Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Why liberals should not play the nationalist card

How bad is the domestic political situation in Israel? This bad:

Livni raps Israel’s cooperation with U.N. flotilla probe

JERUSALEM (JTA) -- Israel's opposition leader criticized the Netanyahu government for agreeing to cooperate with a United Nations probe of the Turkish flotilla incident.

That's right--Tzipi Livni, the center-left opposition leader in Israel, is criticizing the right-wing prime minister for being insufficiently nationalist and for going against the troops by allowing an investigation into the flotilla incident. This might well be opportunistic, is it was when domestic liberals in the U.S. were eager enough to try to score nationalist points when George Bush was trying to get the sign-off on Dubai Ports buying a chunk of the Port of New Orleans. I can certainly understand the motive for people who constantly get points scored against them on nationalistic grounds to toss a little bit back, and in some cases it might actually be merited. But this really is shitting in your own bed if you're not right-wing, when you think about it.

On the one hand, reducing security and foreign policy to national interests makes a lot of sense. I'm definitely of the opinion that we shouldn't go to war unless our interests are threatened in a very severe way that allows no other options. But there are a lot of people out there who want to fight numerous wars that are at best tangentially related to our interests, and those people have a lot of power. Operating as we are in a society that still harbors deep fears about terrorism and security, I simply don't have a lot of confidence that a purely realistic way of viewing foreign threats will be sufficient to stop needless wars because, in practice, it has been easy enough to convince people that it's better to shoot first in these sorts of situations instead of, I don't know, practicing restraint. But on the other hand, I don't think that it'll really be possible to destroy the neocons unless the rest of us are able to offer something to the public other than nationalism or realism. Liberals have by and large distanced themselves from the traditional liberal vision of global peace secured by international institutions, and considering the weakness of the U.N.'s structure I can totally understand that. But the course is invariably set: Plato's Republic tells us that law is a compromise between being able to steal and being stolen from without any recourse, and as the volume of global trade increases people who get ripped off are going to want to seek redress somewhere. If anyone wanted to make the argument that the financial crisis shows that it is necessary to have strong international institutions that can put pressure on countries (cough cough, Iceland) that could cause problems for everyone else, I think the argument could be pretty easily made. I'm not aware of any liberal politicians making that argument, though. It's a shame, not only because of our nation's history in supporting such ventures, but because the neoconservative model is so glaringly inadequate and contradictory that the internationalist model is practically ironclad by comparison. Free trade plus hypernationalism plus quasi-empire is no real reaction to the reality of globalization. Reviving that old liberal ideal strikes me as the only tool that could conceivably beat the neocons, just because it involves a different and more appealing vision than perpetual low-intensity conflict. You have to fight an idea with an idea, in my opinion. And liberal internationalism is a nice idea. I'm an optimist, and I'd like to think that an appealing ideal can beat grubby power politics when given a fair shot. It's been so long since anyone domestically articulated any of this that I'd be curious to see if the right could even form any reasoned arguments against it. I doubt they could.

I suppose my point here is that, while it is no doubt cathartic to be able to toss back a little nationalist rancor at the Netanyahus and Bushes of the world, it does more harm than good in the long run. It's well known that rightists often have an easier time of making real moves toward peace, as they can deliver the entire spectrum of public opinion, which the left alone often cannot do. By attacking from the left on nationalist grounds, Livni is denying Netanyahu any political space for independence from his right-wing coalition and is ensuring that he will have to continue to play to the settlement crowd in all things. I don't think Netanyahu is much more than a power-hungry hack, but Livni is proving herself no slouch in the power-hungry hack department. When the left plays the nationalist card, they lose. Evidently Livni didn't learn the example of her predecessor, whose bellicose nationalism helped him not at all against Bibi last year, and in fact set the stage for Israel's current predicament.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.