Sunday, June 25, 2006

Beinert's Liberal Containment

Just finished reading Peter Beinert's The Good Fight: Why Liberals--and Only Liberals--Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.

As you've probably surmised by reading other websites, there's enough in this book to make everyone mad.

But even though I haven't had much of anything positive to say about Beinert up till now, I think this is a much better book than its critics have claimed.

I won't attempt to summarize it--there are too many strands weaving through it to render a faithful portrait. But I will highlight what I think are the book's key points for liberals and Democrats.

The first point for which Beinert should be given credit is his unabashed promotion of liberalism. The Good Fight must be the first book in two generations to reference "liberals" in a positive light. As Beinert notes, conservatives have turned the word "liberal" into an epithet. This has had a near fatal effect on the causes of Liberalism (greater freedom, equality and human development) in general and on the Democratic Party in particular, which has been reduced to couching its appeals in terms of "effectiveness" and "competency" rather than on a broad, uplifting vision for matters both domestic and international. If for no other reason, I applaud Beinert's book for unapologetically orienting his argument in a proud liberal heritage that many of his "progressive" critics have themselves avoided.

But Beinert isn't just using the word Liberal as a rhetorical device. He traces the word Liberal to the Cold War Liberalism espoused by Harry Truman, George Kennan and later by Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. This was a Liberalism committed to confronting and containing the totalitarian threat posed by the Soviet Union, by military defending its allies, offering generous economic assistance to its allies and enemies alike, and reforming its democratic institutions at home. This was a Liberalism aware of its fallibility but nevertheless willing to share (and exercise) power abroad through international institutions dedicated to expanding freedom and reducing armed conflict. It's method of opposing Soviet Communism was Containment, based on a philosophy that America and its democratic allies in the West possessed the patience and the strength to defend against and wait out the storms and delays involved in lessening totalitarianism's hold. And Containment worked, not the least because it held that American exemplarism had to be demonstrated, not merely asserted.

Beinert contrasts Cold War Liberalism's Containment philosophy with its conservative alternative--Rollback. In its Cold War manifestation, Rollback was rooted in a philosophy that feared America was too weak to sustain its opposition to its dictatorial foe and its suppressed peoples. Rollback disdained Containment and argued for a more aggressive stance against Soviet Communism around the world, and more repressive, less democratic responses to Americans in America. Rollback was supported by conservatives who believed America was infallible, its motives pure, and morally outside the restraints of foreign nations and international institutions. Like today's manifestation of conservative aggression, Rollback admitted no American fault and arrogantly asserted its right to determine what was good for everyone else.

Beinert calls for Liberals to embrace the Cold War Liberalism of its past, remembering the courage, generosity and action of the post-War World II era. This will entail recognizing the need to at least occasionally use force and that that use of force will have consequences that will threaten Progressivism's traditional demand for moral purity in international engagement. At the same time, a new Containment strategy will call for expanding liberty, in its fullest sense both economic and political, across the Middle East through the use of development aid and support for democratic reforms.

Can Containment work? Beinert admits that he and other Democratic writers, consultants and foreign policy intelegencia doubted whether containment could still work with Iraq and because of that, were willing to support President Bush's call to arms. And with a different type of enemy, typically stateless but having at its disposal the technology and freedom of movement to inflict fatalities and chaos much more easily on America than was true in the days when the deterent of nuclear weapons held enemy countries accountable, how would a doctrine of Containment be applied today? Part of the answer lies in Beinert's call for a Marshall Plan style development aid package for the Middle East. Partly it acknowledges the continued application force can have on terrorism-sponsoring states, and partly it recognizes the expansions of powers law enforcement authorities will need to exercise in the post 911 era.

But whatever its limitation, it is clear that the new Rollback, the doctrine of pre-emptive military attack, the One Percent Doctrine, is also highly limited on a practical basis (we can't after all bomb or threaten to bomb and invade everyone) and cooperatively flawed, weakening America's legitimacy and support throughout the world, the support of which was essential to containing Cold War Communism. At the same time Beinert contends, with considerable justification, that the struggle against global jihad, salafisian totalitarianism, the war on terror (whatever term we apply to it) constitutes a real threat and that Liberals, if they are to preserve ours and the world's freedom, much less the viability of the Democratic Party, will need to offer the country and the world an alternative to the new Rollback.

Democrats, partly because they have lost sight of their Liberal Cold War heritage, have abandoned the war on terror to the Republican Party, with disasterous implications. By reclaiming this Liberal heritage, and the principles of containment abroad, and liberal reform at home, Democrats can again defeat the forces of totalitarianism, domestic and foreign.

No comments: