Fighting The Good Fight

Glenn and Helen Reynolds had a very interesting podcast with The New Republic‘s Peter Beinart, who has a new book out entitled The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. I haven’t yet had a chance to finish Beinart’s book yet, but I have to give him some credit for trying to rationalize a liberal strategy for winning our current conflict. However, I find Beinart’s arguments to be fatally naïve in the end.

For instance, Reynolds notes our current multilateral efforts towards Iran. We’ve been able to come to some sort of agreement with the UN Security Council on how to proceed, but what happens when Iran says no to inspections by the IAEA? What if Iran refuses to fully cooperate with IAEA inspectors? The deal currently on the table is a very small carrot and no stick. If this is the sort of action we’re going to advocate for as national policy, it had better prove successful, and so far there’s little indication that Iran gives a damn about an admonishment from the Security Council. A sanctions regime might influence the Iranians, but that’s conditional on China and Russia accepting the concept of sanctions, and those sanctions actually being effective – and past history indicates that sanctions regimes against countries like Iraq end up doing nothing but strengthening the regime and hurting the average citizen.

Reynolds also nails Beinart for his use of the Kosovo conflict as a model of the way US foreign policy should work. Even Wesley Clark argued that Kosovo was probably technically illegal – if one makes the laughable argument that the UN’s seal of approval is the only imprimatur of legitimacy, then Kosovo was an illegitimate conflict. Furthermore, we’re still in Kosovo – and there’s no end in sight. If the Albanians and the Serbs hadn’t massacred each other into a rough stalemate, and the neighboring countries were as keen on interfering in Kosovo’s affairs as Syria and Iran are in Iraq, then Kosovo and Iraq would likely look quite similar.

Beinart’s essential problem is his naïvete about the reality of the international order in the 21st Century. What he wants is for America to have its cake and eat it too – to both be internationally respected without giving up significant amounts of our autonomy or compromise on our democratic values. In a perfect world, we’d be able to do exactly that. In a perfect world international institutions would be just and wise and support democratic values and stand against evil regimes.

This isn’t a perfect world.

The genesis of anti-Americanism, as the late, great Jean-François Revel found, is American power. The United States is not disliked in spite of our status as the world’s economic and military superpower, we are disliked because of our superpower status. Anti-Americanism is the resentment of the weak against the strong, and that resentment didn’t begin with the election of George W. Bush. The term hyperpuissance was coined in the 1990s, during the Era of Good Feelings of the Clinton Administration. Even during the Cold War, Europe was often an erstwhile ally, not always fully on board with the struggle against Soviet communism and expansionism. For every Konrad Adenuer there was a Charles De Gaulle who was deeply skeptical of American power.

However, at least Beinart wishes to advance some kind of argument, which puts him far ahead of most so-called liberals. Armondo’s review of The Good Fight spends more time excoriating Beinart for having the audacity to support the removal of the Hussein regime. Beinart already and clearly rejects his previous line of thinking on Iraq (something I heartily disagree with, but that’s a story for another day), but there’s nothing the left hates more than traitor to their cause.

Beinart replies with a very well-argued response to Armondo’s “review”

Armando also says, “Beinart wants those liberals and Democrats who disagree with” him “to be wild eyed useful idiots who `coddle terrorists.'” No, I really don’t. That’s certainly not my view about liberals who opposed the Iraq war–they were right. My book does critique specific people and groups–including Michael Moore, George Lakoff, MoveOn and The Nation–for suggesting in the aftermath of 9/11 that if America retaliated military we would become no better than the jihadists, that America created Osama bin Laden, and that if America fought the war on Afghanistan at all, we couldn’t take any civilian lives–which in the real world was a recipe for not fighting it all. (I cite chapter and verse in the book).

For the first year after 9/11, those were marginal views on the left. But since 2004, poll after poll shows that liberals and Democrats increasingly don’t see the anti-jihadist struggle as our fight. We rate it remarkably low on our list of foreign policy priorities. We are considerably more likely than Republicans to say America should mind its own business and retreat from the world. Less than 60 percent of us, according to a recent MIT survey, would re-fight the war in Afghanistan or use military force to destroy a terrorist camp. (Again, I have the details on this in the book)

Beinart then makes the most important argument of all:

I highlight this problem because I believe it is only when liberals see fighting jihadist totalitarianism–an ideology that enslaves women and non-Sunni Muslims, and murders gays and lesbians–as our cause–not Bush’s, ours–that this struggle will be won. It is our values, more than his, which are at stake. It is our tradition–not his–that recognizes that America wins when it leads by persuasion, not command. That recognizes that in foreign policy, legitimacy is power. That recognizes that it is only when we act democratically–when we struggle for freedom at home–that we can truly champion democracy around the world.

Beinart cuts to the heart of why liberals are losing in this country, despite the weaknesses of the Bush Administration. The average American just doesn’t trust the Democrats to keep us safe anymore, and Kerry lost largely because of that. The Democrats have lost the sense of muscular liberalism they had before the left took over the party in 1968. If the Democrats are ever to be viable on this issue, they have to have a narrative on national security that doesn’t involve mere rejection of everything Bush.

Armondo’s subsequent response basically tries to ignore Beinart’s entire argument and argues that Beinart’s advocating for what liberals already believe – never once does Armondo really try to grapple with Beinart’s arguments – not that such a thing is surprising from a Kossack. Beinart’s final response is equally important:

Armando writes that “most liberals object to the view that we must `stand with Bush’ in order to fight for a liberal foreign policy against Islamic jihadism. Many of us believe the opposite.” But it can’t be completely either-or. Yes, much of the time the best way to fight jihadism is to oppose bad Bush administration policies. But you can’t conflate the struggle against jihadism with the struggle against Bush; the former is not a subset of the latter. There is sometimes–not all the time, not even most of the time, but sometimes–a tension between the two. And that tension has to be faced; this is what the great democratic socialist Irving Howe called “two-sided politics.” It’s what my book is really about — the need to fight totalitarianism and conservatism at the same time, while recognizing that neither is reducible to the other. It was the same during the Cold War.

Take the Dubai Ports deal. Bush may have been secretive, incompetent etc, but on the big issue–should an Arab company be allowed to run a US port if the homeland security experts say it is safe (and they virtually all did)–he was right. By seeing the issue only as a chance to kick Bush in the teeth, only through the prism of what helps the Democratic Party at the polls, liberals sold out their own principles, and participated in a nativist surge that solidified the widespread Middle Eastern view that America really is hostile to Muslims. That happened, I think, because liberals weren’t clear enough about what we really believe. There was a void, and Bush hatred and political opportunism filled it. Answering that void with an intellectually coherent liberal vision is our great project. And Armando forgets this.

Indeed, most of the left has forgotten that. The partisan in me should reject Beinart, as the best way to keep the GOP ascendant for years to come is to have the Democrats remain terminally clueless on national security. However, the good of the country is best served by having two rational political parties on every issue. If the Democrats continue going off the edge on foreign policy, there’s less to really challenge Republican policymakers – and while Beinart may be a bit on the naïve side, there’s nothing inherently wrong with pushing for more effective international institutions.

The problem Beinart has from the left is that the left is focused to the point of insanity on the person of President Bush. They don’t see anything else outside the context of pissant partisan politics – as Armondo’s responses quite clearly demonstrate. You can’t fight a war when you regard your own political fortunes as being paramount over victory – and that’s why the Democratic Party simply cannot be trusted on national security issues. The Democrats feel pathologically compelled to reject everything even remotely associated with Bush, and that’s why there’s such a backlash against Beinart’s arguments. For many commenters, to accept the very existence of the War on Terror (badly named is it may be) is to agree with Bush in even a small amount and to betray oneself as something other than a true liberal. Liberals, for all their much-vaunted “tolerance” and their love of “dissent” seem quite intolerant of dissent in their ranks – just as Joe Lieberman or Hillary Clinton.

Beinart faces criticism from both the left and the right for his views, but at least he’s trying to advance an argument that doesn’t involve a simplistic rejection or acceptance of the Bush Administration. Conservatives and liberals alike would be wise to read his book and engage his arguments – and if the Democrats were smart, they’d take a serious look at his policy prescriptions. Fortunately for the Republican Party, and unfortunately for our national discourse on foreign policy, Beinart’s unwillingness to toe the Democratic Party line makes him unpalatable to those who have the most at stake in heeding his advice.

One thought on “Fighting The Good Fight

  1. Beinert seems to think that when America’s dirty laundry is cleaned, we’ll get the credit for having done so. The opposite is true. Worldwide, people will spin the news to fit their own anti-Americanism. Celebrities that go over to Europe and falsly insist that freedom to speech has disappeared from the U.S. also hurt the cause.

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