Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again
By Peter Beinart
(HarperCollins. 288 pp. $25.95)
Shortly after losing the 2004 presidential election in a campaign dominated by national security issues, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) appeared at a party for his staff. After dutifully thanking his glum team for trying to put him in the Oval Office, he praised them for going before the country with a message. “Everyone in that room was on edge,” one staffer later remarked, “because everyone wanted to know: What was that message?”
Peter Beinart, an editor-at-large for the New Republic and a columnist for The Washington Post, argues in his deliberately provocative The Good Fight that liberals’ inability to articulate a foreign policy vision has been their Achilles’ heel. Conservatives, after all, have always had a coherent and appealing story to tell voters: America is good, and it does good overseas. Liberals have mocked this tale as simplistic and arrogant. But by dwelling instead on America's limitations and shortcomings, they have lost the opportunity to construct a compelling narrative of their own.
It is, of course, easy to exaggerate how much foreign policy has contributed to the political difficulties that liberals face today. After all, George W. Bush won the White House in 2000 not because of his diplomatic prowess but because voters believed that events overseas hardly mattered. And the public’s disillusionment with Iraq seems to have Democrats poised to make big gains in this year’s congressional midterm elections.
But the very fact that liberals needed the Iraq War to go badly to get a hearing for their foreign policy views attests to their vulnerability on national security issues. As Beinart documents in his thoughtful history of six decades of liberal thinking on foreign policy, this was not always the case. In the years following World War II, it was Democrat Harry S. Truman who developed a coherent and compelling vision of national greatness in the dangerous world. The Cold War liberalism—a term Beinart takes as a compliment, not a slur—of Truman’s Democratic Party unified the nation and provided a blueprint for promoting U.S. security and prosperity that lasted nearly half a century.
But then came Vietnam, which shattered the liberal consensus on foreign policy—and liberal confidence to boot. The anti-imperialist left coalesced around two wrongheaded convictions: that threats to American security were overblown and that narrow interests dominated Washington’s calculations. Meanwhile, a new breed of reformers known as neoliberals responded to the debacle in Southeast Asia by draining foreign policy problems of their ideological content and treating them as technical issues to be solved by dispassionate analysis. Even after 9/11, liberal strategists wanted foreign policy to just go away, arguing (as they did before the October 2002 congressional vote to authorize the Iraq War) that if Democrats changed the conversation to domestic politics, they would fare better at the polls.
Conservatives have happily turned all of these positions to their advantage. Anti-imperialist rants about Halliburton and Big Oil driving U.S. foreign policy have become grist for the right’s claims that liberals reflexively blame America first. The neoliberal disdain for ideology is taken by conservatives as evidence that liberals neither believe in America nor grasp what distinguishes us from our enemies. And the eagerness of Democratic strategists to change the subject seems to prove that liberals follow public opinion polls rather than lead them.
Beinart agrees with much of the conservative critique. To stiffen the Democrats’ spine, he wants his fellow liberals to draw inspiration from the principles that drove Cold War liberalism. America once again faces a serious totalitarian threat, this time not from Nazis or communists but from Islamist jihadists. As was true during Stalin’s heyday, victory requires embracing the causes of greater liberty and greater prosperity around the world. It also means working with America’s democratic allies and understanding that America’s goodness must be demonstrated rather than assumed. And it means recognizing that (as one of Beinart’s heroes, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, argued in the 1950s) in wielding its awesome power, America will not be able to remain morally pure.
Each of these principles has its merits, but they probably don’t make up a compelling foreign policy vision. The conservative narrative is powerful precisely because it is simple: America succeeds because it is strong; others will follow because America is good. Beinart’s updated, post-9/11 version of Cold War liberalism—he is hawkish on al-Qaeda but admits that his earlier writings supporting the 2003 Iraq invasion were misguided—recognizes that the world is complex but offers no guidance on how to handle the dilemmas that such complexity generates. What should America do when its allies disagree? How beholden should it be to international organizations such as the United Nations? How far should it go in compromising its moral principles to defeat gathering threats? Such questions have long bedeviled liberal foreign policy thinkers, and Beinart doesn’t try to square these circles.
Nor is it clear that even a suitably renovated set of liberal Cold War principles will resonate with the American public. The Iraq War has tarnished conservatives’ foreign policy credentials, but it hasn’t necessarily rehabilitated the reputation of liberals. In politics, the messenger is as important as the message, and The Good Fight gives ample evidence of why many Americans are suspicious of what liberals have to offer. This is especially so when they argue, as Beinart does, that Americans would be better off if they understood that “we are not intrinsically good.” That’s all well and good for a seminar on Niebuhr, but it’s not much of a bumper sticker. Until liberals learn to communicate ideas in terms that appeal to the way Americans think of themselves, they will continue to deal conservatives a winning hand.
That would be a shame. Beinart rightly notes a core irony: President Bush stripped away the restraints on the exercise of America’s freedom to act because he wanted to demonstrate America’s strength; he has thereby made American power illegitimate in the eyes of much of the world, which has made us weak. A true fighting liberalism would not have fallen into that trap. The Good Fight may not provide all the answers on how to fashion a durable foreign policy vision for the very real dangers we face, but it provides us with a fine place to start.