Our Highest Priority

Security Firstby By Amitai EtzioniYale Univ. Press. 336p $27
In an essay in Foreign Affairs, January/February 2007, Tony Blair argued, not unpersuasively, that in the war against global extremism [w]e chose values [instead of] security as our battleground. By values he meant democratic values. [W]henever countries are in the process of democratic development, he wrote, we must extend a helping hand and ensure that [our] agenda is not limited to security alone. The answer to terrorism, he concluded, echoing a long-held official American stand, is an aggressive foreign policy in defense of democracy and fundamental human rights.

Amitai Etzioni, Director of George Washington Universitys Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies, is in fundamental disagreement with this policy. Security First pleads for a major change in American foreign policy, one that places security well ahead of democratization. The author laments an American policy of removing, threatening or undermining established governments in the interest of fostering or installing democracy. Military intervention in particular, he argues, unleashes extremism and mayhem, especially in societies pockmarked by ethnic and religious hatred. His prime examples are Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Piercing national borders to dislodge dictators or kill lethal non-state actors, and causing collateral damage among the locals, serves only to quicken the bitterness that provides the breeding ground of international terrorism.


Etzioni advocates primacy of the life-based foreign policy, one that chiefly advances physical and economic security. For him, the greatest threat to domestic and international security is nuclear proliferation. He faults American foreign policy for giving more attention to democratization than non-proliferation, an emphasis that Russia and North Korea in particular have seen as a threat to their internal political orders, causing both countries, as with Iran, to develop, renew or accelerate their nuclear capabilities, with the ever-present danger that nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of terrorists or other non-state actors. The deal the United States made with Libya is the authors model of a primacy-of-life policy. A dictatorship that once sponsored terrorism ceased doing so after we promised to leave its regime intact. The result: we gained an ally in the campaign to curtail the spread of weapons of mass destruction. In short, we properly placed a higher value on safety than on democracy.

All this is prelude to the most interesting and provocative part of Security First. Etzioni deplores the naïve idealism that has prompted the United States to pressure peoples the world over into adopting Western, liberal, Enlightenment principles of constitutional governance, a policy he thinks has invited more contempt and opposition than respect. He rejects the popular thesis that we are at war with Islamic civilization. Rather, we should form alliances with Islamic and other countries from which we can expect cooperation and support in combating terrorism and reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. Whether these regimes are democratic or authoritarian should make no difference. Extremism and terrorism need to be stopped, for it is only in security that the world will be made safe for the development of democracy. Similarly, he believes human rights cannot be advanced in the absence of security.

Security First seeks to show that since 9/11 the U.S. government and certain public intellectuals (neo-cons?) have grossly exaggerated the size of our opposition and mischaracterized its nature, and...have come to view many potential allies as enemies (authors italics). In the Islamic world in particular, terrorists or warriors, as Etzioni dubs them, make up a tiny minority of the population. But the vast majority he calls preachers, whom he describes as illiberal moderates. The term illiberal is not used pejoratively. Although the moderates reject liberal democracy as Americans know it, they live by the word and are open to persuasion. They are people of faith, they prize stability over disorder, and they oppose all forms of violence. We learn that the great divide in the war against terrorism is not between civilizations or between liberals and fundamentalists. Rather, the true fault-line in todays world runs through civilizations, secular or religious; and the authors overview of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, socialism and our own civil rights movement shows that they have all given rise to a warrior class.

Accordingly, Americas major foreign policy error has been its failure to form alliances and make common cause with the illiberals, especially in the Islamic world, for these good people should be regarded as natural allies in the fight against terrorism. Our opposition to illiberal democracy, he suggests, is motivated by contemporary liberals suspicious of all religions, even of strong secular beliefs, one reason American policy-makers have preferred to cast their lot with the small minority of Western-style liberals in the countries under siege. Their naïve idealism, in Etzionis view, would undermine the moral foundation of Islamic societies, only to be replaced by an ideology that would strip them of their stabilizing cultures and identities. A muscular, moral foreign policyone emphasizing the primacy of lifewould, the author concludes, support cultures and identities opposed to terrorism and other evil forces around the world.

Security First is a little more nuanced than suggested in this review, for Etzioni accepts the just war principles that might warrant military intervention in cases of large scale ethnic cleansing or other genocidal actions. But what about situations where Tony Blairs values first policy cannot so easily be dismissed? Recently, the Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo pleaded with Britain to invade Zimbabwe and remove the dictator, Robert Mugabe, who is leading his people into the abyss of starvation and depredation. But hereas in Darfurthe United States and United Nations have exhibited a shameful timidity. Zimbabwe may be the best example of a place where a values first policy is more likely to safeguard human rights and democracy than to threaten insecurity.


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