- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2006


Peter Beinart, HarperCollins, $25.95, 288 pages

These are grim days for hawkish liberals. Senate Democrats want “phased redeployment” from Iraq. Joe Lieberman, alienated from his party, faces a tough primary challenge. The rabidly antiwar DailyKos and MoveOn.org are ascendant. Many even seem to think the words “war on terror” should belong only to Republicans.

Then there is New Republic editor-at-large Peter Beinart. His new book, “The Good Fight: Why Liberals — and Only Liberals — Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again,” is a call to arms to what the author views as the true antitotalitarian heart of liberalism.

“If today’s liberals cannot rouse as much passion for fighting a movement that flings acid at unveiled women as they do for taking back the Senate in 2006,” Mr. Beinart writes, “they have strayed far from liberalism’s best traditions.”

After that rousing introduction, one expects an extended argument on why liberals are wrong to turn their backs on the fight against Islamofascism and on why conservatives are going about it all wrong. Mr. Beinart does provide something like that but not until his final chapters, and then not as forcefully as one might hope — which is quite telling, given that Mr. Beinart is arguably our generation’s foremost liberal intellectual proponent of a hawkish foreign policy.

Instead, more than half the book is spent recounting the great successes and later troubles of anticommunist liberals during the Cold War. As Mr. Beinart’s intended parallel for the present, this is a good and useful story, an antidote to the Democratic party’s current amnesia. But it is also a much more congenial story for liberal hawks like Mr. Beinart to recount.

It begins with the new anticommunist consensus forged at Washington’s Willard Hotel in 1947; it takes shape with the Truman administration; it reaches maturity with JFK and the “Scoop Jackson Democrats”; it falters during and after Vietnam; it gives way in the 1970s and 1980s to the “peace” movement; it then gets eclipsed by crusading Reaganites and makes Republicans of people who were once Cold War Democrats. The present moment of ascendant Deaniacs and the shunning of people like Mr. Lieberman is, for Mr. Beinart, the apotheosis of that trend.

When Mr. Beinart finally gets to the present, the argument provides intellectual underpinnings for a more reasonable Democratic approach, if anyone is listening, but it’s hardly unprecedented and is also rather vague.

Mr. Beinart’s “liberal” war on terror would be humbler than the Bush doctrine and the current administration — rejecting what he claims is the right’s tendency to think that “American actions, simply by virtue of being American, are beyond moral judgment” — and it would also entail a Marshall Plan-like economic development program for the Middle East of several times the magnitude of President Bush’s efforts.

Mr. Beinart should know this argument will be tested with the hardest cases. For instance: What would a liberal hawk do as president about Iran and North Korea? These are potentially the two most difficult foreign policy problems of the coming decade. Neither are treated in any depth in the book.

Does anyone seriously think Iran would respond more favorably to a kinder, gentler America? How about North Korea? They’ll take another billion in food aid, thank you very much.

The Marshall Plan-like program Mr. Beinart calls for would be promising for the Middle East writ large, but analogies have been tried for both Tehran and Pyongyang. They have failed. North Korea got light-water reactors and billions of dollars in the hopes that it would give up its nuclear program, but this simply lent it more time to build nukes. For Iran, the West has offered a peaceable substitute for its nuclear program, which the mullahs angrily reject.

None of which means Mr. Beinart’s kinder America or some new Marshall-type program wouldn’t be useful and worthwhile. They’re just abysmally poor guides for two of the biggest problems we’ll be facing in this decade. They mean that he hasn’t really answered the most difficult questions.

Not that the antiwar left seems to want to address them either. Its leading light these days, Rep. Jack Murtha, is fresh from proposing that we police the Middle East from Okinawa with a rapidly deployable force the Pentagon hasn’t invented yet.

At the very least, Mr. Beinart’s book might remind some liberals of the storied history the Democratic Party has abandoned, and to the extent that that happens, Mr. Beinart will have accomplished something. But there is a big, gaping hole at the heart of hawkish liberalism these days, and this book does not change that fact. On the contrary, it is more a reflection of it.

Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at The Washington Times and a 2006 Phillips Foundation journalism fellow.

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