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.
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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