Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 2, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

LIBERALS AND TERRORISM....Peter Beinart has a cover story in the New Republic this week called "A Fighting Faith." Its thesis is simple: Democrats need to take the threat of Islamic totalitarianism more seriously. In fact, he says, "as long as that threat remains, defeating it must be liberalism's north star."

His piece has been linked approvingly by a number of people, mostly fairly hawkish sorts who applaud his call to purge liberalism's ranks of the MoveOn/Michael Moore "no blood for oil" crowd. Since I'm moderately hawkish and agree with much of what Beinart says, it would be easy to join in myself and leave it at that. But I think there's more to it.

The article is worth reading, but for those who don't click through here's the nickel version: in the late 40s Democrats fought an internal war that pitted the anticommunist Truman/Roosevelt wing of the party against the accomodationist Henry Wallace wing, which mostly thought that communism wasn't that big a deal. The Truman wing won, and Beinart thinks today's Democrats need to have the same kind of battle royal for the soul of their party. "Spreading freedom in the the Muslim world...can provide the moral purpose for which a new generation of liberals yearn," he says.

Maybe. But I've exchanged a couple of emails with Beinart about this, and I think he may have written the wrong article. His history lesson explains what happened, but not why, and in the end this makes his piece more assertion than argument. What he really needs to write is a prequel to his current piece, one that presents the core argument itself: namely, why defeating Islamic totalitarianism should be a core liberal issue. What follows is a little long for a blog post, but I want to explain what I mean. Here goes.


The basic post-9/11 position among conservatives is that the war on terror is the moral equivalent of the anti-fascist crusade of World War II and the anticommunist crusade of the Cold War. Since this is their core argument, let's take a look at the historical comparisons.

First, World War II. Here's a quickie timeline of what happened in the five years before the United States entered the war: In 1936 German troops occupied the Rhineland. In 1938 Austria fell in the Anschluss, Hitler bullied Neville Chamberlain into brokering the Munich agreement that turned over Czechoslovakia to Germany, and the Nazi holocaust against the Jews began in earnest with Kristallnacht. In 1939 Hitler invaded Poland, and a year later overran Scandinavia, Belgium, and France and began the Battle of Britain. In 1941 Rommel began operations in North Africa and in June Hitler ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union.

And that's just Europe. In Asia, Japan had been fighting an offensive land war in China for a decade. In 1937 the Rape of Nanking slaughtered over 300,000 innocent civilians. In 1940 Japan formally joined the Axis along with Germany and Italy. In 1941 the Japanese invaded southern Indochina.

Got all that? Now let's fast forward to the beginning of the Cold War. In 1945 Roosevelt bowed to reality at Yalta and acceded to Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe. By 1946 Stalin's control was complete and Winston Churchill delivered his famous speech declaring that "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent."

In 1947 communist-backed insurgencies threatened both Greece and Turkey, which were saved only via massive military and economic aid from America. In 1948 Stalin blockaded Berlin and Whittaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss of being a Soviet spy. In 1949 China fell to communism and the Soviet Union announced that it had developed an atomic bomb of its own followed shortly by the sensational news that America's atomic secrets had been betrayed to the Soviets by a spy ring headed by Klaus Fuchs.


What's the point of these historical highlights? Just this: in the five years before 1941, world events made the danger from fascism so clear that when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor even diehard Republican isolationists didn't hesitate to declare war. The argument was over.

Likewise, by 1949 world events had made communist aggression clear to all but the farthest reaches of the left. Truman won the debate within his party largely because the threat was so plain that only a small minority could continue to ignore it.

Beinart basically argues that in 2004 the argument over our response to terrorism should also be over. But the problem is that world events today are nowhere near as clear as they were in 1941 and 1949. Sure, 9/11 was a wakeup call, but in the three years since then what's happened that's the equivalent of even a single one of the events described above? There have been some scattered bombings, but barely more than before 9/11. North Korea and Iran appear to be building nuclear bombs, but they've been doing that for over a decade. The Middle East is dominated by brutal totalitarian regimes, but that's been true for as long as there's been a Middle East and in any case the United States actively supports many of them.

Now, Beinart is right that there's a liberal humanitarian case to be made for some kind of American intervention in the Middle East: the entire region is a cesspool of human rights violations, religious intolerance, violence against women, and brutal poverty amid great wealth. But just as in 1941 and 1949, that's not enough. It's never been enough, no matter how much we Americans like to flatter ourselves otherwise. The crusades against fascism and communism won majority support only when it became absolutely clear that they were expansionist ideologies that posed a deep and ongoing threat to the security of the rest of the world.

That's the story I think Beinart needs to write. If he thinks too many liberals are squishy on terrorism, he needs to persuade us not just that Islamic totalitarianism is bad of course it's bad but that it's also an overwhelming danger to the security of the United States. After all:

  • Subsequent to 9/11, virtually no Americans have died from terrorist acts. Rather, American deaths have been caused by our own war of choice in Iraq a country that has turned out to possess no WMD and have virtually no serious connection to al-Qaeda.

  • For all his tough talk, the president of the United States has tacitly admitted that he doesn't feel this war is important enough to require any sacrifice on the part of the American citizenry.

  • The Republican party has made it as clear as it possibly can that the war on terror is not vital enough to require either bipartisan support or the support of the rest of the world. They've treated it more like a garden variety electoral wedge issue than a world historical struggle.

  • Things like Tom Ridge's sales pitch for duct tape, along with the transparently political color coded terror levels, have made the war on terror fodder for late night TV. It's entirely predictable that anyone who was even a bit skeptical in 2002 now views the war as trivial at best, and comical or Machiavellian at worst.

It's arguable that liberals are foolish to let all this prevent them from seeing the totalitarian danger for what it is. But it's hardly surprising. The fact is that compared to fascism and communism, Islamic totalitarianism seems like pretty thin beer to many. It's not fundamentally expansionist, and its power to kill people isn't even remotely in the same league.

Bottom line: I think the majority of liberals could probably be persuaded to take a harder line on the war on terror although it's worth emphasizing that the liberal response is always going to be different from the conservative one, just as containment was a different response to the Cold War than outright war. But first someone has to make a compelling case that the danger is truly overwhelming. So far, no one on the left has really done that.

Kevin Drum 9:20 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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