only
in hit-and-run attacks, never confronting his arguments. They also
often lie in these attacks. Thus in his only other mention of Chomsky,
Tomasky says, “The first reaction to September 11 was easy,
at least for everyone this side of Noam Chomsky. A country is not
only justified in answering such an attack but has a moral obligation
to do so.” The implicit lie is the claim that Chomsky didn’t
think the attack had to be answered: he did, but against the attackers
and their direct supporters and within the framework of international
law. Tomasky slithers over such matters and, like many liberals,
he follows the Bush party line according to which international
law is for somebody else.

has unearthed and used in his writings internal U.S. planning
documents that have shown U.S. intention to control and dominate
in pursuit of U.S. economic interests that fly in face of any notion
of democracy (see On Power and Ideology, Lecture One). The
Grand Area concept developed during World War II spoke explicitly
about the need to arrange things via the use of power to serve the
needs of the U.S. economy, with Latin American countries (among
others) to be kept in a dependent and raw materials
supplier mode. Later National Security Council documents were quite
clear on the threat of “nationalistic regimes…[seeking]
immediate improvement in the low living standards of the masses,
with the result that most Latin American governments are under intense
domestic political pressures to increase production and to diversify
their economies.” These internal documents make clear that
such concern for the masses and pressures from those masses
are a threat and they also make clear that the vast military aid
and training programs developed for Latin America, that produced
such a great “dividend” in Indonesia, were designed as
a political counterweight to these democratic threats. 

documents and Chomsky’s analysis make Tomasky’s conventional
clichés about the noble ends of Cold War liberals look like
the ideological baloney they really are. His documentation on the
rise of the National Security State in Latin America and its regimes
of torture, regularly supported by Democratic as well as
Republican leaders, is also hard to swallow and impossible to confute,
so Tomasky and company simply ignore these and rely on strands of
compatible evidence, frequently misrepresented as well as decontextualized
(as in the Truman-Greece case). But one conclusion is possible:
Chomsky refuses to ignore or apologize for U.S. sponsorship
of violently undemocratic states while Tomasky and his colleagues
in “The Fight for Democracy” offer de facto apologetics
for this sponsorship that departs a bit from the pursuit of Enlightenment

et al. also hate Chomsky because he is a critic of Israel
and of U.S. support for Israeli policy. Tomasky says that
one of the great accomplishments of U.S. Cold War policy
was that “it created a democratic Jewish state.” This
exhausts his discussion of the issue. But that Jewish state
was created in a massive process of ethnic cleansing and that ethnic
cleansing continues with U.S. support (opposed by virtually all
the rest of the world) up to today. This is approved ethnic
cleansing, supported by both major political parties in the United
States, and the ongoing violations of international law and elemental
morality do not bother Tomasky and company. Furthermore, Israel’s
democracy is very constrained within Israel and the notion
of a “Jewish state,” rather than a state of all
its citizens, should bother believers in democracy, but Berman and
company are greatly bothered only by the notion of an “Islamic
state.” The occupation is also not only illegal and ruthlessly
racist, it obviously violates all democratic standards. So here
again, the liberal “Fight for Democracy” turns out to
be limited and politicized in accord with seriously non-Enlightenment

on the domestic scene, whereas Chomsky has stood steadfastly for
a democratization of increasingly concentrated corporate
structures and media and has called for grass-roots organization
and a revitalized labor movement to move the country toward a real
democracy, Tomasky and his associates are more complacent. As noted,
Packer mentions the increasingly plutocratic character of the political
system and its atrophy, but neither he nor his fellow liberals seem
very urgent about structural repair. They have spent far more time
and energy in attacking Chomsky, Nader, the left, and protest movements
than in writing about and organizing for ways to move from plutocracy
to democracy. 

are preoccupied with getting Democrats in office and give the impression
that that will suffice, despite the constraints now placed on who
can run and what the victor can do. Tomasky does not equivocate
on the “moral force” that a Democrat would bring to his
democracy-enhancing project even under present plutocratic conditions.
He seems to believe, like Berman, that the Bush administration,
despite its imperial project, is also exercising a moral influence
abroad. But we need liberal Democrats in office to carry out the
democracy project effectively. In short, the “Fight for Democracy”
is not here at home, despite the atrophy. Here it is only a fight
to get Democrats in office and fend off the left critiques that
may impede our pursuit of democracy elsewhere—an aim
that neither Democratic or Republican leaders have ever pursued
in the past.

Edward S. Herman
is an economist, author, and media analyst.