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 Guantanamo 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."

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