Interviews May 2006

Beinart Talks Back

The author of The Good Fight defends his vision of the American Left

What about foreign aid? You make a point that Republicans don’t like it and don’t want to spend money on it. They would argue that regime change, reconstruction, free international policing, all these things—what are they if not foreign aid? What would you say to that? Is it a question of definitions?

No. I think that the Bush administration has really underinvested in those elements. If you consider their rhetoric about how seriously they take this challenge, and then you look at their actual investment in those things, what you find is that—even though there has been some marginal improvement in the last year compared to where they were in the couple of years after 9/11—this is an administration that has tried to eliminate the peacekeeping institution. And by a terrible irony, they have been forced into the largest peacekeeping effort in recent memory. Yet because of their long-standing ideology— emphatically expressed by George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld in the year or two before 9/11—that peacekeeping is not what America should be doing, they never really made the effort to revamp the American military and other institutions of American government that would allow America to do this peacekeeping successfully. So I think the Bush administration has seriously underinvested in the ability of the United States, in partnership with its allies, to rehabilitate societies and to deal with some of the underlying social and economic causes of the jihadist threat.

Do you think John Kerry took exactly the wrong approach when he voted against the $87 billion for Iraq and said we needed to focus on domestic issues? Should he have said, This is not enough; we need to spend more?

I think he was wrong in that. In his defense, it is important to note that he was willing to spend the money if it had been taken out of the tax cut, which certainly would have been the right thing to do. I think one can understand the frustration the Democratic senators felt—that there was no accountability about how the money was spent. But I think the Democratic response to Bush after 9/11 really should have been to make more of the fact that Bush never called the country to something higher—to a sense of shared sacrifice, to a sense of real national mobilization. Not that George W. Bush had been doing too much abroad, but that he was not doing enough, and that he was not asking Americans to do more. Instead, the rhetoric Kerry used to defend his vote against the $87 billion was that we should be spending the money at home. I think it’s true that in the long term, America cannot be generous around the world unless we’re generous at home, but to pose the two issues in a zero sum way like that was a mistake. It was not the spirit in which Democrats should have conducted themselves in the wake of 9/11 or in the wake of the 2004 campaign, and it didn’t work politically.

Christopher Hitchens seems to suspect that you’ve decided who the Democrats’ next leader should be. He ends his review of your book with the remark that its true title should be Hillary in 2008.

It’s a clever line for anyone who hasn’t read the book. If you have read the book, the first thing you’d notice is that Hillary Clinton’s name isn’t mentioned in it. The second thing you’d notice is that I’ve sketched out a series of ideas about what the liberal vision should be, none of which I know whether or not Hillary Clinton believes in. The book has a lot to do with economic development and its relationship to liberty. I have no idea whether Hillary Clinton believes in that. It has a lot to do with the idea of moral fallibility as the basis for international restraint. I have no idea whether Hillary Clinton believes in that either. Maybe she doesn’t believe in those things but some other candidate does. In any case, that’s not what the book is about. So it’s a clever line, but it’s a cheap line, because Hitchens knows all that.

When looking back at Cold War liberals like Schlesinger and Niebuhr, who came up with the brand of interventionism combined with self-restraint and self-criticism that you admire, we’re largely talking about the period after World War II, when American self-confidence was at an all-time high. I wonder if you think it’s fair to subject politicians and strategists to the same standard in the post-Vietnam era. Do we need stronger rhetoric now?

One of the points I make in the book is that in the mid-to-late 1970s, when the United States had suffered this tremendous loss in Vietnam and there was, among the liberal foreign policy establishment, some loss of self-confidence, and when Soviet power at least seemed to be gaining ground in the Third World—it was more understandable, this idea of the need to build up American self-confidence. If you want to look back at the last fifty or sixty years of American history, though, I think you would say that was the time when that argument—which is a very paradigmatically conservative argument—was most justified; far more so than in the 1950s or in the post-9/11 era. I think the notion is radically misplaced in the post-9/11 era. The idea that the United States had been growing weaker—that we were in a kind of analogous situation to the one we were in in the ’70s—is an utter fantasy. It’s a fantasy that was pedaled a lot by people like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. But it’s one that was drastically dissociated from what was really going on; in fact, we had entered a unilateral world where American power was far less restrained than it had been in the 1970s and into the 1980s.

So you don’t believe the theory that the military embarrassments of the 1990s, such as the failed interventions in Somalia and Haiti, projected an image of weakness and encouraged the jihadists to attack us?

Somalia was certainly a defeat for the United States and probably did inject an element of weakness, although I think it was far less significant than Vietnam, or for that matter even than America's retreat from Beirut in 1982. But that’s just one data point. I think it would be a real mistake to miss the larger story. America did become more emboldened over the course of the 1990s, ending with a war in Kosovo that was very proactive by comparison to the United States’ delayed response in Bosnia and lack of response at all in Rwanda. Also, there’s the larger geopolitical circumstance: there was no longer any great power competition to the United States, which is why we were able to intervene in all kinds of places without having to worry that these regimes could look to the Soviet Union as a bulwark. To get too focused on Somalia as the lesson the world learned about America after the Cold War is a real mistake. The greater perception was that America had assumed an unprecedented degree of power – both military and cultural—in the international system.

How much does rhetoric, in and of itself, matter in the war on terror? The new Democrats, for example, made a pretty big deal about the neocons’ description of America as “the world’s sole superpower,” proposing instead that we call ourselves “first among equals.” Are these kinds of word choices significant, and if so, to whom?

I think the words do matter. The words a president uses send signals not only around the world but also through an administration. So what you saw behind the incidents of torture, for instance, was a series of subtle messages sent by people near the top of the Bush administration to “take the gloves off,” which then had an important cultural impact on the way people lower down the chain acted. Words are important, because they do have an impact on actions.

I also think one of the important characteristics of the world we live in now is greater transparency. The discordance between American actions and American words are more apparent to people around the world than they were in the days before the Internet. One of the key liberal insights as articulated by Hubert Humphrey is that our actions must match our rhetoric, and I think that’s even more important today. Even though George W. Bush has made some good statements, those statements have been so dramatically outweighed by the actions of his administration in terms of flouting international law and human rights that few people take those words very seriously.

While we’re on the subject of words, what about “the war on terror”? Is there a definition that liberals and conservatives can easily agree on as to what this constitutes? Or by their very nature, do they have to have two totally different conceptions of what it is, and what it should be called?

I think that early on, Republicans in particular used the words “war on terror” as a contrast to what they alleged, incorrectly, was the Clinton administration model, which they claimed was based on law enforcement. So to them, “war” was meant to distinguish it from police work. But the truth of the matter is that it’s a false distinction. There are limited areas in which military action may be valuable, but they’re very limited. The only way in which you can see the war on terror as primarily military is if you redefine it as a pre-emptive war against rogue states, which is what the Bush administration had in mind. But that enterprise is clearly over now. I think that the right understanding of “war” in this context is in the sense of national mobilization, in the way we thought about it in the Cold War—as something that requires a nationwide, sustained effort. “Terror” is misleading because, as many people have commented, terror is simply an instrument, the enemy is really jihadist, Salafist ideology. But what the use of the word “terror” gets at is that because of globalization and the increased spread of technology, non-state actors—terrorists—can inflict harm that has the potential to change American society. So that’s the way in which I would use the words “war on terror,” and the way I would hope that liberals and Democrats would use it.

You see Truman as a shining example of liberal anti-totalitarian leadership, beginning with his interventions in Turkey and Greece. What’s the relevance of that particular historical moment to liberals now?

The point I make in the book about the interventions in Turkey and Greece is that it was an important moment for liberals because it was not a morally perfect intervention. The governments of Turkey and Greece were struggling, chaotic, and not fully democratic, and yet there was a recognition that we could make those governments better, and that if we opted out of this, something much worse would happen. The willingness of the ADA to support that represented a very important kind of moral realism which I think liberals had been in danger of losing throughout the previous fifty years. Also important was Truman’s willingness to recognize that, although in an ideal world we might want to do this through the UN, in practical reality, we could not. Refusal to recognize that would have represented what Schlesinger called the “doughface fantasy,” a kind of procedural perfection but with a practical result that is actually the worst of all worlds. I think that’s very important and I think you see that reoccur. You see that to some degree in the debate over Kosovo, where we again had to go around the UN—so it was not procedurally perfect—but the end result was better than had we gone through the UN and been unable to do anything. I think that moral realism is the important lesson to draw from the intervention in Greece and Turkey, and I try to kind of show how the thread runs through liberal debates about foreign policy.

This is a tricky issue in liberal foreign policy. You say that the Republicans go too far in snubbing the UN, but at the same time liberals need to beware of “doughfaceism.” So what guidelines should liberals follow in deciding when to deal with cumbersome international negotiations and when to go it alone?

This is where good foreign policy practitioners come in—people with a nuanced, subtle understanding of the facts on the ground. I would say that one can only have general, broad parameters, and then one has to look at each individual circumstance. I think you have to ask: Does this government that we are supporting have significant nationalist support? Is there even a nation here that it purports to represent? Neither of those was really the case in South Vietnam, which was a totally artificial creation. Secondly, do we have significant international support, even if we may not have the formal support of the UN? In Kosovo we had significant international support. We had most of our European allies behind us, which we did not have in Vietnam and we did not have in Iraq. So I think that these are the kinds of parameters one uses, but they need to be applied in a subtle, nuanced way—case by case.

In his review, Christopher Hitchens points out that it was an ADA liberal, JFK, who got us entangled in Vietnam. He thinks this is a fairly substantial black mark against Cold War liberalism. How would you answer that?

Without getting exactly into the question of to what degree events in Vietnam were set in motion by Kennedy—whether we were already on a path we could not divert from by the time he was assassinated—I think I say pretty explicitly that Kennedy lost sight of a crucial issue: the recognition of the power and importance of nationalism, and of the fact that while America had to contain the Soviet Union, America also had to be very careful about finding itself on the wrong side of foreign nationalism. Kennedy himself actually spoke quite eloquently to that point in his speech about Algeria in 1957 and in his comments upon his trips throughout the Third World as a young congressman. So I’m quite critical of Kennedy for having forgotten that lesson, but I also note that Niebuhr and Schlesinger, both critical anti-totalitarian liberal thinkers, were strongly opposed to the war in Vietnam, because they did recognize that. It’s also important to keep in mind the context of the story of Vietnam: the pressure that was on the Kennedy/Johnson administration from the Right, the gutting of the State Department’s Asia desk in the wake of the loss of China, and the fear of being subject to McCarthyite attacks. It’s a mistake to consider Vietnam and American liberalism outside of the larger context of American politics in the ’60s.

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Elizabeth Wasserman is a writer based in New York.

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