Obama’s foreign policy: Still an unknown

When it comes to economics, we know our right from our left. Those on the right, trust markets more than governments. For those on the left — it’s the other way around.

Where international affairs are concerned, it gets more complicated. Even so, I was stunned by columnist Peggy Noonan’s assertion that Barack Obama could "more easily go left in foreign relations for the precise reason no one knows what going left is, because no one knows what going right in foreign relations is, at least if ‘right’ means ‘conservative.’"

Whew. Much as I like and admire Peggy, who served as one of President Reagan’s finest speechwriters, I think she’s way off base here.

It would be better if we were able to debate the issue of foreign relations and national security unencumbered by right vs. left, conservative vs. liberal animosities. But ideological clashes no longer end at the water’s edge.

Seven years ago, in the wake of the worst foreign attack ever on American soil, I organized the Foundation for Defense of Democracies as a think tank focusing on terrorism, the ideologies that drive terrorism and the policies that could best defend the United States and other free nations from terrorism. I hoped this would be an issue on which Americans from across the spectrum would come together.

Most conservatives saw clearly that militant Islamist movements and regimes had become a serious threat to the West. Most also came to the conclusion that it would not be possible to appease these foes or make ourselves inoffensive to them. A war would have to be fought — a war that would be unconventional, but no less dangerous because of that.

Those on the far left, however, were soon using quotation marks to express their skepticism about "terrorism," which they saw as no worse than other forms of violence, and about "terrorists" who, they insisted, have legitimate grievances. And talking about a "war on terrorism," they protested, gives Americans a moral high ground they have no right to claim — given such alleged sins as imperialism, colonialism, Islamophobia and support for Israel.

Yes, there were and are moderates on the left who found such analyses naive and relativist. (Sen. Joseph Lieberman and former CIA director Jim Woolsey spring to mind) But they have been vilified and all but excommunicated by the activists at MoveOn.org (the ones who called Gen. David Petraeus "Gen. Betray Us") and bloggers such as those at the Daily Kos.

So if, as Peggy Noonan suggests, Obama goes left on this most crucial of foreign relations issues, he’ll end up — at best — where we were prior to 2001: Islamist terrorism will again be regarded as a criminal justice problem. What does that mean?

In "The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals," the liberal New Yorker writer Jane Mayer blasts members of the Bush administration for having spent the last seven years believing "it was an urgent matter of life and death to not just solve (terrorist) crimes but instead to preempt them before they were committed. They had no time to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt."

Yes exactly, they considered saving lives more important than putting mass murderers behind bars — recognizing that, when it comes to suicide bombers, prison is not an option.

This is where most conservatives have gone. With only a few exceptions (e.g. paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan and libertarian Ron Paul), going right has come to mean grasping that the West is engaged in a conflict as consequential as those that were fought against Nazism and Communism.

There is no easy way to win this conflict, but there are easy ways to lose: Underestimate the threat, put lawyers and judges in charge, fail to develop adequate defenses, don’t take the fight to your enemies, let them bring the fight to you, demonstrate that terrorism can and will succeed.

If Obama is the next president and if, as Peggy Noonan suggests he is more likely to "go left in foreign relations," we should at least understand where that will lead us.

(Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. E-mail him at cliff(at)defenddemocracy.org)