With all the security challenges we face, is national greatness liberalism feasibleor even desirable?
In March 1997, the neoconservative pundit David Brooks published a cover story in The Weekly Standard titled “A Return to National Greatness: A Manifesto for a Lost Creed” in which he called for a conservatism committed to a “national mission and national greatness.” In an op-ed that following September, Brooks and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol elaborated on the argument, explaining that the American people are not great unless they are engaged in heroic collective projects, such as the Cold War. In both articles they set forth prescriptions for just how to embark on such a project.
What wasn’t included in their list was waging a war on global Islamist terrorism. Of course, the attacks of September 11, 2001, would rocket that cause to the top of the Brooks-Kristol agenda. Yet, it would be left to a well-known liberal, The New Republic’s Peter Beinart, to make the national greatness case for the war on terrorism. And although he does not explicitly use the term “national greatness liberalism,” it is precisely what Beinart is calling for in his new book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals–and Only Liberals–Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.
There are, of course, differences between the visions of Beinart and Brooks-Kristol. Writing for an audience of Democrats rather than Republicans, Beinart finds his heroic age not in the Reagan era but in the years between Truman and Vietnam, when anti-communist Cold War liberals dedicated to reform at home and abroad were the dominant faction in the Democratic Party. And Beinart directly criticizes the “national greatness” neoconservatives for their espousal of U.S. triumphalism and for their neglect of economic development as a goal of U.S. foreign policy in addition to democratization.
But these differences are less significant than the fundamental similarity between national greatness conservatism and Beinart’s national greatness liberalism. Like the neoconservatives, Beinart argues that American national greatness requires a highly activist U.S. foreign policy; like the neoconservatives, Beinart argues that the war on terror should define U.S. foreign policy; and like the neoconservatives, Beinart equates it with World War II and the Cold War. Indeed, Beinart goes as far as to echo neoconservative thinkers Eliot Cohen and Norman Podhoretz when he describes the war on terror as “World War IV,” World War III being the Cold War.
Accusing his fellow liberals of “ideological amnesia,” Beinart writes that “conservatives have a crucial advantage: they have a usable past.” The Good Fight is his attempt to provide contemporary liberals with a similar past, which he claims they can find in “the heritage they have tried to escape. Its roots lie in an antique landscape, at the dawn of America’s struggle against a totalitarian foe.” Beinart’s progressive heroes are anti-communist liberals Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others who met at Washington’s Willard Hotel in 1947 to found Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a liberal organization that repudiated the pro-Soviet, Henry Wallace wing of the Democratic Party. By purging communist sympathizers and supporting the policies and institutions that ultimately would win the Cold War, this small group assured the moral and political viability of the Democratic Party. Tragically, according to Beinart, American liberalism took a wrong turn when opposition to the Vietnam War turned much of the Democratic Party not only against the Cold War, but also against the very idea that the United States can legitimately use force on behalf of the national interest and the international system. But a generation later, anti-communist liberalism stands vindicated. The Cold War concluded not only peacefully, but also with the total capitulation and then collapse of the Soviet Union. Marxism-Leninism as a political creed imploded with it (outside of such relic Stalinist regimes as North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba), vindicating anti-communist liberals who insisted that the struggle was about ideology as well as power. The timing is propitious, then, for Beinart’s polemical retelling of history.
Beinart is an excellent writer and a good historian, and his defense of the Cold War liberal tradition is persuasive. His critique of what he calls the “anti-imperialist left,” which continues reflexively to reject the legitimacy of any U.S. military action, is generally on the mark as well. But the problem with The Good Fight arises from Beinart’s attempt to draw lessons for contemporary U.S. strategy from the early years of the Cold War. While the spirit of the Cold War liberals can inspire us, their particular policies cannot serve as precedents today because the threat of stateless jihadist terrorism is simply too different from the threat posed by the Soviet Union and communist China.
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