Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 5, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

LIBERALISM AND TERROR....A FOLLOWUP....I want to follow up a bit on my response to Peter Beinart's TNR article, "A Fighting Faith." As you recall, Beinart argued that liberals need to get serious about terrorism and purge the MoveOn/Michael Moore wing of the Democratic party. I argued that he had put the cart before the horse: before he recommended purging anybody, he first needed to persuade liberals that Islamic totalitarianism posed a grave threat to the security of the country. Unsurprisingly, several people had, um, frank and candid comments about all this.

Let's take first things first: it's pretty clear that a lot of liberals really don't like being told they need to "get serious" about terrorism. And I don't blame them especially since regular readers know that I think Republicans are the ones who have trivialized terrorism by treating it more like a partisan wedge issue than a serious danger.

So let's be more precise: the charge isn't so much that liberals don't have a serious approach to terrorism, it's that liberals tend to think that terrorism and national security just aren't very important in the first place. Beinart provides one telling statistic to support this: 38% of Republican delegates to this year's national convention mentioned terrorism, defense, or homeland security as important issues. For Democratic delegates the total was 4%. Likewise, Matt Yglesias notes today that looking over the post-election roundtable at The Nation, the problem isn't dovishness, it's that nobody even bothers discussing national security at all. Whether or not liberals have serious ideas about combatting terrorism, I agree with Beinart that simple lack of interest in national security issues is a big problem for liberals.

Second, a number of people criticized Beinart for equating "tough on terrorism" with support for the Iraq war. But he didn't. There's no question that the Iraq war has warped the issue of terrorism so badly that it's almost impossible to unlink the two, but Beinart rather clearly refrained from criticizing Iraq skeptics as well he should have, since even TNR largely seems to have accepted by now that Iraq has been a disaster.

Rather, he criticizes MoveOn because they even opposed the Afghanistan war (and he criticizes Moore for flatly denying that terrorism is a real threat). This is quite a different thing, and a distinction that strikes me as pretty well justified. If the Taliban's refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden after 9/11 wasn't enough to justify military action, I'm not sure what is and I think it's fair to say that anyone who loudly opposed the Afghanistan war is just flatly opposed to any use of American military power at all. If this represents a sizable wing of the Democratic party, it's a big problem for us.

Third and finally, when I suggested that I wanted Beinart to write an article spelling out the danger of Islamic totalitarianism, I wasn't taking sides. All I meant was that I'd really like him to write the article. Why? Because I'd really like to read it.

For what it's worth, I think any honest account needs to address at least the following four items:

  • Nuclear terrorism. A terrorist group with a nuclear weapon poses an entirely different threat than one without, so this needs to be treated as a danger all its own. How likely is it that a terrorist group could really acquire a nuclear weapon? And deliver it? And what's the best way to stop it? The fact that the Bush administration has been so lackadaisical on this score is going to make this a hard argument to deliver convincingly. If they don't take it seriously, why should anyone else?

  • Garden variety terrorism. Aside from the nuclear scenario, what's the actual danger from terrorist groups like al-Qaeda? 9/11 was due to luck and poor foresight, but now that we know the danger how much military harm can they really do to us? How much economic harm? And how likely is it?

  • Expansionism. Do Islamic extremists really have much interest in anyplace outside the Middle East? To the best of my knowledge, no Islamic country in the greater Middle East has ever invaded or shown the slightest interest in invading a country that wasn't a neighbor. Is Islamic extremism fundamentally expansionist, like fascism and communism, or not?

  • Oil. Nobody wants to talk honestly about this, but it's obviously the reason we care about the Middle East in the first place and don't care much about, say, sub-Saharan Africa and therefore care about Islamic totalitarianism but not sub-Saharan totalitarianism. The problem here is shared by both liberals and conservatives.

    On the left, "no blood for oil" is childishness. Economic interests are and always have been a legitimate concern of national governments, and a steady supply of oil is plainly vital to the industrialized world. If a Taliban-like regime deposed the House of Saud and took over Saudi Arabia, for example, they might decide to tighten the taps because they figure they only need half as much oil money as they currently receive after all, most of it just went to those decadent westernized royal princes anyway. The resulting oil shock would almost certainly cause a global depression of enormous magnitude. This would be a disaster, and one that would hurt the poor far more than the rich.

    On the right, conservatives hypocritically refuse to admit that oil has anything to do with anything. It's all about democracy promotion, you see despite the fact that our national policies have virtually nothing to do with genuinely promoting democracy. What's more, conservatives make a bad problem worse by practically sneering at the idea that anyone should take seriously the idea of greater energy conservation or alternative energy sources. Squawking endlessly about ANWR which contains a minute amount of oil just trivializes the whole problem.

You'll note that I've said nothing about the humanitarian case for intervening (or not intervening) in the Middle East. One thing at a time. I think the first step is for some credible liberal to construct the most compelling argument they can that an aggressive, militant policy toward Islamic totalitarianism is necessary simply because any other policy will end up with a lot of dead people. If that argument is successful, then we can argue about means and methods.

Of course, it's not clear to me who should make this argument, since to do any good it needs to be honest and it needs to come from a liberal perspective. Maybe Al Gore? After all, Beinart might be a good writer, but his support of the Iraq war makes him damaged goods to most of the left. Ditto for guys like Joe Lieberman and Joe Biden. Even someone like me, who only supported the war for a short while, doesn't have the street cred to pull it off.

But who?

UPDATE: I guess I need to say this more plainly: I'm not taking sides on this debate right now. I'm just saying that I'd like to hear the arguments.

Maybe Islamic totalitarianism is as big a threat as fascism and communism were in their day. Maybe it's not. I'm not sure. But I would like to see liberals address the issue head on. It would be good for liberalism and it would be instructive for me.

Kevin Drum 10:04 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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