The Good Fight
Peter Beinart

HarperCollins, $25.95 (cloth)

The president’s popularity is in free fall. The bold unilateralism of the Bush Doctrine seems dead. And the once triumphal neoconservatives are now deeply divided between proponents of a grand unipolar epoch and chastened supporters of “realistic Wilsonianism.” Iraq has changed everything, and these extraordinary changes have left the so-called liberal hawks—who hoped Democrats would turn tougher on foreign policy by backing the Iraq war—standing on the sidelines, scratching their heads.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, most liberal hawks defended their position by emphasizing the humanitarian claims against Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. (Bush wound up at this position, but only after the weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize.) Pointing to Kosovo, they argued that Americans could use power abroad for good; pointing to Rwanda, they argued that Americans must. As liberal intellectuals, these hawks apparently felt a special responsibility to condemn their left flank’s softness on all things military. Paul Berman led the charge in his passionate book Terror and Liberalism (2003), in which he attacked “the anti-imperialists of the left, the left-wing isolationists, who could not imagine any progressive role at all for the United States.” Others came to similar conclusions, including Michael Ignatieff, George Packer (to a lesser extent), and some of the essayists anthologized in Thomas Cushman’s A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq.

Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic from 1999 until earlier this year, joined the ranks of the liberal hawks a bit late but with a bang. In December 2004—right after Kerry’s defeat and before the Iraq war was quite the mess it is now—Beinart called for an end to the “unity-at-all-costs ethos” among the Democrats and attacked the filmmaker Michael Moore and the anti-war organization as insufficiently opposed to the threat of terror abroad.

Beinart succeeded in provoking controversy and won a sweet book advance to boot. Considering the timeline—the book was published in May 2006—The Good Fight must have been written hastily. It certainly reads that way. It combines a potted story about postwar America that relies heavily on previously published histories of the period with commentary about the road to Iraq and the 2004 election that reads like any issue of The New Republic from that time (minus the pro-war stance the magazine became known for).

Beinart’s publisher might have hoped that history would stand still, but December 2004 is a different world from the present. Though MoveOn is still active and vocal, it would be hard to make the case today that its position on the Iraq war threatens to tag the Democrats as pacifistic and weak on terror. Indeed, without having done anything much, the Democrats are now perceived as being much stronger on the national-defense questions that strangled them in 2004.

These changed circumstances register in the first pages of Beinart’s introduction. It is odd to hear someone saying, Trust my political judgment because I’ve made bad mistakes in the past. But that’s precisely the tone. Beinart explains that he supported the war in Iraq because he “considered it the only remaining way to prevent Saddam Hussein from obtaining a nuclear bomb” and because it “could produce a decent, pluralistic Iraqi regime, which might help open a democratic third way in the Middle East.” That was then, and this is Beinart now: “I was wrong.” He explains that he “could not imagine that the Bush administration would so utterly fail to plan for the war’s aftermath” and that he “overestimated America’s legitimacy.” Beinart concludes in his opening pages that “it is a grim irony that this book’s central argument” about the need for national humility in guiding American foreign policy “is one that I myself ignored when it was needed most.” Nice to hear such a chastened attitude, but it is certainly a strange prelude for his next round of political judgments.

Of course, a book is much more than its opening remarks. And even if the Democrats are now polling well on national-security issues, they won’t be taken seriously for long if they lack a foreign policy suited to a conflict-ridden world. What should that policy be? That is Beinart’s question. Like other liberal hawks, he answers it by comparing al Qaeda to the totalitarian regimes of World War II and the Cold War and by proposing to recuperate the Cold War liberal tradition. Beinart claims that Iraq has turned liberals against the war on terror, and he proposes to get them back on the right side by invoking a historical comparison to an age of anxiety charged with seriousness and tough-mindedness. Unfortunately for Beinart, the historical analogy very quickly strains beyond the breaking point.

In making his case that the enemy of the past is similar to the enemy of today, Beinart, following Berman, relies on Sayyid Qutb, the “father of Salafist totalitarianism” who was hanged by the Egyptian government in 1966. Qutb’s writings took aim at “soulless America”—where he studied between 1948 and 1951 (he left with a master’s degree in education from the University of Northern Colorado)—and championed the “purification” of Islam to its most radical core. The ideology influenced Osama bin Laden as well as Beinart’s quintessential example of totalitarian rule, the Taliban. In its rule over Afghanistan, Beinart points out, the Taliban demanded complete loyalty from all citizens and enforced this consensus using secret agents. There was also a fervid disgust with Western decadence and an ideological polemic against liberal democracy.

To explain Qutb’s followers, Beinart draws on Hannah Arendt’s classical account of totalitarianism. To Arendt, the professed ideologies of regimes—fascism and communism during her lifetime—mattered less than their shared patterns of domination and rule. Stalin’s power looked like Hitler’s even if their rhetoric differed. Totalitarianism, then, is an expansive category, and it is easy to understand the temptation to extend it to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban as well.

So I reread Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. There I encountered a list that likely drew Beinart’s attention: the “rule of terror,” the importance of the secret police, the breaking down of individual resistance. I ticked off each item. But then I got to Arendt’s description of the concentration camp. She spoke here of the “cold and systematic destruction of human bodies, calculated to destroy human dignity.” But “cold and systematic”—is that really the right way to explain jihad or the suicidal violence that rewards its perpetrator with virgins in heaven or even the creation of a pure and virtuous Muslim population under Taliban rule? The planes crashing into the Twin Towers and religious martyrs blowing themselves up are not the product of the grinding bureaucracy of concentration camps or gulags. This is not Nazism or Stalinist totalitarianism, in theory or in practice.

Beinart’s effort to yoke the Taliban and the totalitarianism of the Cold War is understandable. It helps him de-emphasize radical Islamic zealotry as the motivating factor of terror and violence. It is a point that Berman had already made in Terror and Liberalism: any talk of a “clash of civilizations” is dangerous since it places the United States in the position of fighting Islam. Yoking radical Islam with Western totalitarianism, as Berman and Beinart do, allows one to evade a story of civilizational conflict. But good motives do not ensure effective analogies. And this analogy needs to work if it is to generate the level of anxiety that nurtures Beinart’s liberal hawkism.

Cold War writers rightly understood totalitarianism as distinctly modern and Western. Fascism had arisen in Western Europe, after all, and Marxist communism was a by-product of the Enlightenment. This explains why totalitarian ideas demanded serious attention. They held a certain appeal for “Western man” living in a new “age of anxiety,” as Arthur Schlesinger put it in his 1949 classic The Vital Center.

But who today believes that radical Islam offers something to Western man living in his current age of anxiety? Schlesinger knew their numbers were small, but he reminded his readers that the Soviet Union did have its supporters—for example, within the ranks of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party. He could also point to numerous memoirs of ex-communists who explained why the ideology had appealed to them. The I-was-once-a-communist books were central to the forging of Cold War political thought. Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, James Wechsler’s The Age of Suspicion, the essays gathered in The God That Failed—all had different interpretations, but each included a narrative about the author’s life that explained the power and error of communist ideas. So where are the books by the former adherents of radical Islam? It is hard to imagine if John Walker Lindh told his personal tale today that it would matter.

More to the point, liberalism and totalitarian communism both grew out of the same intellectual traditions. The Right, in its talk of “pinks” and “creeping socialism,” played upon that relationship. And Henry Wallace’s progressivism provided an opportunity for the Right to point the finger. Where is the analogy to today? Karl Rove might say that liberals are weak on terror, but he doesn’t suggest that the ideology of the Democratic Party—whatever that might be—is itself married to the Taliban or al Qaeda, or is a logical extension of the ideas in Qutb’s Al-’Adalah al-ijtima’iyah fi’l-Islam (Social Justice in Islam). Schlesinger had to spend a lot of intellectual energy distinguishing his own brand of liberalism from Henry Wallace’s progressivism precisely because his own “responsible” liberalism was partly defined by that distinction. That Marxist communism was based on the Enlightenment tradition is precisely what makes it different from the radical Islam that Beinart would like to put into communism’s place now. Beinart’s hero, Reinhold Niebuhr, knew that a great deal of intellectual attention had to be paid to the similarities between Enlightenment-based liberalism and Marxism. That was the basis of Niebuhr’s theological reworking of liberalism, his desire to move the doctrine away from its Enlightenment roots and toward an acceptance of human sinfulness and self-love.

Think of Beinart’s primary enemies: his “softs” that he wants to equate with Schlesinger’s “softs” from The Vital Center. But Michael Moore—who criticizes imperialism and the U.S. government as an entertainer—is not Henry Wallace, who was receiving advice from supporters of the Soviet Union and in 1948 ran for president (that campaign prompted Schlesinger to write The Vital Center). When Moore opposed the Afghan war, he was reflexively condemning American force abroad, not saying that the he supported the Taliban’s objectives or Osama bin Laden’s. Beinart is right to criticize Moore’s lack of seriousness, but he should have left things there.

As for MoveOn, Beinart admits that “there were no Salafists infiltrating” the way there were “actual Communists” in the American left of the 1940s. But then he fudges the point by saying that “most of Henry Wallace’s supporters were not Communists; they simply considered communism a distraction from the ‘real problem.’” Some of them maybe, but we shouldn’t forget that some of them—and not just members of the Communist Party—believed the Soviet Union offered the best dreams for humanity. MoveOn opposes current U.S. foreign policy, but it harbors no illusions about the emancipatory promise of the Taliban or al Qaeda.

For all these reasons, the Taliban and al Qaeda and the war on terror just can’t ignite the sort of intellectual anxiety that the communist regimes of the Cold War did. The Cold War had a profound effect on American intellectual and political life. Liberal intellectuals were forced to look at themselves and ask some troubling questions. They had to reexamine their own popular-front past in the 1930s (and hence, some of their complicity with the communism they were now fighting); they had to scrutinize the legacy of “ideology” on the American left (the famous “end of ideology” thesis); they had to defend American liberal democracy by rejuvenating political concepts like civil society and pluralism. The Taliban and Qutb cannot prompt any comparable collective self-inspection by contemporary Western intellectuals.

Finally, and perhaps most embarrassingly, Beinart’s historical analogy is misleading about the imperial ambition and power of our new enemy. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mullah Omar is neither Hitler nor Stalin. As Arendt wrote, totalitarian regimes are bent on “world conquest.” Beinart admits that radical Islam’s influence is shrinking geographically. But he doesn’t think this point through. During the Cold War, people looked at the map, and it seemed that the Soviet Union really was gobbling it up. And, just as importantly, communism promised hope to alleviate poverty in Africa and Asia. Today, by Beinart’s own admission, Salafist ideology “directs no governments and no armies” and lacks “communism’s universalist appeal.” We need to understand terrorism, but the category of totalitarianism obscures more than it illuminates.

The failure of historical analogy to explain our current situation requires us to ask a bigger question: was 9/11 as transformative as some think? Should we see the war on terror, as some did the war on communism, as an axis around which to organize American foreign policy? It is too early to be confident that it is not. But there are some reasons for doubt. Bush’s consistent attempt to see Iraq through the lens of the war on terror provides the most powerful case for caution. Toppling Hussein’s dictatorship had nothing to do with ending terrorism, and the blowback suggests why we shouldn’t use the war on terror as a new organizing principle for foreign policy (and why we probably won’t in the near future). How would our understanding of the situation in Iran be improved by seeing it through the lens of the war on terror? It’s hard to imagine.

Should we conclude from the failure of Beinart’s Cold War analogy that there is nothing to the liberal-hawk arguments? Not necessarily. You don’t need historical analogies to justify a more robust liberal foreign policy. You certainly don’t need historical analogies to see terrorism as a threat that needs to be fought aggressively. Nor do you need them to justify intervening in the face of humanitarian disaster or AIDS or poverty abroad. It isn’t necessary to recall Truman’s presidency to recognize the need for multilateralism. Liberalism can oppose tyranny abroad (even if it is not willing to exhaust all resources fighting tyranny in every corner of the world), especially if it is tempered by Reinhold Niebuhr’s cautionary teachings (though our historical moment is different from Niebuhr’s). Indeed, the admission of error that frames Beinart’s odd but refreshing introduction calls to mind Niebuhr’s counsel that national humility is a prerequisite for American action abroad.

The anti-interventionist Left won’t listen to Beinart and other liberal hawks, particularly after their misjudgments about Iraq. But there is still some hope that liberal hawks who have read their Niebuhr might offer the wider American public something, especially if liberal hawks join the conversation with reformed neoconservatives such as Francis Fukuyama, whose realistic Wilsonianism also reflects some soul-searching about the limits of military power and the need for international cooperation. There might be an opening here for a new direction in American foreign policy. Looking at the problems Iraq presently faces, the prospects for such a middle ground seem inspirational. Even with all his faulty analogies, Beinart is right to try to open up this sort of conversation and infuse it with the Niebuhrian humility it demands.