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12/14/2004

Beinart Extended Criticism

I have struggled with Beinart's "Fighting Faith" essay in The New Republic. It is wrong on so many levels as to be difficult to respond to. More than just being wrong, it actively damages liberalism, the Democratic Party, and the country, by emboldening conservatives and obscuring reality. It has also forced liberals to plunge their heads in the murky barrel of recrimination, not in the privacy of our homes, but in full public view.

Let's begin at the beginning. The analogy between Communism and Al Qaeda is poor. The main distinction, for our purposes, is that there is no credible argument that liberals have pro-fundamentalist tendencies. Americans for Democratic Action was so necessary because liberals at the time weren't firm in their opposition to communism, not because they didn't favor invasion of the Soviet Union. We don't need to expel Islamic fundamentalists from the American left, because there are none. The GOP has tried to tar us as being pro-fundamentalist, and some people believe them. These are baseless slurs, but Beinart's framing of the issue actually advances them. Islamic fundamentalism is more akin to Naziism than Communism in the way it plots on the American political spectrum, and liberalism did not need to be "fundamentally reshaped" to deal with Naziism.

The idea that conservatism has been "fundamentally reshaped" by the events of 9/11 is also wrong. George W. Bush and senior administration officials wanted to invade iraq prior to 9/11, and they seized the opportunity presented by 9/11 to act on their desires. In order to believe that the GOP fundamentally changed its national security vision, one would have to believe that they willingly assumed the burden of democratizing the Middle East. They did not – they believed that there would be no burden, that it would be a cakewalk. They still won't fund their war with taxes, give the troops the armor and equipment they need (despite the sound and fury), or change the military force structure to facilitate nation building.

He is right, in a sense, that the Democratic foreign policy remains to a degree ad hoc. The unifying vision of our foreign policy is anti-proliferation, from Russian loose nukes, to the Fissile Materials Control Treaty, to converting highly enriched uranium research reactors to leu. We did not articulate this well in the campaign, despite John Kerry's strong record on the issue and his highlighting it during the debates. We needed to do more.

He is also right that "post-September 11 liberalism has produced leaders and institutions--most notably Michael Moore and MoveOn--that do not put the struggle against America's new totalitarian foe at the center of their hopes for a better world." That is primarily because the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism is not central to our hope for a better world. We stand a much better chance of using the military to limit the capabilities of sadistic non-state actors than we do of successfully waging a global counter-terrorist war. The military should not be central to our fight against sadistic terrorism; foreign aid, diplomacy, and outreach are more likely to hinder the spread of Islamic fundamentalism than willy-nilly invasions. Calling Michael Moore or Moveon "Wallacite" is simply moronic – Moveon has 2.8 million people, and not one of them supports Islamic fundamentalism.

Beinart claims that the 34 percent of voters that mentioned either Iraq or terrorism in exit polls, that "voters who cited terrorism backed Bush even more strongly than those who cited moral values," and that "it was largely this new cohort--the same one that handed the GOP its Senate majority in 2002--that accounts for Bush's improvement over 2000." He does not mention that those who mentioned Iraq as their primary concern voted overwhelmingly for Kerry. Foreign Policy was a wash in the 2004 election.

Beinart says "Kerry's nomination was a compromise between a party elite desperate to neutralize the terrorism issue and a liberal base unwilling to redefine itself for the post-September 11 world." He has no evidence for this assertion. Kerry was selected by "the base" in the primary process, and there is nothing to suggest that the "party elite" had anything to do with it. I would like to see any evidence Mr. Beinart might have.

Kerry's vote for the military authorization might have "satisfied his foreign policy advisers," but they were all operating on false assumptions about the truthfulness and reliability of the Bush administration's claims about intelligence. Beinart appears to be unable to admit, even in hindsight, that those who relied on the administration were not operating on good facts.

Beinart's assertion that "September 11 validated the transformation" of the Democratic foreign policy from one of benign neglect to "a new post-Vietnam liberalism that embraced U.S. Power" is wrong on multiple levels. First, Clinton's foreign policy was overwhelmingly guided by the post-Vietnam Powell Doctrine, which counseled using overwhelming force to achieve clear goals with a definable exit strategy. Beinart believes that the fact that "Democratic foreign policy wonks not only supported the war in Afghanistan, they generally felt it didn't go far enough--urging a larger nato force capable of securing the entire country" is a sign of incipient hawkishness. It is not – it is a sign that Democrats take war seriously, and want to make sure it's done right. Bush's hawkishness is predicated on wars fought casually, without sacrifice or second thought.

Beinart states that "had [the war in Afghanistan], rather than the war in Iraq, become the defining event of the post-September 11 era, the 're-education' about U.S. power, and about the new totalitarian threat from the Muslim world that had transformed Kerry's advisers, might have trickled down to the party's liberal base, transforming it as well." He has no evidence for, and is in fact probably wrong, on this assertion. The war in Afghanistan was gradually accepted by the liberal base – contemporaneous hesitance about it does not translate into durable opposition. Has Mr. Beinart bothered to call Michael Moore or Eli Pariser to ask them what they think about the war in Afghanistan now? Bush ran on Iraq as his model for future war fighting, Kerry ran on Afghanistan, and the Democratic base supported him.

Peter Beinart is wrong in his characterization of the Democratic primary process. There are competing narratives explaining John Kerry's primary victory – electability (tough campaigner, battle tested), hybrid (strong on domestic and foreign policy), good organizer (veteran team on the ground in Iowa, home state advantage in New Hampshire). Beinart, as is his wont, constructs his own amalgam narrative, drawing on the worst of the Republican characterizations, that Kerry turned "isolationist," "exploit[ed] public antipathy toward foreign aid and nation-building," to head off Dean from the left. I seem to recall Kerry embracing multilateralism – reluctance to unilaterally invade countries is not a sign of "isolationism."

The vote against the $87 billion was not a vote for isolationism. It was a vote for more sensible priorities in the war on terrorism, for more fiscal accountability in the war on terrorism, and for more strategic accountability in the war on terrorism. Let's look at some of Kerry's specific comments:

Kerry said he and others warned the president to take time to build a multinational coalition and discern the consensus of the American people. "Oh, no - this president rushed to war," Kerry said.

The fact that the United States will spend $87 billion in Iraq this year - more than the nation will spend on education - "is a disgrace of judgment." [Tampa Tribune, 11/21/03]
Kerry wanted an international coalition to support the war, the opposite of isolationism.
Mr Bush is also embroiled in a struggle with Congress, which has failed to approve the $ 87 billion that he has requested for rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan next year. Mr Bush has public opinion against him on the issue, with an overwhelming majority believing that the bill should be met by cancelling some of Mr Bush's tax cuts for the richest Americans rather than adding to the US deficit. [The London Times, 10/28/03]
The liberal base (and the rest of the country) opposed the $87 billion because of the way it was funded, not because they were isolationist.
"This president has done it wrong every step of the way," Kerry said. "He broke every promise and he's done it wrong every step of the way. I'm not going to vote for him to continue to do it wrong." [Boston Herald, 10/27/03]
Kerry wanted more oversight, not isolationism.
"Well, Joe, I had seared in me an experience which you don't have, and that's the experience of being one of those troops on the front lines when the policy has gone wrong," he said. "And the way you best protect the troops is to guarantee that you put the troops in the safest, strongest position as fast as possible. Our troops are today more exposed, are in greater danger, because this president didn't put together a real coalition, because this president's been unwilling to share the burden and the task." [NYT, 10/27/03]
I could go on. John Kerry was not an isolationist, did not vote against the $87 billion because he wanted to starve the troops, and did not go wobbly in the war on terrorism. Reading over the reporting from the time, though, it's clear where those slurs originated: Joe Lieberman, The New Republic, and the DLC. It is much harder to refute that sort of distortion when its made by nominal allies, even the liberal New Republic.

Beinart sort of acknowledges the unfairness of his characterization of Kerry's record, noting that "the only alternative principle he clearly articulated was multilateralism, which often sounded like a veiled way of asking Americans to do less." Note Beinart's passive voice: it was institutions like the New Republic, blinded by their zeal for Lieberman, that distorted Kerry's statements into something like Beinart's caricature. But, "because [Kerry] never urged a national mobilization for safety and freedom, his discussion of terrorism lacked Bush's grandeur." This may be true, but Beinart shouldn't pretend that Bush's vision has "grandeur," nor that it called for a "national mobilization" of anything by the red pen.

That was the decent part of Beinart's essay. It gets worse from there. Beinart claims that "the fundamental problem was the party's liberal base, which would have refused to nominate anyone who proposed redefining the Democratic Party in the way the ADA did in 1947." This counterfactual aspersion might be worth addressing if anyone had ever made a credible case that the Democratic Party needed an ADA moment. Beinart certainly hasn't made such a case. More egregiously, though, Beinart actually translates his unsupported insinuation into a call to action: "[Transforming the party at its grassroots so that a different kind of presidential candidate can emerge] requires a sustained battle to wrest the Democratic Party from the heirs of Henry Wallace. In the party today, two such heirs loom largest: Michael Moore and MoveOn." Michael Moore is not part of the Democratic Party. MoveOn did not support John Kerry in the Democratic primary, and certainly didn't exercise undue control over the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. Dean's pre-primary strength was derived in part from MoveOn's support, but short of purging MoveOn members from the system, there is no way to "wrest" control from them. They didn't exercise control, their candidate lost. And again, MoveOn does not support Islamic fundamentalism – they oppose ineffective, counterproductive military actions taken in its name. That may be too complex an argument to make to the electorate, but Mr. Beinart doesn't appear to be dealing with optics or presentation – he honestly appears to think that MoveOn and foreign policy liberals want Islamic fundamentalism to spread. MoveOn and the democratic wing of the Party are anti-Islamic fundamentalist – we are "hard," to use Beinart's New Leader's nomenclature – but we recognize that the invasion of Iraq did not move us closer to that goal.

Beinart criticizes Moore for stating "there is no terrorist threat." Moore is engaging in hyperbole, but he is correct that the threat has been blown way out of proportion for partisan political purposes. I find it hard to believe that someone could have lived through the entirety of Bush's carefully managed campaignistration and not come to the same conclusion. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't prudently combat it – it means that good policy can ensure that it is not an existential threat. The burden of proof is on Beinart to establish that it is a threat, but he has not done so.

"Moore is a non-totalitarian, but, like Wallace, he is not an anti-totalitarian." I don't want to and can't speak for Michael Moore, but I can assure you nonetheless: Michael Moore is anti-Islamic fundamentalist. I don't even think "Islamic totalitarianism"actually exists – Al Qaedism wants a hybrid version of theocratic authoritarianism. It is not even possible to have a totalitarian non-state actor like modern Islamic fundamentalism; Beinart talks gibberish. Denying something exists is a factual disagreement, not any sort of Chamberlain-esque acquiescence.

When Beinart turns to Moveon, he fares no better. Consider his charge that "a [MoveOn] bulletin suggested that the United States should have 'utilize[d] international law and judicial procedures, including due process' against bin Laden and that 'it's possible that a tribunal could even have garnered cooperation from the Taliban.'" Beinart leaves this quote alone, uncommented on, but it is quite possibly correct. It is certainly not self-evidently incorrect.

Beinart claims that MoveOn's emails "convey the same basic hostility to U.S. Power" as Michael Moore. Note that nowhere did Beinart prove the Moore opposed U.S. Power (should "power" really be capitalized?). MoveOn, and I suppose Moore, have a different conception of power – one where international cooperation, diplomacy, and general "soft power" are more effective than crass militarism. Based on the ineffectiveness of our track record of crass militarism, we'd better hope MoveOn is correct; otherwise, we are impotent. Beinart also makes clear that he didn't talk to anyone from MoveOn by claiming they have "more than 1.5 million members;" they have 2.8 million members.

Beinart engages in the conservative tactic of silence ergo "supports something bad," noting that MoveOn "seems to have largely lost interest in any agenda for fighting terrorism at all," focusing on the negative. This is not an acceptable rhetorical tactics when applied to a fellow liberal organization, since every group need not put together a comprehensive policy agenda. If MoveOn wants to remain silent on strategy formation, there is no harm done.

Beinart's next criticism of MoveOn reveals more about him than MoveOn. He claims that merely asking if "the threat to the United States' existence [is] great enough to justify the evisceration of our most treasured principles" "grossly inflated the [PATRIOT] Act's effect," and "contrasted it with the-- implicitly far smaller--danger from Al Qaeda." Every action we take in the WoT should meet this test, and it is appalling that Beinart criticizes them for merely asking it.

Beinart levels much calumny at MoveOn, all of it ridiculous. He engages in guilt by association with ANSWER, critiques the tone of linked articles, and is otherwise ridiculous. If Beinart disagrees with MoveOn, he should call Eli, Wes or Joan up and talk to them. He should challenge someone from the organization to a debate, or try to host a joint forum with them. He should go to an Al Gore speech and hear what he's got to say. He should leave the ridiculous slurs to the National Review.

 

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