Sunday, June 18, 2006

A Fighting Liberalism

Swung by Borders on the way home from seeing The Lake House (which was pretty cool, by the way) to pick up a copy of Peter Beinert's The Good Fight. I don't imagine any of you thought your Senator would stoop to reading something by the Beinert wing of the party, or anything by Beinert himself in particular.

But your Senator has mellowed a bit. And rather than dismissing folks like Beinert, maybe he deserves a hearing. And as Matt Yglesias has warned, it would be a mistake, and a tragedy, for Democrats to get punked out again on Iraq and national security, however uncorrelated those subjects were before 2003. If Beinert has something important to say for Democrats and the nation's national security agenda, I want to hear what it is, even if its only value is to serve as a point of contrast or as a starting point for a new liberal vision.

Another reason Beinert's book has some interest for me is I just got done reading Five Days in Philadelphia, about the Republican convention that nominated Wendell Wilkie in 1940. The book brought to mind the dangers of that era and the appeal isolationists had, at least until Pearl Harbor, but still continued to have long after the scope of Hitler's agenda and threat seemed pretty clear. I'm not one of those who believes that the threat posed by Islamic-driven terrorism rises to that level, or to the level presented by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But a threat exists nonetheless, particularly given that Iraq has become a more likely spawner of terrorism in the aftermath of its collapse than it was originally. Democrats campaigning this fall and for 2008 will have to respond to that situation regardless of whether we agree or not that the 2003 invasion was justified, or incompetently planned.

Speaking of Wendell Wilkie, I enjoyed the book by Charles Peters, the founder of the Washington Monthly. It was a quick and entertaining read of an important time period. But it was apparently during the 2004 GOP convention that Zell Miller conjured up the memory of Wilkie to castigate Democrats who weren't sufficiently supportive of our commander and chief during war time. At the time, Approximately Perfect came up with a rejoinder from the dearly departed Wilkie himself that was absolutely perfect.

Anyway, I hope to have some comments about The Good Fight soon.

But here's something I've been wondering about in the mean time: most wars usually contain some assessment of the troop size, location, weapon supply, and overall danger presented by the enemy. With Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union this was more or less clear, if sometimes inflated in the case of the latter. But where is the danger or threat assessment posed by Al Qaeda, or whoever it is we are supposedly surrendering our civil liberties to defend ourselves against? They seem to be an enemy at once everywhere and all powerful. But is this true? One of the failures of the Cheney Administration has been its inability or unwillingness to present to the American people at least some semblance of what the danger is we face in real, empirical terms, and how it intends to target it. We've gotten "stay the course" rhetoric in regards to Iraq and secret, NSA surveillance at home, but where is there some formal assessment, however conditional or qualified, that would justify our current "course" or explain our predicament. You might think that that would be among the questions a responsible press might ask of the White House or congressional leaders. If they have some idea, we should know. If they don't, we should know that, too. This I think is the challenge Democratic candidates should pick up. There can be bi-partisan support for foreign policy and international engagements, provided we know what that policy and level of engagement is, and upon what analysis it is constructed. And that's the problem. I somehow doubt that anyone running the store really has any idea. And that's a risk we can't afford either way, whether it's waging a war against a foreign enemy or ensuring our civil liberties at home.

Update I: via Crooks and Liars, here's an important essay by Arthur.

Update II: regarding my complaint above that the administration hasn't provided the public with anything resembling an objective assessment of our enemy's observable forces or assets, Hume's Ghost at Glenn Greenwald's place provides an important perspective. Essentially the problem for civil libertarians, and the American public, is that the "war" as currently spoken of and fought is entirely open-ended and all-encompassing. But that not only poses an unacceptable infringement of civil liberties and of democracy in general, it's also completely unworkable.

Speaking about the warrantless NSA surveillance program Skitolsky explains how Vice President Cheney's contention that the program helps "prevent possible terrorist attacks" is circular totalitarian logic that justifies the program on the grounds that it might prevent a possible attack. She also notes that "in a world where 'all is possible,' facts take a backseat to possibilities, and, since every citizen is a possible terrorist, then every citizen is a possible threat and so also a possible detainee."

The possibility than any citizen might be a terrorist provides the rationale for making every citizen the target of surveillance. And since the world is full of possible, if not actual, threats, preemptive war threatens to turn into perpetual war, perpetually justifying the police state powers claimed by the administration.

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