The American Political Tradition
This imaginative, if largely spurious, depiction of postwar history serves Beinart's larger purpose in two ways. First, by revalidating antitotalitarianism as the era's overarching theme, Beinart promotes it as the idea that ought to define US policy in the aftermath of 9/11 as well. Second, by portraying hawkish liberals as heroes, doves as fools and conservatives as knaves, he suggests that restoring the fortunes of today's Democratic Party ought to be a piece of cake: All liberals need to do is to reject the wimpy anti-imperialism of Howard Dean and Michael Moore and embrace the muscular principles that inspired the Americans for Democratic Action back in the late 1940s.
To legitimate this fraud and to wrap anti-totalitarian liberalism in a mantle of moral superiority, Beinart shanghais Reinhold Niebuhr and subjects the great Protestant theologian to ritual abuse. In essence, he uses Niebuhr much as Jerry Falwell uses Jesus Christ, and just as shamelessly: citing him as an unimpeachable authority and claiming his endorsement, thereby pre-empting any further discussion.
To establish his Niebuhrean credentials, Beinart sprinkles The Good Fight with references to "guilt," "moral fallibility" and "limits." Yet whereas the real Niebuhr's message was a cautionary one, Beinart-channeling-Niebuhr emits portentous exhortations. Like a third-rate stump speech, the results don't necessarily parse, but they do manage to sound awfully important. Thus Beinart lets it be known that "only when America recognizes that it is not inherently good can it become great." Then there's this chin stroker: "America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world." Or better still: "America's challenge lies not in recognizing our moral superiority, but in demonstrating it."
The real Niebuhr worried less about Americans demonstrating their moral superiority than about whether they would forgo temptations of moral irresponsibility. But then, the real Niebuhr did not conceive of history as a narrative of national greatness. Rather than bend the past to suit a particular agenda, liberal or otherwise, he viewed it as beyond our understanding and fraught with paradox. "The whole drama of history," he wrote, "is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management."
No such humility constrains Beinart. He not only comprehends history but insists with all the fervor of William Kristol that the United States has the capacity and duty to manage it. After all, when the first phase of the American Century ended in 1989, it rendered a definitive verdict: "The core reality was that the United States had vanquished its chief ideological competitor and military rival, leaving it in a position of astonishing strength." Victory in the cold war imposed obligations; Americans were called upon to use that strength to carry on the work of liberating humankind. Today, when in Beinart's estimate "U.S. military and economic influence knows few bounds," he believes it is incumbent upon policy-makers to redouble American efforts to spread the blessings of freedom and equality across the Muslim world.
Writing in the early days of the cold war, Niebuhr had urged "a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom, and power available to us for the resolution of [history's] perplexities." Were he in our midst today, he would likely align himself with those dissidents on the left and the right who reject the conceits of the American Century and who view as profoundly dangerous the claims of both neoliberals and neoconservatives to understand history's purpose and destination. The beginning of wisdom, Niebuhr counseled, lies in recognizing that history cannot be coerced.