When I was young, a mantra among progressives was that America had to stop operating as global policeman. Vietnam was the signal episode of arrogant and ultimately self-defeating American overreach. But there were plenty of other cases of the U.S. government doing the bidding of oil companies and banana barons, and blithely overthrowing left-democratic governments as well as outright communists (or driving nationalist reformers into the arms of communists.)
As the late Phil Ochs tauntingly sang, "We're the cops of the world." Or as Randy Newman mordantly put it, "Let's drop the big one and see what happens."
At the same time, I viewed myself as sensible left. I was the guy at the Moratorium demonstrations of the late 1960s and early 1970s (actually covering them for Pacifica) hoping to make prudent withdrawal from Vietnam a majority cause, not the guy chanting "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh.") I liked Norman Thomas's line: Don't burn the flag, wash it.
Overthrowing elected leaders like Chile's Allende, staging coups against Mossadegh in Iran and Arbenz in Guatemala, blocking the elected presidency of Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic -- those were outrages. Yet the basic containment of Soviet expansionism seemed necessary and smart policy to me.
As a lapsed political scientist, I agreed with the received wisdom that global anarchy and American isolationism led to 20th century war and chaos. I thought people who preached world government were naïve. I was, if you will, on the left wing of the realist camp. Yes to benign use of American power, no to marginal Cold War adventures and corporate-led foreign policy. Pick your battles and don't assume unlimited power; give colonies their liberty but with very limited forays into "nation building."
I understood that much of the pent-up rage in the global South was a delayed reaction to earlier Western imperialism, both political and economic. But I did not romanticize every Third World uprising.
Later, I thought Bill Clinton got it about right with his intervention in the former Yugoslavia, warm embrace of Mandela, diplomacy in Northern Ireland, realistic anti-terrorism policies, and relative restraint generally. I applauded Clinton's Mid-East peace efforts, but thought both parties were far too indulgent of Israeli settlement-building on the West Bank.
Today, the legacy of the Cheney-Bush regime has underscored the folly of overreach. Every place where America intervened under the Cheney doctrine, we've left a worse mess than the one we attempted to fix.
In a sense, the Left has gotten its wish. Events have made crystal clear that America can't intervene everywhere. It's not even apparent that we can constructively intervene anywhere.
Challenges to global peace and stability are hydra-headed and localized, not the work of a central conspiracy. Not even Henry Kissinger could cut a deal with non-state militias, and there's not much to negotiate with the ISIS caliphate.
Despite the partial culpability of Western excesses during the last century, it's hard to argue that Jihadists are therefore the good guys and Yankee imperialists the bad guys. On the contrary, radical Islam is at war against the Enlightenment, not to mention the rights of religious others, women, and basic political democracy. (So, for that matter, are ultra-orthodox Zionism and ultra-fundamentalist Christianity.)
Despite its omissions, limitations and the central role of dead white Europeans, I'm rather fond of the Enlightenment. Its basic ideals are worth defending.
Many Jihadists would surely use nuclear weapons if they could get them, making the events of 9/11 look like a mere prologue, and requiring U.S. global vigilance.
So, Left friends, be careful what you wish for. America's power today is humbled -- and the world is more of a cauldron than ever. Even for lefties inclined to "blame America first," as the Right likes to put it, U.S. intervention is often a lesser evil.
So if you were Czar, as the old saying went, exactly what foreign policy would you venture?
Given the limited options, is Obama getting it mostly right? Or is he pursuing the correct policies but somehow projecting weakness (as he surely does with Republicans at home)?
Where does it make sense to exit the game, even if the vacuum is filled by true crazies and sectarian wars, as in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Where must we conclude that we have little constructive role to play despite humanitarian outrages, because of limited resources and leverage, as in Syria?
Where are truly vital interests at stake (Ukraine, and China?) and what's the possible policy? Where is robust diplomacy a substitute for brute force?
How do we deal with the true menace of nuclear proliferation, when it's no longer feasible to police the world?
I'm a big fan of Elizabeth Warren. I hope she runs for president. However, several progressive Democrats, not unreasonably, have lately said to me: But she has no foreign policy experience. Do we have any idea of her views, or whom she'd appoint? With the world in crisis, would people vote for someone like Warren solely on pocketbook issues?
Well, Cheney and Rumsfeld had plenty of foreign policy experience, and look what it got us. Obama had none whatever, but Kerry and Biden seem to be doing about as well as anyone could, given the terrible hand that history has dealt them. Clinton, if memory serves, had been governor of Arkansas, a state without a foreign policy.
Here is one more story from my youth. At my Oberlin graduation, in 1965, the Commencement speaker was Martin Luther King. The College trustees, perhaps to balance Dr. King, were also giving an honorary degree to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, architect of the Vietnam escalation.
One faction of students wanted to boycott or picket Commencement, but that would have insulted Dr. King. Moderate lefties like me proposed a compromise. If Rusk would meet with us and listen to our proposal, we would not stage a demonstration. The meeting was duly brokered. The few far lefties groused that the student leaders had sold them out.
At the meeting, we pitched the following proposition. Ho Chi Minh was first and foremost a nationalist. His real enemy was China. South Vietnam was corrupt, non-democratic, and in any case not viable as a state. Why not allow Ho's National Liberation Front to take power, as America should have done when Ho won his anti-colonial war with France in 1954, and guarantee Vietnam's neutrality in exchange for Vietnam's non-intervention elsewhere?
Rusk smiled indulgently. What did we know? We were a bunch of kids.
As events turned out, we were better realists than Rusk. Today, half a century later, the communist government in Hanoi prizes trade deals with America, practices semi-capitalism, does not threaten its neighbors, and relies on the U.S. as a counterweight to China. We might have had roughly the same outcome in 1965, with 50,000 fewer American combat deaths.
But I digress. Here are two concluding thoughts.
First, despite far-left fantasies, American can't simply exit the world stage. There are too many menaces that require our constructive engagement. But America's room to operate is very limited.
Secondly, better to have a thoughtful and well-read progressive leader with limited foreign policy experience than an experienced rightwing zealot like Cheney or even a misguided experienced moderate like Rusk.
Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos, and teaches at Brandeis University's Heller School.