Flexing liberal muscles

Leftist intellectual Peter Beinart: The US's greatness depends on it acknowledging its capacity for evil.

October 12, 2006 11:53
Flexing liberal muscles

Soldiers Iraq 88. (photo credit: )

Exchanging the heat of Baghdad for the swelter of Washington, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is in town to meet with President George W. Bush and address a joint session of Congress this July. At a press conference with the president, Maliki criticizes Israel's airstrikes in Lebanon and calls for an immediate cease-fire, echoing the sentiment of the Iraqi parliament - which earlier in the week passed a resolution denouncing the Israeli campaign as "criminal aggression." Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean wastes no time firing back, calling Maliki an "anti-Semite." Several Congressional Democrats demand that Maliki's upcoming address to Congress be canceled unless he retracts his statement and apologizes. Across town, Peter Beinart sits in his office, dismayed. He views the Democrats purportedly principled stand against Maliki as little more than short-sighted, self-destructive political machinations. He wonders: How will Maliki establish credibility with his majority Shi'ite-Arab country if Democrats insist on making him look like an American puppet? And without that credibility his government will fail, and America desperately needs him to succeed. Beinart vents his frustration in an acerbic opinion column that will appear by week's end in The Washington Post. "It was about appearing more pro-Israel than the White House and thus pandering to Jewish voters," Beinart writes. "It's jingoism with a liberal face." But Peter Beinart is no bomb-throwing conservative bloviator. Rather, he was until earlier this year the editor of The New Republic, the venerable liberal opinion journal. He now holds the position of editor-at-large, and he has just published his first book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals - and Only Liberals - Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, in which he articulates a muscularly liberal vision of America's role in the world. It has sparked heated debate within a Democratic Party that has long struggled to find its voice on national security. The time is right for the undertaking. Less than two years ago, George W. Bush delivered an exceptionally idealistic inaugural address that focused almost exclusively on America's role in the world. "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors," Bush declared. "When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you." But now - with Iraq in bloody tatters, Afghanistan backsliding into warfare, confrontation with Iran, and Israelis and Lebanese recently confined to bomb shelters democracy, democracy promotion, and humanitarian intervention have become dirty words in the American political lexicon. Americans are now weary of grand visions. There is no longer much appetite for Bush's brand of democratic evangelism. Disillusioned Americans are turning inward. Beinart worries that the view of what he calls the "anti-imperialist Left" - those for whom the fundamental issue is American imperialism - is gaining ground. He cites a May 2005 Pew Research Center study of the American electorate in which it found that "Foreign affairs assertiveness now almost completely distinguishes Republicanoriented voters from the Democratic-oriented voters." Another poll showed that while conservatives, and Americans in general, cited destroying al-Qaida as their top foreign policy priority, among liberals it tied for 10th. This trend was underscored by a November 2005 M.I.T. survey, which found that only 59 percent of Democrats - as opposed to 94% of Republicans - still approved of America's decision to invade Afghanistan. And only 57% of Democrats - as opposed to 95% of Republicans - supported using US troops "to destroy a terrorist camp." "Many liberals," Beinart writes, "simply no longer see the war on terror as their fight." And for a liberal internationalist like Beinart - who believes America has a moral purpose at home and in the world - this is profoundly disheartening. After all, if liberals believe every step America takes abroad is the first step towards quagmire it is impossible to take any step at all. And in the age of jihad, how can such a timid ideology rally America to its own defense? "I THINK there is a danger of over-learning the lessons of Iraq in the same way that some liberals over-learned the lessons of Vietnam," Beinart says from behind his bare and scuffed wooden desk. The first thing you notice about Beinart is his youth. It is as though every physical attribute conspires to make him appear even younger than his 35 years. Beinart's office at The New Republicis Spartan and modest. His only effort at interior decoration is a small photograph of his nine-month-old son, Ezra, perched on top of his dusty computer monitor. A somewhat-disheveled bookshelf lines one wall. Beinart was an early and vocal proponent of the Iraq war, one of the so-called "liberal hawks," who was convinced that military action was the only way to prevent Saddam Hussein from obtaining a nuclear bomb. In addition, he was moved by the compelling humanitarian case for overthrowing the Ba'athist regime. For this small contingent of leftist intellectuals, a series of altruistic American interventions in Bosnia, Haiti and Kosovo throughout the Nineties birthed a shift in thinking about American military power. As the writer Paul Berman reflected at the time: "We who used to be the party of anti-intervention (because we were anti-imperialists) should now become, in the case of various dictators and genocidal situations, the party of intervention (because we are democrats)." "I was wrong," Beinart writes at the very beginning of The Good Fight. "I could not imagine that Saddam Hussein, given his record, had abandoned his nuclear program... And I could not imagine that the Bush administration would so utterly fail to plan for the war's aftermath, given that they had so much riding on its success." But Beinart goes beyond merely faulting the incompetent execution of the postwar. Rather, he has come to the conclusion that the war was wrong "in theory." "I did not grasp the critical link between the invasion's credibility in the world and its credibility in Iraq. I not only overestimated America's capacities," Beinart writes, "I overestimated America's legitimacy." I ask Beinart if it irks him that so much of the critical response to The Good Fighthas focused on his very public mea culpa on the Iraq war. He shrugs and ekes out a thin smile, "It does, but I think it goes with the territory. We are in the middle of a war that has produced a lot of bitterness, and I did have a very public position so I understand that people will use it as an opportunity to take a shot at me." The critics' fixation with Iraq, while understandable, distorts the significance of this ambitious work. The Good Fightis an impassioned plea for the revitalization of American liberalism. Over the course of two-hundred fluently argued pages Beinart makes the case that liberals must rediscover the dormant legacy of Cold War antitotalitarianism - as exemplified by his political hero Harry Truman, and his intellectual hero the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger. Resuscitating this narrative of national greatness will allow Democrats to convey moral and political seriousness on questions of war and peace. At the core of this political philosophy are two interlocking principles. First is an ardent belief that America cannot abide a double standard on matters of human liberty. As such, he rouses as much passion arguing for the protection of civil liberties and the expansion of economic opportunity at home as he does for fighting the scourge of jihadist totalitarianism abroad. There can be no double standard because the denial of democracy at home undermines America's moral authority abroad. But Beinart tempers this assertion with a keen recognition that America, for all its noble accomplishments, is capable of perpetrating brutal injustice. Channeling the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Beinart maintains that "Americans should not fall in love with their own virtue, and should not expect non-Americans to take that virtue on faith." In other words, America's greatness depends on it acknowledging its capacity for evil. "America's challenge," Beinart writes, "lies not in recognizing our moral superiority, but in demonstrating it." It is here that Beinart parts company with the neoconservative vision that has been so influential in shaping the Bush administration's foreign policy. American power, according to Beinart, must be based on persuasion and consent, not merely coercion and brute force. While it is necessary that America maintain a strong and just military - and demonstrate the will to use it effectively - it must not think with its muscles. He believes that this is best achieved by investing that power in international institutions. "Neoconservatives, like other conservatives, basically tend to believe that intense engagement with international institutions makes America weaker by limiting America's freedom of action. That international institutions are at best irrelevant and at worst a real hindrance, a way of the Lilliputians tying down Gulliver," Beinart explains. "I think that for liberals, international institutions, going back to the Forties and those that [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt and Truman created, are a critical way of America both gaining the capacity to solve problems that are too big for America to solve alone, and also a critical way of America investing its power with legitimacy." This is necessary because American power is currently reviled around the world. A 2005 Pew study concludes that "the rest of the world has become deeply suspicious of US motives and openly skeptical of its word." "The United States can still coerce," Beinart writes, "but it has largely lost its ability to persuade." This state of affairs makes a near farce of America's championing of democracy and human rights. As Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, has noted, in the Arab world today, "The easiest way to sideline a reform is to claim that it is pro-American." Beinart argues that the Bush administration has more or less ignored the economic dimension of the war on terror because conservatives are ideologically averse to the very idea of foreign development aid - something the 1996 Republican platform dismissed as "social welfare spending in the Third World." Instead, Beinart's model for engagement with the Arab world is the Marshall Plan, the massive post-World War II aid package to combat the economic and social roots of totalitarianism in Western Europe. Between 1948 and 1952 the United States spent, in today's terms, roughly $200 billion a year in economic aid to a devastated Europe. If you combine all the Bush administration's nonmilitary aid to the Muslim world - as Beinart does - you get a bit more than $1.5 billion a year. Add in economic reconstruction for Afghanistan and Iraq, and you're a bit over $8 billion, still one-20th of the Marshall Plan. "What kind of way is that to fight World War IV?" Beinart asks with evident dismay. The significance of this strategic lacuna has not been lost on Arab commentators. For instance, in 2002 the administration announced the Middle East Partnership Initiative which targeted funds towards education, economic development, democratization and women's rights. In its first year, it received a paltry $29 million. The Londonbased Al-Quds al-Arabi editorialized that "this sum is not only too little; it also reflects the extent to which the ruling elite in Washington despises the Arabs, and the degree to which it has no serious intention of resisting dictatorships in the region." BEINART KNOWS he is swimming against the political tide in his own party. The increasingly dire war in Iraq has made Americans wary of expansive foreign policy creeds, and the mood among liberals is no exception. There is great irony here. George W. Bush's approach to foreign policy would traditionally appeal to liberal values. After all, it is the Left that invented internationalism. And liberals who have long championed human rights and democracy promotion have faced an uncomfortable dilemma. Many dismiss Bush's campaign for Islamic democracy as disingenuous window-dressing to mask the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Others have such strong scruples about appearing to align themselves with someone as conservative as Bush that they opt for evasion in order to be free of any taint of association. Beinart takes a more nuanced view. While critical of the Bush administration's handling of the war on terror, he thinks the president was right to make the promotion of democracy abroad a central component of the war, because tyranny fosters jihad. "And if liberals deny it now, they forfeit their own heritage." But few Americans - and fewer American liberals - share Beinart's perspective. Across the Middle East, Islamist organizations have merged electoral politics with terrorism. In Beirut, Hizbullah commits itself both to sitting in Lebanon's governing cabinet and to launching violent attacks across the border with Israel. In January, Hamas was elected to head the Palestinian Authority, and its signature policy thus far has been to lob Kassam rockets into southern Israel. In Iraq, both the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Moktada al-Sadr's movement operate as significant factions in the elected government while simultaneously maintaining personal militias that they refuse to disband. Greater freedom has birthed greater instability. Faced with this upsurge of barbarism, there is waning faith in the viability of Middle Eastern democracy. Beinart, ever the precocious optimist, does not despair. He insists that there is still a vein of hard-headed idealism in the liberal imagination. And that there remains an enduring belief that America has a significant and moral role to play in the world. "If a Democrat can feed into that and try to convey some of the lessons that the early Cold War did, I think they can move liberals from where they are now. I think that is going to be the great challenge."

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