The Lonely Liberal

The New Republic editor Peter Beinart is smart, articulate, literate, and politically lonely and isolated. He is perhaps the ranking member of the dwindling responsible Left. It is people like Beinart that keep the term “responsible Left” from becoming an oxymoron. In The Good Fight: Why Liberals — and Only Liberals — Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, he makes the case that a only Liberals, in the tradition of the great Cold War warriors, Presidents Harry Truman and John Kennedy and Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, can execute a credible strategy to deal with the challenge of Islamofascism. The fact that many of Beinart’s fellow Leftists and Liberals are not quite sure there is really a “War on Terror” makes this task more difficult. Indeed, Beinart’s critiques on the execution of the War on Terror are more likely to be considered seriously by the Right rather than the Left.

Beinart begins with a tutorial history of the Cold War that should remind modern Liberals of the fateful and important choices they made at the Cold War’s beginning. For much of the 1930s, the Left was very sympathetic with the Soviet Union and what were perceived to be its progressive social policies. After World War II, the seizure of Eastern Europe and the blockade of Berlin made it apparent to all but the ideologically blinded that the Soviet Union was not a real ally but a totalitarian regime. Nonetheless, important elements of the Democratic Party steadfastly embraced alliance with the Soviet Union. Henry Wallace, former Vice-President for President Franklin Roosevelt, even went so far as to oppose the Marshall Plan to rescue Western Europe economically because he feared that such a plan threatened the Soviet Union. It was Harry Truman and his contemporaries who realized that supporting progressive policies at home was consistent with opposing totalitarianism abroad, even from Socialist regimes.

Despite the fact that the Cold War was finally won during a Conservative Administration and long after Liberals abandoned any pretense of being anti-totalitarian; Beinart’s bases his assertion that the War on Terror can only be one by Liberals on three theses, none of which bears critical scrutiny.

Multilateralism: Beinart argues that the War on Terror may require military intervention, but such intervention is legitimized by the endorsement of multilateral organizations. Moreover such organizations can lend expertise in reconstruction.

While it is true that Liberals pay greater lip service to multilateralism and boast a greater deference to international opinion the differences in practice are not obvious.

In both Gulf Wars, the Bushes, father and son, took their case to the United Nations and secured Senate votes of support before intervention. In both cases the UN did not endorse action, but a rag-tag alliance of the willing was form dominated by the US. Though there was greater international support for the first Gulf War, both Bushes paid a decent respect to the opinion of mankind.

By contrast, Bill Clinton did not secure Congressional approval for intervention into Kosovo. He did not even attempt to secure approval from the United Nations, knowing that Russia would veto any action. Ultimately, he pulled in (or was pulled in by) NATO to deal with a European problem in which the United States had no vital interest.

In two of the most pressing international confrontations, Iran and North Korea, the Bush Administration has steadfastly involved its allies. It has given the lead to the Europeans on Iran and is insisting on including Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea in talks with North Korea. The real irony is that many Liberals who argued for multilateralism are now urging the US to eschew other countries and negotiate one-on-one with Iraq and North Korea. Former Clinton Administration officials are even recommending that the US preemptively strike missile testing facilities in North Korea. Who is seeking to act unilaterally now?

Economic Development: Beinart plausibly argues that poverty and hopelessness breeds terrorists. Conservatives are willing, in Beinart’s world, to fund wars and political development but short funding for economic development. This is sort of a mirror to Beinart’s perception of domestic parsimony by Conservatives. Without such true economic development, anti-terrorists efforts will not succeed. Beinart criticizes the Bush Administration for ignoring Arab economic development. He argues for an Arab Marshall Plan, analogous to the one instituted by hawkish Democrats to provide for European reconstruction after World War II.

Only Liberals, according to Beinart, are inclined to do this. Beinart forgets that although Truman pushed for the original Marshall Plan, it was not solely a Liberal effort.� The plan passed by wide margins in a Republican Congress and was endorsed by Republican Presidential candidates Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey. Aid to Europe continued under the Eisenhower Administration, though Eisenhower was not a Liberal. Economic development aid can at times be a wise prescription, but both sides of the political aisle can recognize its advantages.

Moreover, Beinart’s calculation of how much aid is provided the Arab world neglects non-governmental organizations that are usually far more effective than direct government aid. The original Marshall Plan worked, in large measure, because there was a middle class culture in Europe than needed mostly economic resources for development. In many places in the Arab world massive economic aid would at best be squandered inefficiently or at worst be siphoned off by corrupt leaders. The US has invested over $50 billion into Egypt since 1979 with only modest economic development and little movement toward a pluralistic democracy.

Much of the Arab world does not lack funds, but rather requires a political structure and culture that would encourage both economic and social development. One of the chief sources of terrorists is Saudi Arabia which is awash in oil riches, but has not managed to provide true economic development for its people.

Taxes: One can not read a Liberal political track very long before an increase in taxes is urged. Beinart argues that the War on Terror needs resources and Conservatives are not willing to raise the necessary funds through taxation. Beinart believes the Department of Homeland Security is under funded. If anything, recent evidence suggests that the Department of Homeland Security is not particularly efficient at using the resources that it has.

As far as overall resources are concerned, Beinart must have finished the final draft of his book before the statistics on a rapidly falling deficit were in. Not only is the deficit falling, the debt load of the country is at historically sustainable level because of the massive growth spurred on by taxes cuts early in the Bush Administration. The US debt load compares very favorably with the debt load of the stagnant economies of Europe who suffer under far higher tax rates than the US.

However, the key flaw in Beinart argument does not fall under these three theses. Rather, it is the nostalgic illusion that any significant portion of the Democratic Party is serious about terrorism. There is no core Democratic vision for dealing with terror save more law enforcement. For the most vocal in the Democratic Party, the real threat to the US is the Bush Administration and not terrorists. More importantly, Liberals have not articulated a vision of American greatness.

The core of the Democratic Party has only two positions on the Iraq War: get out soon or get out now, with nary a concern as to whether the government that remains has the ability to deal with both security and economic development. The Democratic argument is not that Iraq is so secure or its government so capable that they do not need our military help, but that we should leave regardless of the security situation. There are few if any anti-totalitarian Democrats in the mold of Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey or Scoop Jackson left. Perhaps the only conspicuous Democrat that could be so classified is Senator Joe Lieberman who, a few short years ago, was the Vice-Presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. He is under a severe primary challenge by Ned Lamont, a candidate. Party heavy weights like Senators Russ Feingold and John Kerry, refuse to state a preference on the outcome of the primary. How can Beinart’s argument that the far-Left, Michael Moore wing of the party should be shed be considered seriously, when that wing of the party is busy clipping off moderate Democrats? Beinart plainly pines for a party that has long ago disappeared.

Beinart’s book is engaging and well-written. Conservatives would do well to take to heart many of his critiques. However, we should all hope that the sub-title of his book is mistaken. If only Liberals can win the War on Terror, then it will not be won.

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