Better late than never. Progressives, it seems to me, are tempted by two positions on the Obama Administration’s approach to international affairs/human rights/terrorism (insofar as there’s a unitary approach, which is part of the explanation for being pulled between contradictory positions, etc, etc). I’m tempted by both—haven’t had time to reflect long enough to settle on either one:
Option #1: Righteous frustration over Republican criticism of the president.
Whatever else Obama is, he’s not a weak-kneed apologist for America. Ask Bin Laden. Ask Gadhafi. If Obama “apologizes” to too many other prominent international figures, we’ll really be on our way towards a “New [Imperial] American Century.” That joke about using Predator drones on the Jonas Brothers? Even less funny now than before. Watch out, Kim Jong-Il. Obama does not have a decisiveness problem.
These progressives recognize that the GOP will repeat this inanity until it gets serious coverage (This strategy is one of American conservatism’s greatest electoral strengths. Their messaging is so unified, it can even trump reality. Cf. “tax cuts pay for themselves”). Without his tough-on-crime national security credentials, Obama’s reelection prospects go from “pretty difficult” to “Hoo Boy!” Even if they don’t agree with the president on everything, they know that Mitt Romney is promising to increase defense spending if he’s elected.
In a sense, these progressives are asking: Why can’t leftists defend their leaders? Why do we insist on tearing down good politicians in the hopes that we’ll find perfect ones just around the corner? These leftists know that American progressivism must be “a fighting faith,” if it is to have any hope of remaining electorally relevant in the near future. There is no excising violence from debates over American international relations—in part this is because violence can’t ever be completely eliminated from the international sphere.
Option #2: A certain horror at the president’s decisiveness. To wit: the president’s decisiveness is itself a problem.
Many American progressives cheered Obama’s election because they took him to be a cautious, thoughtful (and Niebuhrian) leader who would put a stop to Bush-era “cowboy diplomacy.” While it’s true that the surgical precision of drone attacks is constitutively different from Bush’s mass invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s more than enough unilateralism in both to generate unease. Obama’s foreign policy successes—aside from winding down the War in Iraq—all involve escalations of global violence (To be fair, anyone who read his Nobel Prize acceptance speech shouldn’t be unduly surprised).
To put all this another way, some progressives wish that the rip-roaring, gun-toting GOP rhetoric about Obama was true. American military forces have killed over a hundred thousand civilians (again: non-combat civilians) in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. These progressives know that we have a great deal to apologize for. No terrorist attack can justify the deaths of that many humans. Period. These progressives are astonished to see the Obama Administration in contortions to find legal loopholes justifying the assassination of American citizens without trial. They insist that no matter how truly despicable a man Gadhafi was, the circumstances of his death (in the broadest sense, stretching back to the original NATO intervention) should give any thinking leftist pause.
In a sense, these progressives are asking: Is really the best that the world can expect from the American Left? Are we a movement that condones, and even celebrates, extrajudicial violence? These progressives know that an American Left that sustains its political life by becoming indistinguishable from neo-conservative warmongers will eventually face electoral death by that same strategy. Violence is an unreliable political tool.
This is only representative of a larger schism within the American Left. Progressives across the country are eyeing the 2012 campaign suspiciously. Is the president worth supporting? Does he deserve grassroots enthusiasm? Is there some other political alternative?
More on this latter bit when time permits.