Issue #1, Summer 2006

Not-So-Great Liberalism

With all the security challenges we face, is national greatness liberalism feasible–or even desirable?

The Good Fight: Why Liberals–And only Liberals–Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again By Peter Beinart • HarperCollins • 2006 • 304 pages • $25.95

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.

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.

More than that, Beinart–while recognizing the perils of previous courses of treatment–does not seem to have heeded these lessons. Throughout The Good Fight, Beinart argues that Cold War liberals like Reinhold Niebuhr can teach contemporary progressives the importance of national humility. “For conservatives–from John Foster Dulles to George W. Bush–American exceptionalism means that we do not need [international] constraints,” he writes. “But in the liberal vision, it is precisely our recognition that we are not angels that makes us exceptional. Because we recognize that we can be corrupted by unlimited power, we accept the restraints that empires refuse ” They make us a great nation, not a predatory one.” Beinart is honest enough to admit that the disastrous results of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which he and the other editors of The New Republic enthusiastically supported, have convinced him that “the morality of American power relies on the limits to American power. It is a grim irony that this book’s central argument is one that I myself ignored when it was needed most.” But Beinart does not acknowledge the contradiction between his hard-won appreciation for national humility and his program for the U.S.-sponsored democratization and development of the entire Muslim world–a program far more grandiose than the neoconservative program of externally sponsored democratization alone. Beinart’s national greatness liberalism is not neoconservatism lite; it is neoconservatism on steroids.

Beinart is right in proposing that liberals can find inspiration for a sound foreign policy in their own tradition. But he has defined that tradition too narrowly, identifying it with Cold War liberalism and attempting to transpose the concepts and policies of that era in too mechanical a way onto today’s world. Cold War liberalism itself was simply one phase of what might be called “World War liberalism,” running between 1917 and 1989. What united the World War liberals was not a single threat, but a vision of a post-imperial, peaceful liberal international system banning aggressive war and united on the basis of international law and global commerce. The world would be policed, not by the United States as a solitary hegemon or empire, but by a concert of cooperating (though not necessarily democratic) great powers with the United States as first among equals. Woodrow Wilson called for “some definite concert of power which will make it virtually impossible” for world wars to recur, while Theodore Roosevelt similarly hoped that “those great powers honestly bent on peace would form a League of Peace.” Sharing this vision, Franklin D. Roosevelt not only came up with the name and design of the United Nations, the successor to the League of Nations, but also provided for a posse of great powers to keep the peace in the form of the Security Council, which began to function as intended in the 1990s when post-Soviet Russia abandoned an aggressive foreign policy. A definition of U.S. strategy in terms of the goals of such liberal internationalism provides a positive and enduring vision, unlike a strategy that defines itself in terms of a particular threat.

Intended to stimulate debate among American liberals, The Good Fight was overtaken by events before it was published. The anti-American backlash as a result of the Iraq war has doomed the legitimacy of U.S.-led democratization efforts in the Muslim world. The price of the war, which may end up in the trillions of dollars, will prevent the kind of large-scale foreign aid that Beinart calls for. And the American public, having turned against the war, is likely to be hostile to U.S. military interventions abroad for years to come. The costs of the war that he supported rule out the strategy that Peter Beinart proposes in The Good Fight.


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Issue #1, Summer 2006
Post a Comment

Dan Kervick:

This is a fine review. In his earnest ancestor worship, and longing for a heroic cause equal to the World Wars of our worthy progenitors, Beinart outlandishly exaggerates the threat of Islamist extremism.

But this passage from the review puzzled me a bit:

"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."

I don't see how Roy's account is in conflict with the neo-Rostowian account. To say that Salafism or other forms of Islamism are diseases of the transition to modernity does not commit one to the view that the underlying cause of the disease is economic or political repression. The "disease", if that's what it is, might very well be a reactionary urge toward cultural retrenchment, mainly on the part of the educated, in response to the sometimes humiliating social and cultural displacement wrought by modernity on the scions of a modernizing culture.

It is their very exposure to Western modernity, one might argue, that has radicalized these reactionary Islamists. Muhammad Atta, for example, wrote a thesis on the conflict between Western modernity and Arab civilization as seen in the urban landscape of Aleppo.

The reference to Pape seems more to the point. The rhetoric of much contemporary Islamism borrows heavily from the anti-imperialist thought of the present century as from earlier Islamic thinking. And however important might be the generalized reaction to Western modernity, the Islamists are often motivated by concrete, and sometimes localized, political goals - to expel some actual foreign presence from a community of interest.

All this said, it is dangerous to view events in other lands as crises in the "transition" to, or "on the road" to some milestone drawn from European/Western history. No one can confidently predict what peculiar combinations of innovation and tradition will characterize the Middle East of the future; nor are we wise enough to prescribe what form they should take.

Jun 20, 2006, 5:22 PM
Ormond Otvos:

Haven't read the book, but am a fan of Niebuhr, and I think adding this:

"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."

leads us into Eric Hoffer territory, specifically "The true Believer" in which self-esteem failure leads to fixation on ideals.

If fairly described, Beinart's thesis of Marshall plan sharing might work, but my personal observations of the clutch of corporations on the liberal genitalia will be too for more than a tease, worse than a affront.

We are financially so overcommitted to the coddling of the rich than there is likely nothing to do but enjoy another recession and hope for an FDR.

Jun 21, 2006, 1:23 PM
Marvin Danielson:

Indeed, Dan. But do you think Beinart exaggerates the threat in order to impel us to greatness? Or could it be that his perception of the threat is earnestly as vivid and grotesque as he paints it?

Can we level with ourselves? Is it really such a mystery that Beinart and the cabal in power would have the same paranoid policy orientation? Again it's David Brooks who said it (and then retracted it) first: "neo-" is short for "Jewish," and that's true whether it's followed by "-con" or sandwiched between "The" and "Republic." The remark was incendiary because it made sense. I'd like us to stop being offended for a moment and take a hard look at the preoccupations of these "hard-line" Democrats.

Those imagining forces such as "salafist totalitarians," "islamofascists," or simply "the enemy," are doing so to legitimize a fear of Muslims. Of course there are people out there who mean to do us harm. But the leap from dismantling jihadist networks to knocking over whole societies is an expression of deep-seated mistrust and antipathy. (The requisite acknowledgment of the existence of "moderate" Muslims only serves to underline this distrust.)

And it's that " 'Jewish' " (I'll put it in double scare quotes) orientation that Beinart puts on display here. Viewing the Muslim world behind a veil of Rostow and Strauss (via Wolfowitz), he can't even see it, let alone conceive of it as myriad societies that might not cope readily with "regime change."

I know, this is just the kind of pre-9/11 thinking our party can ill afford. But I, for one, would propose to mold our national purpose around something grander and more noble than our anger and ignorance.

Jun 21, 2006, 3:31 PM
Kyda Sylvester:

If the best that "World War liberalism" can come up with is the United Nations, I'm afraid there's not much hope for its future.

This "vision of a post-imperial, peaceful liberal international system banning aggressive war and united on the basis of international law and global commerce" is dependent on the good faith of the least among nations. It's dependent on the good faith of bad actors. It's dependent on the good faith of people who administer "policing" programs like Oil for Food. That dependence is the reason why the UN has failed in its mission so utterably. Mr. Lind's tongue must be firmly fixed in his cheek to suggest that the Security Council today functions as intended. For if that indeed was the intent, then the UN was doomed for failure from the beginning. Face it, there's only one nation with the muscle to effectively "police" a ban on "aggressive" war. And we all know who that is.

Does Michael Lind understand how deeply suspicious many rank and file members of his party are of his global view?

Jun 23, 2006, 4:04 PM
Cliff S.:

Beinart's book (which I have read) asks an important question of Democrats and Liberals. I found the subject matter interesting and informative, but he could have made the same point on virtually any topic. The question he answers is the affirmative is: Are Liberals defining themselves by their opposition to the right?

I'd like to believe he is wrong about that, but I fear he is right.

I'd like to see a critique of his book - anywhere - that satisfies me that the answer to that question is "No." In fact, virtually every critic makes Beinart's point for him over and over by focusing on what wrong with the decisions made by the right in Iraq, before and after the decision to invade.

Jul 12, 2006, 3:55 PM
John McCutchen:

Having participated in a week long Beinart smackdown at TPMCafe, I'll hold fire. However, of the various and sundry reviews, comments I've read (not about to buy the book) this by Andrew Bacevich, in the current issue of the Nation, is perhaps the most informative on Beinart's historical approach or better his a-historical method. The contrast with the Kinzer book is striking.

He doesn't like it either.

"The Good Fight began life as an essay that appeared in The New Republic when Beinart edited that magazine. According to press reports, he received a handsome $600,000 advance to expand his essay into a book. The result can only be called a major disappointment: The Good Fight is insipid, pretentious and poorly written. At points it verges on incoherence. As history, it is meretricious. As policy prescription, it is wrongheaded. Beinart has perpetrated his fraud twice over. "

The American Political Tradition

Andrew J. Bacevich | American foreign policy is shaped by a myth of national righteousness. In two new books, Peter Beinart abuses history to suggest liberals embrace this myth, while Stephen Kinzer uses America's history of involvement in foreign coups to reveal why we cannot.

Jul 13, 2006, 1:38 AM
An Important Book:

In his overzealous attempt to debunk the central thesis of “The Good Fight,” Michael Lind either misses or ignores a great deal of the subtlety in Peter Beinart’s admirable first book. Lind’s argument that Beinart has too narrow a view of the liberal tradition, and therefore finds himself in league with the neoconservatives, misses much of the force of Beinart’s assessment of the political landscape in relation to the liberal tradition.

While it is true that Beinart argues that the neoconservative creed was built upon the fundamentals of cold-war liberalism, he does not proceed to make a neoconservative case. Or at least not the parts of neoconservativism that most liberals and progressives deem repugnant. Yes, Beinart agrees in principle with some of the core philosophical tenets of neoconservativism, but his argument tries to show that many of these tenets sprout from an often-overlooked part of the liberal past. He agrees that America’s role in the world is to spread freedom and liberty, and endorses a liberal idea of national greatness. This position, though neoconservative, is not in opposition to liberalism, and Beinart is careful in making this case. Where Beinart stops agreeing with the neoconservatives, and what he adamantly argues against (in this book if not in his articles circa 2003), is the use of hard power to spread freedom and liberty. This, he argues is where the cold-war liberalism of Niehbur and Schlessinger splits with the neoconservativism of Kristol and Podhoretz.

Lind faults Beinart almost immediately fro crossing the line and agreeing with anything that smack of neoconservativism. Indeed, his argument against Beinart’s diagnosis is that we are currently in the midst of a mire brought on by neoconservative logic, and therefore any system that subscribes to any part of neoconservative thought is wrong. But Lind should know that the failure of policy does not necessarily negate the philosophical principles underlying it.

Lastly, Lind would do well to know when Beinart is agreeing with him. He quotes Beinart’s use of the term “World War IV” in order to show that he subscribes so strongly to the neoconservative interpretation of history that he has adopted their terminology. But Beinart uses the term in a chapter entitled “Reagan’s Children” and he is using it to show the gaps and inconsistencies between neoconservative speech and action.

Beinart’s book deserves a serious read. He should not be discounted so quickly simply because he gives neoconservativism a serious read. Lind would do well to reread the book with an open mind.

Jan 8, 2007, 3:03 PM

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