Wednesday, May 24, 2006


I haven't read Beinart's book, though I gather it makes the shocking case that:

  • America has and can do good in the world when it wants to.
  • This is something we should continue to do at times.
A basic view of the world embraced by just about every national political figure in this country except for Pat Buchanan and George W. Bush Year 2000 Version, but I'm glad Petey's there to remind us.

Anyway, the real issue isn't that Petey and his fellow travelers want to tell Democrats what they should do, the real issue is that they want to be the intellectual leaders of whatever they imagine to be "liberal interventionism." As Supreme Overlord of the Universe and Beyond Mike Tomasky puts it, basically, why the hell should we trust these idiots?

If we are to move forward along lines Beinart suggests, we need to know whether Beinart and other liberal hawks will recognize the difference between antitotalitarian liberalism and conservatism, neo- or otherwise, when they see it. Unfortunately, Beinart slips and slides around this question. His chapter on Iraq, which rehearses the administration’s various arguments for war, reads at first blush like a wise and disinterested account of a tragic march to folly. But he writes about this period as if he’d spent it on a mountaintop in Tibet instead of editing an influential magazine and cheering on the administration virtually every step of the way -- and accusing war critics, not all of whom (news flash: not even a majority of whom) are anti-imperialist Chomskyites, of “intellectual incoherence” and “abject pacifism,” as he so unforgettably put matters to The Washington Post in February 2003. I resented those comments at the time personally, I still do, and I know a lot of people who feel similarly.

I share many of Beinart’s goals for the Democratic Party. I’m not entirely sure how he proposes that today’s Democrats make this Niebuhrian case about recognizing America’s potential to do harm; it doesn’t seem like a vote-getter, but, intellectually at least, he’s on to something. And I found his prescriptive chapter a bit thin. His proposals for how liberals should fight the war on terrorism -- a Marshall Plan for the Arab world, greater cooperation with the United Nations (where possible), and NATO -- are rather general (and, for all his huffing and puffing about doughfacery, every one could be endorsed by the very people he reproves in the previous chapter). Even with these limitations, though, his argument that there is much wisdom to be found today in liberal foreign policy of the 1947-1963 period, and that fighting terrorism must occupy a central place in the liberal schema, is sound.

But to give this subject book-length treatment without acknowledging plainly that the war in Iraq stands against the Cold War liberal tradition rather than within it damages, almost fatally, the credibility of the argument. So we’re supposed to sign up with the author’s vision of a revived ’48-ism, even though we know from his own written record that it could lead to another Iraq? I’d love to talk with Beinart about the future and only the future. But not just yet.