Everyone agrees. The Democrats need to organize around a compelling worldview. Recently, Peter Beinart of The New Republic fired the opening salvo in the centrist campaign to make the “war on terror” the big goal driving the Democratic agenda. The rush to expose the flaws in Beinart’s reasoning was fast and furious. TomPaine.com Associate Editor Patrick Doherty goes further than any of Beinart’s critics and actually proposes an alternative “big idea” around which Dems—and liberals more broadly—could rally.
Patrick C. Doherty is associate editor at TomPaine.com. Previously, he spent a decade working on conflict and economic development in the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans and the Caucasus. His column, Quo Vadis, focuses on America's strategic dysfunction and how to transform it.
Two weeks ago in an essay, Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic, suggested that America's liberals need to coalesce around "the defining moral challenge" of our age. On that he was right.
He just presented the wrong moral challenge.
Terrorism may seem compelling, but ultimately it is symptomatic of larger problems. Focusing on Al Qaeda will only let the larger problems fester. For America to be secure and for liberals to win elections, Democrats need to focus on the bigger picture.
The Bomber Behind The Curtain
Try as he might, Beinart's argument that Al Qaeda present a threat comparable to that posed by the Soviet Union in the Cold War or by the Axis Powers during World War II is not credible.
Josh Marshall puts the threat from Al Qaeda into its proper context; namely, that the network poses a physical threat to Americans, but nowhere near an existential threat. "Unlike communism in 1947, militant Islam simply does not pose an existential threat to our civilization. It just doesn't. It puts us all physically at risk. And especially for those of us who live in D.C., New York or other major urban areas, it could kill us tomorrow." I live in D.C. and work three blocks from the White House. After working in Sarajevo and Jerusalem, I'm more afraid to get into the traffic on the Beltway than to go to work in the morning. Harvard terrorism expert Jessica Stern further circumscribes the threat of terror: "with many of the planet's intelligence agencies now focusing on destroying its network, Al Qaeda's ability to carry out large-scale attacks has been degraded."
Second, the ideology of Al Qaeda has a limited audience. While the Muslim world does encompass one billion people, militant Islam is an ideology for venting the humiliation born of disenfranchisement—not an ideology for governing modern states. Arguably, the Taliban government of Afghanistan was the closest attempt. During their reign, Afghanistan suffered under some of the worst indicators of human development recorded. That said, Professor Stern notes, "Radical transnational Islam, divorced from its countries of origin, appeals to some jobless youths in depressed parts of Europe and the United States." Why? Stern explains that Al Qaeda—like violent ideologies before—taps into "economic and social alienation." In other words, Al Qaeda resonates with the frustration that comes with the widespread poverty and oppression in the Muslim world. That's good for gathering unemployed young men, but it cannot run a country, and wouldn't enjoy sovereignty if it captured one.
As for intentions, Al Qaeda targets the United States in an instrumental way; in order to expand its capacity in terms of recruits and financing-not to destroy the United States. Says Stern again, "One of Al Qaeda's aims in fighting the West, in other words, has become to restore the dignity of humiliated young Muslims."
"The real target audience of violent attacks is therefore not necessarily the victims and their sympathizers, but the perpetrators and their sympathizers. Violence becomes a way to bolster support for the organization and the movement it represents.
Ultimately, the political objectives of Al Qaeda remain focused on the basic goals listed in the 9/11 Commission report: ejecting the Jews, the Americans, and the house of Saud out of Arab lands. On that score, Al Qaeda has been successful. The attacks of September 11 successfully tempted the Bush administration to make a strategic over-reach by invading Iraq—turning bin Laden into a hero and vastly increasing the recruitment of local insurgents to fight America. Now the United States is saddled with a messy urban insurgency war producing photographs of destroyed mosques, devastated holy sites and maimed Muslim children. With Americans killing and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, mounting a larger "spectacular" would be redundant.
Pick The Forest, Not A Tree
While liberal responses to Beinart's article have articulated similar criticisms of the comparison between Al Qaeda and the Soviet Union, most have also agreed with Beinart that liberals do need to rally around something. John Judis, writing in the New Republic Online, says as much: "I agree with what is implicit in Peter's essay: that the Democrats lacked an animating moral purpose, particularly in comparison with Bush and the Republicans."
Although Judis' sentiment is shared widely, so too is his lack of any alternative moral purpose. Until liberals establish a more compelling and unified narrative, their failures will continue to mount. I submit that the problem hamstringing most liberals that they view the world as a set of independent, disaggregated issues. When searching for a purpose, they make the classic mistake of "single-factor analysis;" they look for the most compelling single issue and thereby ignore the undeniable interdependence of the problems America and the world face. This explains how the physical threat posed by terrorism can be divorced from its underlying causes; namely, our economic dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Of course, media are the great enablers of the single-factor habit—but that is no excuse for sacrificing the security of the nation.
Liberals need to look at the big picture, at the multiple, converging and intertwined threats facing America. With a more circumspect assessment in hand, America's grand purposes become abundantly clear. Tactical messaging can wait. Now it is time for analysis and strategy.
If Not Terrorism, What?
A full assessment of our strategic situation must go beyond terrorism to include energy insecurity, structural debt and global warming. As rising Asian energy demand outpaces global supply, energy insecurity is a powerful drag on America's economic viability. Our insatiable consumption and profligate government spending have wracked up record current account and general fund deficits, to the point where Morgan Stanley's chief economist says we have a one-in-10 chance of avoiding a major Wall Street crash. Global warming threatens global economic and political stability as water supplies, food production, disease transmission and extreme weather fluctuate unpredictably. All three are converging simultaneously, compounding the problem.
A full assessment would also include the observation that two-thirds of the world is excluded from even participating in the "global economy." The structural barriers to economic participation are well known: lack of property rights and a lack of access to energy. Hernando de Soto and Amy Chua have separately shown how political elites deny their populations access to property rights, the sine qua non of capitalism. The World Bank and the Rocky Mountain Institute have shown the lack of access to modern energy sources means the developing world cannot afford to buy or use the cars, appliances and electronics made by the developing world. Social barriers to participation such as health care and education are to a large extent conditional upon the removal of the structural barriers.
This more complete strategic assessment paints a dramatically different picture. Suddenly, the narrative we had to understand the Soviet threat—the narrative Beinart attempts to resuscitate—is no longer valid. The enemy does not exist in a vacuum, but it is a motivated and supported by the injustices propagated by our imbalanced economic engine.
And so the focus of liberal efforts—as before in the New Deal—must be to remake our capitalist economy, this time to be inclusive and sustainable on a global scale. Capitalism is no longer fighting with communism; it is running into barriers—limits—to expanding America's post-war economic engine (fossil fuels, suburban consumption, government subsidies) to a global scale. To the extent that America's security is dependent upon a sound global economy, this fact becomes critical. Capitalism must adapt or collapse.
Capitalism must make space for the four billion people it currently excludes and make a more equitable deal for those it includes. Global oil reserves are incapable of fueling affordable transportation for a rapidly developing world. Our addiction to resource-intensive, labor-minimizing business models means we waste resources and conserve labor when we need to do the opposite. And the planet's natural capacity to recycle our economic waste has already been overwhelmed, most dramatically seen in global warming. For the two billion people within the global economy, these barriers are resulting in greater income and equity disparity. For the four billion people excluded from the global economy, there is little hope.
Popularity or Progress?
Max Sawicki, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, argues Beinart conflates two separate issues: "the liberal disconnect from the electorate, and the question of meritorious public policy in the realm of national security." Sawicki challenges Beinart's presumption that popular policy is therefore good policy. "Do we want them to think better of Democrats because Democrats advocate good policies, or because they advocate lousy policies that voters think are good?"
Sawicki is right. Democrats can win a supermajority when their analysis resonates with objective reality, when their policies accept that reality and offer progressive solutions that add up, and when their candidate exhibits the kind of character and values necessary to guide our nation through what will be a difficult period. By expanding their analysis to include not the most important single issue, Democrats can find common ground. Democrats have before them the opportunity to put in place a worldview and policy program that does resonate with the world around us.
What remains is a vast new project for America. James K. Galbraith puts it this way: "We need instead an industrial strategy based on technological leadership, collective security and smart use of the world's resources. The financial counterpart must be a new source of liquidity for many developing countries, permitting them to step up their imports, and correspondingly our exports and employment."
The post-war economy based on fossil fuels, suburban consumption and government spending has ceased being prosperous and is now pathological. America needs a new economic engine and the outlines are clear. Innovation will replace consumption. Smart growth will replace sprawl. Services will replace the products that provided them. Renewable energy will replace fossil fuels.
That's the message America and the world need to hear. And it's the agenda liberals need to adopt. Anything less is like holding a popularity contest on the Titanic.