Thursday Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation and Nikolas Gvodsev of The National Interest chaperoned a first date among Progressives and Realists to consider the question “Beyond Neo-Cons and Neo-Libs: Can Realism Bridge Left and Right?” While the evening ended without a kiss, both agreed to see each other again. We doubt much will happen.
Panelists included Kai Bird of The Nation, Dmitri Simes, President of The Nixon Center and Publisher of The National Interest, Sherle R. Schwenninger of the New America Foundation and Dov Zakheim formerly from OSD and now at Booz Allen Hamilton. Anatol Lieven of New America Foundation was the eloquent moderator.
All rejected the Administration, Neocon and Neoliberal abstract concepts of American foreign policy based on a Will to Power. Yet profound differences remain. Imagine the Parisian emigre community after 1917 with S.R.s and Whites commingling and united in their disdain for the Bolsheviks. Now imagine that vibe transplanted to the antiseptic environs of an American think tank. You get the picture.
Initial statements by the panelists veered into restatements of hoary shibboleths. The Nixon Center's Robert Ellsworth helpfully urged all involved to get over their self mythos and grudges over policies dating back to Marines going ashore at Da Nang. We agree with Ellsworth that all in the room share a commitment to the Enlightenment.
The First Date's Rocky Start
Having said that, the basis for any agreement remains truncated. Both Bird and Zakheim questioned whether there was much common ground. And for good cause.
Bird's unabashed Progressive world view advances romantic notions of Rooseveltian American foreign policy: seen through the filter of anti-imperialism, international law and norms, regional power architectures, etc. As advanced today at least, Bird's vision omits Roosveltian macht politik actions such as oil embargo against Japan or the undeniably impeachable secret collaboration with the British before December 1941.
The Nation and Progressives choose to forget that Roosevelt went so far that American Catalina pilots secretly based in England located and helped sink battleship Bismark. Bird's correct that NSC-68 and Paul Nitze transformed Kennan's original limited notion of containment. Under Nitze, the initial concept of denying the Soviets specific economic and cultural resources morphed into a global architecture. But his critique is too monocausal and fails to account for the strategic vacuum caused by British decline, beginning in 1947, 1948 and the Brussels Pact, etc.
Zakheim refreshingly offered views beyond what one might expect by his DoD tenure and Neocon affiliations. He rejected universal messianic abstractions and supports a two state solution in the Levant. Yet Zakheim's intellectual vocabulary is premised on Power, its unapologetic uses, deployments, limits and benefits. His commitment to applying Power with granular understanding of tactical social, historical and cultural nuances is at odds with Progressive embrace on univeralisms and support for multi-lateral institution building. Reconciling Bird and Zakheim is probably a bridge too far.
As we knew from before, Simes offered a precise formulation of Realism predicated on an understanding of a ranking of U.S. strategic priorities. See our earlier “Incoherent Hegemon” (one of our favorite graphics) and the synchronicity of views should be apparent.
We also agree with Simes that Progressives and Realists should focus on finding areas of agreement and work together in those specific directions. It's probably the only way collaboration can occur. Both sides should agree to disagree on broader issues — whether it be tax cuts/social redistribution, etc. Here Simes echoed Ellsworth's invaluable suggestion that Lieven, Gvodsev and vanden Hueval create workings groups to drill down on these specific practical issues.
Even so, the gulf between the parties remains significant. Covert action (to the extent it is even feasible in an Internet Age) is one example — Allende remains a sore point for Progressives. Nixon and Kissinger were ably defended by Simes and Zakheim. And on Iraq, Realists urge that the U.S. make a distinction between terrible choices and utterly catastrophic ones. A terrible choice is a costly withdrawal drawn out over stages of time, bringing in regional players including Syria, Jordan and Iran in the hopes of some stability. A catastrophic choice in that view is precipitous withdrawal or Turkish intervention over an independent Kurdistan and inevitable wider regional war. Progressives mostly want a prompt withdrawal. Complicating analysis is that U.S. and U.K. presence is iteself a catalyst for social disintegration.
Where to begin work? The area of overlapping interests beyond stopping Neocons and Neoliberals is fairly confined as one might expect. But it does exist. See Diagram 1 below.
What Would A Second Date Look Like Among Progressives And Realists?
Progressive and Realist Venn convergence is limited to those areas where application of Power and institutions can support normative activities. Examples would include the environment, limited humanitarian interventions such as Dharfur, and possibly national economic/industrial issues contraposed to Friedman-esque globalization banalities. It's a fairly meager space. Yet perhaps that is enough to start constructive dialogue and work.
We agree again with Ellsworth that should Democrats take one or both houses of Congress the intellectual climate and policy environment will transform rapidly. There will be an initial void as politics seeks a new equilibrium. We hope that Lieven, vanden Hueval and Gvodsev can mobilize the good willl, interest and shared alarm over the Neocon/Neoliberal agenda to seize that opportunity.
They deserve our thanks and support for trying.
Tags: Realists, Neocons, Neoliberals, Nation, Policy, Security, Iraq