Idealism without Illusion: Henry Jackson at 100

This blog takes its name—“Idealism without Illusion”—from something said by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the New Deal Democrat, antitotalitarian defender of Soviet dissidents, and the nemesis of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s policy of détente. Repeating the public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr, Jackson warned that when democratic nations fail “their failure must be partly attributed to the faulty strategy of idealists who have too many illusions and realists who have too little conscience.”

The 100th anniversary of Jackson’s birth falls this year. It has been marked by a fine tribute from World Affairs writer Joshua Muravchik, who was a staffer for Jackson in the 1970s. I urge it on anyone seeking to understand the stature of the man and the importance of his ideas.

I think Jackson’s legacy is this: he helped us see how to avoid the Scylla of illusion-filled Bushian idealism and the Charybdis of conscienceless Kissingerian realism. As Robert G. Kaufman’s excellent biography notes, Jackson was rare in forging a foreign policy framework that was at once “realistic, humanitarian, moral and tough.” (Imperfectly, for sure; his China policy was at odds with his antitotalitarian record, in my view.)

Today, slipping back into an illusion-filled idealism is dominant on the left. While Jackson wanted the democratic nations to project effective “countervailing force” so that dictatorships were prevented from “encircling and intimidating” us, much of today’s left is basically pacifist, desiring the ends but rarely the means. And when it does flip over to interventionism, it does so too often by replacing one set of illusions for another, naively ignoring the long time scales and huge difficulties posed by effective democracy promotion and nation-building. As Niebuhr put it:

Our idealists are divided between those who would renounce the responsibilities of power for the sake of preserving the purity of our soul and those who are ready to cover every ambiguity of good and evil in our actions by the frantic insistence that any measure taken in a good cause must be unequivocally virtuous.

Today, there is plenty callous realism around on the right. While, as Kaufman notes, Jackson “established human rights as a central focus of American foreign policy” and retained a full-time staffer working solely on supporting dissidents around the world, Caroline Glick, Director of the Israel Security Project at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, used the inaugural Henry Jackson Society lecture in 2012 to tell her audience that “at the beginning, middle, and end of a foreign policy is the national interest” and “from that everything else flows.” Because President Obama has ignored this, she suggested, we have seen “the toppling of allied regimes throughout the Middle East.” If she means the Mubaraks, the Ben Alis, and the Qaddafis, would that really have been Jackson’s message to the president? Kissinger’s, maybe, but surely not Scoop’s.  

My wager is that Jackson would have cheered on the Democratic Leadership Council’s Will Marshall, who has called for another rebalancing of US foreign policy. The course correction from the George W. Bush years was necessary, he argues, but the chastened realism of his successor is an over-correction that must be addressed in turn. Marshall, the president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, argues, in true Jacksonian style, that

the administration’s policy of reassurance and strategic humility … has overlooked … the “values dimension” of American power as well as the ideological wellsprings of conflict in today’s networked world.

While noting that Obama’s closure of the half-century national security confidence gap between the Democrats and Republicans is “no mean feat,” Marshall points out that when it really matters—for example, when Iran’s Green Movement was repressed in 2009 and needed support, or when the ideological roots of violent extremism needs articulating and combating—“the president seems to lose his voice.”

And one last thing. Jackson refused to reduce his politics to foreign policy. When this mildly social democratic politician was offered the job of secretary of defense by Ronald Reagan, he politely declined so that he could campaign against Reagonomics. His idealism, in other words, applied to the home front too. That’s another part of Jackson’s legacy more honored in the breach by those who claim to be in the same tradition. 

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