Street Heat and Foreign Policy: Can Progressives Yet Create a Movement?

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Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF)

Street Heat and Foreign Policy: Can Progressives Yet Create a Movement?

Without sufficient street-heat, according to the new conventional wisdom, President Obama is not going to implement progressive policies. His health care package reeks of insurance company influence. His bailouts favor Wall Street. Climate-change legislation rewards polluters through the shell game of "cap-and-trade." Without strong social movements pulling Obama to the left, the new administration's reforms resemble the pale liberalism of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, rather than the robust and transformative domestic change promoted by Lyndon Johnson and FDR. 

As falls domestic policy, so falls foreign policy. The war in Iraq continues and the one in Afghanistan escalates. The airstrikes in Pakistan increase, and Yemen has become the latest front in America's determined campaign to create two terrorists for every one that our bombs and soldiers kill. The Pentagon budget continues to reach unprecedented heights. Our global economic policy favors all the usual suspects - banks, the IMF, corporations. I could go on - but Obama's foreign policy record will be the subject of next week's column.

This week I want to talk about us. Me and you. Where's our collective street-heat? Why have progressives failed to transform U.S. foreign policy? The problem isn't just the present moment. Over the last decade, we failed to stop the Iraq War and the unfolding catastrophe known as the "war on terror." Before that, we failed to push the Clinton administration into seizing the post-Cold War moment to achieve an enduring peace dividend and build an equitable multilateral system. Before that, we watched Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson undermine their liberal domestic policy efforts with hawkish military campaigns. And let's not even talk about the miseries that Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon inflicted on the world.

Have progressive movements had any effect on U.S. foreign policy? The antiwar movement certainly raised the political costs of the Vietnam War, but the efforts of the Viet Cong had a greater influence over the resolution of that conflict. The anti-globalization movement put up a couple roadblocks in front of the WTO juggernaut, but neoliberalism simply marched on in different forms. In the 1980s, the anti-intervention movement handcuffed U.S. meddling in Central America, the anti-apartheid movement accelerated the collapse of the South African regime, and the Nuclear Freeze campaign put disarmament back on the political agenda. But these movements - and I was a proud member of all of them - didn't fundamentally alter the central thrust of American foreign policy.

Perhaps I am setting the bar too high. Empires do not voluntarily give up their dominion; superpowers do not go gently into the night at the urging of their citizens. Given the enormous power of the institutions we're up against, perhaps we should simply be satisfied in the small victories we celebrate these days. Such victories can provide hope, enlarge our circles, and serve as important intermediate steps in realizing larger goals. We helped kill the F-22 jet fighter in Congress. Disability activists succeeded in persuading the administration to sign the new UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The hardy demonstrators against Guantánamo have nearly succeeded in pushing the president to fulfill his pledge to close the prison.

The problem is that these efforts don't add up to anything that Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh should be afraid of. And that should be one of our goals: Make those suckers shake in their shoes.

Perhaps it's impossible to create sufficient street-heat to have influence anywhere but the margins of U.S. foreign policy. Think about the major social movements in U.S. history: African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, workers. They all demanded their rights. They all acted, to put it bluntly, in their own direct self-interest. Even the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s had a major component of self-interest to it. Young protestors didn't want to fight and die, and their families didn't want to make those sacrifices either.

The progressive movement has tried to identify the self-interest involved in lower military spending, more equitable multilateral engagement, and the substitution of diplomacy for drones. But let's face it: The self-interest here is more abstract. For Afghan and Iraqi antiwar activists, the self-interest is direct. For debt cancellation activists in the Global South, the self-interest is obvious. Here in the United States, on the other hand, we are motivated largely by empathy. And because of some strange biological quirk, the only major movements that can thrive on empathy involve baby seals and whales rather than fellow humans.

We also face a major structural problem here in the United States. We are not party people. In other countries, political parties offer a space where small campaigns fit into the bigger picture. Parties offer a training ground for activists to learn how to make informed choices about the necessary compromises of the political process. All we have are protest movements, which generally say no to things we don't like, and the Democratic Party, which generally says yes to things we don't like. We don't have our own party, which would say yes to things we like. True, we have the Green Party and assorted groupuscules. But I'm talking about a viable, national party that secures the votes of the 16 percent of Americans who identify themselves as progressives, and can win a governing majority by crafting arguments that appeal to the two-thirds of Americans who support progressive ideas.

So, we don't have such a political party, and we haven't created movements that effectively channel the self-interest of large numbers of Americans. To build a party, we would have to begin by altering the political rules of the game - first-past-the-post voting and campaign financing - that favor the existing two parties. Engaging the self-interest of Americans on major foreign policy issues, on the other hand, is largely a matter of messaging. The activists working on climate change have begun to do this by emphasizing the fear factor ("The end is nigh!"), and showing the links between what happens out there in the world and inside the gas tank of your car.

That, then, is our challenge. While the slow and patient work to democratize our democracy proceeds, we must follow the lead of climate-change activists. We must show more clearly to Americans how peace and global economic justice are in our direct self-interest. Yes, we profited from our empire in the past. But it's a new age. As post-triumphalist America adjusts to its relative decline in power, our task is to show how our current economic woes are directly connected to the wars we wage and the injustices we perpetuate. Only then will we create the street-heat to change American foreign policy. Only then will we transform not just the margins but the very core of the American enterprise.

New Wars on the Horizon

As if the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq aren't enough - not to mention Pakistan - the Obama administration has added Yemen to the list. The Pentagon is now supporting a campaign against al-Qaeda in this small country just south of Saudi Arabia on the Red Sea. Big mistake, argues Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) senior analyst Stephen Zunes.

"Al-Qaeda in Yemen represents a genuine threat," he writes in Yemen: Latest U.S. Battleground. "However, any military action should be Yemeni-led and targeted only at the most dangerous terrorist cells. We must also press the Yemeni government to become more democratic and less corrupt, in order to gain the support needed to suppress dangerous armed elements. In the long term, the United States should significantly increase desperately needed development aid for the poorest rural communities that have served as havens for radical Islamists. Such a strategy would be far more effective than drone attacks, arms transfers, and counterinsurgency."

Meanwhile in South Asia, both India and Pakistan continue to make their preparations for war. India is developing a new military doctrine of rapid power projection and the capabilities to implement it. Pakistan is countering with some not-very-veiled threats of nuclear retaliation. The preparations for war, however, are not exactly popular.

"Despite the wars, hostility, and decades of being taught that the other was a mortal enemy, the people of India and Pakistan are ready for peace," FPIF columnist Zia Mian writes in A Path for Peace in South Asia. "A recent poll of people in six major cities in India, and in eight cities and 36 villages in Pakistan, found that two-thirds of respondents in India and over 70 percent in Pakistan said they wanted peace between the two countries. The poll was the initiative of a major new campaign, jointly launched by leading media conglomerates in India and Pakistan, to promote peace and good relations between the two countries through increased people-to-people interaction."

John Feffer

 John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He is the author of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis (Seven Stories, 2003) among other books.

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