A kinder, gentler war on terror

New Republic editor Peter Beinart admits he was wrong about Iraq -- but still calls for liberals to fight the "new totalitarianism rising from the Islamic world." Yet many on the left don't believe his bogeyman even exists.

Published June 16, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

We owe Peter Beinart a debt of thanks for his book "The Good Fight." Not so much for his alleged central argument, which is, as his ungainly subtitle declares, "Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again." There are things worth hearing in that argument, which isn't quite as belligerent and neocon-like as it sounds, but Beinart carves away the ground under his own feet so effectively as he goes along that liberals, leftists or progressives (pick your label) who disagree with him can pretty much close the book with a shrug and go back to their Dick Cheney voodoo dolls.

Beinart's great accomplishment is to return the debate about Iraq, terrorism and the American left to the ground of civility. He lays out, as clearly as he can, his disagreements with the "anti-imperialist left" (his term, but it's probably fair), meaning those who oppose preemptive or preventive warfare by the United States in almost all circumstances. I don't think he always understands this position clearly or characterizes it accurately, but he never red-baits his left-wing opponents, never levels charges of stupidity or cowardice, never accuses them of coddling al-Qaida or hating America. (Ann Coulter's got all that covered.)

Furthermore, Beinart isn't a neocon in Birkenstocks. When he calls himself a liberal, he means it, in much the same way that Democratic Party dinosaurs like Harry Truman, Hubert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson would have embraced the term. He argues simultaneously for a hawkish anti-terror policy, broad acceptance of international restrictions on American power and an activist domestic policy aimed at combating poverty and inequality.

Unlike some of his peers among the so-called liberal hawks, Beinart reserves his angriest rhetoric for the current administration. Left-wingers who have long suspected Beinart's publication (he's an editor at large at the New Republic) of tending a not-so-secret flame for the manly men of the Bush-Cheney regime will be heartened by his lusty denunciations of its misdeeds and misguided ideology. In stripping away the restraints on American power, Beinart writes, Bush has made that power illegitimate. In insisting that America is incapable of evil, Bush has created an environment in which Americans kidnap, torture and kill without compunction. Setting himself apart from so many in mainstream politics, Beinart repeatedly uses the word "torture" to describe U.S. treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere.

Beinart is trying to clear some space, it seems, so that those in the center and on the left of American politics can speak frankly about our disagreements, while remaining focused on a broad set of shared priorities (i.e., rewinding and erasing as much of the 21st century as possible, except for the 2004 Red Sox and HBO's prime-time schedule). This is a noble and perhaps doomed endeavor, but after half a decade of enraged gasbag rhetoric from all sides of the political spectrum, it's nice to see someone try it. Undoing the creeping right-wing coup of the last six years will require forging a common front among many different groups and individuals who don't agree about Iraq or Iran or Israel or a lot of other things, and God knows the Democratic Party -- grown putrid in some places and calcified in others, like an abandoned avocado -- doesn't seem capable of it.

Civility, you might say, is the handmaiden of humility, and for better or worse Beinart begins "The Good Fight" from a severely humbled position. In 2003, he was an ardent supporter of the Bush administration's push for war in Iraq. To his credit, he does not flee from this position or flail about seeking to justify it (à la Christopher Hitchens). Instead, he opens the book by serving himself a man-size helping of crow.

Beinart believed that a U.S. invasion was the only way to prevent Saddam Hussein from assembling a nuclear bomb, he explains, and he also believed "it could produce a decent, pluralistic Iraqi regime, which might help open a democratic third way in the Middle East between secular autocrats and their theocratic opponents." His armchair view of these positions is not complicated: "On both counts, I was wrong."

His errors, Beinart writes, were more than misjudgments of fact (many of us -- more than will ever admit to it -- were misled by the Bush administration's cooked intelligence). "I was wrong on the theory," he says. "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, I overestimated America's legitimacy." As someone who had supported the relatively effective U.S. interventions in Kuwait, the Balkans and Afghanistan, he continues, "I could not see that the morality of American power rests on the limits to American power. It is a grim irony that this book's central argument is one I myself ignored when it was needed most."

Anyone who opposed the war all along is entitled, I suppose, to a flash of bitterness on reading Beinart's mea culpa, which comes after so many thousands of lives lost and so many billions of dollars. But I couldn't sustain that reaction. Beinart and his fellow liberal hawks played no role in the Bush administration's misconceived war plans, beyond providing them some tiny amount of intellectual cover on the left. His candid admission that he failed to live up to his own principles during the rush to war evinces a quality of self-reflection sorely lacking in American public life; one could argue that this lends him more credibility, not less, as a spokesman for the embattled liberal tradition.

Beinart's recantation is far more direct than the murky half-apology offered by George Packer, another leading pro-war liberal, in his book "The Assassins' Gate." That's mostly because "The Good Fight" is an unavoidably personal account of a developing political philosophy, while Packer's book is a magisterial work of reporting, almost certainly the best thing yet published on the prelude, conduct and aftermath of the disastrous war in Iraq. Behind both authors lurks the specter of Paul Berman, along with Hitchens the leading so-called liberal intellectual to support the war. While Beinart seems to have backed away from Berman's analysis a bit more than Packer has, the fact that he calls the Islamic terrorist threat "totalitarianism" suggests he has not cut the cord altogether. Berman's declaration that al-Qaida, the Taliban and Saddam's Baathist regime (along with other groups, I don't doubt) all share the ideological DNA of Stalin and Hitler became the liberal hawks' one-size-fits-all justification for endless overseas warfare.

Still, Beinart's opening confession creates a problem that echoes throughout the length and breadth of "The Good Fight." He is defending a political ideology that, as he admits, led him to support an arrogant and ill-fated military adventure. The same political ideology, as he also admits, led an earlier generation of liberal hawks into a different arrogant and ill-fated military adventure, in Southeast Asia. (Earlier still, the same ideology led too many American liberals to equivocate from the sidelines for too long while Joe McCarthy persecuted suspected Communists and their families.) Perhaps only a liberal could find himself so consistently behind the eight ball, admitting his own team's flaws and hypocrisies while still arguing for its moral rightness.

Besides courtesy, Beinart's other great virtue is concision. When he finally gets around to discussing the problem facing contemporary liberals in the wake of 9/11 -- admittedly, that takes a while -- he dispenses with it in one sentence. "The central question dividing liberals today," he writes, "is whether they believe liberal values are as imperiled by the new totalitarianism rising from the Islamic world as they are by the American right."

The spirit of this question, as I grasp it, is certainly worth discussing. But at the risk of violating our new spirit of intra-liberal amity, isn't this just a kinder, gentler version of Bush-speak? Notice that as Beinart frames the question, it's so loaded with assumptions that it can only be answered in one direction. Do we in fact know, beyond Berman's bizarre pronouncements, that there is a "new totalitarianism" in the Islamic world? Doesn't that imply a movement with leadership and something approaching a coherent ideology? If so, where is that to be found today? And is it "rising"? Or are we talking about a diffuse, decentered meme, a violent revenge fantasy that appeals to disparate bands of losers all over the world?

I'm going to sound like a jerk if I reply, "No, I think Rick Santorum is more of a threat to liberal values than the New Totalitarianism Rising From the Islamic World." But what if the NTRFIW is more or less a paranoid fantasy, projected onto a few hundred cave-dwelling crackpots who've staged a couple of ingenious attacks and inspired a few copycat crimes? And what if Sen. Santorum -- who believes, by the way, that the earth was created 6,000 years ago, in exactly six days -- represented the leading edge of a not-so-secret plan to take over the greatest military power in world history and turn it into a Christian theocracy? I'm only saying: Frame the question that way and you might point toward a different answer.

Beinart is a believer in the NTRFIW, or so one gathers. He doesn't really have much to say about it, beyond a few obligatory pages about Sayyid Qutb, the father of the especially puritanical strain of Islamic fundamentalism known as Salafism, and the chain of association by which Qutb's ideology was conveyed to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, founders of al-Qaida. He provides a brief history of the Taliban, which was indeed a totalitarian regime based in Salafism (if a short-lived, backward and isolated one) that sheltered bin Laden's messianic moondreams, and then expends several more pages wondering what might happen if al-Qaida or some similar group got ahold of a biological weapon or a nuclear bomb.

On this issue, Beinart is clearly correct: Very bad things would happen, and the worst of them wouldn't be the damage caused by the weapon itself, but the pell-mell rush to abandon every remaining American constitutional right and liberty that would follow. Remember the never-proposed "Patriot II" law, which the Bush administration briefly floated in 2003? Among many other exciting provisions, it would have permitted the government to strip American citizens of all their rights and imprison them indefinitely if they were found (under some unspecified process) to have supported terrorism. In the wake of another major terrorist attack, Beinart speculates, the government could claim police powers that would make John Ashcroft look like Mister Rogers.

This nightmare scenario of a police-state America lies at the heart of Beinart's ass-backward case for a liberal crusade against Islamic terrorists. "American liberals must make the fight against this new totalitarianism their own," he intones. But if he ever claims that the long-bearded dillweeds with their 7th century reading of the Quran are some huge threat to civilization on their own merits, I missed it. The problem seems to be that we're all so shit-scared of being blown up at the mall that we'll sign up for any level of homegrown fascism that promises a remedy. So liberals must get tough on terror in order to save Americans from themselves.

I'm not sure how seriously to take this line of reasoning. Beinart claims to be passionate about reviving the "antitotalitarian liberalism" of the Cold War as an ideology for reshaping America and fighting international terrorism. But even when he's not confessing his own sins and tiptoeing cautiously around his left-wing opponents, Beinart is more a politics-and-policy wonk than a purveyor of grand theories or manifestoes. He's shoveling ideas against the wall to see what might stick, but his main agenda seems to be figuring out how a centrist Democrat like Hillary Clinton or Mark Warner might be able to avoid getting killed on this issue.

He begins "The Good Fight" with a truncated history of liberal politics since World War II, focusing on the recurrent splits within the American left over ideology and foreign policy. His heroes are men like Truman, Humphrey, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, labor leader Walter Reuther and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who helped forge the patriotic, anti-Communist, post-New Deal consensus that dominated Democratic Party politics for more than 30 years. While pursuing an aggressive strategy of "containment" against the Soviet Union, these liberals supported civil rights, progressive taxation and a dramatic expansion of the welfare state at home.

Most important for Beinart is the idea that these antitotalitarian liberals shared ordinary Americans' belief in the greatness of our nation, and argued unapologetically that we had the right and the duty to exercise moral leadership all over the world. Unlike the Cold War right wing, which began to emerge in the mid-1950s and solidified around Barry Goldwater in 1964, these liberals did not think our national greatness was innate, absolute or incorruptible. Americans "should not fall in love with their own virtue," in Niebuhr's famous phrase. We had to exercise our immense power in a responsible and restrained fashion, accept an increasingly complicated network of international organizations and alliances, and work tirelessly to improve democracy and economic opportunity both at home and abroad.

At the risk of oversimplifying Beinart's account, which winds its way from one election cycle to the next -- nothing else that was happening in American society matters to him, it seems -- here are the highlights. Placing themselves at the "vital center" of American life (in Schlesinger's words), the Cold War liberals purged the far left from the Democratic Party in 1948 and engineered Truman's come-from-behind victory. After the Ike interregnum, the liberal hawks triumphed again with JFK and LBJ, before being overrun by the rise of the strident New Left, with disastrous electoral consequences (i.e., George McGovern's 17 electoral votes in 1972). After a period of extended disorder on the left and the dawning of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America," the descendants of Cold War liberalism reinvented themselves as the "New Democrats" of the late 1980s, and landed Bill Clinton in the White House for two terms.

This is an awkward and foreshortened narrative, at best, but its intended lesson is clear: When liberals embrace the narrative of American greatness, and argue for a positive engagement with the world, they win elections. Become too downbeat, intellectual or introverted, and they get creamed. As an argument about modes of political rhetoric, this may have some merit (unfortunately). As history it's a load of crap, and Beinart knows it. He's too nuanced a thinker to stick with this balderdash, and winds up retreating almost the whole way: Truman actually rallied by portraying himself as a liberal crusader who was rescuing FDR's New Deal from the Republicans, Cold War liberalism enthusiastically dug its own grave in Vietnam, foreign policy was never an issue in either of Clinton's campaigns.

Furthermore, the connection between the Clinton-Gore New Democrats and the Schlesinger-Niebuhr liberal tradition is more a matter of heartland-friendly rhetoric than reality. Beinart's beloved antitotalitarian liberals were nurtured under FDR's New Deal and built LBJ's Great Society. They believed in a powerful central government that safeguarded the public interest, blunted the sharp edges of capitalism and nurtured the youngest, the oldest and the poorest. Faced with an uncertain economy and the rising tide of right-wing propaganda, the Clintonites proclaimed the end of big government and capitulated to Republican budget-cutting fervor on one social program after another.

I'm not trying to revisit the tedious political infighting of the Clinton years, only to point out that Beinart's argument wobbles around between issues that speak to fundamental philosophy and those that address electoral positioning. He praises the "humanitarian interventionism" of Clinton's hawkish second term as a model for contemporary liberalism, but is forced to admit that the public wasn't much interested. (During his semi-victorious 2000 campaign, George W. Bush specifically promised to avoid overseas adventures and "nation-building.")

Along the way, Beinart's mini-history provides some sharp and surprising observations. I think he's right that there was a "strangely patronizing quality" to the Democrats' 2004 choice of John Kerry, a candidate nobody really liked but whom liberals supported "because they believed other, more hawkish, voters would support him because he had served in Vietnam." When Kerry's wartime résumé was turned against him, however unfairly, he was exposed as a candidate with no particular vision or agenda beyond not being Bush. (Beinart observes that in their first debate, judged by most observers to have been won by Kerry, President Bush used the words "freedom," "democracy" and "liberty" a total of 45 times. Kerry said them just six times.)

Beinart also rejects the much-rehearsed argument that the 2004 election turned on questions of "moral values" like abortion or gay marriage. Instead, he says, working-class whites (a group Bill Clinton had evenly split with his Republican opponents) fled to Bush en masse, believing he would stand tall against terrorism while Kerry wouldn't. Moreover, Beinart thinks those blue-collar voters were at least partly right. Recent polling data suggests that self-described liberals are far more interested in ending the Iraq war than in pursuing al-Qaida, and that a large proportion of Democrats now oppose not merely the Iraq conflict but also the earlier invasion of Afghanistan. Many American liberals, he concludes, "no longer see the war on terror as their fight."

Since Beinart has himself turned against the Iraq war, and has almost nothing good to say about the Bush administration's recent conduct, what sort of liberal war on terror does he envision? After all the drumbeating, he finally outlines a proposal in a couple of paragraphs, and it's more carrot than stick. Pointing out that the U.S. has spent very little on non-military aid to the Arab world since 9/11, he suggests a massive infusion of cash, along the lines of the postwar Marshall Plan, funded by the U.S., the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The goal would be the economic, political and social reconstruction of the Arab world, with each country developing its own pathways and mechanisms, within certain broad parameters (a democratic process, a market economy and so forth).

This sounds like an ambitious, noble and perilous idea, evoking the best -- or at least most adventurous -- traditions of Cold War liberalism. It might have been worth trying five years ago, before the Bush administration had so thoroughly poisoned the atmosphere that no self-respecting Arab or Muslim autocrat can afford to be seen cozying up to Uncle Sam. But if Beinart really believes that a program to give away billions of taxpayer dollars to Arabs will appeal to working-class white voters who were scared off by John Kerry, he's a lot dumber than I think he is.

Almost by the way, Beinart throws in a sentence saying that the U.S. must still reserve the right to invade "stateless zones" all over the world, from the Middle East to Africa and Southeast Asia, in order to "capture or kill the jihadists taking refuge there, and stay long enough to begin rebuilding the state." Well, OK! There's another electoral winner, as well as a concept that has worked brilliantly so far.

That's it. That's Beinart's vision of a newly virile liberalism battling global jihad: Take our money or we're really going to kick your ass. I'm sure Hillary Clinton is going to take that to Iowa next year and run with it. Seriously, though, the cluelessness of this idea is related to Beinart's near-total inability to comprehend why the American left fears and mistrusts the "war on terror," both as discourse and as reality.

Beinart discusses the newly invigorated liberal grass roots of the Deaniac/DailyKos/MoveOn generation with an air of mournful wonderment, writing that "their idealism, and their outrage, is directed almost exclusively against the right." Reading these lefty bloggers, "you could easily think liberals have no enemies more threatening, or more illiberal, than George W. Bush."

Indeed you could. In fairness, the last chapters of this history have not been written. We can't know whether people a century from now will conclude that the murderous ideology of Osama bin Laden was worse than the policies of our current one-party superstate. But Beinart never even tries, for instance, to address the contentions of British filmmaker Adam Curtis, whose documentary "The Power of Nightmares" presents a compelling argument that al-Qaida was an insignificant cult group representing a failed ideology before the U.S. elevated it to the glamorous status of international supervillain.

Terrorism is a real and dangerous phenomenon. But even Beinart half-accidentally admits that the real danger that lies in Islamic terrorism is the effect it could have on us. Even if al-Qaida and similar groups pose a legitimate threat to our society, they have already been used as an all-purpose smokescreen behind which dark shapes move through the corridors of power. Many of us suspect that the real damage done to our constitutional conception of liberty since 9/11 is not yet understood, and may never be undone.

Beinart thinks that today's young liberals "have not put antitotalitarianism at the center of their hopes for a better country and a better world." On this count, he's dead wrong. One thing that gives me hope about the future of this country -- and admittedly I don't have a lot -- is the fact that so many energized young activists are trying to fight the stealthy, slow-growing fungus of totalitarianism where they can see it, right here at home.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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