An Alibi For Liberal Realism

by Richard Just | April 20, 2009

Responding to this morning's eloquent New York Times op-ed on human rights in Afghanistan, Michelle Goldberg of the Prospect writes:

So far, the administration's realism has overshadowed its idealism, especially in Afghanistan, where the United States is reaching out to "moderate" elements of the Taliban. Lots of observers seem relieved by this scaling back of American ambitions. By cynically cloaking its own aggression in the language of human rights, the Bush team did much to discredit the latter. But ... there are real moral costs to realist compromises. Hamid Karzai, like most leaders, is perfectly willing to sell out Afghanistan's women when it's politically convenient. Are we?

Goldberg's overall point--that there are severe tradeoffs between realism and human rights--is plainly correct. But it was another sentiment embedded in her post that stood out to me: "By cynically cloaking its own aggression in the language of human rights, the Bush team did much to discredit the latter." Look, obviously, as a statement of fact, this is completely accurate: Through a mixture of cynicism and incompetence (probably more cynicism than incompetence, though clearly both were in play), the Bush administration badly sullied such liberal concepts as democracy-promotion, nation-building, and human rights. But I have heard liberals make some version of this observation so frequently that I am starting to worry: Will it come to serve as a sort of intellectual alibi for Obama's pursuit of realism? That is, if the new administration ends up--in contravention of every liberal principle--allowing the Taliban to make a comeback in Afghanistan, ignoring human rights in its dealings with China, and dragging its feet on Darfur, will liberals tell themselves that Obama had no choice because "the Bush team did much to discredit" idealism?

If so, that would be a shame, and illogical too. It is true that Bush sullied foreign-policy idealism--but Bush is no longer in power. Liberals are. And that means the days of defining liberalism as a reaction to Bush are over--or at least they should be. To be sure, Bush left Obama with an enormous mess, and cleaning up that mess does require scaling back our foreign-policy ambitions; no liberal would dispute this. But we can scale back our ambitions without tipping too far in the direction of cold realism. And if and when Obama does tip too far in the direction of realism on specific issues, liberals should be prepared to hold him accountable, not make excuses for him by noting that Bush rendered idealism unattractive.

However Obama proceeds in Afghanistan--by cutting a deal with the Taliban, as the authors of today's op-ed seem to worry he will do, or by pushing hard for a stable democracy that respects human rights--it will have been his choice, and ultimately his responsibility. What George Bush did to tarnish by association liberal values like freedom and democracy no longer applies; it is liberals who, going forward, get to call the shots. Here's hoping that, when it comes to issues like human rights in Afghanistan, we make the right choices.

--Richard Just

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