Blood for No Oil!

A new manifesto finds a model in the Truman era for returning liberals to political centrality in America. But the comparison is hopelessly inexact

Whether intentionally or not, Peter Beinart sets out to challenge and annoy the American Left from the first three words of his title. “The good fight” is a nostalgic, hymnal term that the mixed bag of remaining “progressives” still reserve very much for themselves; it is most commonly used to invoke the Spanish Civil War and, in particular, those Americans who went, under the ostensible banner of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion but under the effective command of the Comintern, to take part in it. And as one looks back on it now, this episode of heroism and betrayal is remarkable for one thing above all: it represents the only time in modern history that American radicals were in favor of, or had a direct hand in, any “foreign entanglement.” Their highest moral exemplar, as badly as it ended, is in fact the great exception that violates their rule.

Seeing the title, I had hoped that Beinart would open with a challenge to the myth of “premature anti-fascism” and would point out that otherwise during that period the American Left had made common cause with the isolationists and even, for a while, with the idea of a formal military pact between Stalin and Hitler. Trace elements of this mentality survive to our own day: both Gore Vidal and Patrick J. Buchanan still revere the figure of Charles Lindbergh, whose influence was so inadequately captured, from the traditionally wearisome New Jersey Jewish keyhole, in Philip Roth’s Plot Against America. (The moving spir-it of today’s, a preening figure named Justin Raimondo, is also given to paeans in favor of Lindbergh’s charismatic manliness and authority.)

Instead, Beinart opens the story with the Henry Wallace campaign of 1948—the setting of another Philip Roth novel, this time I Married a Communist. In that year, a strategic majority of the American Left worked hard for a man who would have given Eastern Europe to Stalin (and perhaps some of Western Europe, too) with the same insouciance that—until Stalin himself had been attacked—it had allowed the region to be given to Hitler. Had the Wallace campaign done as well as had been predicted, the chief domestic effect would have been to throw the election to Thomas Dewey. But as it was, the era of the tough-minded “Cold War liberal” had begun. Beinart’s book locates the crucial step in this evolution at the founding of Americans for Democratic Action, or ADA, in the Willard Hotel in Washington in January 1947. Present for this event were Hubert Humphrey, Walter Reuther, Eleanor Roosevelt, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., David Dubinsky, and—Beinart’s personal hero—Reinhold Niebuhr.

It is easy to summarize what attracts Beinart to this group: in a breathtaking moment of reactionary parochialism and insularity, Henry Wallace had declared against Marshall Aid for Europe but supposedly in favor of civil rights and the rights of labor. By assembling a distinguished group that endorsed Marshall Aid and had seen through communism, but that took a forward position on New Deal programs and the emancipation of black Americans, the ADA had echoed Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, who in the Willard Hotel almost a century earlier had “sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat.” Beinart gives due credit to the unjustly forgotten Bayard Rustin, who was perhaps the true genius of the civil-rights and democratic-socialist movements, but his emphasis on Niebuhr is what truly informs the book, because this solemn old Protestant theologian provided a constant warning against American hubris.

Beinart’s aim is to refashion this tradition for the war against jihadism, and to reposition American liberals as the friends of democracy and equality at home and abroad. The Truman administration presents a rough pattern of what he admires, from its desegregation of the U.S. armed forces to its willingness to confront communism in Greece, Turkey, and Korea while relying, where it could, on local democratic forces rather than on regional oligarchies. He seeks to represent the upward curve of domestic reform, especially the amazing burgeoning of the civil-rights movement, as intersecting nicely with “containment” overseas and the demonstrated willingness to employ force—even annihilating thermonuclear force—as well. Result: prosperity at home and “peace through strength” abroad.

This retrospective optimism is in many ways too neat. In the first place, the Allied victors in 1945 had decided to leave fascist despotism in place in Spain and Portugal, and to recruit Hitler’s spies and rocket scientists, from Reinhard Gehlen to Werner von Braun, into a new “national-security state.” In the second place, there were always leftists, notably I. F. Stone, who understood that the Wallace campaign was a fellow-traveling fiasco. In the third place, there were more-centrist liberals who voiced grave concern over Washington’s policy in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Lebanon in 1958 (all these episodes are omitted by Beinart), and elsewhere, and who did not think that the Cold War was a license for imperialism. Finally, there has probably never been a more hubristic rhetoric—or practice—than during the time of the New Frontier (which so memorably featured the rhetorical skills of Schlesinger). Within a decade and a half of the Willard Hotel meeting, the Camelot darling of American liberals had risked global catastrophe over Cuba and committed the United States to the degrading role of successor to the French Empire in Indochina, all the while dragging his feet on the only idea whose time actually had come: Rustin’s beautiful scheme for a march on Washington. There’s no mystery about the rise of the New Left. John F. Kennedy was more of a sellout in terms of the ADA’s guiding principles than even the most credulous liberal should have been prepared to accept.

This does not excuse those who reverted to post-Vietnam isolationism and who regarded the later advent of the “KKK” (the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, and the Khalq faction of Stalinism in Afghanistan) as nothing more than an invitation for America to “come home.” And it has been demonstrated in more than one case that a crisis ducked by liberals will recur as an opportunity taken, or even seized, by conservatives. Without the American Right (and “vital center”) there might have been no shah or Somoza to be overthrown in the first instance. Easy propaganda points can be made to the effect that the United States’ ruling establishment is often the author of its own misfortunes. But this does not exempt the citizens of the country, confronted with chickens from whatever roost they may originate, from deciding whether or not these birds of ill omen should be shot down. And on this visceral point, as Beinart eventually concedes with infinite regret, the Right appears to speak with less ambiguity.

Jimmy Carter was not Henry Wallace, but Beinart’s history of liberalism during the post-Vietnam years identifies the same mentality—of wishful thinking about the Evil Empire—that gave the Right its next big chance. In this narrative, the role of the ADA is superseded by the roles of Scoop Jackson and the now-forgotten Congressman Dave McCurdy, who sought a “third way” in the crisis over Central America. The eventual implosion of the Soviet system makes some of these debates appear to be further away from us than they really are. (The dispute between Paul Berman and Michael Moore, the former of whom wrote a Mother Jones piece critical of the Sandinistas that was censored by the latter, was, however, a harbinger.) Beinart understates the importance of Ronald Reagan’s abandonment of “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD, a long-standing, containment-based bipartisan commitment that was suddenly (and correctly) discovered to be unstable as well as immoral. Not only did this policy shift perform well in the world of “realism,” in that the decision to retool for strategic defense had a measurable influence upon Mikhail Gorbachev; it also had the effect of making liberal noises about a nuclear “freeze” seem tinny and irrelevant. The other great argument of the time—over the imposition of sanctions on South Africa—gave the Left the moral high ground for a year or two, but was eventually co-opted by Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as well.

If American liberalism had seriously wanted to regain its moral standing after the Cold War ended, the re-emergence of the one-party, one-leader aggressive state, in the forms of Greater Serbia and Greater Iraq, should have provided the ideal opportunity. But although the first President Bush secured United Nations support, and Syrian and Egyptian troops, for the recovery of Kuwait, he did so without any noticeable help from the left of center, who were too fastidious about the oil issue to soil their hands. (We can now say, with almost 100 percent certainty, that if Saddam Hussein had kept Kuwait, he would have acquired the bomb.) In Bosnia, where there was no oil but there was genocide, a “New Democrat” administration was finally persuaded to take action, again without the support of the large and consistent anti-war wing of American politics, whose members moaned ceaselessly about quagmire. Most of the traditional Right was silent or hostile on this occasion, too. Those who pressed for solidarity with Bosnia included some leftists like Susan Sontag, a great part of the American Jewish community, and a few traditional hawks—but perhaps most notably (and in a case that did not involve the state interest of Israel) the emerging neoconservatives. As one who took part in this argument, I can testify that many on the pro-Bosnian Left had more or less to assure themselves that their demand for intervention was kosher, precisely because it did not seem to be in the immediate national-security interest of the United States. Blood for no oil!

All of this was a dismal prelude to the crisis that struck the United States in the fall of 2001. One knew, before that terrible day was out, what would be said by the academic and journalistic and Hollywood Left. Much of the rhetoric of that time has been forgotten (though not by me), and now those who never wanted a fight in Afghanistan in the first place are free to complain that the war with al-Qaeda in Iraq is a distraction from the struggle they opposed. But in some untranslatable manner, this two-faced position has communicated itself to a large number of American voters. These people may be as uninformed as Beinart complains they are (look how many of them believe that Saddam Hussein was behind the World Trade Center attacks), but they are not so stupid as to believe that the president invaded Iraq to avenge his daddy, or to swell the coffers of Halliburton, or to please General Sharon. Nor are they so dumb and credulous as to believe that there would be no jihadists in Iraq if it were not for the Coalition presence. Fatuity of that kind—especially the last kind—is the preserve of the Democratic intelligentsia, not just of the types but also of figures like Harry Reid, Barbara Boxer, and Al Gore. I am not a tremendous admirer of Senator Joseph Lieberman, but his expressed opinions make him a smaller figure in Democratic circles than was Henry Wallace in 1948. How can a Truman emerge from this galère?

In other words, the whole comparison with the ADA is hopelessly inexact. The hard-liners in 1948 were principled enough to do the Democratic Party the favor of deserting it and running their own slate. They were also, one might concede, at least intelligible in their naiveté about the U.S.S.R. A thinking person could, then at least, be brought to believe that state socialism was an improvement on monopoly capitalism, and that war was to be avoided at any price. In the present case, however, not only are the hard-liners the activist and fund-raising core of the party; they also 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. The Soviet leadership had every reason to avoid suicide, while the Islamist fanatics dream of nothing else. In this context, Beinart’s wishful and halfhearted belief that Saddam Hussein could have been contained is the one position that nobody can seriously hold. He gives himself away when he argues that a continuation of the cruel and indiscriminate sanctions could have led the Baathist regime to self-destruct. Has he even tried to imagine what Iraq would have looked like on the day that that self-destruction occurred? Let us just assume that it would not have been a Velvet Revolution. It would have more closely resembled a Rwanda or a Congo on the Gulf. Bad as things are now, they would certainly have been worse.

Thus, however ineptly it may have been phrased and implemented, the Bush administration’s improvised adoption of political change in the region may bear some comparison with Reagan’s repudiation of Cold War stasis. And I see no sign that the American Left and the liberals understand what it means to have become once again the party of the status quo. In his wishful and overconfident subtitle, where he asserts that only liberals can win this war, Beinart vainly tries to split a difference. In the first place, it is a war against a version of apocalyptic fascism, of which terrorism is only the expression. In the second place, the bulk of the liberal consensus has already demonstrated a want of spine and sinew, and ceded much ground to the freshly converted and clumsy anti-isolationist Right. Retrospect may grant us time to pass a verdict on which of these two blunders was the decisive one. Meanwhile, the rough retranslation of Beinart’s title is Hillary in 2008—a prospect some distance short of a liberal dream.