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Among the Pro-Restraint Progressives

The only way we'll defeat the foreign policy establishment is if the Left and Right can be brought together.
ro khanna

This past week, I participated in a forum convened in Washington by Democrats of a decidedly progressive persuasion. The purpose of the gathering was to explore alternatives to the existing over-militarized pattern of U.S. foreign policy. Although a conservative, I have over the years come to admire more than a few progressives, even without necessarily sharing their views, especially on cultural matters. More to the point, I have long believed that the forging of a progressive-conservative coalition on America’s proper role in the world is a prerequisite for wresting control of U.S. policy from the existing and utterly hidebound national security establishment.

Congressman Ro Khanna of California hosted the event, which was organized by Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation magazine. Other participants included the journalist Peter Beinart; Robert Malley, former senior official with the Obama administration and current CEO of the International Crisis Group; Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council; and Neta Crawford, my Boston University colleague and friend who directs the invaluable Costs of War Project. Those in the audience were mostly young people. Judging from the tenor of their questions, few are likely to subscribe to TAC anytime soon.

And yet: virtually everything that was said—with a single important exception to be noted below—would have found favor with many TAC readers and with principled conservatives more generally.

If the event had an overarching theme, it was this one: the need to challenge the “Blob” becomes an ever more urgent imperative. All the various institutions and entities that comprise the foreign policy establishment, ranging from the Pentagon and the intelligence “community” to prestige think tanks and insider talking heads offering predictably banal analysis on TV, effectively collaborate in propping up the status quo and preventing serious critical thought about U.S. policy.

Yet say this much for the Blob: those who speak on its behalf to enforce orthodoxy do so with disciplined persistence. They are relentless. In their defense of American globalism, they downplay or ignore altogether the various policy failures that have accumulated since the end of the Cold War. Note, for example, the extent to which the establishment has already shrugged off the debacle of the Iraq war, treating it as the equivalent of a fender bender—unfortunate but not worth getting all that upset about.

In his day, Obama took a stab at circumventing the Blob. So too has Trump. In Obama’s case, the effort was thoughtful and deliberate. Negotiating the Iran nuclear deal in the face of concerted establishment opposition offers the principal example. In Trump’s case, the effort has been arbitrary and random. Tweeting his intention to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and Syria offer examples. What’s significant is that in virtually every instance, the Blob has prevailed over presidents’ insistent on real change.

The purpose of the Khanna-vanden Heuvel initiative is identify a progressive alternative to permanent war.

Among the propositions floated by members of the panel were: basing U.S. policies on “realism and restraint”; repositioning the United States so that it serves as “a beacon rather than a menace” in the eyes of others; revisiting the ideology of “American Exceptionalism”; curbing military spending and the penchant for armed intervention abroad; seeking to restore a “working relationship” (to be distinguished from friendship) with Russia rather than rushing to embrace the inevitability of a new Cold War; breaking taboos that inhibit honest discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of actions by the Netanyahu government; and assuming a more balanced position in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran rather than reflexively siding with the Saudi royals.

As a conservative, I subscribe to each of these. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I suspect that many other TAC readers do as well.

Where at least some conservatives will part company from my progressive comrades is on the issue of climate change. Progressives view it as an existential threat to the American way of life and to the health of the planet. As it happens, I agree with that assessment.

Again, while I may be wrong, my sense is that considerable numbers of conservatives cling to the view that climate change is a fiction concocted by lefties intent on undermining capitalism and imposing a socialist regime on an unsuspecting populace. Such fears are overwrought, in my view. More to the point, they will be swept away as evidence of the adverse consequences of climate change continues to accumulate.

No doubt there will always be a few who deny the reality of climate change just as there will always be a few who persist in believing that Alger Hiss was framed. Yet over time this will become a fringe phenomenon devoid of political salience.

What did this brief confab in the Rayburn Building accomplish? In an immediate sense, not much. But if progressives follow up on this effort of devising a viable framework of policy based on realism and restraint—and I hope they will—then something important might be afoot. Conservatives would do well to pay attention this undertaking. Those with open minds might even consider enlisting in the cause.

Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at–large.



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