Sunday, July 23, 2006

# Posted 10:43 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BEINART, CHAPTER 1: Welcome to the first episode of OxBlog's commentary on The Good Fight by Peter Beinart. Because it is such an important book, I have decided to explore in considerable depth, chapter by chapter. So without further ado, let us turn to the book's introduction and Chapter 1.

Peter Beinart supported George Bush's decision to invade Iraq. As such, it is entirely fair for Beinart's critics on the left to demand a clear explanation of what makes liberal hawks like Beinart different from neo-conservatives. Beinart's answer to this question is both consistent and unequivocal:

The cold war liberal tradition parts company with the right in insisting that American power cannot be good unless we recognize that it can also be evil [and] it parts company with the purist left in insisting that if we demand that American power be perfect, it cannot be good. (xiii)
Beinart's phrasing is elegant because it captures so precisely the challenge of elaborating a new liberal vision for national security. At the same time, this phrasing forces Beinart to shoulder the tremendous burden of demonstrating both that conservatives are intrinsically blind to America's shortcomings and that other liberals are truly paralyzed by their fears of moral imperfection.

If Beinart cannot demonstrate both of these points, then his argument will fade into the vague middle ground occupied by those other liberals who thirst for a stable synthesis of American power and American idealism.

Beinart's first chapter turns to the history of the early Cold War in order to establish that conservatives are as blind and left-liberals as perfectionist as he makes them out to be. At the end of the chapter, I more concerned than at the beginning that Beinart may be building strawmen on both of his flanks in order to clarify his own position.

However, I also began to sense that there is a very clear dividing line between Beinart's liberalism and the neo-conservatism to which his critics on the left compare it.

As Beinart tells it, liberalism in the late 1940s was on the brink of surrender to a thirst for international cooperation so great that prominent liberals had no qualms about turning a blind eye to the inherent brutality of the Soviet system. The embodiment of this liberal naivete was former Vice President and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, whose "appeal on the left still dwarfed Truman's" in the middle of 1947.
"Truman, by contrast, looked like a political dead man...[because] even the antitotalitarian liberals considered Truman an embarrassment." (p.9)
What saved the party from the manifest embarrassment of nominating Wallace for president in 1948 was the influence of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), an assemblage of strongly anti-Communist liberals who did not hesitate to divide the party because they believed that Wallace & co. represented a greater threat than the Republicans.

Beinart's account persuaded me fully that Wallace & co. were, in fact, precisely the sort of perfectionsists who sought to impose unreasonable constraints on American power. But I was not persuaded that Wallace & co. represented a dominant or almost-dominant strain of liberalism in the late 1940s. And if they didn't, I would argue by extension that the ADA did not represent a new and distinctive brand of of muscular liberalism.

A towering figure surprisingly absent from Beinart's narrative is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As the architect of American victory in World War II, FDR clearly understood that American power must not be constrained by a desire for moral perfection.

I would argue that thousands of top officials who served in the Roosevelt administration and comprised the leadership of the Democratic Party understood this as well. Among them was Eleanor Roosevelt, who lent her credibility to ADA. Admittely, this argument is far from impregnable. Yet Beinart doesn't challenge it at all.

By not grappling with FDR's legacy, Beinart also has a hard time explaining why the Truman administration was so fiercely anti-Communist if Wallace represented the mainstream of Democratic thinking. Without saying so explicitly, Beinart seems to suggest that Truman's personal influence was decisive.

I disagree. Without underestimating Truman's tenacity, one should not ignore the role of anti-Communist advisers such as George Marshall, Dean Acheson (a member of ADA) and numerous others. These were FDR men as much as they were Trumanites. They were the party's foreign policy establishment.

Beinart makes a very important contribution by reminding us of the strength of the Wallace movement and of how a liberal thirst for international cooperation can rapidly degenrate into the toleration of brutal dictatorships. Yet in spite of my persistent criticism of liberals for sacrificing democratic principles on the altar of multilateralism, I do not believe that such trade-offs represent the essence of left liberalism.
(4) opinions -- Add your opinion

"Truman looked like a political dead man." He certainly did. Truman was a low, crude, ignorant man, who liked to play poker and swear at people--probably the worst educated of any president. He was LBJ, but without Johnson's redeeming intelligence. It was his earthiness which carried him in 1948, plus the Roosevelt coalition. His speeches were nothing but demogagy--heavy on the proven crap about the rich and the poor, the "working man" and the privileged. Dewey became faintly ridiculous when someone described him as the little doll on a wedding cake--it fit. He was over-confident, too, as anyone would be running against a lifelong loser like Truman. (Failed habadasher after WWI, creature of the Prendergast KC machine). As Truman became desparate, Dewey became more dignified, and declined to spit back at him. This turned out to be the wrong reaction, and gave the false impression Truman was the better fighter who wanted more earnestly to win... America was gong to get more socialism whether Truman or Dewey won, but Dewey would have purged the communists sooner, held inflation in better check, avoided the Korean War, and demanded more respect from the Soviets.
You're right to return to FDR. And, it's even more valuable to return to the FDR before his polio crisis and who entered New York politics and the Wilson administration almost as a spy for his cousin, TR. FDR between Wilson and TR is a much better analogy for today.

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