A Man for All Reasons

In the debate over the war on terror (and just about everything else, too), neocons and liberals, theocons and Christian pacifists, idealists and realists have all called upon the writings of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. What does the promiscuous invocation of his work tell us about the man—and about his would-be acolytes?

Those are words that Peter Beinart now knows well. As the White House framed the war on terror, he was among the most prominent of the liberal hawks who saw their support for the war as an exorcism of all the evil spirits of American liberalism’s recent past. During the long run-up to the war in Iraq, the liberal hawks ransacked modern history, seeking analogies in every U.S. war of the previous hundred years. Then, as it turned out to be a war all its own, they sought an exit strategy in Niebuhr’s ironic view of history, for they found themselves covered with guilt.

A graduate of Yale, Beinart went from his Rhodes scholarship at Oxford to The New Republic, and was made editor at age 28. Under his direction, the magazine editorialized early and often in support of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A September 2002 editorial, for example, took a “realist” approach, basing its arguments in the supposedly clear threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. But the magazine’s arguments were plainly idealistic salvos in the culture wars in the United States and the Middle East. A February 2003 editorial bemoaned “the intellectual incoherence of the liberal war critics” and argued that recent events had exposed the “moderate antiwar position … for the abject pacifism it truly is.” In The Washington Post, Beinart proudly likened the arguments to the arguments the magazine had made in support of the Nicaraguan contras two decades earlier.

This self-righteousness dissipated quickly. As it became clear that no weapons of mass destruction would be found and no exemplary democracy would flower, liberal hawks from Paul Berman to Jacob Weisberg to Christopher Hitchens stepped back from the brink of certainty and into the world of paradox and ambiguity. TheNew Republic caught the changing mood. “Were We Wrong?” it asked in June 2004, in a full issue devoted to the war. The responses varied, but the theme was one of Niebuhrian “ironic refutations”—the war just hadn’t gone the way the liberal hawks thought it would. Beinart confessed that he had been “too bipartisan,” claiming he overzealously supported the war in an effort to put his sense of the national interest ahead of his dislike of the Republicans. But when President Bush defeated John Kerry, Beinart changed his tack again. The problem for the Democrats wasn’t that they had supported the war in Iraq too eagerly; it was that they hadn’t supported the larger war on terror eagerly enough. In a strident postmortem cover story that December, Beinart called on the party to adopt “A Fighting Faith” that would put the struggle against Islamic terrorism at the top of the agenda. To do this, he explained, the party would have to purge itself of the forces on its far left, represented by the filmmaker and author Michael Moore and the Web activist organization MoveOn.org. Beinart’s supporting argument was simple: It had worked before. In 1947, he explained, Reinhold Niebuhr and his friends “met at Washington’s Willard Hotel to save American liberalism.” With the founding of Americans for Democratic Action, they courageously separated themselves from Communists and fellow travelers, bringing on two decades of Democratic clarity of purpose.

Early in 2005, Beinart was offered $600,000 to expand the article into a book. He left The New Republic for the Brookings Institution, but not before propagating the Niebuhr revival in TNR’s 90th-anniversary issue. It was a group-therapy effort with a “whither liberalism?” theme, and Niebuhr loomed as a messiah whose return was longed for. E. J. Dionne Jr. argued that what liberalism needed, if it was to recover itself, was a Niebuhrian blend of activist religion and activist politics; a few pages away, Martin Peretz asked: “So who has replaced Niebuhr, the once-commanding tribune to both town and gown? It’s as if no one even tries to fill the vacuum.”

Also see:

Interviews: "Beinart Talks Back" (April 12, 2006)
The author of The Good Fight defends his vision of the American Left.

Beinart tried. By the time his book, called The Good Fight, was published, he was a full-on Niebuhrian. “The hero of the book in a way,” he would tell an interviewer, “is the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.” There was Niebuhr in The New York Times Magazine, exhibit A in Beinart’s call for “The Rehabilitation of the Cold-War Liberal”; there was The Irony of American History on an Amazon list of “Peter Beinart’s 10 Books to Read on Liberalism.” (The irony was that The Irony was out of print.)

The aim in telling the story of the Cold War liberals was to equate “our fight” against Islamic terrorism with “their fight” against totalitarianism, giving liberals a “usable past” to match the conservative one of a Reagan-era restoration. What made Niebuhr the hero of the story was his sense of limits—of “the danger of unrestrained, unreflective power.” For Beinart, the policy implications of this “old theme” were clear:

America must recognize its capacity for evil and build the restraints that hold it in check. But it must still act to prevent greater evil. It cannot take refuge in the moral innocence that comes from no meaningful action at all.

So far, so good, but that’s not very far. For as it developed, the argument showed the liberal blind spots that Niebuhr had pointed out in Moral Man and Immoral Society. No fighting faith, Beinart’s usable past is as secular as the glass-box office complexes on K Street, and his Niebuhr is not a teacher of Christian ethics but a “tall, unaffected Midwesterner” who drafts position papers and attends briefings at the State Department. His sense of the need for limits in foreign policy is rooted not (as Niebuhr’s was) in human nature and history and religious faith—with all that those tell us about the limitations of people and nations—but in utility: We should observe limits because they’re useful to our national interests.

Truly, this was Niebuhrian realism turned on its head. An idealistic transformation of American domestic politics had been made a precondition for a supposedly realist foreign policy. A vision of the political transformation of Iraq had been replaced by a vision of the political transformation of Washington.

Rhodes scholar + New Republic + “Were We Wrong?” + $600,000 = big target, and when The Good Fight was published, the supposedly conflict-averse American left piled on. Michael Tomasky of The American Prospect was especially aggressive. He was all for a recovery of the “Niebuhrian doctrine of self-restraint.” But would Niebuhr have seen a parallel between the Cold War and the Iraq War? The answer, Tomasky was sure, was “a reverberating, ear-splitting ‘no.’” Explaining why in an exchange with Beinart on Slate, he predicted that the war in Iraq “renders the grand visions for liberal internationalism that you and I share useless nullities, for a generation, maybe more.”

The exchange had the sense of history that The Good Fight lacked, but it showed the perils of finding one’s antecedents in the recent American past rather than in the much longer, broader history that Niebuhr claimed as his and ours. And its retrospective tone suggested how fully the left had already left the war behind.

The Voice of Experience

Now the antiwar voice was one of experience, the voice for military power one of credulity and naïveté. The Niebuhr who called for the triumph of force over inaction was being supplanted by the Niebuhr who ruefully described “the triumph of experience over dogma.” Enter Andrew Bacevich: retired Army colonel, Roman Catholic, contributor to The American Conservative. With his crewneck sweaters and helmet of white hair, Bacevich is a right-of-center Howard Dean—an establishment figure who’s made his mark by opposing established positions. In a review of The Good Fight for The Nation, he accused Beinart of casting “hawkish liberals as heroes, doves as fools and conservatives as knaves” in a “largely spurious” allegory—and of “channeling” Niebuhr in a way that amounted to “ritual abuse.” “He uses Niebuhr,” Bacevich wrote, “much as Jerry Falwell uses Jesus Christ, and just as shamelessly: citing him as an unimpeachable authority and claiming his endorsement, thereby preempting any further discussion.

“The real Niebuhr,” Bacevich confidently went on, didn’t worry “about Americans demonstrating their moral superiority”; he worried that they would succumb to temptation and do the wrong thing:

The real Niebuhr did not conceive of history as a narrative of national greatness. Rather than bend the past to suit a particular agenda, liberal or otherwise, he viewed it as beyond our understanding and fraught with paradox.

Bacevich, who teaches at Boston University, characterized Niebuhr as a man like himself: a thinker beyond category who “would likely align himself with those dissidents on the left and the right … who view as profoundly dangerous the claims of both neoliberals and neoconservatives to understand history’s purposes and destination.” The emergence of such a figure as a hero in the unequivocally left-of-center, antiwar Nation seemed itself paradoxical. But a graver paradox was yet to come. In May, Bacevich’s son, Andrew Jr., serving as a first lieuenant in Iraq, was killed by a suicide bomber while on patrol. “I Lost My Son to a War I Oppose,” the elder Bacevich wrote in The Washington Post over Memorial Day weekend; but the headline went on to say, “We Were Both Doing Our Duty”—at once refuting the arguments of the people who claimed his opposition to the war had helped the enemy kill his son and acknowledging that for every family with a member in Iraq, death in battle is the cruelest of unintended consequences.

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Paul Elie, a senior editor with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (2003). His article “The Year of Two Popes” appeared in the January/February 2006 Atlantic.

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