A Reply to Peter Beinart

By Alterman, Eric | The Nation, January 10, 2005 | Go to article overview

A Reply to Peter Beinart


Alterman, Eric, The Nation


In my last column, I focused on the Kerry campaign's inability to articulate an alternative national security strategy. This, I suggested, made it difficult to lay bare the colossal failures of the Bush Administration in the same area and to convince voters to trust the Democrats with the defense of the nation. I also noted that Democrats did not always have this problem; the "fighting faith" of 1950s cold war liberalism, for all its problems, presented Americans with a national security framework sufficient to earn their trust (and thereby, not incidentally, allow liberals to make considerable progress on social justice issues at home).

By coincidence, New Republic editor Peter Beinart simultaneously published an elegantly written, passionately argued 5,683-word essay addressing himself to exactly the same problem and deploying the same historical example as a guidepost to the future. The essay, "A Fighting Faith," was widely embraced as the fulcrum of debate about the future of a liberal foreign policy vision. In this regard, Beinart and TNR performed a salutary service, as such a debate is sorely needed. Unfortunately, Beinart's own contribution is fundamentally flawed, and must be discarded if this debate is to lead liberals in a fruitful direction.

Just as the magazine did when its editors argued in favor of Bush's foolhardy war--and Reagan's Central American fantasies before that--Beinart's essay employs McCarthyite tactics in conjunction with wishful thinking in the service of a chimerical political agenda. His solution for the political problem that ails the Democratic Party fits in perfectly with TNR's own intellectual DNA structure, calling as it does for the expulsion from the Democratic coalition of MoveOn.org, perhaps the left's most energetic and committed popular organizations, in support of a combination of policies (liberal on the domestic front, neoconservative internationally) with no clear constituency in America or anywhere else. In doing so, it reproduces the failures of the Bush Administration that have destroyed the sympathy and solidarity the United States enjoyed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

First the McCarthyism: Beinart's attacks on MoveOn--which understate the organization's 2.9 million membership by nearly 100 percent--rest largely on statements made by organizations he claims are related to it, often by nothing more than a click on its website. Many of his charges turn on the weasel word "seems," as in "in recent years, [MoveOn] seems to have largely lost interest in any agenda for fighting terrorism at all. Instead, MoveOn's discussion of the subject seems dominated by two, entirely negative, ideas...." As a certain Prince of Denmark once remarked: "Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not 'seems.'"

Beinart falsely accuses MoveOn of opposing military retaliation against Al Qaeda because its organizers argued on behalf of a strategy that spared population centers from bombing attacks. He apparently cannot conceive of an effective military response that does not include the killing of thousands of innocents. In fact, just as the liberal realists of the 1950s whom Beinart so admires opposed the excesses of conservative US foreign policy--including CIA-sponsored coups in Iran and Guatemala--so too did liberal realists argue in 2001 that the US government was not availing itself of the best approaches to fighting Al Qaeda. New Yorker reporter Nicholas Lemann surveyed a group of them and came away with a remarkably consistent--and painfully prescient--set of analyses. "Military power is not necessary to wiping out Al Qaeda," Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School at Harvard told Lemann. "It's a crude instrument, and it almost always has effects you can't anticipate.... This is ultimately a battle for the hearts and minds of people around the world. When your village just got leveled by an American mistake, the conclusions you draw will be rather different from what we'd want them to be. …

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