Cold War Liberalism and September 11

Originally posted by eugene on 09/09/07

Six years after the events of September 11, 2001, many of us seem more willing to look back on America’s reactions with a critical eye. Recent essays here at Progressive Historians have worked in that vein to question the right-wing response, from Rudy Giuliani to Norman Podhoretz to Orson Scott Card, and they all suggest that for the right, September 11 represented an opportunity to advance a vision of American global hegemony based on continuous warfare, the abrogation of basic rights and liberties, and villainization of Islam. We suffer through the consequences of this vision every day, and as Bastoche notes in his Giuliani diary, we may face an even more aggressive version of that vision should this self-anointed hero win the White House.

But what of the other half of the political system – the Democratic Party? It seems to me that to fully understand September 11’s effect on politics, we need to turn our critical eyes onto the Dems, and ask why they reacted as they did to September 11, and in particular, whether we can believe their claims that the shock of the moment, the clear need for action, and the basic fact of Bush’s popularity are enough to explain their complicity with the conservative millennium that Bush and his coterie have attempted.

In the days and weeks after September 11, the Democratic Party chose to throw its full support to the policies of George W. Bush in prosecuting what the president fatefully described as a “war on terror.” With only a few notable exceptions like Barbara Lee, the Democrats voted Bush a broad authorization of the use of military force (AUMF), massively expanded judicial powers in the notorious Patriot Act, and ultimately, for the Iraq War Resolution in 2002.

Since then, despite periodic denunciations of Bush’s handling of those acts, Democrats have continued to give Bush support at key junctures. He has never lost a vote on Iraq War funding. Alberto Gonzales, the architect of Bush’s judicial strategy, and Condoleeza Rice, who helped with Bush’s international strategy, received Democratic support for their 2005 promotions. The Military Commissions Act was passed with Democratic votes in 2006, and despite a 2005 vote to reject some of the Patriot Act provisions, Dems supported the bulk of the legislation, and in 2007 gave Bush expanded wiretapping powers under FISA, despite the administration’s documented abuse of such powers and ignorance of legal restrictions.

How are we to understand this behavior – a political party giving important support and political cover to one of their mortal political enemies? Some might be tempted to see it as a hangover of Democrats’ initial post-9/11 support for Bush, not wanting to challenge a popular wartime president.

But I think we have to look at this in historical perspective. The Democrats had not only been supporting the Bush Administration’s agenda before September 11, 2001 – witness their support for his tax cuts, for the No Child Left Behind law, and the confirmation of John Ashcroft – but had been asserting their own version of American hegemony before Bush even took office. The key to understanding Democratic support of Bush’s “war on terror” strategy, I argue, lies in the continued Democratic embrace of Cold War liberalism.

Cold War liberalism is a term historians have used to describe Democrats’ support of interventionist policies around the world during the 1950s in particular, a strident and militarized anti-communism that led Truman to send troops to Korea and LBJ to send troops to Vietnam (despite repeated promises to never do such a thing). As espoused by public intellectuals like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., by diplomats such as Dean Acheson, and by politicians including JFK, Cold War liberalism was the belief that for America to be secure at home, it had to prevent the spread of communism abroad, at any cost. Kennedy memorably promised in his inaugural address to “pay any price, bear any burden” in pursuing Cold War liberalism, a promise that eventually led him to the Vietnam War.

Democrats concocted Cold War liberalism in the late 1940s as a response to the Soviet Union’s European policies, Communist insurgencies in the Mediterranean and Asia, and importantly, to a resurgent right-wing at home. Republicans had won the 1946 elections amidst a backdrop of recession and labor strife. Once in power in Congress they promoted the notion that Democrats had been “soft on Communism” during the long years of FDR’s New Deal, a claim that they stoked by playing up instances of Communism – real and imagined – in everything from Hollywood studios to the State Department. Republicans began beating Democrats over the head with this charge as the global situation deteriorated further. The fear of another “loss of China” and its negative political ramifications later drove both JFK and LBJ to send troops to Vietnam.

Yet Democrats did not merely embrace the Cold War as a kind of stopgap against a Republican resurgence. Dems themselves had been calling for American hegemony since they led the nation into the first World War in 1917. By the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Democratic internationalism had evolved into a more sophisticated system of global alliances with the US at both its center and its head. During World War II the Roosevelt Administration, with strong Democratic backing, created the United Nations, the Bretton Woods economic system, and pursued global free trade. After the war Dems continued in this vein, with the Truman Administration creating NATO and no less importantly its economic counterpart, the Marshall Plan, designed to link Western Europe to the United States and isolate the Soviet bloc.

These institutions had peaceful aims and rhetoric, but warfare was a frequent tool of Democratic foreign policy, from World War II itself to Korea, Vietnam, and the dozens of interventions and CIA-backed coups that characterized the period.

Warfare abroad was not the only political struggle that defined Cold War liberalism. Political fights at home, bloodless but vicious, were required to consolidate the position of Cold War liberalism within the Democratic Party. The New Deal had been sustained by a Popular Front alliance between liberals, Democrats, and the left. After 1947, Democrats who saw their political future in Cold War liberalism recognized that the left would have to be purged from the coalition if their new strategy were to be successful. Even though the Democratic left raised a number of pertinent questions about the viability and sensibility of Cold War liberalism, these voices were ruthlessly quashed by the Democrats. The presidential succession was denied Henry Wallace, a leader of this faction, in 1944. When Wallace voiced his opposition to the Cold War liberalism policies of Truman, he was sacked from his Cabinet post. When he continued to push against militarized anticommunism Wallace and his supporters were frozen out of Democratic Party politics, and instead chose to run a third party candidacy in 1948.

Meanwhile this left’s base in labor unions was being rooted out by Cold War liberals such as Walter Reuther. Most liberal Democrats opposed the Taft-Hartley Act (and Truman vetoed it, only to be overrode by a coalition of conservative Dems and Republicans), but they also supported its provisions against Communists in labor unions. In the late 1940s, before a Senator from Wisconsin had given his name to the phenomenon, Democrats had supported and promoted the removal of leftists from public positions and the effective silencing of their voices. By the early 1950s opposition to Cold War liberalism within the Democratic ranks had been crushed.

When the Vietnam War failed, it appeared it might discredit Cold War liberalism, and lead to a revival of the Democratic left that had been purged in the late ’40s. Congressional Democrats led the charge against Nixon’s prosecution of the war and helped force its end in the 1973-75. Meanwhile Democratic committee hearings exposed the worst aspects of Cold War liberalism to public view, forcing changes in the way the CIA and FBI did business. Outside DC, a New Left worked to rally Americans against the pursuit of global hegemony. For a time, in the 1970s, it seemed their efforts might bear fruit.

But the Democrats had never really rejected Cold War liberalism. Some, like Washington State’s Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, actively promoted it in the 1970s, and became the intellectual father of the neoconservatives, many of whom served on his staff. In 1979-80, Democrats were among the voices calling for an end to détente in the face of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Jimmy Carter and a Democratic Congress reinstituted mandatory Selective Service registration for young men at age 18, and led by his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, began arming Afghan rebel groups.

In the 1980s Democrats, prodded by the New Left, tried to limit Reagan’s support of anticommunist forces in Central America. But they also supported many of his defense budgets, designed to threaten the Soviet Union, and also supported his emergent Middle East policies, designed to contain Iran and the threat of fundamentalist Islamic terror.

The 1990s proved a watershed moment for resurgent Cold War liberalism, in spite of the end of the Cold War itself. Faced with 12 years of Republican occupancy of the White House, a group of Democrats affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) argued that for Dems to return to the presidency, the New Left had to be purged, and a new internationalism predicated on American hegemony had to be embraced. Bill Clinton proved an effective vehicle for both of these actions. Under Clinton, the antiwar left was again shut out of the Democratic Party, especially in the debates over intervention in the Balkans. The 1999 Kosovo War proved a turning point that is not properly given credit, a moment when Democrats embraced the notion of fighting a war against a nation that had not yet threatened the US, in the name of providing democracy and security to a foreign people.

Clinton’s presidency also witnessed Democratic embrace of antiterrorism strategies that Bush would later amplify. In response to the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing, Clinton signed an antiterrorism law that gave the FBI expanded powers. He also conducted airstrikes against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan in response to terrorism – and in November 1998, against Iraq itself.

Why is it that we should see Clinton’s actions in the vein of Cold War liberalism? Because even though the Soviet Union had ceased to exist in 1992, the notion that American hegemony was a positive goal, something that should be defended and promoted by American foreign policy even with military means, pervaded the Clinton years. Richard Holbrooke, Bill Richardson, and Madeline Albright were all significant proponents of this idea – that with a collapsed Soviet Union, the path was now clear for American hegemony to be consolidated and extended. Clinton’s two terms in office convinced Democrats that this was a wise policy, and the era’s anti-left sentiments seemed to ensure that Cold War liberalism would continue into the new century.

And so it has. It is striking how much the post-September 11 rhetoric has appealed to this tradition in the Democratic Party – that American security and prosperity, our very way of life, is under seige from a hostile ideology and that we must fight it with every possible means.

One of the most important expositions of this idea was Michael Ignatieff’s “The Burden.” Published in the New York Times Magazine in January 2003, it was an explicit defense of empire as something American liberals had to embrace for their security, for their way of life, and for their ideological survival. Ignatieff argued that “America’s success in the 20th century owed a great deal to the shrewd understanding that America’s interest lay in aligning itself with freedom” and cited Democratic anticommunism as at the core of this success. In the 21st century, Ignatieff claimed, the only way to protect global freedom from Islamic terror was in the embrace of the policies of imperialism and American hegemony.

Ignatieff’s essay was perhaps the most intellectual formulation of this argument, but it dominated the public discourse in 2002 and 2003 as the Iraq War approached. September 11, it was said, showed that America faced a new threat. Islamists hated freedom, they hated America, and would stop at nothing to destroy us. Only by embracing a war on terror could we forestall that fate. Only by invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein could we guarantee our security – and we would also be fomenting democracy in a region that was undoubtedly in dire need of it. The case for the Iraq War cited Cold War liberalism frequently, from the Marshall Plan to collective defense to global coalitions to the oppression of the Iraqi people.

Democrats would likely have gone along with the war anyhow, but the repeated appeals to Cold War liberalism are suggestive. They indicate how Democratic thinking could have ever been brought to support the war in Iraq. Purged of antiwar, leftist voices, the Democratic Party had already embraced the use of force in pursuit of American hegemonic goals it believed were just and moral. September 11, to them as much as to the Republicans, indicated the need for this interventionist ideology.

In 2007, we see that the Democrats have yet to repudiate this approach. Whereas Republicans like Giuliani want the more aggressive tactics of “rollback” championed in the 1940s and 1950s by the far-right, Democrats are content with Cold War liberalism, and that’s been enough to generate Democratic support for Republican foreign policies.

Cold War liberalism continues to suffuse the Democratic Party, especially in its presidential candidates. Clinton and Obama in particular make constant reference to it in one form or another – Clinton in her arguments that the US cannot abandon Iraq, Obama in his “Renewing American Leadership” article in Foreign Affairs, a piece deeply rooted in Cold War liberal thought. (Jérôme a Paris gave this article an excellent deconstruction back in May.) Richardson wears his Cold War liberalism on his sleeve and offers it constantly as his résumé. Only Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich, among the Dem candidates, reject these policies, but as of yet they individually lack a strong base within the party.

As we historians look back on September 11 and the political changes it wrought, we need to keep in mind the context. “September 11 changed everything” is a constant refrain. But like so many major historical events, change is relative. More importantly, change is limited by preexisting beliefs and assumptions. Americans processed September 11 according to those notions. For the right it merely verified their own hyper-imperialism, xenophobia, war-lust, and dislike of democracy. For Democrats, it showed yet again the need for and political value of Cold War liberalism.

It is an attachment that shows little sign of abating. And its effects suggest that for American progressives, a primary challenge in the coming years will be to reorient the Democratic Party away from Cold War liberalism, and toward another kind of foreign policy, one that does not assert American hegemony, and one that does not rely on militarism and interventionism to accomplish its aims.


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