Setting the Stage

The last few years have seen a remarkable surge in the popularity of leftist political thought in the United States – though it is clear that leftist ideas still have a very long road to travel before reaching full, mainstream acceptance. I’ve recently seen myself take my own personal journey of “coming out of the closet” when it came to accepting my actual inner political compass – one that started in earnest around 2015/2016 and finally came to a head during the 2020 Democratic primaries.

For years I saw myself as a fairly typical, center-left, liberal foreign policy and national security “wonk” (a term I used to think was funny and now makes me cringe so hard it feels like my face might turn inside out), coming from a fairly typical white, male, middle-class background. Now I’m still getting over the whiplash of the last year, which has seen me fumbling my way through trying to identify where exactly I stand within the seemingly massive and maze-like world of leftism and its various sub-ideologies as I’ve drastically changed my political outlook. I’m still travelling on that journey and slowly trying to figure out what I think, but along the way I’ve been introduced to a number of helpful people and have been educated on a number of subjects, challenging my past beliefs and assertions and pushing me to grow.

But as someone who is relatively new to boarding the leftist train, I’ve noticed there are some areas that – to me – it seems that leftist thought in the United States either hardly touches or doesn’t address at all. None among these has been as obvious to me as the subjects I was educated in and have come to work: foreign policy and national security.

It’s understandable to me why most leftists tend not to speak about these topics. After all, most average Americans, regardless of ideology, for one reason or another, lack a general awareness or understanding about national security and foreign policy – even if they understand that it is important (it could be argued how much of this is by design, but that’s a topic for another essay). In addition to this general fact, most leftists likely see other issues like systemic racism, police brutality, lack of social services, the rampant abuses and excesses of unchecked capitalism, and so on as more immediately pressing concerns – and for good reason.

However, the result here is that it feels like what little conversation that takes place within leftist circles about war and international relations is typically dominated by groups and individuals who do not provide helpful or constructive alternative solutions. Rather, they more often than not put forward solutions that – if not unworkable or infeasible – could be outright damaging and potentially inflict just as much death and destruction on people around the globe as current policies do if adopted, rather than achieving a more peaceful and just world. While I am still new to this, these perspectives feel like they are clearly contrary to the underlying principles of international leftist solidarity.

The current thought leaders (and why they’re not great)

One such group advocating these ideas consists of individuals that come from a diverse array of different sections of leftist thought that – while maybe conflicting in other areas – generally argue that the United States should engage in little or no military actions overseas and withdraw from most if not all of its overseas bases. Some go further, asserting that the armed forces should be disbanded entirely. While I disagree with these suggestions strongly for reasons I will elaborate on further, I completely understand why people would advocate for these actions and I empathize with their proponents in why they argue for it so strongly. They are exercising sympathy with disadvantaged peoples who have suffered at U.S. expense. When you see the huge amounts of pain and suffering that U.S. military operations and foreign policy actions in the last few decades have caused to multiple innocent populations overseas, a response of wanting to take the most extreme way possible to prevent that from happening is completely understandable.  

However, while the intent behind this idea is pure, it is also naïve and potentially dangerous. If the United States elected a hypothetical “President Leftist” tomorrow, it is true that a great deal would change both here at home and abroad. But what is not true is that suddenly that the United States would no longer have enemies – depending on where the cards fall globally, it might even earn the United States more enemies.

While I am challenging many of my old views from before diving headfirst into leftism and have modified or outright replaced many, one that I continue to believe is that war is a condition that humankind will likely never be rid of. War has been and will continue to be a constant for the world. Obviously, war should be avoided wherever possible and should only be a last resort for defending yourself or your friends and allies from aggression. But despite this, war will still continue to occur and it will be something that a leftist government will still have to prepare for. Will we have to spend near as much on defense as we do now? I certainly don’t think so (and that is yet another topic for another time), but it is something that resources will still need to be put into under President Leftist. War will still be a worry.

This is where the naivety – as well as a bit of ethnocentrism or even another brand of American exceptionalism – is on display in the disarmament viewpoint. If the United States destroyed all its weapons and discharged all its troops under day one of President Leftist’s administration, it is extremely improbable that every other nation in the world would decide to follow suit even under the rosiest visions of internationalism. The United States having a leftist government almost certainly wouldn’t stop China from wanting to invade Taiwan, Russia from wanting to dominate its near-abroad, or a number of other scenarios across the world. If anything, these regimes would be cautiously optimistic about such a government arising in the United States, hoping it would give them more room to maneuver and achieve their long-term objectives. They would likely be ecstatic if the U.S. suddenly disbanded all of its armed forces, as it would give them free reign to pursue a laundry list of goals they had previously been constrained in reaching – and would cause harm to many others in the process.

This brings us to two other groups that dominate the discussion of international relations and war in the leftist sphere, but I tend to think of as one overall type: “Campists” and “Tankies.” Campists, in a simplified sense, are those who think that if a country opposes the policies and practices of the United States, that country must therefore be good and is inherently an ally against U.S. imperialism and aggression to be applauded. Tankies – the colloquial term for everyone’s favorite Soviet apologists and fans of authoritarian socialists – take a similar tack, though the subjects of their affection are almost always only countries with socialist systems, while Campists may boost countries that are not exclusively socialist.

While different, both these groups broadly the same thing: that we should just let certain countries do whatever they want because the U.S. government is bad and these other states are good. The average campist’s main reason for this is that because the country is not the United States or a U.S. ally, it must be good and should be supported in its efforts – an outlook that in many ways could simply be considered in the vein of Edward Said’s orientalism, fetishizing other countries and cultures to create an imagined ideal that they may not be able to live up to. For the tankie, the logic is that since the country is socialist in any shape or form, it must be good and therefore should be supported in its efforts. Both these groups tend to turn a willful blind eye to any transgressions the states of their affection have committed against their own citizens or other states – while of course relentlessly criticizing all U.S. actions worldwide.

This leads us to a critical point, which I attach with an important disclaimer: I am not saying that the United States can do no wrong. If I did that, I’d basically be doing the same thing as a tankie or a campist in reverse. I wouldn’t be writing this multi-page rant in my free time if I didn’t think the United States was doing an incredible amount of harm through its international actions. But this still leads us to an important point:

Just because the United States is doing bad things, doesn’t mean no one else is.

Multiple things can be bad at the same time.

Multiple countries can be bad (and not just ones that are U.S. allies and partners).

This seems to be a fact that many leftists struggle with – not just the full-blown Tankies and Campists. Just because the United States and its proxies have committed inexcusable acts at home and worldwide does not mean China or Russia or Iran or North Korea have not (and they all absolutely have; fight me). This doesn’t mean we should only focus on the acts of those countries and turn a blind eye to those of the United States, but the opposite isn’t true either. It certainly doesn’t mean that we should be supporting these regimes and rooting for them in their quests to brutalize their own citizens or infringe upon the rights of people in other countries, or any number of other horrible things their regimes wish. Instead of trying to find an imagined ideal role model country, we need to accept that there is no perfect model free of transgressions for us to emulate. Leftists will need to accept that there are good things – or at least neutral things – that the United States should continue doing, while also taking inspiration from other countries both past and present in order to make right all that is wrong in our own country.

Why we need to do better

That final point reinforces why leftists need to get smarter on these issues and build up our own bench of experts in international relations and the study of war. One day – in the hopefully not-so-distant future – when President Leftist takes office, they are going to face many of the same issues that presidents past have faced, as well as a whole host of new ones we may not even be able to comprehend right now. Even after the United States ceases engaging in aggressive, imperialist actions of its own, other states will continue to do so and new contenders may come to the fore to seize their own opportunity to stake out an empire. The simple truth is that under President Leftist, the great power competition that has characterized international relations in modern times will almost certainly remain, even after the United States commits to a necessary retreat from empire. Ideally, this great power competition and its impact will be lessened over time. But my cynicism is again on display in that I don’t believe we’ll ever fully be rid of it – at least not in any near-future timeline that I can foresee.

With all this in mind, if President Leftist chose to disband the military as disarmament proponents assert, or simply let certain nations do as they pleased as Tankies and Campists would prefer, they would not only be forsaking one of the fundamental tenants of leftism – that is, internationalism, they would also be showing a fundamental lack of empathy for the fate of others. As Francis Horton and Nate Bethea of one of my favorite podcasts – What a Hell of a Way to Die – have taught me: you simply can’t be a leftist if you don’t exercise empathy. That empathy doesn’t stop at borders. If we chose to forsake other oppressed populations the world over under our own leftist government, we wouldn’t be worthy of the title. Isolationist leftism is simply an oxymoron.

Another issue that many leftists don’t consider or don’t wish to address is the way the United States has become essential to global stability (another thing I can only briefly address here, but hope to address more in a future essay). The United States ceasing its pursuit of neo-colonial empire and abandoning said empire and further imperialist activities are admittedly essential if we are to build a more stable, free, and just world for everyone who lives in it. But if the United States were to immediately withdraw all overseas military forces under day one of President Leftist’s administration and cease any and all military operations, it would likely be extremely damaging and harmful to many people across the world. Serious discussions can and should be had about how big the U.S. military should be, what it should do, how it should do it, what is better saved for diplomacy and foreign aid, and so on. But these are not the discussions that leftists are having now. The discussions are dominated by those with the ideas that could potentially do the most harm to the most vulnerable people.

This is why I decided to write this essay (with some encouragement from friends), and why I hope to be writing more like it and undertaking other efforts to distribute my thoughts. I want to explore more of what foreign policy and national security policy would look like under our hypothetical President Leftist. I think it is an area – among others – that we as leftists are fundamentally unprepared for. If we ever hope to govern and enact real, fundamental, society-altering change in this country, we’ll need to have seriously thought about what exactly that would be and how exactly we would carry it out. As someone who has spent most of their academic career learning about these subjects and has now become a practitioner of them, I feel this is a way I could give back – with the help of those that I’ve met along the way – to the community I’ve found my way into as I continue to discover myself and find a place in it.

No doubt people will disagree with me (certainly, many among the groups I’ve singled out as the target of my ire). Some people will argue against what I’m saying in bad faith (say hello to being ignored). Others will be opposed because they may have a hard time challenging their own long held views – which is understandable, as I still struggle with many of my own. But it is my hope that the thoughts I’ll be putting out here will encourage greater discussion and deliberation among leftists on these issues, and lead to a wider variety of voices becoming involved and helping to develop policies and solutions that can lead to a better world.

A better world is possible, but a perfect world is not.

3 thoughts on “Setting the Stage

  1. Firstly sorry if my english isn’t good neither am I USian or english my first language.
    Thank you for the thought on the specific need for “national” security and war expert and policy from “leftist” perspective. This piece seems to be in a more short term, reformist, and statist framework. Framework that many anarchist will disagree on principle alone. Seeing how often anarchist jump from one conflict to another they probably will still agree with the military action bit.

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  2. Intro: It’s great to finally see a fellow leftist who takes issues of foreign policy, national security, and defense spending seriously. Tankies, campists, and isolationists have dominated leftist discourse in the U.S. for decades now because the far left hasn’t wielded political power in this country for about a century (if dozens of socialist mayors and a couple of Congressmen can really said to be wielding power) and so sloganeering (“U.S. troops out of X country”) has become a substitute for solutions. Things have gotten so bad that there’s not even consensus on the American left that national defense is even a valid concept, which is strange because even the likes of Marx,Engels, and Lenin acknowledged that defensive wars by then-existing non-socialist states were sometimes necessary and that socialists should support the defending side. In Europe—where leftist parties have not only governed but managed to create social democracies—leftist parties are a lot less tankie/campist/isolationist. 

    A good, contemporary example of what I’m talking about is Labour MP Hilary Benn’s speech to the British parliament supporting the extension of UK airstrikes on ISIS from Iraqi territory (where they were requested by the elected government there) and into Syria (where they were not requested by the Assad regime):https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m_dRCzd19Uc

    Benn’s position was the exact opposite of then-Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn who opposed Western airstrikes on ISIS and claimed diplomacy would somehow stop ISIS. Benn’s speech was grounded in working-class internationalism, complete with references to the position of Prime Minister Hollande (head of the Socialist Party of France, Labour’s sister’s party), the near-genocide of the Yazidis, and the example of the International Brigades during the Spanish civil war.

    So while you may be isolated on the current iteration of the American left when it comes to foreign policy, you are in good company from both a historical and European leftist point of view, if that’s any comfort.

    With that out of the way, I’d like to outline where I stand on some issues that you’ve talked about in other posts:

    Afghanistan: I get where you’re coming from but I also think your support for the Trump-Biden withdrawal flatly contradicts what you wrote in another post, namely that, “when a people in a given place decide that they have had enough, are denied peaceful ways of enacting change for the better and are left no choice but to turn to force of arms against forces of authoritarianism and fascism in order to create a better more just system to live under, we should be ready and willing to support them in their struggle. The choice to embark on this path must lie with the people in question and the support we offer should be aimed at enabling them to achieve what they want instead of dictating to them how and what they should be doing.”

    I’m not pointing this out as some kind of cheap gotcha, but to explain using your own words why I opposed the withdrawal even though I marched and organized against the war back in 2001 when the war started. I might be the only person on the American left who both marched against the war in Afghanistan and opposed the withdrawal 20 years later but if there’s anything being a leftist on September 12, 2001 taught me, it’s that being a minority of one is sometimes absolutely necessary in the struggle for a better world.

    The internationalist case for leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban—given that the people of Afghanistan overwhelmingly (85%) opposed the Taliban while only 13.4% said they were sympathetic and that a majority did not support complete withdrawal even after a peace deal with the Taliban—is, in my very biased opinion, quite weak. Even worse, the U.S. negotiated withdrawal with the Taliban without the consent or even input of the Afghan government. Withdrawing from Afghanistan in this way was pure America-First isolationism and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Biden administration’s execution of Stephen Miller-style withdrawal got so many Afghans needlessly killed. (It also got Americans needlessly killed because the Taliban was de facto in charge of American security around the Kabul airport and ISIS ‘somehow’ managed to get by them to launch a parting shot.)

    Now, I agree with you that “It Didn’t Have to Be Like This” concerning the visa process, resettlement, and all that. To me, the Biden made the worst possible decision and did it in the worst possible way. But what I think is missing in your post on the topic is the why: Why was there zero concern for Afghans with visas? Why was there no serious planning to prevent the overnight collapse of the Afghan government? Why did the Biden administration decide to immediately withdraw all the logistical contractors that the Afghan military relied on to get food and ammo to its troops? And I think the answer to that why isn’t merely incompetence but racism. Afghan lives simply didn’t matter.

    To my mind, keeping a few thousand American troops in Afghanistan was a comparatively small—and in my opinion very worthwhile—price to pay to keep 40 million Afghans free of Taliban oppression and to avoid what will most likely be the prospect of yearly famines. By every conceivable metric Afghans are going to be much worse off under Taliban rule than they were under the U.S.-allied Afghan government, however flawed and corrupt. Everything positive that was achieved with American help/support/sacrifice in Afghanistan after 2001—record numbers of Afghan women and girls getting educated being probably being the most important and revolutionary—was thrown away for nothing: Biden’s numbers tanked so hard it became the inflection point that will make him a one-term president.

    A good (but admittedly not full proof or exhaustive) internationalist way to determine whether a given foreign policy decision is right/wrong is to find how many people in the affected country support said decision and what their political leanings are. The basic reason why “negative American exceptionalism” is so pervasive on the American left is because American leftists almost never try to engage non-Americans in any kind of meaningful dialogue; it’s very easy to simp for China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea if you’ve never spent 5 minutes talking to a broad political spectrum of people from the Philippines, Tibet, Ukraine, Iraq, Kurdistan, or South Korea. The relevance of that point to the Afghanistan discussion is that I have yet to find a single Afghan (who isn’t a Taliban sympathizer) who thinks Trump and Biden made the right call on withdrawing troops. It’s their country and they probably know better than we Americans do what’s best for Afghanistan. I guess I would say to be a good internationalist is to be a good multilateralist and the American withdrawal from Afghanistan was even more unilateralist than the 2003 Iraq war which is really saying something.

    In closing, I hope you don’t feel personally attacked by anything I’ve written above. You’re obviously trying to wrestle with these difficult issues in a genuine, good-faith way and my extremely harsh words are about what was done and how it was done, not you personally or where you stand on the issue of staying/withdrawing. One thing the American left needs a lot more of is vigorous but respectful full-throated debate where the other side isn’t smeared or caricatured.

    CIA Abolition: “You want to abolish the CIA because of torture, assassination, and coups; I want to abolish the CIA because they are incompetent to the point where it’s getting their assets killed; we are not the same.” My point here is that pretty much everything leftists rightfully complain about concerning the CIA are not cases of the agency going rogue, behind the back of the executive branch or the presidency; pretty much in all cases the CIA was doing what it was told to do by the president. So I really don’t think “CIA did X bad thing” is a very good argument for abolishing the agency given that X thing was what they were instructed to do by their bosses in the White House.

    That said, the CIA is pretty incompetent and since most actionable intelligence comes from the NSA and SIGINT I’d be fine with disbanding the CIA and re-structuring U.S. foreign intelligence capabilities out of the NSA instead. Unfortunately the NSA has a persistent mole problem, but maybe that has less to do with the NSA itself and more to do with the fact that the FBI is in charge of counter-intelligence and foreign spies is really more of an intelligence problem than it is a law enforcement problem.

    One thing I will say though about the CIA is that they—and the rest of the intelligence community—have done an extraordinary job around the Russia-Ukraine war. All of their warnings proved to be very accurate and giving Ukraine tons of actionable intelligence to aid their national liberation struggle is an example of the life-saving good U.S. spy agencies can do when directed to do so. More of that, please.

    F-35: Yes it shows that the procurement system is broken. But at the end of the day, the F-35 is a usable weapons system (Canada just opted buy F-35s and Israel routinely uses it to hit Iranian assets in Syria and the Russian defense systems have proven useless against the F-35) unlike, say, the LCS which cost many billions but produced junk that was barely seaworthy let alone effective in combat (they’re being retired now too after like a decade of service, which is unprecedented). My layman’s understanding of what went wrong with the F-35’s insane cost overruns is that the plane was originally envisaged as serving all the services, the idea being that economies of scale would produce tons of savings. However, all the services kept modifying their particular versions of the F-35 so instead of one basic plane serving everyone’s needs what in fact happened was the development of 3 or more essentially different, non-interchangeable planes which wiped out any cost-savings via bulk purchases. So what I’m saying is there was a lot of self-sabotage going on from a cost standpoint on the F-35; maybe it should’ve been cancelled the moment service-specific modifications were being considered, I don’t know. The problem with cancelling a weapon system mid-way through development is that there’s a lot of sunk costs and then that system has to be replaced with something else which would be hugely disruptive from both a planning and logistical standpoint and potentially even more expensive than just finishing the job that was started.

    As for the viability of stealth technology in warfare in general, the Serb military had advance notice about those airstrikes and so that was less of a stealth failure on America’s part than an intelligence coup on their part. They had a general idea of when and where to point their radars and picked up the F-117 when its bomb bay doors opened creating a momentary radar vulnerability. As I mentioned earlier, Israel is flying F-35s over Syria routinely through Russian air defenses without a scratch so to me that’s pretty good proof of concept (I think it’s pretty likely also that the Israelis inform the Russians of incoming strikes through deconfliction channels and that the Russians withhold that information from the Assad regime which is why they’ve never been able to know when/where to target their radars to replicate what happened to the F-117 in 1999). The U.S. and allies now have an airplane that basically nobody on planet Earth can touch (maybe China can? I know nothing about their air defense systems or if their electronic warfare capabilities could give them a Serbia-style advantage vs. stealth) which is why there’s been no F-35 dogfighting in Syria as in Ukraine.

    But whether it was worth spending billions (or trillions?) on the F-35 to create this generational technology gap between the U.S. and everyone else is fundamentally a judgment call. I think the F-35’s utility is at least questionable given that the future of airwar is drones, swarms, nanotech, AI, and other forms of unmanned combat aircraft which will be far, far cheaper per unit. On the other hand, not developing the F-35 at all would’ve meant spending enormous sums of money trying to keep legacy systems that are decades old up and running.

    When it comes to national defense and foreign policy, the saying “there are no solutions, only tradeoffs” is really true.

    1990s Military: As I recall the guiding strategic principle of the 90s military in terms of size and force structure was being able to fight and win two regional wars in different theatres simultaneously. That was put to the test in an unexpected way in Afghanistan and Iraq and what we learned I think was that the U.S. military was too small to decisively win—and thereby end—the insurgencies that developed (for different reasons) in both countries.

    So if the 90s military was too small to handle 10th or 20th-rate powers like Afghanistan and Iraq, it stands to reason it’s too small today to handle peer competitors like Russia and China, putting aside other threats like Iran and North Korea. This is why I favor a much bigger military, especially the navy; I think we also need to seriously rebuild America’s ship-building capacity. To my mind we ought to be paying Scandinavian tax rates to pay for all this plus Medicare for All and rest of the social-democratic wish list.

    Navy: The current navy is too small for its existing assigned responsibilities and the insane operational tempo has a lot to do with the recent spate of lethal collisions and accidents. We should either scale back its missions or increase its capabilities by expanding the fleet. The latter option is far more attractive and compelling to me because every time America has withdrawn from the world in the past decade vastly worse actors (ISIS, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, the Taliban) have filled the resulting vacuum and often launched regional wars to assert their hegemon.

    I don’t really have an opinion on how many carriers, frigates, destroyers, and so on should be fielded but I think you’re right to be skeptical about being so carrier-reliant or carrier-centric. Unmanned assets are probably the future in naval warfare as well, if not wholly then in part.

    USMC Reform: You haven’t touched this yet in your series on the service branches, but from what I’m reading it seems pretty ill-advised to turn the Marines into a ‘China-only’ force. I agree with the criticisms and caveats contained in this piece and I was shocked to learn that Berger’s reforms are being undertaken without the input of the other services or some such? To me that seems rather dangerous and like it contradicts the joint force principle which has been the lynchpin of U.S. war-planning for something like half a century, maybe longer? I’m curious where you stand on this debate.

    Conclusion: I think we’re on pretty much the same page when it comes to advocating a foreign policy that advances (democratic socialist) principles like internationalism, human rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, peace, freedom, equitably distributed prosperity, and non-hypocritical application of international law as opposed to narrowly construed and often nationalist/ethno-nationalist “national interests,” cynical realpolitik, or so-called “anti-imperialism” which is just Kissinger-ian realpolitik in reverse.

    The difficulty for us as leftists who advocate this approach is that both liberals and conservatives claim to be somehow advancing grand principles like freedom and democracy while backing murderous (often right-wing) regimes and I think the only way to cut through that and distinguish what we’re talking about vs. what they are talking about—while at the same time taking on the tankies, campists, and isolationists—is with specific case studies (Central America in the 1980s; Southeast Asia during the Cold War; the MENA region during and after the Arab Spring revolutions) and concrete policy options and choices. Which sure as hell isn’t easy because it requires a lot of reading and thoughtful engagement with issues that don’t lend themselves to leftist preferences, but it’s also very necessary if there’s ever going to be a serious shot at a President Leftist down the road.

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