I receive hundreds of emails each day, a volume that is not that unusual and is probably experienced also by many readers of this website. As I have been actively involved in the debate over national security policies since 2003, much of the material I receive is partisan in nature. It’s a regular smorgasbord but not always nourishing. As Monty Python once upon a time might have put it, the spotlight is on loonies, a tendency that has increased as more and more Americans begin to lose their moorings after becoming frustrated over the inability to change the direction of their government no matter whom one supports or votes for.
This has driven many people around the bend seeking for new ways to express dissent. People that I once upon a time respected in the Ron Paul movement are now giving away “Second Amendment” semi-automatic rifles and shotguns in a desperate scheme to raise money while libertarians twist and squirm as they try to reconcile their selfishness and lack of any sense of community with “freedom.” Traditional conservatives, meanwhile, have largely been mugged by the neocons in terms of both policies and access to the political class and are resentful as hell over it but continue to go on their way timidly while hoping desperately that someone or something will restore them to power. Some believe that Jesus will do it when he comes around for a second visit. And then there are the true blue loyal Democrats that surface in The Nation, Salon and Daily Kos who somehow can speak no ill of America’s first black president Barack Obama even when he kills American citizens without any due process.
Inevitably all of these strident voices that share common ground in that they are normally engaged in asking for money otherwise speak at cross purposes. But there is one critically important group I sometimes find difficult to comprehend. That is the self-designated “progressives,” which is a relatively new political nom de guerre even though it has quite different nineteenth century roots. In the United States today’s progressives used to be called liberals until the “L-word” was somehow construed pejoratively during the 1980s. In a political environment in which no one wants to have anything to do with anyone else progressives are nevertheless exceptional in their tendency to speak only to themselves, possibly because they are actually more ideological than other political alignments. They buy into a whole fixed package of ideas and principles and can be very morally smug about what they claim to believe. Is there a progressive who does not embrace multiculturalism? Illegal immigration? Bilingual education? Affirmative action? Big government welfare programs? LGBT rights? “Choice”? Globalism?
To be sure, my own recent experience with conservative and libertarian groups has been little better. Once upon a time, however, it was not so. When the Bush Administration was still doing its warlike strut and everyone was onboard the occupation of Iraq I attended a number of Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) annual conventions and spoke on panels expressing antiwar and anti-Islamophobic sentiments. Constant war and hating Muslims is just not good policy no matter what else anyone believes. Some friends and I also had a sponsors’ table in the exhibition hall and were able to pass out literature, talk to attendees and be interviewed by the media. I knew many other dissidents who did likewise and the situation was even better with the various groups supporting Ron Paul, which welcomed debate on foreign policy. I cannot claim I was always received enthusiastically when speaking and handing out brochures, but the audience and recipients were unfailingly polite. Surprisingly, students from places like Liberty University in particular appeared to be listening.
But I have recently found that many conservatives and even libertarians now tend to shy away from serious debate on national security issues. They have become particularly nervous about discussing Israel’s role in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy for reasons that I can only guess at. CPAC had only one foreign policy panel in its most recent iteration and the various libertarian gatherings have become comfortable with anodyne anti-war bumper stickers as a substitute for any serious probing of the issues underlying America’s downward spiral.
There is currently little genuine discussion of foreign policy from a conservative and libertarian perspective except at websites like the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity, here at Unz, at antiwar and at The American Conservative, which is unfortunate as what the United States is doing overseas shapes what is going on domestically. Neocon sounding boards like the National Review, Weekly Standard, Washington Post editorial page and The Wall Street Journal inevitably do not so much discuss options as lay down a policy best described as persistent bellicosity overseas combined with always supporting Israel.
But compared to the feeble efforts emanating from the political right and center, I find that progressive events tend to be commendably much more focused and even aggressive but also aimed almost exclusively at the choir with little attempt to reach out to a broader audience. I have a recent email that illustrates what I am talking about. It is from the “U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation” which is holding its annual conference in Atlanta in September. The email advises that “This year’s conference, Advancing a Mass Movement for Palestine, will focus on how we can push a mass movement for Palestinian rights through education, engaging with progressive forces, and being in solidarity with other struggles for justice, including the growing uprising against police brutality and mass incarceration.” The conference will also present an award to an “activist.”
Initially I thought it would be interesting to participate in the gathering as the objective is admirable. But having attended similar events in the past the loaded language of the invitation warned me that it would be an essentially pointless exercise in feeling good about the bundling of characteristically progressive causes with little accomplished at the end of the day. I thought to myself how refreshing it would be if End the Occupation were to include some speakers expressing a conservative point of view in an attempt to gain some perspective on the type of message on Palestine that would appeal more to Middle America. It is not as if such an argument does not exist. The Israeli relationship does grave damage to United States interests and costs a great deal both in lives and in treasure. But End the Occupation will undoubtedly press its message of “freedom, justice and equality” for Palestinians, which reaches a certain audience but completely misses other constituencies that might actually lead to real change.
CODEPINK is another progressive group self-described as a “grassroots peace and social justice movement working to end U.S.-funded wars and occupations, to challenge militarism globally, and to redirect our resources into health care, education, green jobs and other life-affirming activities.” And the lion will lie down with the lamb, no doubt. Regarding the Middle East, “CODEPINK has endorsed the Divest from War online petition, and we urge peace-loving people around the world to sign it, pledging to boycott Israeli products and divest from Israeli government bonds if Israel carries out a preemptive military strike on Iran. Let’s prevent the next war in the Middle East by nonviolently raising the cost to the Israeli government of a preemptive military attack on Iran.” Note that the “peace” message is somewhat conditional. Israel has to actually attack Iran before anyone at CODEPINK does anything about it. This is a characteristic of many progressive groups, which frequently talk tough about Israel for its human rights violations but fail to do anything that would actually pressure it into changing its policies. It is so common that it has a label, “Progressive except for Palestine.”
Why is all of this important? This wrapping oneself up in language that limits any broader appeal and weasel wording issues that one would rather not deal with is characteristic of both those on the left and on the right. But the inability to reach across the aisle has serious consequences in that it ironically effectively preserves the uniformly horrible status quo in those areas where most damage is being done, namely in foreign policy and so-called national security. Advocates of the war state can point to progressive protests and the few critical conservative websites and claim that it is all a misguided fringe movement.
In reality, however, the demand for a foreign policy reset is far from a minority view. I believe that there is a failure of imagination, with progressives, conservatives and libertarians all thinking that they own certain issues, making them unable to grasp that they are not to the only ones who view such policies with dismay, though admittedly for different reasons.
Consider this: Most Americans are opposed to U.S. soldiers getting involved in Syria/Iraq, yet our progressive president has done just that with a growing number of trainers and advisers that seems to be at odds with a shrinking number of Iraqis who want to be trained and then advised. Most Americans would like to see a deal with Iran but our president continues to dance the dance, speaking particularly to Jewish groups and leaders who do not want an agreement and will never be convinced. Most Americans are leery of the Trans Pacific Trade agreement that the president is promoting as it is likely to be an American jobs hemorrhage as was NAFTA, but it continues to be advanced primarily to “block China.” And as for my particular bete noir, the Middle East, most Americans would like to see the Palestinians have their own state and do not want to go to war on behalf of Israel but doing Tel Aviv’s bidding has unfortunately become part of the Washington DNA. And so it goes on.
In other words, a voting majority actually exists to challenge current policies but it has to come together. Organizations that wrap themselves in ideology are, please pardon my French, pissing in the wind, but start talking to and including in your program more politically moderate Americans who are less self-consciously activists or true believers and you just might have the basis for a shift in the political dynamic. If you want an end to the continuous global warfare syndrome and also pari passu want to get Israel out of our politics it is past time to start communicating those interests unambiguously and with everyone who is willing to listen.