The Right Fight

Why liberal internationalists are not neoconservatives. A response to Michael Lind's review of "The Good Fight."

By Peter Beinart

Tagged Foreign PolicyLiberalismNeoconservatism

Michael Lind is a thoughtful, provocative writer. But he seems to think that anyone who considers the struggle against jihadism an ideological conflict, which requires supporting Islamic democracy and development rather than merely improving “policing and intelligence-sharing,” is a neoconservative. And, in so doing, he misunderstands the liberal foreign policy tradition that the Good Fight seeks to revive.

Lind is entitled to his brand of realism, in which the United States takes little interest in how other countries govern themselves. And it is undoubtedly true that, at their best, liberals have taken account of realism’s insights. It was Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman’s willingness to build institutions like NATO and the United Nations, reflecting the actual power distribution in the postwar world, which distinguished them from the more utopian Woodrow Wilson, who thought balance-of-power politics itself could be abolished. Furthermore, Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the most influential Cold War liberal intellectual, shared the realist suspicion of moral crusades and warned Americans not to think that their idealism rendered them incapable of evil.

But in the main, liberal foreign policy has not been–and should not be–indifferent to liberty and economic opportunity in other nations. For Niebuhr and Truman, America’s contest with the Soviet Union was not merely a traditional great power struggle; it was a contest of social systems and worldviews. They believed that Joseph Stalin’s totalitarianism made the Soviet Union particularly aggressive, and as Truman famously said in his March 1947 speech justifying aid to Greece and Turkey, that the United States had a responsibility to support free peoples battling tyranny. In fact, in their finest moments–such as John F. Kennedy’s 1957 speech denouncing colonialism in Algeria–liberals recognized that those democratic principles needed to apply to Third World peoples struggling against America’s European allies as well.

Today, policing and intelligence-sharing are certainly important to the anti-jihadist struggle. But so is combating the tyranny and economic despair that foments jihad. There is a reason that democratic, economically hopeful countries like India and Turkey, despite their large Muslim populations, produce virtually no young men who threaten the United States. To say that the struggle against jihadism is a conflict not merely of weapons and tactics but of ideas does not make you George W. Bush any more than Truman’s March 1947 speech made him William F. Buckley or Barry Goldwater.

In his effort to erase that distinction, Lind first chides me for “echo[ing] neoconservative thinkers Eliot Cohen and Norman Podhoretz when he describes the war on terror as ‘World War IV.’” But my book doesn’t echo Podhoretz; it quotes him–in a chapter that traces conservative foreign policy thinking from the Cold War through today. In fact, contrary to Lind’s claim and Podhoretz’s well-publicized views, I do not see the struggle against jihadist terrorism as equivalent to the struggle against Soviet communism. The better analogy, as I explain in the book’s final chapter, is between Soviet communism and the array of nonstate threats fueled by the technologies of globalization: pandemics, financial contagion, environmental degradation, refugees, loose weapons of mass destruction, and jihadist terrorism. I call jihadist terrorism “first among equals” because only it involves a conscious effort to kill large numbers of Americans. But I do not see it as the sole defining threat of our age.

This view differs fundamentally from that of neoconservatives. Neoconservatives generally see nonstate threats like global warming and pandemic disease as marginal to American security, if not a distraction from it. Within days of September 11, Bush Administration officials were denying that the United States was at war with a stateless movement and instead describing jihadist terrorism as an auxiliary to rogue states like Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. For his part, Lind sides with the neocons, arguing that America’s greatest security challenges still come from states. That is a perfectly legitimate position, but Lind can’t have it both ways. He can’t simultaneously attack me for echoing neoconservative views and for opposing them.

Second, Lind calls my argument that economic and educational opportunity in the Islamic world is crucial to defeating jihadism “neoconservatism on steroids.” But neocons like Podhoretz loudly deny that jihadism has economic roots. In fact, it is again Lind who echoes the neoconservative view, arguing that jihadism stems merely from “an identity crisis on the part of elite Muslims.” But, to some degree, all post-colonial societies and peoples suffer an identity crisis. It is humiliation and despair that has turned this particular one violent and pathologically illiberal. And that humiliation is partly the product of sustained economic decline, at the same time that other post-colonial regions, like East Asia, have made enormous progress.

Like drug dealers in an urban ghetto, jihadists cannot operate for long without at least the passive consent of the people among whom they live. And it is rage toward their own governments–and their American patrons–that leads many in the Middle East toward sympathy (or at least ambivalence) for the jihadists in their midst. That rage is partly the product of external conflicts, such as those in Israel and Iraq. But it also stems from the oppression and economic stagnation that have crippled Arab societies in recent decades.

To be sure, as Lind points out, some jihadists hail from Europe, not the Islamic world. But even there, economic despair and marginalization play a critical role. In much of Europe, Muslim unemployment rates are double or triple that of the native population. Many second-generation Muslim youths, estranged from the traditional cultures of their parents, but also from the European societies in which they reside, certainly suffer from an “identity crisis.” But their cultural alienation is severely exacerbated by economic exclusion. After all, American-born Muslims are subject to similar identity crises as their European brethren–but, partly because they do not constitute an economic underclass, they exhibit less proclivity toward violent jihad. A neoconservative perspective–which denies that totalitarian movements have economic roots–can’t explain this difference. But a liberal one can.

When it comes to solutions, Lind argues that liberals should seek “a post-imperial, peaceful liberal 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 first among equals.” But it is this basic idea–the United States using international institutions to enhance and legitimate its power–that constitutes a third fundamental difference between the liberalism I espouse and the neoconservatism I reject. Large chunks of the Good Fight are devoted to distinguishing a conservative (and later, neoconservative) tradition that champions benevolent American empire from a liberal tradition that sees benevolent empire as a contradiction and envisions an international system in which America bases its primacy less on coercion than on consent.

One of the central liberal challenges of today’s age is to rebuild the international institutions constructed more than a half-century ago to safeguard international security and prosperity. Those institutions–the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and NATO–have not kept pace with changes in the global political and economic system, nor are they designed to address emerging threats like global warming and catastrophic disease. Such an effort is incompatible with the Bush Administration’s insistence on near-absolute American sovereignty, which leaves it unwilling to cede any significant authority to international institutions. But it stands firmly within the liberal tradition, as it evolved from Wilson through Roosevelt and Truman.

There is no question that Iraq has damaged U.S. legitimacy in the Middle East and allowed Arab dictators to equate democracy with chaos. But there remains an enormous desire within the region to cast off the authoritarian governments that have served Arabs so poorly. America cannot unilaterally lead that effort at political reform, but neither can we remain neutral: We will either continue to buttress regimes like Hosni Mubarak’s, or we will condition that support on greater political freedom. The latter outcome risks elections that bring Islamists to power and the former perpetuates an oppressive status quo that contributes to jihadism’s appeal. Lind may prefer option number two, but he should not pretend it does not have serious costs or that supporting the alternative makes one a neoconservative. After all, “democratic enlargement” was the stated foreign policy doctrine of the Clinton Administration.

Large-scale foreign aid, for its part, is never an easy sell politically. And, yet, foreign aid has actually gone up under George W. Bush–partly because of a new interest among evangelical Christians and partly because of pressure from foreign leaders like Tony Blair, who draw a clear link between political violence and economic despair. Furthermore, unlike in 1947, America today has rich allies able to shoulder some of the aid burden. And there are tools at our disposal–canceling foreign debt, for instance, and lifting tariffs on agricultural and textile imports–that do not tax the federal budget.

Finally, Lind is right that Americans are in no mood for additional wars. And, yet, there is the genocide in Darfur and who knows what else in the years to come. In fact, it is precisely the weariness that Lind describes that makes the project of institutional reconstruction so urgent, so that America has better options than unilateral invasion on the one hand and inaction on the other. When it comes to jihadism, as well as other non-state threats that will challenge America in the years to come, Lind seems to think we must choose between neoconservatism and fatalism. I disagree, and the Good Fight explains why.

Read more about Foreign PolicyLiberalismNeoconservatism

Peter Beinart is Editor-at-Large of The New Republic and author of The Good Fight: Why Liberalsñand only LiberalsñCan Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus