What’s “right-wing” about confronting the Saudis?

I was struck by the following phrase in Max Sawicky’s account of the first Democratic “debate”:

Bob Graham has chosen the awkward position of being to the right of George Bush on defense.

Because I think that a winning Democratic campaign ought to stress Bush’s inconsistency and (in some areas) appalling laxity about the true threats we face from various brands of politicized Islam, I paid more attention to the sentence than I otherwise might have, and noticed how odd the phrase “to the right” seems in this context. Not that I haven’t used the same locution myself, but on reflection it strikes me as bizarre, and perhaps reflective of a serious problem for progressive politics in the post-9-11 situation.

During the Cold War, there was an important sense in which hawkishness was truly a right-wing position. By “right-wing” here I mean “tending to support the interests and promote the political power of the rich, the landlords, and the employers against those of the poor, the peasants, and the employees.”

Because leftist governments and movements around the world had access to Russian and Chinese support, and because the right wing around the world preferred the US side to the Russian side in the Cold War, the US reflex was to support right-wing regimes and movements, some of them nasty (Diem, the Shah, the Greek colonels, the Saudi monarchy, Pinochet) and some of them truly revolting (Mobutu, the South African nationalists, Savimbi, the Contras, the Afghanistani mujaheddin).

This is not the place to rehash the arguments about what was really good for the countries in question, or the poor people in them particularly, or whether we were or were not justified in supporting “our SOBs”: it’s enough to say that if you were to the left of center in a Third World country, the US was generally not your friend. Until the Carter era, we weren’t even clearly in favor, as a practical matter, of the liberal (as opposed to leftist) principles of free elections and human rights.

As a result, and especially during and after the Vietnam debacle, support for a strong US military was greater on the right side of the US political spectrum than on the left side. But that difference was historically specific; insofar as military spending was a left/right issue in the Roosevelt era, it was the left that wanted strength and the right that preached “economy in government” and “no entangling alliances.” In the Clinton era, spending on the military remained more popular on the right, but using the military the way Clinton used it — in Haiti and Yugoslavia — was supported more by Democrats than by Republicans. [Clinton’s, and Gore’s, failure to use Republican opposition to intervention in Kosovo to question the patriotism of Republicans was ethically admirable but perhaps a tactical blunder.]

In the current situation, the main threat to the US comes from movements and regimes that are both right-wing and illiberal. That ought to be a political gift to the Democrats. The phrase “Taliban wing of the Republican party,” which had a brief vogue as a description of Pat Robertson and his buddies, was grossly unfair, but it reflected quite genuine commonalities between American and Islamic fundamentalists who were lovers of hierarchy and traditional values and opponents of social democracy and of more equal social, political, and economic roles for women. (I recall Jesse Helms expressing admiration for the Saudi law prescribing stoning for adulterous wives.)

So on what theory is criticizing the subservience of the House of Bush to the House of Saud “attacking Bush from the right”? Unless it has become the “left” position that American power per se is excessive and should be reduced, this is a moment when the left ought — both because it’s good politics and because it’s consistent with both leftist and liberal values — to be demanding that the US get tough on the Saudi monarchy, which combines reactionary theocratic tyranny at home with support for terrorism abroad.

We should also be demanding enormous increases in expenditure for true homeland defense, and in particular a rebuilding of our hollowed-out public health infrastructure. Cracking down on the offshore banking centers that serve the interests of tax evaders, organized criminals, and terrorists alike is another obviously progressive idea, and the fact that the pro-tax evasion folks at Heritage talked Bush into backing off from offshore banking enforcement early in the administration ought to be a Democratic campaign theme for 2004. And if we’re at war, then what is the President doing cutting taxes? Doesn’t he know that armies cost money?

There’s plenty of room for progressives to criticize Bushite unilaterialism and cowboyism. But that’s not the same as opposing vigorous action against those who hate this country and what it represents, and who hate us precisely because of the elements of our society that are most progressive.

If freeing the Haitians from the tyranny of the Tontons Macoutes, or the East Timorese from the tyranny of the Indonesian army, were progressive things to do, why isn’t freeing the black Sudanese from the tyranny (amounting in some cases to actual slaveholding) of the Arab Sudanese an equally progressive goal? The overthrow of the Shah seemed like a good idea at the time, to those of us on the left who didn’t know enough to guess what would replace him. Why shouldn’t the overthrow of the Iranian theocrats and of the Saudi royal family be desired, on the left — precisely on the left — with equal fervency?

Update Max Sawicky replies, thoughtfully as usual.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com