The Cold War is Over
The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. The USSR broke up in 1991. The Cold War has been over for seventeen years. The US military no longer sees Russia as its chief enemy; the concept of the Second World (the Soviet bloc) is obsolete, and the old diplomacy is dead. The Cold War is over for everyone—except the Democrat and Republican parties.
Both parties foreign policies were forged in the heat of the Cold War, and both made their differing foreign policies the centerpieces of their respective platforms. Then the Cold War ended. But both parties liked their platforms the way there were, and didn’t see any need to change. So now both parties feature foreign policy philosophies that are outdated and a bit ridiculous.
The Right was always implacably opposed to Communism, and recognized it as a existential threat to Liberalism (capital L, of course; the Liberalism of the Enlightenment). They favored an aggressive treatment in an attempt to stamp out Communism wherever it was found; hence an aggressive foreign policy against any nation that looked likely to turn Communist.
When the Cold War ended, conservatives still felt hawkish but didn’t know whom to be hawkish towards. And they started seeing any foreign adversary of America, no matter how insignificant, as a deadly threat to the American way of life.
This is how Saddam Hussein, who in retrospect seems a relatively harmless (at least to us) tyrant, became a frightening menace to America, and why conservatives seek to paint Islamic extremists as a truly existential threat to the West. In reality, Islam is no match for the West, even if it gave them a free hand—Osama bin Laden is the only Islamic leader to have actually done any significant damage, and suicide bombings are simply not an effective way of gaining power. Neither are protests—Europe might give in for a while—but once Muslims start demanding things Europeans want for themselves, suddenly their protests won’t be as effective. It’s almost impossible to see a plausible way that Islam could topple Western culture, and impossible to imagine it defeating the United States.
The Right is probably guilty of creating a paper tiger of Islamic fundamentalism. The Left is guilty of doing its best to make that paper tiger real.
During the Cold War, the Left saw Communism as something of a kindred ideology; far too extreme, but still something that could be reasoned with. That is one reason the Left opposed Vietnam—not so much because it was an unnecessary and strategically stupid war poorly handled (though that was a reason, and perhaps a good one), but because any war against Communism was ipso facto a bad idea. It would be unfair to say that liberals wanted the Communists to win—but they didn’t much want them to lose either.
And when the Cold War ended, they brought that same pacifistic fervor to the post-War world. For liberals, there were very few good reasons to fight a war, and advancing American foreign policy wasn’t one of them (on most occasions). They viewed every foreign conflict with deep suspicion, even though the U.S. was usually (it may even be safe to say always) fighting dangerous dictators who were, apart from any threat they may have presented to the U.S., had it coming.
So now the Left tries to excuse any crimes committed by radical Muslims, and opposes harsh confrontations with Islamic nations. Liberalism (small l) and radical Islam have nothing in common, leaving liberals defending an ideology that they can’t rationally defend. Most of the Left’s sympathy for radical Islam, I suggest, is borne out of an instinctive sympathy for those on the receiving end of American power.