December 04, 2018

Progressives Should Embrace the Politics of Defense

By Loren DeJonge Schulman

In his essay on what a progressive national security agenda should look like, Van Jackson proposes to stretch the common progressive position of anti-militarism to a more realist platform of military “sufficiency.” In doing so, he brings attention to a serious gap in current defense politics. The stilted and superficial dialogue that passes for national security debate in American politics includes an active constituency for a “military first” (or military friendly) foreign policy, reflexively applying military tools to problems abroad and inflating defense spending. There is also a weaker constituency, most present outside government, for a “military last” or “anti-militarist” policy, which would cut defense spending and end wars with similar reflexivity. Outside the apolitical “blob” of Washington, there is little interest in publicly debating the prudence or effectiveness of these agendas. The left, regardless of its broader “theory of security,” could fill some of this vacuum — and it is better situated to do so than conventional wisdom might suggest.

Democrats Drowning at the Water’s Edge

For the last two decades, there has been little political opportunity to question America’s role in the world. With some exception, relevant defense and security policies have been open to even less scrutiny. Questions about the ethical or effective application of force, the size of the defense budget, the success of a given military strategy, the utility of specific weapons platforms, and the return on investment from security cooperation are, at best, diversions. Anyone who attempts to challenge the status quo risks being greeted with political attacks about lacking patriotism or not supporting American troops. But at a time of frequent missteps abroad on the part of the Trump administration, the space to question America’s foreign policy traditions may be widening.

The inability to pose legitimate questions about security policy is a particular flavor of political correctness, and because of it, the Democratic Party has all but disappeared in defense policy and politics. The last two years have seen more than a dozen pieces on the left’s lack of branded national security ideas. Michael Walzer has attributed this gap to an intentional abstention: The default position of the left is that “the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy.” Jackson highlights modest resourcing and under-representation as justifications for the left’s notable lack of a “theory of security” and the general subsuming of the debate under a big-tent “third way” liberalism. Traditional Democrats in the national security community (including me) have bristled at these criticisms, but would be hard-pressed to offer a distinctive and coherent political viewpoint.

Read the full article in the Texas National Security Review.