Left Behinds

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Peter Beinart's new book about liberalism

Over in Slate (hat tip to Political Theory Daily Review), New Republic editor Peter Beinart gets into a fight with American Prospect editor Michael Tomasky about Beinart's new book.

The book is another entreaty to reform liberalism. In Beinart's words, it "argues that the Cold War liberal tradition—with its focus on legitimacy abroad and self-improvement at home—provides the principles necessary for winning the struggle against jihadism today."

In a review, Tomasky slammed Beinart for not sufficiently renouncing his support for the war in Iraq, because Beinart's refusal to acknowledge "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." Beinart claims that Tomasky completely misrepresents what he wrote about Iraq in his book and that in fact he made it clear that he regrets supporting the invasion (his brief gesture at an explanation is that he was duped by "worst-case logic" and "apocalyptic thinking," which doesn't sound very convincing to me -- I am pretty prone to pessimism and paranoia, but it didn't prevent me from seeing the folly of the warmongerers' logic).

I haven't read the book, but I've read a few reviews of it as well as this exchange, and my initial criticism is that Beinart does not seem to clearly define "jihadism." That term seems to encompass disparate and mutually exclusive phenomena. Frankly, it sounds like slightly dressed up Dubya-speak for "the forces of evil."

But in their exchange in Slate, there are some interesting passages. For example:

My "central thesis": that in the liberal tradition, unless America acknowledges that it can do harm in the world, it cannot do good ...

... For me, this idea has enormous implications. First, it inclines liberals to support powerful international institutions—as they did at the dawn of the Cold War—not only because America cannot manage international problems alone but because we do not want unrestrained power. Because liberals recognize that America is not immune to imperial temptation, we build in the restraints that distinguish us from the predatory powers of the past. Second, recognizing that American virtue must be proved, not asserted, leads liberals to talk differently than George W. Bush does about democracy. Bush talks about American democracy as a finish line we have crossed. We help other countries overcome tyranny, but our own work is done. Liberals, by contrast, should talk about democracy as a process—a means to overcome our capacity for injustice and become a better nation (a nation without places like Guantanamo Bay). It is American democracy as an ongoing struggle, not American democracy as a settled accomplishment, that inspired the world in the 1950s and 1960s, and can again today.

Peter Beinart, who was separated at birth from British pop tart Gareth Gates

They get into a bit of an argument over the historical implications of Harry Truman's foreign policy. As Tomasky writes, "The yoking of Cold War liberalism to liberal (and centrist) support for the Iraq war seems to me the prime example of the intellectual superficiality and deceit of the time we live in. As you know, many a neoconservative has bashed war opponents by invoking Truman. This is a grotesque lie about both, and it has had profound and contagious real-world consequences." Then Tomasky waxes inspirational:

We agree that the '48ers are a model for contemporary liberalism. I agree also, although as you note I questioned its political viability, that liberal intellectuals and Democratic politicians should argue that "American virtue must be proved, not asserted," as you nicely put it. But this means, or needs to mean, specific things. Take foreign aid. Again, you and I agree that our foreign aid budget is an embarrassment. It should be at least 15 times what it is. How do we get there—that is, how can a Democratic president (and no one else could do it) persuade 51 percent of Americans that such an increase is part of our responsibility and in fact will benefit us? On another matter: 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.

Is that will there now in either Democratic leadership or the American people? It is not. And the fact that it isn't is not the fault of the "abject pacifists." It's the fault of the warriors. It's because of Iraq. The war in Iraq is why we "missed" Darfur, a moral error that your magazine (under new editorship) recently lamented. And the war in Iraq looms over our national future. I fear that it renders the grand visions for liberal internationalism that you and I share useless nullities, for a generation, maybe more. That is the tragedy of Iraq; that's why I dwelt, and dwell, on it.

Michael Tomasky, looking very French intellectual

There's a bit too much whining about whether or not Beinart actually called for a purge of liberal pacifists in 2002-2004 or whether he only kind of advocated for a purge. Silly, but there's also some good stuff. Besides, it's always a bit fun to watch intellectuals catfighting.


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