Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Among the Washington outfits that arose in the Bush years to rearm liberals in foreign policy debates is the Truman National Security Project, founded in 2005. Like its cohorts the Center for a New American Security and the National Security Network, the Truman initiative seeks to redefine the “progressive” foreign policy orientation as tough but smart, attuned to the weaknesses of hard power (so as to soothe coastal elites and foreign allies upset by Bush-era adventurism) but devoted to “American greatness” (so as to reassure the military-industrial complex and remain competitive with blood-and-soil nationalist politicians in the heartland). In practice, this stance entails a sort of reflexive triangulation whereby the “progressive” approach is portrayed as the sensible middle ground between neo-conservatives, Cold War retreads and other exponents of untrammeled empire, on one side, and the left-identified ideas that came out of the Vietnam era, on the other.* (“Realist” notions also come in for periodic criticism as insufficiently loyal to Pentagon prerogatives or unaware of the evil of America’s enemies.) For all its contemporary branding, it is standard post-Sixties stuff: Vote for us — we’re neither knuckle-draggers nor dirty hippies.

Truman seems well-funded, with a sizable staff and a lengthy list of recommended experts, many of them young-ish, in keeping with its main activity of “training a new generation of progressives to lead on national security.” On April 16, Truman released its spring 2012 Security Briefing Book to supply talking points on foreign policy to political candidates, perhaps particularly those for whom foreign policy is not a primary concern. Because of Truman’s provenance, it is tempting to read the Briefing Book as the left horizon of the possible for the tack of a second Obama administration.

If so, here is the “key messaging” about “the indispensible [sic] nation” and the Middle East.

Arab uprisings good. “Democracy will be messy.” Islamists will win elections. Deal with it — “democracies produce fewer terrorists than dictatorships.” This analysis does not apply to Hamas, however; Bush should have somehow prevented the 2006 Palestinian elections from happening unless that group “renounced violence.” Israel is right to be nervous about Islamists elsewhere, but we cannot and should not “turn back the clock.” We Americans have a historic opportunity to recast our pro-autocracy image in the region, but we should “be honest about our relationships with dictators” in such places as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, ties that we should not review, so as to broadcast that “America will not abandon its allies.” Meanwhile, we should buy less Arab oil. And, oh yeah, youth need jobs.

Iran very bad and scary, too. “Avoid answering questions with policy solutions before confirming that you take the threat seriously.” Iran wants a bomb; it backs terrorists; it is inconveniently situated at a chokepoint of global oil supplies. Neither the US nor Israel should bomb Iran now, for the usual list of White House-approved reasons. But a “grand bargain” with the ayatollahs? Bad idea. Sanctions are working, along with tough diplomacy, to force Iran to the table (on Western terms). “Democracy cannot come fast enough” in Iran, but it would not “solve all of our problems,” because ordinary Iranians, while pro-American, also seem to favor mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Iraq war bad, Iran’s benefit worse. [Insert John Kerry presidential run rhetoric, points 1-10.] Bonus Bush-bashing laugh/cry line: “War is a poor tool for spreading democracy and human rights.” Obama did not evacuate US troops prematurely; they departed on Bush’s pre-arranged schedule. Today, we should support Iraqi sovereignty, but not if that means the Iraqi government wants warmer relations with Tehran, which we should subvert. (Don’t confuse Iraq with Iran on the campaign trail, though — the two countries fought a devastating “ten-year” [sic] war in the 1980s.) As for the power grab of the Maliki government, we know about it, but we do not seem to care if it clashes with our newfound affinity for democracy in the Arab world.

Out of Afghanistan, but not too fast, and maybe not. Pakistan is the way bigger issue, anyway. The Pakistani generals are not to be trusted, and we Americans should find a way of enhancing the clout of the civilian government vis-à-vis the army. We might accomplish this feat by being “careful about how we allocate US military aid to Pakistan.” We might even “reevaluate” that aid. But we should not consider cutting it.

Libya? Done deal. Syria? “At the time of publication, the outcome of this conflict remains highly uncertain.”

In sum, the same obtusely self-regarding, self-contradictory mush the bipartisan foreign policy establishment has been serving up for decades, with a few twists dictated by events largely outside US control (and, in the case of the Arab uprisings, largely against the predilections of the smart but tough liberals now calling the shots).

One more thing: The Truman National Security Project last made waves in late 2011 when another fighting-faith institution, the Center for American Progress, was under attack from ex-AIPAC flack Josh Block for allegedly anti-Israel tweets and blog posts by its junior Middle East staffers. Block was expelled from the Truman ranks. (Comically, for those who enjoy these cloying liberal pieties, Truman executive director Rachel Kleinfeld clarified in her expulsion e-mail to Block that the decision had “nothing to do with your policy views” but rather came because “your actions outside the community have caused too many to fear conversation within the community.” Incivility — oh no!) The incident got some attention from liberal bloggers at the time, with Greg Sargent writing: “It also sheds light on how intense the battle over what it means to be ‘pro-Israel’ has become, now that left-leaning groups are mounting a serious challenge to the reigning and long unchallenged Washington consensus about what that term means.”

Interesting, therefore, that the Briefing Book contains no guidelines for how to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, indeed, no section on the conflict at all. Israel appears as background, part of the foreign policy furniture (except for the nods to the Obama-sanctioned strictures on unilateral Israeli action against Iran). Ongoing US support for Israel is so self-evident as to need no defense and, in fact, no mention.

If that’s not the “reigning and long unchallenged Washington consensus” about what the term “pro-Israel” means, what is?

* Needless to say, these sorts of liberals hardly ever actively denigrate traditional left positions on defense spending or foreign policy, for insiders know that such views are marginal. To acknowledge them is to appear unserious. The left hangs like a specter in the output of these think tanks, not as something they feel they need to engage, but as something they must make sure they are not mistaken for.

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "Fighting Mush," Middle East Report Online, April 19, 2012.
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