Monday, 18 October 2010

The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and only Liberals – Can Win The War On Terror and Make America Great Again (Peter Beinart)

The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and only Liberals – Can Win The War On Terror and Make America Great Again
-Peter Beinart

‘Liberal’ is something of a dirty word these days, as Peter Beinart ruefully notes; ‘Liberals’ are blamed for having caused, at least in part, the chaos of the War on Terror that we face today. The charge has a certain element of truth to it; liberals pushed through immigration compromises that were not compromises, liberals opposed the war on Iraq to the point where they half-convinced the enemy that they were stronger than they were, and liberals have often opposed security measures designed to make the world safer. Regardless, Peter Beinart, journalist and editor-at-large for The New Republic, believes that only liberals can win the War on Terror.

Beinart begins with a short history of post-WW2 liberalism in the United States, covering the Civil Rights era, the McCarthy period and the self-destruction of American liberalism. Liberals, according to Beinart, found themselves caught between the demands of their belief system – a theory that the US should always act with pure intentions – and the dictates of the real world. Internally, liberals opposed segregation and pushed for rights for blacks; externally, liberals found themselves caught between the belief that ‘Uncle Joe Stalin’ was a good guy, and the truth of soviet occupation of most of Europe. As Beinart puts it…

“Liberals like Pepper and Gahagan Douglas did not want Greece and Turkey to fall to Soviet aggression. Yet they could not bear to see the US back faulty governments.” (Page 7)

Or, perhaps, they did want to watch the countries fall, as long as it allowed them a chance to play at being morally superior to everyone else.

As the Cold War grew darker, it didn’t get much better. The liberal movement was fracturing and demands for ideological correctness became much more important than facts, facts, and more facts, while opposition to the government became a requirement. Parts of the liberal movement saw themselves as always cast in the role of opponent to the government, whatever was really happening.

“[Paul Berman’s (left-wing journalist)] article called the Sardinists Leninists and condemned their humans rights abuses…but [his] editor tried to kill the story, saying that it would play into the Regan administrations hands. It was an old argument; Berman was saying that liberals should oppose any denial of freedom. For [the editor], liberalism’s only struggle was against the right” (Page 71)

The editor’s name? Michael Moore.

A point that was not made by Beinart, although pretty important to his theory, lies in the distinction between the academic and the real world. Those who opposed civil rights didn’t just operate from racism; they thought that the government would be giving money – their money – to black men, in compensation for actions they personally had nothing to do with. Yes, racism is always wrong, but many – hell, almost all – of the people alive in 1960-70 had nothing to do with forming the conditions that the slaves and the former slaves lived under, and they were not prepared to pay, personally, for repairing the damage. Ideals are one thing, but on the real world, I would not be prepared to pay half my salary to help people who need it, not with my own family at stake.

“At its core, doughface liberalism offers an escape from the choices the real world requires.” (Page 172)

The end of the cold war allowed the liberals their own chance at governing. Many of the wounds within the body politic had healed, others had been allowed to fester, but liberalism failed to learn from experience. Liberals placed their faith in international institutions, failing to grasp that they depended upon almost universal agreement; there was no logical reason, for example, for North Korea or Iran to vote in favour of sanctioning Saddam, despite the evil nature of his regime. In effect…

“From Henry Wallace…to Michael Moore after September 11th, some liberals have preferred inaction to the tragic reality that America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world.” (Page xi)

Liberals – as a general rule – failed to grasp the simple fact that the world was not perfect and never would be perfect, regardless of how much money was poured down the drain of trying to help the remainder of the world. The net result was that the liberals lost touch with the working classes of America, and to some extent, their support in other areas was bleeding away as well.

And then came 9/11.

In a very real sense, liberals should have taken the War on Terror as a golden opportunity to re-examine and revitalise their beliefs. Although Beinart noted that “Today, however, there is no totalitarian superpower to put America’s actions in flattering context” (Page 195), he was incorrect; the world is full of states that put America in flattering context. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq…all of them acted in ways that should have horrified the liberal mind. Women are treated as second-class citizens at best – cattle at worst – homosexuals are stoned to death, non-Muslims or the wrong kind of Muslim face horrifying persecution, the schools are crammed with teachers who blame everything on the Great Satan and it’s motley collection of Jews, Homos and…you’ve guessed it, liberals. But liberals do not. As Beinart puts it…

“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, they have strayed far from liberalism’s best traditions.” (Page xii)

Beinart, who supported the Iraq War, recognises that the War on Terror must be fought. But, for many liberals, the term ‘the War on Terror is the war that must be fought’ translates as ‘we must fight the War on Terror.’ Liberals, particularly the hardcore left, found themselves in the trap of believing that military action never solves anything, missing the simple fact that many Americans believed just that…and they were right. Liberals found themselves out in the cold.

“The premise that America could best fight terrorism by fighting its own imperialist impulses made it difficult [for liberals] to endorse a military response to 9/11.” (Page 171)

The net result of liberal actions is that liberals are often regarded as ivory-tower intellectuals at best, or outright traitors at worst. Liberals may be able to rise above the very human desire to just hit back – although I doubt it – but that is not true for the vast silent majority. The legal system that liberals are so fond of was never designed to handle an international terrorist organisation with no strong links to a government that was actually willing to help. Regardless of the deeper causes of problems, liberals – who have every incentive to get behind the War on Terror and push – ended up smearing themselves as enemies. Beinart may have supported the Iraq War, but he criticizes it heavily, apparently unaware of the simple fact that there were elements that were beyond the US’s ability to control.

“Had the Bush administration realised before the war that Iraqi democracy had to be built and not simply unleashed, the occupation would have gone better. But that does not mean that it would have gone well.” (Page 158)

It is in proposing alternatives that Beinart’s plan falls down. The main set of proposals cover international involvement and a long-term project of social work that might alter the face of the Middle East, perhaps based on the Marshall Plan. It is an interesting concept, but both of them fail; the international community simply could not provide any large-scale unified help for Iraq, regardless of how much the US offered for the help. French interests – not the same as American interests – dictated opposition. Russian interests dictated opposition. Turkish interests dictated opposition. There was nothing – literally – that America could have offered to make their support worthwhile…and as for states like Libya or North Korea, which had good reason to fear American military actions…well, would you expect them to vote in favour? They’d be signing their own death warrants.

And as for reshaping the face of the region? It is, I concede, a better suggestion, but again, it possesses fatal flaws. What Beinart fails to grasp – what most liberals fail to grasp – is that there is much about the liberal agenda (homosexual rights, female rights, religious freedom, to name, but three) that is anthemia to many of the people who live in the Middle East. Anyone trying to teach girls that they could be equal to a man would have to cope with the fact that the girls would probably be beaten back into submission, or that they would have no chance to actually use their education, or that…there would be no protection for them. The liberal vision of law and order misses the point that there is no law and order in the Middle East…and that no one will protect those who take his aid. If the price of accepting American aid is being killed by insurgents, no one is going to take American aid. The region needs law, order, and justice…and the only way of actually ensuring that is to take over, crush resistance, and rebuild the area. This is what we did in Germany and Japan…and it worked.

Dreams are interesting, Mr Beinart, but they have to be practical as well.

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