Book Reviews

Not-So-Great Liberalism

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

By Michael Lind

Tagged Foreign PolicyNeoconservatismprogressivism

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.

Read more about Foreign PolicyNeoconservatismprogressivism

Michael Lind is co-founder of New America and the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

Also by this author

Why We Need Universal Mobility Accounts

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus