Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, March 11, 2005


That's what Noam Scheiber seems to have in mind when he suggests that George W. Bush's legacy will be a Democratic majority. He writes:

The Democratic base... consists of a bunch of activist types who love spending time and money on idealistic causes, and who can be convinced to spend it abroad as long as you persuade them the motivation is pure. They believe in things like democracy, human rights, civil society, responsible governance, etc. with every fiber of their being...

Democrats, in other words, have principled reasons for supporting democratization abroad, which, in many cases, even outweigh their intensely partisan dislike for this administration...

Now think about what happens in 2008. Several years of intense democratization rhetoric from the White House, along with what I hope will be some real democratization successes, will have made democratization a winning issue in the country's political center. (To some extent it already had by last year's election.) This seems to me to overwhelmingly favor the Democratic nominee, who can simultaneously excite his base while claiming the new, pro-democratization center...

Andrew Sullivan... suggested [this trend] might have even broader application than foreign policy. For example, immigration reform is another issue liberals basically support and conservatives basically oppose, which Bush could ultimately sell the middle of the country on. Ditto government spending on prescription drugs--even homeland security.

Now, this is an appealing scenario to me. I would love it if the Democrats produced a Tony Blair figure in 2008, particularly if this were combined with continued Republican control of Congress. Of course, the Democrats could have done that this year by nominating Joe Lieberman, who would have got my vote despite my admiration for Bush. Why didn't they? Carol Morse suggests over at Tech Central that the problem is with the proviso that "the motivation is pure," and that the Democrats will lose the center by rejecting intervention abroad when it's linked to the national-security interest. They demand too (in a slovenly, uninformed, unserious way) that the means are pure, which renders them strategically incompetent.

This need for purity of motivation strikes me as a fatal conceit. One of my mottoes is: Everybody's got a mouth to feed. Pretending your motives are pure usually if not always masks hypocrisy. That's not to say people are never motivated by love: they often are. But then they simply forget the distinction between their own interests and those of the one they love. To ask a person who loves whether his motives for loving were pure would not make sense to him. And there's no necessary link between purity of motivation and rightness of policy, by the way. Our motives for supporting Israel are pure. We feel a bond with them. Our support for Israel has tainted us with guilt for wicked things like the settlements. Our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Europe in WWII, were driven in large part by the national-security interest; as a result, they were much more effective, even (or especially) if measured by their democratizing side-effects rather than our national-security gains.

I also wonder whether Scheiber is simply mistaken about the values of the Democratic base. I wrote last fall of John Kerry:

To detail all John Kerry's faults would require much more space than I want to use here, so I'll focus on one: in the long struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, John Kerry is not on the right side. Not that he's on the wrong side. He's on no side.

How do I know? Well, I don't, but I think I have pretty good evidence. A belief in moral equivalence is not the kind that demands to be articulated, and it would be disadvantageous for an American politician to admit to it. So a bit of detective work is needed.

Let's start with what John Kerry said in his Senate testimony in 1971. He told the Senate that the Vietnamese didn't even know the difference between communism and democracy." But that year in Philadelphia he remarked that "Ho Chi Minh is the George Washington of Vietnam." He also "noted Ho Chi Minh's understanding of the United States Constitution and his efforts 'to install the same provisions into the government of Vietnam.'" Actually, George Washington presided over the foundation of a free, constitutional republic, whereas Ho Chi Minh established a repressive, communist dictatorship. It seems, then, that we have a case of projection here: it was John Kerry who didn't know the difference between democracy and communism.

Now I don't really want to hold against John Kerry something he said thirty years ago. It was a fashionable idea at the time, and the heat of the moment, and the passion of youth, and so on. Also, Kerry was a privileged youth, and privilege prevents youths from being trained in the deep link between work and property that is the bedrock of free societies; absent that understanding, sympathies with socialism and communism are often the mark of a generous nature. I might even commend Kerry's lack of chauvinism. But Kerry has had thirty years to watch what kind of state Vietnam has become. He has had thirty years to mull over what part the US withdrawal played in the chain of events leading to the Killing Fields in Cambodia. Where's the introspection? Where's the remorse? Better men than Kerry have gotten contemporary history badly wrong. But better men than Kerry have recognized and repented of their mistakes.

Fast-forward to 1984. The Sandinistas had taken power in Nicaragua by overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship; they nationalized many industries and were moving to the left, becoming increasingly Marxist-Leninist. Reagan, pursuing a policy of containment and of preventing communism from establishing a foothold in the Western Hemisphere, funded the contras who were fighting against the Sandinistas. Kerry negotiated with Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, thus undermining US policy. It didn't seem to bother Kerry that the Sandinistas were getting aid and advice from the Cubans and the Soviets, though Soviet advisors had earlier done much to convert Cuba into a totalitarian state. Eventually a truce was arranged between the contras and the Sandinistas, which led to an election, which the liberal opposition won. Fortunately, unlike in Vietnam, we don't get to see what Nicaragua would be like if Kerry had had his way, but his behavior fits into a worrisome pattern.

But most disturbing is Kerry's failure to express any approval of or enthusiasm for democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is particularly striking because it would probably help Kerry politically to sound supportive of democracy in Iraq. And Kerry is generally willing to flip-flop and re-position himself quite a bit for the sake of political advantage. Yet about democracy in Iraq he is silent. This makes sense, though, when you consider that Kerry's career began with a protest against the use of US force to spread democracy abroad. To oppose the spreading of democracy, the imposition of our values on other cultures, may be considered the premise of Kerry's whole political career.

If the Democrats believe in democracy and human rights and all that, why did they nominate a moral relativist like Kerry? Because moral relativism is a core Democratic value too, and one that seems to trump their abstract attachment to democracy and human rights etc. In short, I would love to see the Democrats nominate a Tony Blair (or Joe Lieberman) figure. And John Kerry stands as the symbol of all the historical baggage they will have to cut loose in order to do so.


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