The Inappropriateness of Using a Left-Right Spectrum on Foreign Policy
The Inappropriateness of Using a Left-Right Spectrum on Foreign Policy
Friday, November 21,2008 18:26
By Shadi Hamid

Many of you have probably seen the interesting back-and-forth between Matt Yglesias and Ross Douthat regarding Obama’s foreign policy orientation. I just wanted to comment that, while I understand what Ross is saying, I still find this part somewhat baffling:

Here"s a fearless prediction: On an awful lot of issues, the Obama foreign policy will end cutting to the right of Bill Clinton"s foreign policy, which was already more center-left than left. Even with the GOP brand in the toilet, Republicans are still trusted as much or more than Dems on foreign policy, mostly for somewhat nebulous "toughness" reasons.

It’s never really made sense to me to use a left-right spectrum when talking about foreign policy. What does it mean to have a “leftist” foreign policy approach? I assume that people use “leftist” as a proxy for “weak.” But, even the “weak/dove” – “strong/hawk” spectrum is a weird one. I think the last 8 years would indicate that hawks have made us weaker, while doves would have made us stronger. Is a willingness to coddle dictators a sign of weakness or strength? And if it’s the former, then why do so a significant number of “neo-cons” have, contrary to what their ideology would suggest, a particular fondness for “moderate” Arab dictators? If we’re talking about the left’s foreign policy tradition, then a “moralist” concern with supporting human rights and democracy abroad is, I would say, distinctly “leftist.” But then we run into a problem: democracy promotion > leftist foreign policy approach > weak.

What about caring about what other people think about us? If you say something like, “it would be nice if Arab publics liked us,” you’re apparently weak on national security. But it would seem to me that our ability to fight terrorism would be strengthened if we had the support of target populations. The problem is our whole discourse on foreign policy has been, for some time, shaped by the Right, and many of the definitions we use are products of a post-9/11 sensibility. In other words, much of it is distorted.