With all the security challenges we face, is national greatness liberalism feasibleor even desirable?
At the core of The Good Fight is the conviction, shared by Beinart with the Bush Administration and leading neoconservatives, that the war on terrorism is the equivalent of the Cold War and the world wars, requiring a similar level of commitment and focus on the part of the American people. But is the campaign against Al Qaeda and other jihadist networks a world war in any but a misleading, metaphorical sense? True, the events of September 11 show that the threat of mass-casualty terrorism on the part of jihadists is real; stateless groups might now inflict damage on a scale that once only hostile states could aspire to achieve. In every other respect, however, parallels between the Cold War and the anti-jihadist struggle break down. Having lost their state sponsor in Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, Osama bin Laden and his allies are on the run; they are less like the Soviet Union in 1948 than like the scattered Bolshevik militants before they seized power in 1917. Preventing jihadists from capturing a Muslim state, and using it as a beachhead in their campaign to bring radical theocratic regimes to power throughout the Muslim world, is essential. But that is chiefly a matter of policing and intelligence-sharing among Muslim countries and other states, including the United States. While difficult, the task is made easier by the fact that all of the major nations are threatened to some degree by jihadist terrorism–not since the days of the murderous anarchists a century ago has a stateless terrorist movement united every great power against it.
Beinart also argues that a key difference between the anti-communist era and our own is the centrality of states within the international arena. “In the first two decades of the Cold war, one of the hidden assumptions of the American right was that what really mattered in the world were states,” Beinart writes. “It remained hidden because liberals believed the same thing.” And yet here again he draws the wrong lesson–arguing that stateless terrorism has eclipsed traditional power politics, Beinart says next to nothing about the relationship of the United States to other great and midlevel military and economic powers and what sort of a world the country faces outside the threat from radical Islam. Indeed, most of America’s strategic challenges have nothing to do with Al Qaeda or jihadism, including the rise of Chinese military and economic power, tensions between Russia and the West, the quest by Iran for nuclear weapons, and the trend toward anti-American populism in Latin America.
Beinart further concurs with the neoconservatives that nothing short of the wholesale democratization of the Muslim world is necessary to eliminate the jihadist threat. “In America’s new anti-totalitarian fight,” he writes, “the Bush Administration has gotten one big thing right: Tyranny does foster jihad. And while terrorism can spike during chaotic transitions to freedom–as the police state crumbles and jihadists find it easier to do their deadly work–in the long term, liberal democracy can help drain the hatred on which totalitarianism feeds. Conservatives have traveled a tortured path to this realization. And if liberals deny it now, they forfeit their own heritage.” But, while Beinart claims that “their own heritage” compels liberals to join with neoconservatives in the project of democratizing the Muslim world, he fails to address the obvious objection that democratizing the Muslim world, or anywhere else for that matter, was never a priority of the Cold War liberals whose legacy he invokes. Their abstract preference for a world of liberal democracies notwithstanding, the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations did not engage in efforts to change Middle Eastern autocracies, like those of Saudi Arabia and Iran, which were instead valued allies in the geopolitical struggle against the Soviet Union. The United States likewise refrained from military intervention to support anti-communist forces in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Nevertheless, to the democratic crusade preached by neoconservatives, Beinart wants to add an equally grandiose project of economic development from Morocco to Malaysia, on the model of the Marshall Plan and Harry S Truman’s Point Four foreign aid program. “Combine all the Bush administration’s non-military aid to the Muslim world and you get a bit more than $1.5 billion a year. Add in economic resources for Afghanistan and Iraq, and you’re a bit over $8 billion, still only one-twentieth of the Marshall Plan. What kind of way is that to fight World War IV?” he asks. Beinart demands a massive aid program to achieve this mission. Consequently, in its strategy for victory in “World War IV,” Beinart’s national greatness liberalism is even more ambitious and expensive than the national greatness conservatism of Brooks and Kristol.
But that doesn’t bother Beinart, because for him “salafist totalitarianism” is what the Cold War liberal Walt W. Rostow called communism–“a disease of the transition to modernization.” He ignores the explanation provided by French scholar Olivier Roy, who has argued that jihadism is not a result of poverty or repression in the Muslim world, but rather of an identity crisis on the part of elite Muslims like Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta, who have been exposed to Western modernity. Robert A. Pape of the University of Chicago, in an exhaustive study, has shown that suicide-bombing is a tactic used by populations under real or perceived occupation against occupying powers with democratic governments susceptible to public opinion, including Israel and the United States. If Roy is right, then the center of gravity of the struggle is Europe, not the Muslim world; and if Pape is right, the United States can somewhat reduce the appeal of jihadism by withdrawing from Iraq and limiting the American military presence in other Muslim countries. In either case, Beinart’s prescription is based on a misdiagnosis of the disease.
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