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The American Political Tradition | The Nation

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The American Political Tradition

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When it comes to foreign policy, the fundamental divide in American politics today is not between left and right but between those who subscribe to the myth of the "American Century" and those who do not. Peter Beinart is a true believer. In his eyes America's purpose today remains precisely what it has always been: to confront and destroy the enemies of freedom at home and abroad. In The Good Fight, he summons liberals to recover their crusading spirit and to "put antitotalitarianism at the center of their hopes for a better country and a better world." Liberalism must become once again what it was in its heyday: "a fighting faith."

This essay was originally published on TomDispatch.

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Andrew J. Bacevich
Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is the editor of the...

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A fighting faith requires "a narrative of national greatness." To win elections, good ideas and qualified candidates won't suffice. "Liberals can churn out policy papers and nominate war heroes," Beinart writes, "but without their own narrative of American greatness, it will do them little good, either in gaining power or in wielding it." Here, according to Beinart, lies the genius of Republicans, whether in the era of Ronald Reagan or in the age of George W. Bush: "They have a usable past." Celebrating American virtue and righteousness plays well at the polls. To compete effectively Democrats will have to invent their own uplifting version of history--"invent" being the operative term, since for Beinart facts as such are incidental to the process. "Empiricism," he suggests, "is no match for a narrative of the present based on a memory of the past."

The remembering that transforms the past into parable is necessarily selective. Indeed, what you leave out is as important as what you include. This is where Beinart takes present-day liberals to task. Ever since the 1960s they have shown a penchant for getting history backward, forgetting what matters (like standing up to Hitler and Stalin) and obsessing about what ought to be forgotten (like Vietnam). "Before today's progressives can conquer their ideological weakness," he writes, "they must conquer their ideological amnesia. What they need to remember, above all, is the cold war." In short, today's liberals ought to take their cues from the hawkish Democrats of yesteryear who led the epic battle against Communism. That struggle defined the second half of the twentieth century; with totalitarianism now having reconstituted itself in the guise of "jihadist terrorism," the struggle continues and, as Beinart sees it, promises to define the twenty-first century as well.

Beinart devotes much of The Good Fight to constructing this narrative of an anti-totalitarian crusade running from World War II to the present. In his telling of the tale, as long as steely liberals like Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy were at the helm, heeding the counsel of tough-minded liberal intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the crusade proceeded swimmingly. When liberals lost their nerve, however, and conservatives came to power, things went awry.

Sustaining this thesis requires an extraordinary combination of omissions and contortions on Beinart's part. Readers will learn, for example, that Kennedy was a visionary statesman who instituted the Alliance for Progress and created the Peace Corps. They won't learn anything about the Bay of Pigs, Operation Mongoose or US complicity in the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem. Nor will they get any assessment of what Kennedy's ostensibly progressive foreign policy initiatives actually accomplished. (Answer: not much.)

Readers will learn further about the unfortunate tendency of conservatives--in contrast to sophisticated, worldly liberals--to see things in terms of black and white. Beinart offers up John Foster Dulles, who "painted the cold war as a quasi-religious struggle between good and evil," as a prime offender. Yet he ignores a mountain of evidence, starting with the Truman Administration's NSC-68, suggesting that liberals were equally susceptible to manichean--indeed, apocalyptic--views. As for Dulles, Beinart rather conveniently overlooks the fact that the very pragmatic Dwight Eisenhower kept his Secretary of State on a short leash. Dulles preached good and evil; more often than not, Ike discounted the preaching and opted for prudence.

According to the Republican version of the American Century, Ronald Reagan all but single-handedly brought about the collapse of Communism. Not so, insists Beinart. Just as liberals framed the cold war in the 1940s, so too they saved the day in the 1980s by preventing reckless right-wingers from abandoning that frame. Credit for turning back the forces of totalitarianism in Central America goes to those hardheaded liberal Democrats in Congress who repaired the flaws in the Reagan Doctrine, thereby subverting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and keeping El Salvador from slipping into the Communist orbit.

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