Respond to this Article July/August 2006

Cold Comfort

Liberalism's hawkish past is less useful as a guide to confronting future threats than Peter Beinart would like to believe.

By Fred Kaplan

John Kerry lost the 2004 election, it can reasonably be argued, not because of abortion or gay marriage but because of his own indecisiveness. Too few citizens trusted him with the nation's security in a time of terror (and, face it, many of us who voted for him did so with qualms). In the subsequent year-and-a-half, George W. Bush has squandered the advantage he held on that score--and wrecked the Republican Party's broad lead on military matters, to boot--but the Democrats have yet to devise an alternative vision. Peter Beinart, former editor and now editor-at-large of The New Republic, lays out his version of one in The Good Fight: Why Liberals--and Only Liberals--Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.

The Good Fight
by Peter Beinart
Harper Collins, $25.95

It's a thoughtful, provocative, well-written book--but, ultimately, muddled and unsatisfying. Beinart contends (correctly) that liberals need to put forth a "narrative" that defines America's purpose at home and abroad on their terms. He further contends (less persuasively) that an ideal narrative lurks in the Democrats' own past--specifically, in the "cold war liberalism" that dominated American and Western politics from roughly 1947-64. There are two problems with this narrative, at least in Beinart's telling: It's a bit of a fairy tale, and it's not likely to inspire a lot of voters to put liberals back in the White House in 2008.

The Good Fight grew out of a much-discussed article--called "An Argument for a New Liberalism: A Fighting Faith"--that Beinart wrote for The New Republic in December 2004. Both the article and the book begin with an historic meeting in January 1947 at the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C., when 130 leaders of the Americans for Democratic Action, the era's vital coalition of liberals and labor, expelled former Vice President Henry Wallace's faction of communists and fellow-travelers from their ranks. That moment defined the liberal mainstream for the next 20 years: a domestic policy built on FDR's New Deal and a foreign policy that recognized the central threat posed by Soviet totalitarianism. And cold war liberals--unlike their conservative counterparts--would wage this struggle not as a self-righteous crusade but through alliances and international institutions: not only with power but also with legitimacy. Just as the ADA expelled Wallace's faction at the start of the Cold War, Beinart argues, today's liberals must expel the likes of Michael Moore and MoveOn.org if the Democratic Party is to remain relevant in the war against the new Islamist totalitarianism.

There are several things wrong with this analogy, as there are with Beinart's reading of American history. First, Beinart overrates the prominence of Moore, MoveOn, and left-wing pacifists generally. Henry Wallace was at one time a presumptive presidential nominee; his followers included prominent politicians and officials. This is not true of Beinart's present-day enemies to the left. Second, and more to the point, Wallace's faction included--was, in many ways, dominated by--communists. Michael Moore is a mendacious boor, but he is hardly a terrorist or a bin Laden sympathizer, nor are the leaders or funders of MoveOn.org. Beinart acknowledges this distinction, but fails to recognize that it blows his case, and that it makes the opening anecdote--the analytical foundation--of his book puzzlingly beside the point.

In the schism of '47, the ADA never insisted that its members be active anti-communists, much less that anti-communism be the central element of liberalism. Beinart, however, writes that "the core issue" for liberals today is to accept that the struggle against Islamist totalitarianism "define[s] what liberalism is." This goes too far, not only as a substantive matter, but still more as an electoral strategy (which Beinart means his book, in part, to be). The Democratic Party is--and, since FDR's time, has been--too much of a coalition to be hemmed in by so severe a litmus test. Beinart is right that liberals can't win national office if they oppose American intervention as a matter of principle. But if, as he insists, liberalism is to be defined by an imperative to intervene in the name of democracy--or, for that matter, by any issue of foreign policy--they are no less doomed to defeat.

There is a 400-pound gorilla tearing at the margins of this book, and that is the war in Iraq. Beinart's December '04 New Republic essay was targeted at the Democratic opponents of that war. (Opponents of the Afghanistan invasion, whom the article also--more properly--trounced, comprised a minority of a minority, hardly worth such heavy ammunition.) Beinart was one of the "liberal hawks" who, even at that late date, still supported the war. In the introduction to his book, he now admits that he was wrong: "I was too quick to give up on containment... I overestimated America's legitimacy." He adds, "It is a grim irony that this book's central argument"--the continuing relevance of cold war liberalism as a vision of American self-confidence, containment, restraint, and legitimacy--"is one I myself ignored when it was needed most."

It is a graceful and gracious retraction, but it also succinctly summarizes the book's other main conceptual flaw: its romanticizing of the Cold War. Beinart writes as if "cold war liberalism" were some coherent doctrine that Democratic presidents, especially Truman and (in his finest hours) Kennedy, adopted to the letter. His intellectual heroes are George Kennan, the statesman who coined the policy of containment, and Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian who reconciled moral principles with the hard-headed interests of realpolitik. Both are worthy heroes. Niebuhr especially deserves a reassessment these days. Believing in the Christian tenet that all men are sinners, Niebuhr reasoned that all nations are capable of evil, too. America has a superior political system, he allowed, in that it keeps evil at bay through checks and balances. But that only means it must do the same in its foreign policy--by accepting some restraints on its power: not to the point of refraining from warfare (Niebuhr was no pacifist), but stringently guarding against the delusion that America's intentions are inherently pure and that its leaders can therefore do as they please without seeking consent from the community of nations.

Using Niebuhr as a template, Beinart pinpoints what's so basically dangerous about Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neocons (all of them, as he cogently puts it, the "intellectual heirs" of John Foster Dulles and his "rollback" doctrine). It's precisely their "complacent confidence in American virtue," which not only blinds them to the world's skepticism but keeps them from seeing any need to prove the skeptics wrong. By contrast, in the liberal view, as Beinart paints it, "America's challenge lies not in recognizing our moral superiority but in demonstrating it... [N]ational greatness is not inherited and it is not declared; it is earned."

This is a fine sentiment, but it has little to do with real-life American history. Beinart begins one sentence: "As Truman and Niebuhr were defining cold war liberalism..."--a notion that would have come as a surprise to both of them. Niebuhr was never a counselor to the powerful. Beinart exaggerates Kennan's role, too. In the late 1940s, Kennan was director of the State Department's policy planning staff, a position far more important than it is now. But Secretary of State Dean Acheson fired him in 1950, after months of intense arguments, and replaced him with Paul Nitze. Acheson regarded Kennan's concept of containment as too passive, too restrained. Kennan believed Soviet expansion could be held in check mainly through economic and political pressure. Acheson and Nitze believed a vast U.S. military build-up was necessary. One could say, in Beinart's terms, that Acheson fired Kennan for holding excessively Niebuhrian views. Curiously, Beinart doesn't mention this dispute--which anticipated the hawk/dove split of the next 40 years. He doesn't mention Nitze at all and drops Acheson's name only in passing, even though they were Truman's men--and thus the official "cold war liberals"--far longer than Kennan. Nor does he acknowledge that Dulles's dreadful philosophy of "rolling back" communism was considerably watered down in practice by President Eisenhower, a much more moderate man than his feverish secretary of state. (The difference between Dulles and his Bush-era heirs is that the latter, alas, serve a president who agrees with them.)

In short, Beinart's whole concept of "cold war liberalism" is somewhat mythical, and its putative contrast with "cold war conservatism" is at least exaggerated. For instance, he writes that the problem with the war in Iraq "wasn't merely that America failed to convince Iraqis that it had their best interests at heart; it's that America did not always have Iraqis' best interests at heart." But does Beinart mean to suggest that, say, Truman intervened in Greece and Turkey because he cared about the Greeks' and Turks' best interests--or that Kennedy sent advisers to South Vietnam out of concern for its people's best interests? These decisions, right or wrong, were based on cold calculations of American national interests. And, while Kennan and Niebuhr disagreed with these calculations on Vietnam, they too thought U.S. interests should govern U.S. foreign policy.

It's one thing for Beinart to advocate a foreign policy based on Niebuhr's ideas of realism and restraint. It's another thing, and quite misleading, to claim that such a policy is deeply rooted in the historical practices of American liberalism.

In several respects, The Good Fight is a valuable book. Beinart is right in urging liberals to craft a foreign policy more inspiring and substantive than the clerkish "competence" promised by Michael Dukakis and John Kerry. But I wish that he had grappled more fully with the context of many liberals' vacillations on national-security policy--the tension, which nobody seems to know how to resolve, between the protection of American interests and the expansion of American ideals. Bush pretends that there is no tension--that our interests and our ideals are synonymous. Beinart indulges in the same pretense, though from a different angle.

Beinart writes, "The brave Middle Eastern liberals who are fighting for democracy and against Salafism need us. They need our money, our expertise, and our example, just as anticommunist liberals and socialists did in Western Europe more than a half-century ago." The comparison is iffy. America shared the same Enlightenment background--and the same enemy in the Soviet Union--as those Western European liberals, most of whom, by the way, were also heads of state. It's unclear who these "Middle Eastern liberals" are. Certainly they don't occupy positions of political power. In any case, to the extent they do need us, they may not want us and, in many cases, they can't openly say they do. This isn't to say they're not worth seeking out and supporting--only that it's a far more problematic task. Historical appeals to the Marshall Plan and NATO don't really resonate.

The "good fight" that Beinart writes about is indeed a good fight. How to wage it, and who might be best at doing so, remain open questions.

Fred Kaplan is the national-security columnist for Slate and the author of The Wizards of Armageddon.


Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2006
The Washington Monthly 1319 F Street N.W. #710
Washington DC. 20004.
Comments or questions ... please email editors by clicking here