Interviews May 2006

Beinart Talks Back

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

The Good Fight [Click the title
to buy this book]

by Peter Beinart
HarperCollins
272 pages

In October 2005, when Pew Research Center pollsters asked Americans whether “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally,” more than 50% of Democrats said yes. Among Republicans the figure was just over a quarter. Since 9/11, the single strongest division between the two parties has been on foreign policy. While right-of-center Americans currently rank issues such as capturing terrorists and preventing hostile nations from acquiring nukes as their top priorities, liberals are more concerned about getting U.S. troops out of Iraq and combating the spread of AIDS. The swing voters who carried Bush to his second term were white, blue-collar workers put off, it seems, by the Democrats’ limp-wristed approach to America’s enemies.

It wasn’t always thus. In The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, Peter Beinart takes us back to the beginning of the Cold War to remind us that the campaign to confront totalitarianism and promote democracy in troubled parts of the world—by force if necessary—is a liberal, not a conservative, invention. His account begins with a legendary meeting of minds and political bodies at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 1947. The meeting was organized by the Union for Democratic Action (UDA) in response to the Democrats’ rout in the 1946 midterm elections—largely the result of a perceived (and partly real) Communist infiltration of the Democratic Party. Intellectual heavyweights Arthur Schlesinger and Reinhold Niebuhr were present, along with political icons Eleanor Roosevelt and Hubert Humphrey; Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers and David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union provided the heft of Labor. The UDA renamed itself Americans for Democratic Action and made an official break with the fellow-traveling wing of their party, declaring their opposition to Communism, both Soviet and homegrown. They spurned Henry Wallace—1948 presidential hopeful and known Communist sympathizer—forcing him to start his own “progressive” party. And despite Wallace’s challenge from the Left and resistance from Southern Democrats over civil rights, it was Harry Truman, the ADA’s man, who prevailed.

The golden age of ADA liberalism, in Beinart’s account, lasted a little over a decade, and found its most perfect expression in the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. The movement was thrown off course by John F. Kennedy’s first missteps into Indochina, and died along with Kennedy in 1963. Over the course of the 1960s, crushed by the war in Vietnam and hijacked by the politics of disaffected, anti-establishment youth, American liberalism suffered a kind of nervous breakdown. Liberal humanitarianism gave way to identity politics; Beinart describes the 1968 Democratic convention as “a festival of balkanization.” Truman and JFK were replaced by George McGovern, darling of the students, and Eugene McCarthy, darling of the professoriat—representatives of the intellectual elite who scored political points by denying their country’s moral superiority and calling for America, in McGovern’s words, to “come home.” The Democratic Party lost its footing on the high beam of self-restraint and internationalism and toppled leftward into radical self-doubt and moral perfectionism. In the 1980s, the Left responded to Ronald Reagan’s Mutual Assured Destruction with a call for “No Nukes,” and Democratic candidates took up the cause of nuclear freeze—a mistake, as Beinart sees it, that relegated the party to the sidelines in the final quarter of the Cold War. The liberals’ loss was a victory for the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party, composed partly of ex-leftists- turned-fierce- anti-Communists who regarded Reagan as the greatest leader of the twentieth century.

Beinart sees hope, however, for a renaissance of the anti-totalitarian liberalism of 1948-63. The birth of the more muscular, pragmatic New Democrats in the 1980s, he suggests, produced a few bright moments, including the Democrats’ role in the resolution of the war in Nicaragua in 1986 and the overdue but important intervention in Kosovo under Clinton’s leadership in 1999. Like many Democrats of his ilk, Beinart initially supported the intervention in Iraq, believing that bringing down a WMD-wielding, genocidal dictator was in the tradition of liberal interventionism. He has since changed his mind, however. “I was too quick to give up on containment,” he writes, “too quick to think time was on Saddam's side. And I did not grasp the critical link between the invasion's credibility in the world, and its credibility in Iraq.” He now views the Republican (and largely neoconservative) mission in Iraq as a symptom of the Party's hang-up on the old Cold War paradigm of state vs. state. Moreover, he believes that its insistence on cutting taxes while simultaneously executing military interventions and nation-building projects is a recipe for fiscal disaster. To Beinart, the Republicans’ failure to grasp the meaning and the requirements of the “war on terror” represents more than an opportunity for liberals—it is now liberals’ duty, he contends, to take the lead.

Read Hitchens' review:

"Blood for No Oil!" (May 2006)
A new manifesto finds a model in the Truman era for returning liberals to political centrality in America. But the comparison is hopelessly inexact.

Beinart has had the honor and the misfortune of seeing his book's first-ever review in this month’s Atlantic, from none other than Christopher Hitchens. When Hitchens, a former champ of the far left turned ardent supporter of the war in Iraq, reviews a book reaffirming the virtues of Cold War liberal centrism and decrying Iraq as a tragic mistake that will “haunt American politics for years to come,” disagreement is inevitable. And indeed, Hitchens takes issue with the book’s very premise that the ADA model of liberal interventionism can serve today’s Democrats well in confronting terrorism. Hitchens raises Schlesinger-disciple Kennedy’s foray into Vietnam as an example of Cold War liberalism run amok. And he argues that in contrast to the 1940s, when “progressives” like Wallace had morally consistent (if deluded) vision of “the good society,” today’s left-wingers “express ambivalence about a foe that does not even pretend to share the values of the Enlightenment, and that is furthermore immune to the cruder rationality of MAD [Mutually Assured Destruction].” Unlike political defector Wallace, Hitchens points out, today it is these ambivalent leftists who are steering the Democratic Party. Beinart’s “retrospective optimism,” he writes, “is in many ways too neat.”

I asked Beinart to address some of these issues when we spoke by phone on March 28. The former editor in chief and current editor-at-large of The New Republic, Beinart lives in Washington, D.C. The Good Fight is his first book.

—Elizabeth Wasserman



Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
(Photo by Blake Newman)

What is a liberal?

In the contemporary American context, the term really originates with Franklin Roosevelt. The idea behind modern liberalism is basically that there are problems in society too large for individuals to solve themselves and, in that case, the government must step in. Conservatives, in the contemporary American understanding, would be more likely to believe that most social problems could be solved by individuals—or by communities—but without the help of the state. That idea has to do primarily with government intervention in the economy. But there are principles there about the government’s role in promoting justice in society that then expand into the cultural realm and into the international realm as well, which is particularly what I write about.

The neoconservatives now pretty much argue that they’re the new anti-totalitarian liberals. They more or less accepted the principles of the New Deal in the ’50s and ’60s, and largely feel that they’ve carried on the tradition of liberal interventionism. What I’d like to know from you is this: what part of Schlesinger, Truman, and Scoop Jackson’s lunch have the neocons not eaten?

That’s an important purpose of the book, to argue against that idea, and I would say a couple of things. The first is that the recognition of American fallibility is a very critical element of the liberal tradition, very central to Niebuhr’s thinking, which then became an important element in the Truman administration. That idea manifests itself internationally in a sympathy for international institutions, a belief that while it’s possible that the United States can be a force for good—indeed, that America must be a force for good in the world, which is certainly what neocons believe—that America can also be a force for evil. That since America can be corrupted by unrestrained power, America should take certain steps to limit its power and to express it through international institutions. That, I think, is the first element of the liberal tradition that has been lost in neocon thinking.

The second element that’s been lost, I think, is the recognition that America’s ability to be a force for good in the world rests on the economic security of average Americans. The early neocons had a certain sympathy for the labor movement, and the labor movement was a very important part of Cold War liberalism, because the ability of the United States to be generous around the world really depended on the government’s willingness to take responsibility for the economic security of its own people. Of course, that would have to mean something different today than it did in the 1950s. But widespread economic security remains a very important basis upon which the United States can act in the world, because it maintains the support of the American people for that action. I think that has been lost in neocon thinking since they adopted the—as I see it— quite radical economic ideology of the American Right.

Do you see the difference between conservative and liberal economic ideologies as a disagreement on how to promote the well-being of Americans? Or do you think it goes deeper than that, to an actual lack of concern on the Right for widespread economic well-being?

Well, I think that for different people it’s probably different things, but one of the things you find, particularly among what you might call second-generation neoconservatives or contemporary neoconservatives, is a lack of great interest in economic policy. There’s much more interest in foreign policy and cultural policy, and a willingness to buy into a coalition in which they have some influence over foreign policy and cultural policy. That’s one of the things I admire about Scoop Jackson—that he was not willing to let domestic policy fall out of the equation. It’s why he wasn’t willing to endorse Reagan in 1980; because for him, the adherence to the principles of the New Deal really mattered, whereas now you have a conservative movement that is really, since the 1990s, trying to undo the New Deal. That move is explicable in political terms, but it has implications that neocons haven’t fully reckoned with for the ability of America to prosecute its foreign policy. I think that’s going to be a very, very serious issue for the United States in the years to come. In a very important and dangerous sense, neoconservative foreign policy and right-wing economic policy do not speak to one another.

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.

A lesser-known but prouder moment in liberal foreign policy that you spend some time on in the book is the influence of a New Democrat congressman named Dave McCurdy on US policy in Nicaragua, which you sort of describe as a “third way” approach to liberal internationalism. Do you see that event as a kind of second wind for Cold War liberalism?

I do. The reason why I spent some time on the Nicaragua/El Salvador debate was that I felt it was the first time since Vietnam that Democrats stumbled back towards some of the principles that stood them in such good stead in the late 1940s. This kind of carried on into Kosovo until it was cut short by Al Gore’s election defeat. It was a return to the belief that America should be involved in helping the Contras and the government of El Salvador in certain ways, even though they were hardly morally perfect actors. One of the very important things about Nicaragua was the fact that the process we supported was led by Oscar Arias in Costa Rica and supported by Nicaragua’s neighbors. So in a way —very unlike Iraq—you had a situation in which America could be acting through, and gaining legitimacy from, Nicaragua’s democratic neighbors. That’s important because it stems from a recognition that’s really absent from conservative thought: that we are not perfect, that we ourselves can be responsible for evil, and that one of the reasons we work through multilateral and international institutions is precisely to stem our own potential for the corruption of power.

The danger in liberals’ self-criticism, as you point out, is that their fears of America’s own potential for evil sometimes overwhelm their fears of America’s enemies. The nuclear freeze movement, for example: you view Democrats’ embrace of it in the 1980s as a mistake? How should liberals have approached the nuclear issue at that time?

I actually think Carter was right to oppose the nuclear freeze and support—as Al Gore did as well—the U.S. deployments of the intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe, recognizing that they had become a key sign of America’s willingness to defend its NATO allies. That doesn’t mean that Democrats needed to support all the other elements of Ronald Reagan’s military build-up—the Strategic Defense Initiative, for instance. But the reason I raised this point in the book is that liberals in the post-Vietnam era had essentially abandoned the Cold War as a framework for seeing international events. And because they had abandoned it, and were seeing things only in the context of the specter of nuclear war, they didn’t recognize that American missile deployment was vital to the health of NATO.

Do you think that the extreme Left poses a greater problem to the Democrats than the right-wing fringe does to the Republicans? Do the Republicans do a better job of containing their radical isolationist, anti-establishment elements than the Democrats do theirs?

I think it depends on the moment and where the country is. There have been periods where the extreme Right had a more deleterious impact than the Left. Think about the impact during the 1992 campaign of Pat Buchanan’s culture war speech at the Republican convention, for instance. That was partly because George H.W. Bush didn’t have an alternative vision that he could distinguish from Buchanan’s, whereas Bill Clinton did have an alternative vision that he could distinguish from that of people on the far Left. So it depends on the moment and on how leaders respond to that fringe. In a period where the country feels threatened—as it did in the 2002 and 2004 elections—a Left fringe is probably more dangerous than a Right fringe, because people who feel under threat will likely cut more slack for a kind of crude, even somewhat brutish Right than they will for what they see as an anti-American or pacifist Left. I don’t want to suggest that pacifism is that strong a force—I don’t think it is, particularly—but I think that in the period after 9/11, people were more worried about Michael Moore than they were about the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world. That’s not always going to be the case.

When you say “dangerous” in that context, you mean dangerous politically rather than dangerous to the country, right?

Yes—that the Left is more politically undermining in that kind of a moment.

Do you think centrist Democrats need to be less timid about renouncing these undermining elements on the far Left? Has a fear of McCarthyism prevented them from doing so?

I think liberals are very right to see McCarthy as a sinister chapter in American history and right to react very strongly against the Bush administration or anybody else who tries to suggest that having an alternative set of positions makes one less fully American. But when one talks of internal disagreements among Democrats or liberals, as long as you are not suggesting that someone is less patriotic or should not have the right to speak freely, I don’t think McCarthyism comes into it. A political party’s intellectual movements need to have a healthy, open debate about what they believe—it makes the party stronger. I think that sometimes there’s a tendency among Democrats to not want to have those debates for fear of playing into the Republicans’ hands. But the kinds of debates the Democrats had, for instance, in the latter half of the 1980s turned out to be very important, and Bill Clinton probably could not have been the kind of candidate he was in 1992 had not some of those issues been worked out, sometimes in an acrimonious fashion.

Part of what you admire about the ADA liberals, though, is that they weren’t afraid to purge communist sympathizers like Henry Wallace from the Democratic Party. Do you not believe that in order to win the war on terror, today’s anti-totalitarian liberals need to do likewise? To reject figures like Michael Moore, for example?

First of all, it’s important to say that there’s not a perfect analogy—I try to be careful about that in the book. Many people around Henry Wallace were communist sympathizers. Michael Moore is certainly not a jihadist sympathizer in any sense. I don’t think the ideology holds any appeal for him whatsoever. So his relationship to jihadism is very different from the relationship of the fellow-traveling Left to communism. But his relationship to the United States is, in many ways, similar. That’s the point I’m trying to make, that Michael Moore, while he certainly has no sympathy for America’s enemies, is not willing to recognize that those enemies are autonomous and need to be fought. He’s not willing to see outside of his prism of blowback, which suggests basically that every time there’s something evil happening in the world, you can follow the strain back to America’s own misdeeds, or American evil. That puts him in a position of basically wanting the United States not to act in the world at all. It’s a very naïve idea that somehow, in a world without American power, things would be far more benign. Because that has absolutely not been the case. It’s a strain that has waxed and waned on the left since the beginning of the Cold War, and there has been some resurgence of it because of the deep alienation produced by George W. Bush and his version of the “war on terror.” But I think it needs to be resisted and criticized because it’s always been the wrong model of liberalism.

How significant were the popularity of MoveOn and MoveOnPeace in the years leading up to the 2004 election, and what lesson is there in that for the kind of liberalism that you want to see mobilized?

A lot of the things that MoveOn would like to do in our society and in our government are things that I emphatically agree with. It’s important to say that to begin with— just as there were a lot of good things that Henry Wallace wanted to do, on civil rights, for example. George McGovern also stood for many valuable things on domestic policy. But what I think is very unfortunate about MoveOn is its kind of doughface tendency in foreign policy, to use Schlesinger’s term—this idea that America must be morally pure, which renders it very difficult for America to take any meaningful action around the world. As I tried to show in the book, if you look at their statements about Afghanistan, that’s what you find—a suggestion that, well, we can go after the terrorists in Afghanistan, but only if we take no innocent civilian lives and we don’t perpetuate the cycle of violence. This is really a classic doughface formulation, which is where MoveOn has gone wrong. And although I don’t doubt their good intentions, I think that to the degree that their foreign policy thinking has an influence among liberals, it’s an unfortunate one. It’s bad electorally, but more importantly, it’s not true to liberal principles. At the heart of liberal anti-totalitarianism is the understanding that liberal principles can be threatened at least as much, if not more, by forces other than the American Right.

If you were to organize an equivalent of the Willard Hotel meeting today, who would you want to see there?

What made the meeting at the Willard Hotel so important were two things. The first was the power of the ideas, and there are freelance intellectuals out there today saying important things about what liberalism should be. But I think that the other critical thing about the Willard Hotel was that it brought together key elements of what you might call the liberal constituency in America. I don’t think you can overestimate the importance of having Walter Reuther and David Dubinsky from the Auto Workers and the International Labor Garment Workers union there. That’s was really what gave people like Schlesinger and Niebuhr a connection to the grass roots. So I think that any such effort today would have to include labor, which, though it’s not as powerful as it was, is still very important to liberal hopes for a better world. It would also have to include the movements that have since become so essential to liberalism—the African-American community, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the Latino and other immigrant communities—because liberalism has to be about connecting social justice and economic security and opportunity at home to anti-totalitarianism abroad, and you can’t do that unless those groups are there at the table.

But haven’t the proliferation of these interest groups and the rise of identity politics been partly responsible for the decline of the Cold War liberalism you admire?

What went wrong with the Democratic Party in the 1970s was not that there were lots of African Americans, Hispanics, women, gays and lesbians at the table. That was a triumph. The problem was that the Party was articulating no larger vision that spoke to people as Americans: It was speaking to people simply as members of groups. The Democratic Party should be a multicultural party—it certainly was in 1992 under Bill Clinton. But what Bill Clinton managed to do was to find the language that spoke to people, where he could say the same thing in a black church in the City of Detroit and in a white, working class community in suburban McComb County, rather than having to pander to each group.

One of the defining characteristics of liberalism is supposed to be faith in progress. But it seems that over the last few decades, faced with problems ranging from the effects of outsourcing on wages to global warming to blowback from our foreign policy, the liberal response has been to call for an overall rollback of American economic activity and foreign entanglements. If liberals are going to win the war on terror, do they need to regain their faith in American economic growth and power as forces for good?

I wouldn’t necessarily say that liberals have lost their faith in progress. In fact, American conservatives tend to believe pretty strongly in progress as well; they come, more than European conservatives, from a classical liberal tradition. So faith in progress is something that most liberals and conservatives today share. The kind of conservative who, in William F. Buckley’s famous phrase, “stands athwart history yelling STOP!” is relatively rare. But if you look at something like global warming, you have an instance where the liberals see a grave threat that can only be solved by some form of dramatic international action—led by the United States, hopefully. So I don’t think it’s right to say that liberals have lost their belief in progress. But it is true that there’s pessimism more generally in the country today. We’re in a somewhat dark and dispirited moment in a way that we probably haven’t been since the mid-’70s. A grand American effort overseas has gone really awry, and there’s a fair amount of anxiety about the whether the United States will be able to meet the economic challenges of a rising India and China. That doesn’t just affect liberals, though, and I think the pessimism is probably temporary. Americans have gotten a second wind in the past, partly through inspired political leadership. While I disagree with most of what he did, Ronald Reagan was, in a way, a vehicle for America getting a second wind, as was John F. Kennedy in 1960, following the malaise caused by Sputnik. So I think the right leader could do that again for Americans.

Elizabeth Wasserman is a writer based in New York.
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