Peter Beinart's new book, The Good Fight : Why Liberals---and Only Liberals---Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, is excerpted in Real Clear Politics today. Beinart, a dedicated liberal whose writing truly strives for honesty, claims to trace an alternate history which he exhorts liberals to use as a narrative which will allow them to be proud of their liberalism. A narrative which will combat and neutralize the the story which he says conservatives use so successfully. A conservative story he relates thus:
Ask any junior- level conservative activist about the cold war, and she can recite the catechism: how liberals lost their nerve in Vietnam and America sank into self- doubt until Ronald Reagan restored America's confidence and overthrew the evil empire. Since September 11, conservatives have turned that storyline into a grand analogy: the Middle East is Eastern Europe, George W. Bush is Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair is Margaret Thatcher, the appeasing French are the appeasing French.
And running through this updated narrative is the same core principle that animated conservative foreign policy throughout the cold war: other countries are cynical and selfish, but the United States is inherently good. The more Americans believe in their own virtue, the stronger they will be.
It's an interesting story, the first part is even true; the part about liberals losing their nerve in Vietnam. But it falls short after that. Beinart's grand analogy is way off base—except for the part about the French. Oh, he may be able to dig up a few individuals who believe in his liberal view of the conservative mindset, but to say that conservatives believe that the Middle East is like Eastern Europe, or that George bush is the modern era's great communicator, or that Tony Blair—a liberal who happens to see the value of fighting terrorism somewhere besides his home town—is anything like the staunchly conservative Margaret Thatcher, shows a profound misunderstanding of conservatives.
Beinart believes that conservatives think "other countries are cynical and selfish, but the United States is inherently good." This is his most grevious mistake, and the foundation upon which his house of cards is built. Conservatives, you see, do not believe that the US is inherently good, they simply believe that it is not inherently evil. This is where they part ways with liberals.
Beinart defines liberalism as "the belief that government should intervene in society to solve problems that individuals cannot solve alone. It is an interesting definition, and one that many conservatives would use to describe conservativism. The difference would be in the list of problems that individuals cannot solve alone. Liberals would list all sorts of social inequities, while conservatives would list things like national defense and road-building. It is hardly definitive, which is never a good thing to say about a definition.
The narrative for Beinart's liberal vision for American power goes like this:
Its roots lie in an antique landscape, at the dawn of America's struggle against a totalitarian foe. And it begins not with America's need to believe in its own virtue, but with its need to make itself worthy of such belief. Around the world, the United States does that by accepting international constraints on its power. For conservatives--from John Foster Dulles to Dick Cheney--American exceptionalism means that we do not need such constraints. Our heart is pure. In the liberal vision, it is precisely our recognition that we are not angels that makes us exceptional. Because we recognize that we can be corrupted by unlimited power, we accept the restraints that empires refuse. That is why the Truman administration self-consciously shared power with America's democratic allies, although we comprised one-half of the world's GDP and they were on their knees.
Moral humility breeds international restraint. That restraint ensures that weaker countries welcome our preeminence, and thus, that our preeminence endures. It makes us a great nation, not a predatory one. At home, because America realizes that it does not embody goodness, it does not grow complacent. Rather than viewing American democracy as a settled accomplishment to which others aspire, we see ourselves as engaged in our own democratic struggle, which parallels the one we support abroad. It was not the celebration of American democracy that inspired the world in the 1950s and 1960s, but America's wrenching efforts--against McCarthyism and segregation--to give our democracy new meaning. Then, as now, the threat to national greatness stems not from self- doubt, but from self- satisfaction.
There are serious flaws in Beinart's narrative; he dances around them, even naming them, without being able to see them. He claims that the US attains virtue "by accepting international constraints on its power," but does not see that without that virtue preexisting, no restraint would be accepted.
Despite having said "liberals pride themselves on their empiricism," he maintains that "restraint ensures that weaker countries welcome our preeminence, and thus, that our preeminence endures." In truth, empiricism shows just the opposite. Weaker countries often hate stronger countries—for no other reason than that they are stronger—and resent the help they are forced by circumstances to accept. Weaker countries will never "welcome" the preeminence of stronger countries, no matter how benevolent.
Beinart's ideas are, however, not without merit. His assertion that modern liberals hide from being labeled as liberals in order to "cast off decades of disappointment and failure" is largely true, though he sees it largely as a political failure, rather than a practical failure of liberal ideas. His ideas about self restraint are worthy, also. He just has difficulty seeing where it already exists.
His concluding paragraph is laudable, and if liberals could embrace it they would take a giant step away from living in their fantasy land, and toward living in the real world.
Recognizing American fallibility means recognizing that the United States cannot wield power while remaining pure. From Henry Wallace in the late 1940s to Michael Moore after September 11, some liberals have preferred inaction to the tragic reality that America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world. If the cold war liberal tradition parts company with the right in insisting that American power cannot be good unless we recognize that it can also be evil, it parts company with the purist left in insisting that if we demand that American power be perfect, it cannot be good.
The problem for level headed liberals is that the center of gravity in the Democratic party—the party of liberals and the left—is decidedly more leftist than liberal. Until that changes, liberals are stuck with a party which demands angelic perfection in its wielding of power—and therefore demands inaction.
Based on the excerpt, Peter Beinart's book is probably worth a read.