Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Peter Beinart, is editor-at-large at The New Republic. He is the author of the new book The Good Fight: Why Liberals---and Only Liberals---Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.
FP: Peter Beinart welcome to Frontpage Interview. It is a pleasure and privilege to be in your company.
Beinart: Nice to be talking with you.
FP: David Horowitz will join us for the discussion, but let's first talk to you about your book. Before we even get to that, let me ask you to comment on the recent killing of Zarqawi. What do you make of its significance?
Beinart: It’s an important accomplishment—especially with the news that he was sending jihadists back to their home countries to commit terrorist acts. The problem is that most of the insurgents are home grown; according to studies there are far more Sunni nationalists and Baathists than foreign jihadists. So unless they are brought into the political process, the impact of this will be modest.
FP: On this triumphant occasion of the killing of a monstrous murderer, the Left, instead of taking a moment to cheer the wonderful development of ridding the world of an evil killer, has taken the opportunity to demonize America and to call for American retreat in Iraq. What are your thoughts on this continuing disposition of the Left (and I am not referring to liberals like you, but to the far Left that dominates and represents the Left as a whole) in America to stand in solidarity with America’s totalitarian and terrorist adversaries?
Beinart: I’m not quite sure what you mean by the Left. A small number of people have suggested that Bush is as bad as Zarqawi, but that’s a marginal view—not held by any elected Democrats, as far as I know. Most people who thought Iraq was a mistake still think it was a mistake—but recognize that Zarqawi was a vicious killer, and that this was an important accomplishment.
FP: Ok, let's move on to The Good Fight. In your book, you offer a profound discussion of Salafism and totalitarianism. Could you kindly, first, for the sake of our readers that might not be too familiar with Salafism, break it down in simple terms for us -- and then tie it into your overall definition of totalitarianism and the threat we know face in its current manifestation?
Beinart: I argue that Salafism (the “salafs” were Mohammed’s companions in the seventh century) is a totalitarian ideology because it seeks to use coercive state power to crush all independent civil society in an attempt to purify society, and ultimately human nature itself, and thus usher in a kind of messianic age. This is the core notion that Hannah Arendt and others sketched in discussing Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, and it applies quite well to thinkers like Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Maududi, who inspired Al Qaeda and the Taliban. One reason jihadist Salafists (there are non-violent Salafists as well, which is a different story) oppose the United States is because we support and defend impure segments of society—non-Muslims, Shia and Sufi Muslims, liberated women, gays etc.
FP: Your write that President Bush has “torn the lid off the Arab world – weakening Arab tyranny, weakening America, and leaving a great void in which Islamic democracy and Islamic totalitarianism vie for control.” (p.166) What exactly do you mean by this?
Beinart: I mean that by overthrowing Saddam, Bush has removed some of the mystique—the aura of invincibility—that surrounds other Middle Eastern dictators, like Bashar Assad or Hosni Mubarak. But he has also weakened America by overstretching our military, and dramatically undermining our legitimacy in much of the world, which makes us less able to persuade people of our point of view. Saddam’s overthrow has allowed new space for democratic discussion in the Middle East, but it has also empowered jihadists—who have rushed into Iraq and used it as a new training ground, with the goal of returning to terrorize their countries, as the Afghan veterans did in the 1990s in Egypt and Algeria.
FP: You state that a commitment to freedom in the Middle East involves a commitment to reducing female illiteracy in that region. (p.193) Can you talk about that a bit?
Beinart: The female literacy rate in the Middle East is half what it is in East Asia. Female literacy is closely connected to population growth, because empowered women have more control over their fertility. It is also connected to economic growth, because if you are not educating a large part of your potential work force, you cannot grow. And countries where men oppress and dominate women are also unlikely to be liberal and democratic, because family oppression is replicated at the national political level.
FP: You talk about the importance of free elections in Islamic countries. True enough, brining democracy to that part of the world is crucial to the War on Terror, etc. What do you think of the agonizing dilemma we face that free elections may also bring tyrants to power that will eliminate forces democratization altogether, in the sense, let us say, that a democratic experiment will allow Islamo-Fascists to take power? Look at what has just occurred with Hamas in the Palestinian Authority for instance. What do you think?
Beinart: Democracy is about far more than elections. It is crucially about the rule of law, and limits on the power of the state, so it is a mistake to see elections are the only—or even more important test—of democracy. The United States needs to involve itself in a long-term effort to build liberal institutions—free press, free judiciary, independent political parties—in the Islamic world. But also, we need to focus on education and economic development, in the recognition that unless democracies provide tangible benefits to their people (as Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian government did not, they often fail).
FP: So as you point out Schlesinger asked in 1949, how do we make freedom a fighting faith? Crystallize for us exactly what a “liberal” War on Terror involves.
Beinart: It means that America lives up to the ideals we preach to others. We hold ourselves to the highest standards of democracy and human rights (in our anti-terror prisons, for instance)—and in that way help inspire others to fight for freedom and human rights in their societies. We build a new set of international institutions—as the Roosevelt and Truman administrations did in the 1940s—so America can intervene aggressively abroad, but also legitimately, without looking like an empire. And we promote economic opportunity around the world, because liberal democracy has trouble flourishing amidst economic despair
FP: Expand for us why exactly you have changed your mind from your earlier support of the Iraq war.
Beinart: In late 2002, it was reasonable to believe—as I did—that Saddam was seeking a nuclear weapon. But by March 2003, when we went to war, the international inspectors (who had excellent access) were coming to the opposite conclusion. And without an active Iraqi nuclear weapons program, the primary justification for war collapses. Also, I didn’t realize how the war’s lack of legitimacy around the world would undermine its legitimacy in Iraq. The UN has its problems, but it was far more legitimate in post-Saddam Iraq than the US (public opinion shows this, and Sistani met with UN representatives, but never with US ones). The reason is that Iraqis knew the UN couldn’t turn Iraq into a 51st state—that it would eventually leave. Comparative studies show that occupations often rise and fall on whether you can convince the population that you are not going to stay forever—that you really have their best interests at heart. Without UN support—or even NATO support—it was very hard to convince the Iraqis of that.
FP: Ok, we now welcome David Horowitz into the discussion. Mr. Horowitz, what do you make of Mr. Beinart's comments and the main thesis of his book?
Horowitz: Thank you Jamie, and hello Peter.
In your original TNR story you called for liberals to take a leaf from the book of cold war liberals like Harry Truman and Walter Reuther and purge leftist organizations that were not committed to fighting the war on terror like MoveOn.org from their ranks. This hasn't happened and it's obviously not going to happen. The soft on totalitarian left is ensconced in the heart of the Democratic Party and through the Soros network and the leftwing government unions control much of the funding and ground war capabilities of the party. Why don't you address this in your book? And how can you so boldly say that liberals -- and only liberals -- can win the war on terror when they can't even won control of their own party?
Your book seems structured to blame Republicans for every national security failure and to avoid confronting the culpability of Democrats for the same. Democrats defected from the war against totalitarianism in the battle over Central America during the last decade of the Cold War. Instead of confronting this, you pay tribute to Democrat Dave McCurdy's role in supporting the anti-Sandinista struggle. (You also give credit to Paul Berman who doesn't deserve it in this case -- though he does in regard to the current war.) But McCurdy was marginal to the Democratic Party. His positive role lay in the fact that he provided the Republicans with the margin they needed to keep support for the anti-Sandinista struggle alive.
More importantly, you discuss the failures of 9/11 as Bush's failures. What about the eight Clinton years of dereliction on the terror front? One would think that the eight years of failure of the Clinton Administration in this regard -- the failure to respond to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and then Khobar and the embassies and the Cole, the hamstringing of the intelligence community etc. would be of central importance to your thesis, yet you dodge the issue entirely. If a DLC Democrat like Clinton was unable to respond to the threats from al-Qaeda and Saddam, what makes you think any liberal administration would do differently?
Just as you pay no attention to the eight years of liberal failure to protect the country against 9/11, in discussing Bush's shortcomings in fighting the war in Iraq you pay no attention to the Democrats' sabotage of the war effort beginning on the eve of the war when Tom Daschel blamed Bush -- not Saddam, or the French or the Germans or the Russians or the Chinese -- for the failed diplomacy that led to the war. How can you lay the entire blame for whatever's gone wrong in Iraq, when the Democrats divided the home front and tied the commander-in-chief's hands in so many ways?
You make a big point of Bush's unilateralism as one of the errors that liberals would correct. But Bush went to the UN as Clinton did not in the Balkan war and Bush got congressional approval, as Clinton did not. Why the double standard?
Moreover, with all we know about the motives of the French, Russians, Germans and Chinese now -- all allies of Saddam -- what realistically do you think Bush could have done to bring them on board, besides capitulating to Saddam's malignant agendas?
Your own text provides powerful evidence for why its thesis is wishful thinking. You cite a Pew poll that in 2004 asked conservatives and liberals to indicate their top foreign policy priority. For conservatives, destroying al-Qaeda was number one. For liberals it was tenth. Liberals top goal was withdrawing from Iraq (and what? leaving the Zarqawi wing of al-Qaeda in control?). Why don't these facts send off alarm bells for you? How can you be so ferocious in critiques of Republicans and Bush when it is conservatives who have carried the fight against totalitarianism ever since the McGovern left took over the apparatus of the Democratic Party and came to dominate its congressional caucus?
To sum this up, isn't your book a case of whistling past the graveyard of liberalism, while attacking the very people who are standing on the ramparts and holding the totalitarian enemy at bay?
To put this another way: why isn't your book an argument for liberalism -- call it McCain liberalism -- within the Republican Party?
Beinart: Let me take those points in turn. First, my original article didn’t call for a purge—it called for liberals not to let their national security views be defined like groups like MoveOn and people like Michael Moore, unless MoveOn and Moore became more willing to fight jihadist totalitarianism. It’s true that today—even more than in 2004—liberals have grown somewhat alienated from that anti-jihadist struggle, because of their deep (and I think, understandable) alienation from George W. Bush and the Iraq war. After all, Bush and Rove have consciously and repeatedly tried to make the war on terror a wedge issue. Rove did it again this week with his comments after Zarqawi’s death—and they have succeeded. But liberal views can change quite quickly. In the 1990s, for instance, Bill Clinton successfully convinced most liberals that military action in Bosnia and Kosovo was consistent with their principles, and it was mostly conservatives who moved towards an isolationist, morally relativist position on the Balkans. So with the right post-Bush leadership, I think liberal views can change, and liberals can recapture their true heritage.
The central reason I think conservatives—at least conservatives in the tradition that runs from James Burnham to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney—cannot win the war on terror is that they don’t understand Reinhold Niebuhr’s insight that unless America recognizes it can do harm in the world, it cannot do good. On Central America, I applauded the DLC’s position, not Reagan’s, because the DLC fought for human rights in El Salvador as a condition of supporting the government against communist rebels—while Reagan generally overlooked the government’s abuses, in the belief that regimes on America’s side in the cold war could do no wrong. On Nicaragua, the DLC wanted a negotiated solution and free elections, not a Contra military victory, in the recognition that a Contra army rolling into Managua would not necessarily produce a democratic Nicaragua, while Reagan was largely blind to Contra human rights abuses.
This recognition that America, and its allies, are not angels leads to the cold war liberal emphasis on legitimacy and restraint. That doesn’t mean America needs UN approval for every military action, but it does mean that international institutions are enormously important in convincing the world that the United States is really acting for some higher purpose, and not to advance narrow—or even imperial—interests. That’s what Clinton did on Kosovo. He got NATO support, and while some Bush officials mocked it as “war by committee,” that support proved crucial in convincing other countries to participate in post-war peacekeeping. In Iraq, by contrast, Bush utterly failed to convince not merely the UN Security Council, but most of America’s democratic NATO allies that the war would really make the world safer. That wasn’t Tom Daschle’s fault—after all, congressional Democrats largely voted to give Bush the authorization to go to war. Bush failed to get much international support because other countries thought (rightly, it turned out) that building a stable, pluralistic government in post-Saddam Iraq would prove hellishly difficult. And he failed because the weapons inspectors in early 2003 undermined his argument about Iraqi WMD—by scouring the country and finding nothing.
There are things I like about John McCain. But the liberalism I’m talking about involves building strong international institutions, as America did in the late 1940s, so we make our power legitimate in the world, and don’t look to the world like an empire—as we have in the Bush era. And international institutions will also, necessarily, hold America to a higher standard—on human rights and the environment, for instance—something sovereignty-obsessives like John Bolton would never accept because they believe that America can demand anything and everything of other countries, but other countries should never be able to make any claim on the US. The kind of liberalism I’m talking about is fundamentally alien to today’s Republican Party, but I think Democrats—with the right leadership—can get it back.
Horowitz: With all due respect, I think you are dodging the central issue, which is the fact that “hard” liberals like yourself have become a marginal faction in the Democratic Party, and that this is part of a realignment that has been taking place over a forty-year period.
Let’s begin with your failure to remember what you wrote in your New Republic article that was the inspiration for your book. You claim now that your original article “didn't call for a purge-it called for liberals not to let their national security views be defined by groups like MoveOn and people like Michael Moore, unless MoveOn and Moore became more willing to fight jihadist totalitarianism.” Well, how will liberals not let their national security views be defined by the Left if the Left is such a powerful faction in their organizations that it shapes their message (as it now does)?
In fact, you did refer to Reuther’s purge of the Communist unions from the CIO, as I will make clear in a moment. A purge or organizational split is necessary to accomplish your agenda because these people fundamentally disagree with your agenda (which I myself find admirable) and will fight to prevent you from realizing it. You can’t have a coalition with people who think America is the enemy if you want to fight the good fight. In your original article you recognize this political fact. Here’s exactly what you said:
Toward an Anti-Totalitarian Liberalism
For liberals to make such arguments effectively, they must first take back their movement from the softs. We will know such an effort has begun when dissension breaks out within America's key liberal institutions. In the late '40s, the conflict played out in Minnesota's left-leaning Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, which Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy wrested away from Wallace supporters. It created friction within the NAACP. And it divided the ACLU, which split apart in 1951, with anti-Communists controlling the organization and non-Communists leaving to form the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee.
But, most important, the conflict played out in the labor movement. In 1946, the CIO, which had long included Communist-dominated affiliates, began to move against them. Over fierce communist opposition, the CIO endorsed the Marshall Plan, Truman's reelection bid, and the formation of NATO. And, in 1949, the Organization's executive board expelled eleven unions. As Mary Sperling McAuliffe notes in her book Crisis on the Left: Cold War Politics and American Liberals, 1947-1954, while some of the expelled affiliates were openly Communist, others were expelled merely for refusing to declare themselves anti-Communist, a sharp contrast from the Popular Front mentality that governed MoveOn's opposition to the Iraq war.
Softs attacked the CIO's action as McCarthyite, but it eliminated any doubt about the American labor movement's commitment to the anti-Communist cause.
You may not like the term “purge” but that’s what this was: a clear organizational dissociation of Cold War liberals from Communist apologists and sympathizers. One quarrel I have with your book and your thesis is that it doesn’t even begin to confront the fact that such a dissociation within the Democratic ranks today is hard to imagine, practically speaking. The MoveOn.org wing of the present Democratic Party, which is the Henry Wallace party of the past and is indeed composed of apologists for Islamo-fascism and sympathizers, is today the dominant wing of the Democratic Party from an electoral point of view. It accounts for about half – perhaps even two-thirds – of the Democratic caucus in Congress (153 votes against the recent resolution that America must prevail in the War on Terror), and dominates the electoral machinery of the party through the government unions that provide its ground war. How do you propose to deal with this fact?
Characteristically, you blame this defection of the majority of the Democratic Party from the war against totalitarianism on Bush. Isn’t this a bit far-fetched? To make this claim you have to ignore the Democratic Party’s attack on our commitment to Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1970s; its defection from the war against Communism in Central America in the 1980s (Dave McCurdy was a heroic Democrat because he was up against such great odds within his own party – moreover, the yellow dog Democrats who were his allies are long gone); its cowardice in Mogadishu; its failure to respond to the first attacks on the World Trade Center; the Khobar Towers, the two embassies and the USS Cole in the 1990s; and the determination of its leaders (over three decades) to gut and hamstring the CIA.
In your reply to my comments about multilateralism, you again facilely blame Bush and evade the real issue, which is that Europe is soft on totalitarianism and the UN is totalitarianism’s best friend. Clinton didn’t even bother to go to the UN over Bosnia as Bush did over Iraq. Why do you think that was? Because Clinton knew Milosevic’s ally Russia would veto any Security Council resolution just the way Saddam’s allies – Russia, China and France – would have vetoed any resolution to send troops to Iraq. The last time I looked, France was a member of NATO, so the same obstacle existed to a NATO resolution on Iraq.
The idea that it was Bush’s poor diplomacy that failed to convince the French and the Russians, who were cutting secret oil deals with Saddam and arming him to the teeth, is hard to understand. In the end, de Villepin didn’t even let Colin Powell make his case for enforcing UN Resolution 1441 but told him “under no circumstances” would the French sanction military action against Saddam. Under no circumstances. These facts make waving the UN flag or the multilateral flag as you do seem like a pious evasion of the hard realities America faces. In the real world, the “coalition of the willing” is what we have to work with and not even the most politically adept and diplomatically adroit liberal – Bill Clinton – could change that fact. Did Clinton make a peacemaker out of Arafat? Or out of Saddam for that matter?
Your animus towards Republicans is a convenient way to excuse Democratic fecklessness and also makes you less than accurate in your judgments of Republican actions and attitudes. Republicans gave Clinton full support for the war in Bosnia and their support came from conservatives, Republicans, and in fact neo-conservatives in the party, including most prominently Bill Kristol and The Weekly Standard. Led by its spokesmen Gingrich and Dole, the congressional party was four-square behind the Balkans intervention, despite Republicans’ contempt for Clinton. What a contrast with the Bush-hating Democrats. And that is because for Democrats Bush-hatred is an excuse for a much deeper problem, which is their belief that America creates its enemies and that the world would be a better place if America came home.
Beinart: Our fundamental difference is over what “hard” liberalism means—what it meant in the early Cold War, and what it means today. For you, as far as I can tell, it is identical to conservative foreign policy. So you define virtually every liberal opposition to Bush’s policies—on Iraq, on oversight of the CIA etc—as Wallace liberalism. But a central theme of my book is that anti-totalitarian liberalism is utterly different from anti-totalitarian conservatism. Yes, my kind of liberals have an argument with what one might call anti-imperialist liberals like Michael Moore and MoveOn—because they opposed the war in Afghanistan and suggested that America had brought jihadism on itself. But we also have a very deep difference with the conservative tradition: people like National Review’s James Burnham who proposed preventive war against the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and called for American empire, and their ideological progeny today—George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Let me be blunt: preventive war (war against a potential, but not imminent, threat) is not in the liberal anti-totalitarian liberal tradition. Harry Truman was not soft because he didn’t launch such a war when Stalin was rushing towards getting atomic weapons in the late 1940s, nor were John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson for refusing preventive war when Mao was doing the same in China. The liberal anti-totalitarian tradition is open to the use of force, but focuses a great deal on international legitimacy—recognizing that it is a critical source of American power, and indeed, recognizes that restraint can also be a sign of strength. Truman’s policy was not preventive war; it was containment and deterrence.
That’s why opposing the war in Iraq, I believe, was in the Truman anti-totalitarian tradition. (I think I was wrong in backing it, and the opponents were right. And just as you have learned from your ideological mistakes earlier in your life, this book is partly an attempt to learn from mine.) The point isn’t that we need UN support for every military intervention—we only had NATO in Kosovo. But it is that “coalitions of the willing” lack sufficient post-war nation building capacity, as we have seen in Iraq, where we are doing virtually everything, and the cost is unsustainable (as opposed to Kosovo, where the burden is really shared). And “coalitions of the willing” also lack legitimacy—in the world and in the invaded country (in this case, Iraq), which makes it far harder to successfully nurture a stable democracy that doesn’t threaten America. There was a reason Ayatollah Sistani would talk to representatives of the UN, but never to representatives of the U.S.—because the UN had far more legitimacy in post-war Iraq (as the embodiment of world opinion) than we did. (And polls of Iraqis showed that from early on).
So I disagree with your attempt to characterize everyone in the Democratic Party who opposed the Iraq war as in the Henry Wallace mold. (And indeed, I disagree with your attempt to characterize everyone in the Democratic Party who opposed Vietnam that way as well—that’s why in the book I held up Allard Lowenstein as a model of someone who opposed that war but held fast to anti-Communist principles). The real question is the anti-jihadist struggle—which is relevant to Iraq today, but really wasn’t when Saddam was in power (just read the 9/11 Commission report on Saddam’s lack of significant jihadist ties). For the first year after 9/11 there was little difference, according to polls, between the parties in their perception of that struggle. In the last couple of years, though, liberals in polling have shown themselves considerably less focused on fighting jihadism, and more skeptical even of the Afghan war. That’s the problem I discuss in my book—but it is very largely a product of deep (and I think, largely warranted) anger at George W. Bush for again and again using the anti-jihadist struggle as a political wedge issue (often in extremely dishonest ways) and thus weakening the country, when we could have been relatively united. Yes, liberals could learn the wrong lessons from a bad war in Iraq, as some learned the wrong lessons from a bad war in Vietnam—but I think it really depends on Democratic Party leadership. Remember, Bill Clinton brought the Democratic Party from where it was in 1991—mostly opposed to the Gulf War—to where it was in 1999—virtually unanimous in supporting Kosovo. That can happen again—indeed, I think most likely Democratic foreign policy practioners (imagine a Secretary of State Holbrooke, Biden, or Clark) would try to do exactly that. The problem is only insurmountable if you think “hard” liberalism is the same as conservatism—and a major part of my book is devoted to explaining why it is not.
[Editorial Note: David Horowitz’s response to Mr. Beinart’s last comment above will be published in our next issue. Mr. Beinart is most welcome to continue the dialogue with us.]
FP: Peter Beinart, thank you most kindly for joining us today. It was a pleasure to have you with us.
Beinart: Thank you.
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