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A Reply to Peter Beinart | The Nation

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A Reply to Peter Beinart

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In my last column, I focused on the Kerry campaign's inability to articulate an alternative national security strategy. This, I suggested, made it difficult to lay bare the colossal failures of the Bush Administration in the same area and to convince voters to trust the Democrats with the defense of the nation. I also noted that Democrats did not always have this problem; the "fighting faith" of 1950s cold war liberalism, for all its problems, presented Americans with a national security framework sufficient to earn their trust (and thereby, not incidentally, allow liberals to make considerable progress on social justice issues at home).

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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By coincidence, New Republic editor Peter Beinart simultaneously published an elegantly written, passionately argued 5,683-word essay addressing himself to exactly the same problem and deploying the same historical example as a guidepost to the future. The essay, "A Fighting Faith," was widely embraced as the fulcrum of debate about the future of a liberal foreign policy vision. In this regard, Beinart and TNR performed a salutary service, as such a debate is sorely needed. Unfortunately, Beinart's own contribution is fundamentally flawed, and must be discarded if this debate is to lead liberals in a fruitful direction.

Just as the magazine did when its editors argued in favor of Bush's foolhardy war--and Reagan's Central American fantasies before that--Beinart's essay employs McCarthyite tactics in conjunction with wishful thinking in the service of a chimerical political agenda. His solution for the political problem that ails the Democratic Party fits in perfectly with TNR's own intellectual DNA structure, calling as it does for the expulsion from the Democratic coalition of MoveOn.org, perhaps the left's most energetic and committed popular organizations, in support of a combination of policies (liberal on the domestic front, neoconservative internationally) with no clear constituency in America or anywhere else. In doing so, it reproduces the failures of the Bush Administration that have destroyed the sympathy and solidarity the United States enjoyed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

First the McCarthyism: Beinart's attacks on MoveOn--which understate the organization's 2.9 million membership by nearly 100 percent--rest largely on statements made by organizations he claims are related to it, often by nothing more than a click on its website. Many of his charges turn on the weasel word "seems," as in "in recent years, [MoveOn] seems to have largely lost interest in any agenda for fighting terrorism at all. Instead, MoveOn's discussion of the subject seems dominated by two, entirely negative, ideas...." As a certain Prince of Denmark once remarked: "Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not 'seems.'"

Beinart falsely accuses MoveOn of opposing military retaliation against Al Qaeda because its organizers argued on behalf of a strategy that spared population centers from bombing attacks. He apparently cannot conceive of an effective military response that does not include the killing of thousands of innocents. In fact, just as the liberal realists of the 1950s whom Beinart so admires opposed the excesses of conservative US foreign policy--including CIA-sponsored coups in Iran and Guatemala--so too did liberal realists argue in 2001 that the US government was not availing itself of the best approaches to fighting Al Qaeda. New Yorker reporter Nicholas Lemann surveyed a group of them and came away with a remarkably consistent--and painfully prescient--set of analyses. "Military power is not necessary to wiping out Al Qaeda," Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School at Harvard told Lemann. "It's a crude instrument, and it almost always has effects you can't anticipate.... This is ultimately a battle for the hearts and minds of people around the world. When your village just got leveled by an American mistake, the conclusions you draw will be rather different from what we'd want them to be." Stephen Van Evera of MIT concurred: "A broad war on terror was a tremendous mistake.... you make enemies of the people you need against Al Qaeda."

Indeed, the bombing campaign in Afghanistan, while supported elsewhere, did feed anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world. In a February 2002 Gallup poll of nine Muslim countries, 77 percent of respondents judged US actions in Afghanistan to be unjustifiable; only 9 percent expressed support. Even in moderate Turkey, opinion ran 3 to 1 against, and in Pakistan the ratio was 20 to 1. Needless to say, neither did the military campaign succeed in capturing its avowed target, Osama bin Laden. (I point all this out as someone who supported the attack on Afghanistan, although I would have preferred a more thoughtful response.)

Beinart argues that by expelling MoveOn for being insufficiently supportive of the Bush Administration's terror policies and embracing a platform of social liberalism and military adventurism, Democrats could enlarge their portion of the electoral pie to a degree that would enable them to wrest power from the Republicans and embark on a successful mission to democratize the Middle East. As many critics have pointed out in response, the size of the potential pro-gay marriage/pro-war constituency would probably fit comfortably around a TNR conference table. Even more fantastic, however, and to this writer, depressing, is Beinart's belief that such a force could successfully liberate the Islamic world from the morass of religious fundamentalism, corruption and political paranoia from which it currently suffers.

Can Beinart point to any evidence that the US government possesses the knowledge, authority or cultural sensitivity necessary to perform this historically unprecedented operation? Does Beinart really believe that the Arab masses are yearning to be freed in order to catch the last episode of Desperate Housewives? Such naïve hubris about America's ability to remake other cultures to our liking at the point of a gun is what underlay the decisions that cost us 58,000 lives in Vietnam and wrought death and destruction across Southeast Asia for more than a decade. In the persons of Paul Wolfowitz and other alleged "idealists" in the Bush Administration, it has reared its ugly head again, and produced tragic results. Now Beinart wants to run the same damned movie with liberal credits at the end. Are American liberals really cursed to make this same mistake over and over like one of Pavlov's poodles?

Finally, in his zeal to attack liberals who dared to point out the dangers of supporting the Bush Administration's misuse of the "war on terror" to invade irrelevant countries and destroy civil liberties at home, Beinart whitewashes its extremism and in doing so, empowers it. Citing MoveOn's contention that the Patriot Act had "nullified large portions of the Bill of Rights," Beinart claims the group "grossly inflated the Act's effect...[and] then contrasted it with the--implicitly far smaller--danger from Al Qaeda," embodying "civil-libertarian alarmism at its worst--vastly exaggerating the threat from John Ashcroft in order to downplay the threat from Al Qaeda." Yet Beinart neither examines the Patriot Act nor explains how concern with its impact on civil liberties is incompatible with concern for protecting America from terrorism.

In fact, the Bush Administration's willingness to exploit the tools that Americans' legitimate fear of terrorism has placed at its disposal poses a threat to US civil liberties that requires no exaggeration from anyone. As the case of José Padilla has demonstrated, George W. Bush and his advisers claim the right to arrest any American citizen they choose and incarcerate that citizen indefinitely, denying him the right to outside counsel. In the case of foreigners, it claims the same rights, but adds the techniques of torture and the refusal even to reveal the identities of those it has arrested. Just what good is a Bill of Rights if it cannot protect you from police-state tactics like these?

(Keep in mind that I have only scratched the surface of the problems with Beinart's piece. I've left untouched, for instance, his hopelessly inappropriate analogy between Soviet totalitarianism and violent Islamic fundamentalism. Unlike, say, Al Qaeda, the Soviet Union was fundamentally a conservative power, uninterested in inciting revolutions it could not control. We were not dealing then, as we are now, with the potential to inspire thousands of freelance terrorists armed with dirty bombs or worse. Nor have I dissected Beinart's mistaken attribution of Kerry's nomination to his willingness to vote against the $87 billion appropriation for the war in Iraq; something he asserts sans evidence.)

However dramatic its presentation, Beinart's argument amounts to little more than a fact-challenged, intellectually garbled, ideologically motivated attempt to read his opponents out of a debate that he has already lost. The vast majority of liberals are not willing to buy into this more sophisticated version of the Bush/Cheney/Rove/Rumsfeld vision of endless war unimpeded by any form of dissent or even tough questioning of its efficacy as a means of achieving its domestic goals. Beinart is correct that we need a rethinking of how to present liberalism as a "fighting faith" that appeals to a majority of Americans. Unfortunately, he has used the occasion merely to engage in more of the same sectarian sniping his magazine has employed in the past--most often in the service of undermining the possibility of a genuine liberal alternative to the neoconservatives' ideological fantasies. Beinart's solution fails miserably as a starting point for debate about how to save America, and the world, from future decades of Republican misrule, no less than the liberal war hawks did in their attempts to steer George W. Bush in a more "progressive" direction in his pursuit of an American-led imperium in the Middle East.

Now let the real debate begin...

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