April 05, 2005

A Muscular Foreign Policy?

The DLC has some, uh, "advice" for their fellow Democrats:
In an attack on the party's dominant left wing, anti-war base, and a warning for new Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean "to do no harm," the centrist-leaning Democratic Leadership Council said it is "a delusion to think that if we just turned out our voters, we could win national elections."

Instead, the DLC called on the party to dramatically change its message to "recapture the muscular progressive internationalism of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy and convince voters that national security is our first priority."
Awesome. But guess what? That "muscular progressive internationalism" wasn't always quite what it now seems, and certainly not as simple as the DLC wants to pretend it was. Roosevelt, for starters, certainly wanted peaceful cooperation rather than conflict with Stalin after WWII. Sadly, his vision died with him, and though nowadays virtually no one questions the immense costs of the containment strategy during Cold War, or even wonders whether there were actually other alternatives, Roosevelt certainly did. So did many in Truman's administration, including men like Eisenhower, Gen. Lucius Clay in Germany, and especially Secretary of State James Byrnes. (It's easy to forget how vast the "engagement" crowd was; Churchill's Iron Curtain speech originally drew vast condemnation from a variety of outlets, from the Wall Street Journal to the Nation, all of whom were wary of provoking Russia unduly.)

In fact, the Truman administration was more or less charting this middle course up until Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace came out at Madison Square Garden and blasted Truman's policies, advocating a full withdrawal from Europe. Truman fired Wallace and in the process, weakened the hand of engagement advocates like Byrnes (below, center), and ended up inadvertently pushing the administration towards the more "muscular" stance that sends Al From into such giggles today.

It was hardly a foregone conclusion, though, and in retrospect, it's not at all clear that Truman's hawkishness towards the Soviet Union led to the best of all possible worlds. Military spending surged to ungodly levels by 1949, and the focus on foreign policy certainly weakened Truman's ability to expand the New Deal at home (though, in fairness, he was also hampered by a conservative Congress). In fact, thanks to military spending, Truman's budgets were over twice of what Roosevelt's were during the height of the New Deal, and there were real opportunity costs to these sort of lopsided "muscular" expenditures. (Source: PDF) Meanwhile, the Korean War was a disaster, and Truman's own little hunts for subversives at home were despicable. And that was the problem: Truman never quite offered a national security alternative to Republican red-baiting and bloodlust abroad, and the irony was that his "muscular" stance didn't exempt him from being tarred as being "soft on communism". So he either tried to co-opt the Republicans or take even more pugnacious stances on foreign policy. Neither always worked all that well.

As for Kennedy, again, things not always what they seem. JFK certainly flogged the "missile gap" with Russia during the 1960 campaign, even when his own campaign had doubts about the veracity of it all. But at any rate, Kennedy probably won the election (only barely!) on the strength of a sagging economy and the fact that Fed Chairman Arthur Burns pursued a tight monetary policy. JFK's biggest campaign plank, by the way, was his touting the Rockefeller Commission report promising 5 percent growth over the ensuing decade. Obviously opinions divide here, but I'd argue it was probably JFK's growth-equals-security arguments that carried the race, rather than his missiles-equals-security arguments.

Of course, Kennedy did have the hawkish military stance, though that didn't actually exempt him from red-baiting attacks by Nixon and other Republicans. What that hawkish stance did do, however, was hem Kennedy in during his presidency, during which he ended up boosting defense spending by a further obscene amount—much of it unnecessary, since there wasn't, in fact, a "missile gap"—again at the expense of a real progressive domestic agenda. And then there was Vietnam, which was certainly not unconnected to muscularity.

At any rate, there's a lot to learn from these historical cases, and people who know me know I'm not averse to "international progressivism," even one with a hefty pair of biceps. Nevertheless, Democratic hawkishness has always carried real costs, and dubious electoral benefit, and I'm not quite as ready as some DLC folks to look back at the "glory days" with uncritical fondness.

ALSO: Go read Digby.
-- Brad Plumer 4:56 AM || ||