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Liberal Apathy, the National Security Story

Heather Hurlburt is executive director of the National Security Network. She wrote this in response to last week's item about liberal apathy.

Jonathan Cohn falls into the same trap as his apathetic Netroots liberals as far as national security is concerned. The Rodney Dangerfield of the Obama administration, security can’t even get enough of their attention to be disrespected. (It should be said that Netroots organizers convened their first-ever broadly themed foreign policy panel to take a look at exactly this question, and invited my organization, the National Security Network, to put it together, so give them some credit. Like many of the successes described below, it’s a work in progress.)

And yet. In 2008, Americans said they were anxious about terrorism, about Iraq, about U.S. global standing. Liberals felt we were trapped on a path toward expanding, endless wars and shrinking interaction with global partners on global problems. President Obama will have us down to 50,000 troops in Iraq (from 145,000 in February 2009) and end combat missions next month. His administration revived the international consensus on reducing and ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons, and safeguarding nuclear materials. Next month will likely get the New START treaty through the Senate (albeit with an ugly, health care-like orgy of side deals). 

The economy looks bad now, but with full global recession it might have been much worse–administration leadership prevented global meltdown and created a more representative and inclusive forum, the G20, to manage global recovery. 

The first 18 months of the Administration saw more terrorism convictions in civilian courts than did five years of Bush Administration military tribunals–and the killing or capturing of half the leadership of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, according to CIA Director Leon Panetta. Counterterrorism experts like Stephen Flynn of the Center for National Policy argue that the smaller-scale terrorism attempts we’re now seeing (and thwarting) reflect an important success–Al Qaeda no longer enjoys the safety in its AfPak border hideaways to plot complex, multi-part attacks such as September 11. 

The administration successfully reset relations with Russia to get things we want in other fora (Afghanistan, Iran). Iran itself is weaker, more isolated externally and divided internally, than at any time in recent memory. Last year, the administration and Congress passed through a significant increase in aid to fight poverty and disease around the world. Global public opinion of the U.S. moved up nearly everywhere, soaring in Western Europe, Russia, and China. Americans who work at the UN and other international bodies tell stories of foreign nationals sidling up to them in the halls with a message: “We’re so glad you’re back.”

Hey, I can be critical, too. The opportunity to close Guantanamo promptly, send most of its inmates to humane destinations, and try those deserving in our civilian courts fell victim to ugly politics and inattention. Nobody, not even General Petraeus, thinks Afghanistan is going well enough as the Administration tries to hold steady on its plan for an “inflection point” next summer. (Speaking of Afghanistan, just 8 percent of Netroots attendees told pollsters that “finishing Afghanistan” should be the Administration’s top priority, vs. 74 percent favoring “improve the jobs situation.” I’d say the White House hears them loud and clear.) Middle East results have disappointed. The effort to find a post-Bush language for the promotion of democracy and human rights remains a work in progress. Some vital longer-term structural questions, about how we organize our nation’s conduct of international affairs and redress the funding and capability imbalance between civilians and the military, have slipped down the priority list in the welter of short-term challenges–as does the effort to explain again and again to Americans what kind of a world it is we are building toward.

Substantively, though, those shortcomings and delays are fixable–if the administration has the political capital and the time. Where, on the domestic side, liberals got the big change and need the enthusiasm to use and keep them, in foreign policy the administration has fought to clear the path. A changed paradigm is now possible–if liberals can rouse themselves from apathy enough to work for it and embrace politicians when they are supportive, in addition to pummeling them when they are not.