Monday, December 13, 2004

The Little American and a Liberating Vision

They all seem to share the opinion that traditional American Liberalism is inclined to get itself entangled in foolish interventions because of its simplistic acceptance of a myth of what I called 'the American homunculus'. I.e., the idea is that everyone on planet earth is, in essence, an American. Thus, the primary political/military goal must simply be to strip away the constraints that prevent this true essence from finding its expression. When you do, it is assumed, the 'little American' in everyone will rise to the surface. -- Morgan @ Chronicles

Zizek has encapsulated the underlying ideology of liberal messianism very succinctly: Liberal’s (and American’s in general) believe that inside every person on earth is a ‘little American’ waiting to get out. Because there is a little American waiting to get out of every person, our attempt to ‘remake them’ is really an attempt to bring out what they most truly are. – Steve Levine
@ Chronicles

Over at the Chronicles there have been several discussion to the concept of “the little American” (quotes above). From the context in which this phrase has been used, it seems to be a negative reference to the idea that there is a universal desire for freedom or least to live a life free of oppression. I might be wrong in assuming this, because Morgan clearly states in an earlier post “One can simply point to what does exist. And what does exist in the Middle East right now are many good people who would like to see more Democracy and representation in their governments.” I am a bit confused by what exactly is being meant by “little American.” But regardless of the exact definition it seems to imply a strong hint of skepticism and/or cynicism about establishing democracy in the Middle East, which I think has characterized much of the left/liberal/democrats response to War on Terror and the War in Iraq. I think a good dose of realism about what is currently going on in Iraq is important, but I think it is this negativism, this lack of a positive response or vision for fighting terrorism, for establishing democracy, for promoting a liberal foreign policy that is at the heart of Beinhart’s critique of current liberal policy.

In my own idealistic view, I am not envisioning an Iraqi/Islamic democracy that mirrors Western secular democracy and includes SUV-driving fans of Desperate Housewives, but that is distinctive to Arabic culture and the Islamic religion, and yet recognizes individual freedom. There was a time when the left would have not been so cynical about such ideas. I don’t recall in my idealist college days of the late 80’s the left claiming that we should be cautious about ending apartheid, that such a project should be abandoned because we are assuming black South Africans are “little Americans.” I thought the left believed the that the restrictions of apartheid needed to be stripped away so that black South Africans could be free to realize their own destiny. Why is it so different for Iraq or Iran? There are of course religious and cultural differences that are factors. And there are political differences. South African blacks had both a charismatic leader, Nelson Mandela, to help unify them and a very visible pro-liberation movement within the country.

However, there was a time when the left and liberals were passionate about the ideas of democracy and liberation of oppressed people. How has that turned so quickly (or at least seemed to turn so quickly) to cynicism, skepticism, and isolationism? Is it a new appreciation for the realpoltic approach and an abandonment of idealism? Is it that the we just can’t bear to agree with W. and the neocons?

I am not saying that we abandon realistic assessments of the situation on the ground, but I think what liberals are missing is some of the passion for liberation that once infused its thinking about South Africa and Latin America.

Many of the Iranian dissident sites I have found, as well as many of the Iraqi blogs I have found are not posting articles, and columns from or links to The Nation, David Corn, The Progressive, Mother Jones, or liberal blogs. But are linking to The National Review, Andrew Sullivan, and The Wall Street Journal. This is far from a scientific or scholarly analysis but I find it indicative of liberals failure to engage in a serious dialogue on liberation and democracy. Maybe I am wrong, and if so I would love to be corrected and shown some resources, articles, etc. that are defining an alternative vision.

Let’s face it, we are stuck with Iraq. At this point, especially now that the U.S. elections are over, WMDs and bad intelligence don’t matter much to the situation in Iraq. We can now either chose to pull out, which I think would certainly lead to civil war and a complete collapse of security resulting in a terrorist haven, or stay and do what we can to establish democracy, which at this point means ensuring security, rebuilding Iraq, and establishing the “institutions and infrastructures that support (to quote Morgan at Chronicles)” democracy.

I am no expert on Iran, Iraq, or the Middle East, but my vision of a liberal foreign policy would not only include a military component similar to that laid out by Beinhart, but also include nonmilitary aspects that focus on developing the “institutions and infrastructures” of democracy. Something I think the Bush administration has failed to do.

For Iraq, why not put liberal fund raising skills to work and raise money to create and support democratic institutions in Iraq – money that could help create political parties, news organizations, political journals; that could help rebuild schools, libraries, and universities.

I am not sure whether Spirit of America is liberal or conservative, though given the military bent I would say conservative, but frankly I don’t care. The projects it is supporting—from helping develop Arabic blogging tools to acquiring library books for children—seem like efforts that transcend US political categories and are designed to help Iraqi people. At this point, if we really want to help the Iraqi people, we would focus our energies on similar efforts – these efforts can both be direct or indirect (using the political process and media resources to ensure that aid money earmarked for Iraq is used properly and to encourage the UN and other nations to do more in Iraq).

These suggestions may seem naïve and limited, but they are meant to steer liberal conversation away from harping on the sidelines toward positive action. Considering liberals do not control power in Washington, I think they have to both develop a theory of the use of force applicable to the war on terror and actively engage in nation building efforts in Iraq. This will renew liberals commitment to its anti-toleration, pro-democracy roots.

I see similar opportunities in Iran, which I plan to discuss in an upcoming post.


At 1:30 AM, Blogger gaw3 said...

Awesome post! I have been interested for a while now about how trust could be rebuilt between people on the left and the military. I think a starting point has got to be a positive foreign policy vision of the sort that's being thrashed out in your links. I don't remember GW Bush exactly commenting on Kerry but "a plan is not a list of complaints."
I hope to link over later today. I'm not sure what I could add!


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