ashthomas//blog: Peter Beinart's The Good Fight


Sunday, June 18, 2006

Peter Beinart's The Good Fight

Joe Klein reviewed Peter Beinart's The Good Fight: Why Liberals---and Only Liberals---Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again last week in the NY Times. It provides a very good summary of Beinart's argument:

ONCE upon a time — 60 years ago, to be precise — liberals were the moderates in American politics. They were flanked on the left by so-called progressives who were either unconcerned about the threat posed by the international spread of Communism or covertly sympathetic to it, and on the right by conservatives who wanted to use anti-Communism as a rationale for domestic demagogy and unilateral military crusades. The liberal "vital center" — to use Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s phrase — was not, however, a force for milquetoast moderation or take-half compromise. It was a tough-minded, aggressively creative political movement. It was led by courageous politicians like Harry Truman and Hubert Humphrey, who received policy support from a remarkable generation of public servants that included George Marshall, George Kennan, Paul Nitze and Dean Acheson. Intellectual ballast was provided by Schlesinger, Kennan and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, among others. Their immediate achievement was the containment of Communism. But Peter Beinart argues that cold war liberalism has enduring value as well: he believes it is the most plausible philosophical framework for an enlightened American foreign (and domestic) policy in the 21st century. However, he writes, "before today's progressives can conquer their ideological weakness, they must first conquer their ideological amnesia."

Klein descibes Beinart's importance in the intellectual world of Washington thus:

His most important attribute as a writer and thinker, though, is what he is not: at the age of 35, he is not a member of the baby boom generation. His political sensibility was not molded by Vietnam, the civil rights movement or hallucinogens. He is not afflicted by the excesses, delusions, indulgences or grandiosity of the current leaders of the Democratic Party.

It's a very good review provinding good background to Beinart and his argument. Beinart seems to be everywhere promoting his book. Last week he debated it in Slate with Michael Tomasky, editor of the The American Prospect. Beinart, a former editor of The New Republic, and Tomasky start off on the wrong foot, owing largely to Tomasky's review of Beinart that Beinart found to be unfair:

You'd be better off just acknowledging the errors in your review—so we could move on. I made two very specific points. 1) That you dishonestly paraphrased a quote from my December 2004 essay, to make it seem that I was urging the Democratic Party to purge Iraq war opponents—when the actual quote (and the entire essay) says nothing of the sort. 2) That you claimed that my book, The Good Fight, does not "acknowledg[e] plainly" that Iraq contradicts the cold war liberal tradition—when it does exactly that.

Beinart even throws in a dig at the quality of Tomasky's magazine:

Had your review encountered a good fact-check, you wouldn't have made these claims—because they are clearly false.

Tomasky doesn't pull any punches either:

I guess I'm coming to the conclusion that you genuinely don't understand the impact your words about Iraq and the liberals who opposed it had. Your words were divisive, unleaderly, aggressively accusatory, and quite unfair (implicitly if not explicitly) to a large number of people whom you caricatured in a grossly unwarranted fashion. You are clearly aggrieved by my review, and undoubtedly by other reactions to a book that is important to you, and of course I can understand that. But you are not the only aggrieved party here. If you genuinely want more people to take seriously what you have to say about foreign policy in the future, I hope that, however mad you may be at me, you'll try to understand this.


Punditry has consequences, Peter. And the consequence of your essay among many people who opposed the war was, to put it benignly, a conclusion that you were not interested in reasonable debate.

But after putting aside the insults and complaints, the two, who are representatives of the opposing wings of the Democratic movement, do get into some substantial debate. Tomasky feels that Beinart unfairly and cartoonishly depicts the left wing of the Democratic Party as long-haired peaceniks. Tomasky declares that he, for one, is not as monolithic or uncompromising as he is made out to be:

I do not oppose humanitarian intervention, of course, and I'll even go it one further and say something that may surprise you. I do not a priori rule out possible preventive war in the future, provided certain conditions are unambiguously met (the national-security imperative is real, the mission is not built on a mansion of lies, the American people are more or less honestly prepared for the price that may have to be paid, etc.). In other words, proving our virtue requires specific acts, which require money, which requires enormous reserves of political will.

Beinart summarises his position with a few points that he believes all on the left can agree upon:

We need to do two things: First, learn from the Iraq disaster (and yes, those of us who supported it have the most learning to do—the book is an attempt to do that). And second, not acquiesce fatalistically to the current national exhaustion with the idea that American power—including military power—can improve the world. That's what the Darfur effort is all about. Another Iraq would be an enormous tragedy. But so would abandoning America's efforts to promote liberty and economic opportunity (and in the case of Darfur, sheer human survival) in the Islamic world. Americans do periodically grow disillusioned and embittered, often for understandable reasons. But the best leaders and thinkers—people like Harry Truman and Reinhold Niebuhr—are those who correctly harness America's Wilsonian streak, crafting international efforts that appeal to our sense of national mission while also recognizing our practical and moral limits.

The exchange ends, rather abruptly, on only its second day -- I may be wrong, but Slate's Book Club discussions usually go at least three, sometimes all week. I don't want to assume anything from this, but the tone of the writing makes one wonder if one or both of the participants pulled out.


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