Not So Fast

The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again by Peter Beinart (HarperCollins, 304 pages, $25.95)

Has the time come for liberals to put Iraq behind us? The answer depends to some extent on which Iraq we're talking about. Iraq the Reality still rages, and we can be certain that we will be enmeshed in the region in one way or another for a long time. Iraq the Debate, however, is already in some sense a relic of the past. Three years ago, liberals for and against the war tore into one another, the arguments in some cases rupturing friendships between people who took opposing sides (and in one case I know, between two who were both hawks!). But isn't it time now to look to the future, fashioning a set of principles about foreign policy, national security, and the fight against terrorism on which all liberals can more or less agree?

There is something to be said for this view. It's one I advance in an essay I wrote for a collection, edited by the historians Neil Jumonville and Kevin Mattson, that will be published soon by the University of California Press. But perhaps I was getting ahead of myself. Reading Peter Beinart reminds me that there are accounts still to be settled.

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Beinart really wants the conversation to be about the future, and with good reason: As the editor of The New Republic (he resigned just recently), Beinart led that journal into a posture of perfervid support of the Iraq War. In dispute of that adjective, he might direct the reader to any number of hedges and qualifications in TNR's pages in the run-up to the war, and to a general claim that the magazine's reasons for wanting war were not the same (in every particular) as the Bush administration's reasons. Perhaps so. But to go back and read through Beinart's “TRB” columns, unsigned TNR editorials, and other articles the magazine published in 2002 and 2003 is to be reminded afresh that, while TNR disagrees with the right most of the time, its real enemy is the left. So, on Iraq, TNR was intellectually pro-war, but emotionally anti–anti-war. The paroxysmal contempt for the war's opponents combined with the docile credulousness toward Bush administration pro-war assertions (especially about Saddam Hussein's alleged nuclear capability) render “perfervid” an entirely fair modifier.

TNR fancies itself contrarian in this regard -- the “liberal” magazine that had the “guts” to be pro-war. A few months back, Martin Peretz, one of the magazine's owners and its editor-in-chief, sent out a juvenile letter to potential subscribers disparaging the predictable views of The Nation, The Weekly Standard, The National Review, and The American Prospect, and urging upon these weary and unchallenged readers his blessedly unpredictable TNR. In truth, TNR has been thusly “unpredictable” for so long now, every “contrarian” stand it takes is so utterly unsurprising, that the whole business has become a standing joke in some Washington circles. The only unexpected thing would have been for TNR to oppose the Iraq War.

It did not; but boy, did it oppose the opposers. And so, after the 2004 presidential election, which the Democrats lost chiefly because of their perceived and (mostly) real weakness on national security, Beinart sat himself down and wrote “A Fighting Faith,” a long essay in which he vilified the pinkos and the softies -- the “doughfaces,” as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called them in The Vital Center -- who had brought the Democrats to their low station. Most of the piece's 5,600 or so words were intelligent and unexceptionable ruminations on liberalism and foreign policy, with much of which I happen to agree. But just to drive the point home, Beinart argued that the real problem in the election had been “the party's liberal base, which would have refused to nominate anyone who” without equivocation saw the Iraq War as central to the war on terror (TNR had endorsed Joe Lieberman for president). And he named names, decrying his two chief exemplars of doughfacery -- Michael Moore and MoveOn. Drawing a historical parallel with the struggles that engulfed the Democratic Party of 1948 -- when the party's “hard” liberals encouraged those who were naive about the Soviet Union (or worse, working for it) to take a hike and sign up with Henry Wallace -- Beinart, whether he meant to or not, all but advocated purging the liberal critics of the war from the Democratic Party.

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Thus was born The Good Fight, based on that essay and signed after a ferocious bidding war jacked the price up to a reported $600,000 (another thing about left-bashing “contrarianism”: It pays).

To cut to the chase -- yes, he has toned down the bit about Michael Moore (about whom I have my own reservations) and MoveOn (now re-identified, after MoveOn took issue with some of his earlier claims, as an offshoot called MoveOn Peace). The original essay, in comparing MoveOn to Henry Wallace's Progressive Party, had implicitly -- and very sloppily -- alleged that MoveOn contained actual al-Qaeda members among its ranks (that is, since the Progressive Party did have actual Communists, and since MoveOn was today's analogue to it). In the penultimate chapter of The Good Fight, Beinart acknowledges that “there were no Salafists infiltrating MoveOn Peace,” although he is still critical of the organization, and of Moore. The book adds Howard Dean and his followers to this cahier des doleances, but the urge to purge is itself purged. What Beinart wants today is to persuade those to his left within the Democratic Party that they need to place the fight against terrorism at the center of the experience of being a liberal today.

Beinart's central thesis -- as it were, the answer to the question raised in his subtitle -- is that today's liberals can learn from the great era of Cold War liberalism the specific lesson that liberalism made America great precisely because it understood America's potential to do harm. The narrative of that liberalism, Beinart writes:

begins not with America's need to believe in itself, but with America's need to make itself worthy of belief. Around the world, America does that by accepting international constraints on its power. For conservatives -- from John Foster Dulles to George W. Bush -- American exceptionalism means that we do not need such constraints. America's heart is pure. 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.

From that thesis, Beinart shows -- in telling the story of the creation of Americans for Democratic Action, of the Marshall Plan, of Kennedy's vision that winning the Cold War abroad required getting closer to living up to our professed ideals at home -- how liberalism up through Vietnam adhered (enough of the time, anyway) to this Niebuhrian doctrine of self-restraint, and how fealty to that principle, combined with a clear-eyed recognition of the nature of the external threat, succeeded both in maintaining liberalism's political pre-eminence and in keeping the totalitarian enemy at bay.

Beinart then chronicles the collapse of this “anti-totalitarian liberalism” in the 1960s. He is no apologist for the men who brought us Vietnam. But the upshot of the decade, for Beinart's purposes, was that the liberalism that followed the Vietnam schism, while retaining “many of the same domestic principles” as the older liberalism, “no longer connected them to the struggle for freedom around the world.” Liberalism became isolationist, skeptical of American power, anti-imperialist; and this mindset, never really replaced by anything else in 40 years' time, is at the core of what is preventing the Democratic Party from fashioning a credible response to the Republicans' proposals regarding terrorism today.

I say never really replaced, but for Beinart -- as for other liberal backers of the Iraq War such as Paul Berman and George Packer -- the lineaments of something new were sketched out in the Balkans in the 1990s, as successful interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo signaled the possibility of a new foreign-policy liberalism, less like the Vietnam-era variant and more like its 1948 cousin. But how similar were Kosovo and Iraq? Air sorties in familiar Europe undertaken with the support of NATO allies are one thing, while a full-fledged ground war in an alien and hostile land undertaken with only token backing from a hodgepodge of favor-currying nations is quite another. And here we return to those unsettled accounts.

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It takes Beinart just four pages to make his confession about Iraq: “I was wrong.” He deploys the three little words, which have miraculously eluded the grasp of just about every other liberal war supporter save Fred Kaplan of Slate (who came clean ages ago), without hesitation. For this, Beinart deserves some credit.

On the strength of this short passage, Beinart will be limned by some as having “recanted” his Iraq position, and to a certain extent he obviously has. But the point of this book is not simply to broach a reconsideration of Iraq. Beinart's purpose here is to describe a future, rooted in a particular argument about the past, into which he wants the rest of us to follow him. So the question that liberals and Democrats must sort out before moving forward is whether the Iraq War can in any conceivable way be placed in the tradition of Cold War liberalism that Beinart and I admire. Beinart doesn't address this directly. He gestures toward addressing it, noting the “grim irony that this book's central argument is one I myself ignored when it was needed most” and acknowledging that he has not always been liberalism's “most faithful custodian.” But why only gesture? The answer to the above question about whether the Iraq War belongs to the tradition of Cold War liberalism is a reverberating, ear-splitting “no.” The '48ers, according to Beinart's own argument, were masters of restraint. They would never have endorsed a unilateral and “preventive” war like the current one. They fought conservatives advocating “rollback” then (precursors to today's neoconservatives); and, as of early 2003, two of them, Schlesinger and George F. Kennan, were still around to tell us that they opposed an invasion of Iraq.

If we are to move forward along lines Beinart suggests, we need to know whether Beinart and other liberal hawks will recognize the difference between antitotalitarian liberalism and conservatism, neo- or otherwise, when they see it. Unfortunately, Beinart slips and slides around this question. His chapter on Iraq, which rehearses the administration's various arguments for war, reads at first blush like a wise and disinterested account of a tragic march to folly. But he writes about this period as if he'd spent it on a mountaintop in Tibet instead of editing an influential magazine and cheering on the administration virtually every step of the way -- and accusing war critics, not all of whom (news flash: not even a majority of whom) are anti-imperialist Chomskyites, of “intellectual incoherence” and “abject pacifism,” as he so unforgettably put matters to The Washington Post in February 2003. I resented those comments at the time personally, I still do, and I know a lot of people who feel similarly.

I share many of Beinart's goals for the Democratic Party. I'm not entirely sure how he proposes that today's Democrats make this Niebuhrian case about recognizing America's potential to do harm; it doesn't seem like a vote-getter, but, intellectually at least, he's on to something. And I found his prescriptive chapter a bit thin. His proposals for how liberals should fight the war on terrorism -- a Marshall Plan for the Arab world, greater cooperation with the United Nations (where possible), and NATO -- are rather general (and, for all his huffing and puffing about doughfacery, every one could be endorsed by the very people he reproves in the previous chapter). Even with these limitations, though, his argument that there is much wisdom to be found today in liberal foreign policy of the 1947-1963 period, and that fighting terrorism must occupy a central place in the liberal schema, is sound.

But to give this subject book-length treatment without acknowledging plainly that the war in Iraq stands against the Cold War liberal tradition rather than within it damages, almost fatally, the credibility of the argument. So we're supposed to sign up with the author's vision of a revived '48-ism, even though we know from his own written record that it could lead to another Iraq? I'd love to talk with Beinart about the future and only the future. But not just yet.

Research assistance by Nelson Harvey.