OxBlog

Thursday, July 27, 2006

# Posted 9:21 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BEINART'S DARK PORTRAIT OF CONSERVATIVES: The challenge for a centrist liberal such as Peter Beinart is to distinguish himself clearly both from those on his right as well as those on his left. In an earlier post, I challenged the clarity of his division between the Democratic center and the Democratic left. Here, I challenge his division of the Democratic center from the Republican right.

For Beinart, the essence of conservative foreign policy is its ignorant, anti-empirical faith in America's moral perfection. He writes that:

For conservatives -- from John Foster Dulles to Dick Cheney -- American exceptionalism means that we do not need such constraints [on our power]. Our heart is pure. In the liberal vision, it is precisely our recognition that we are not angels that make us exceptional. (page x)
Beinart's sanctification of self-doubt as the defining attribute of liberal foreign policy strikes me as somewhat peculiar. First of all, it plays directly into the hands of those conservatives who argued for decades that liberals just don't have enough faith in America. Then again, that sort of candid masochism seems to be ingrained in New Republic-liberals such as Beinart. Perhaps it is to their credit.

What is harder to understand is why Beinart has claimed self-doubt as the exclusive property of the left at a time when Republicans have demonstrated a certain interest in it. And by Republicans, I am not just referring to realists such as George Will (whose lavish praise of Beinart appears on the back cover of the book). Just two months ago, a journalist asked:
Mr. President, you spoke about missteps and mistakes in Iraq. Could I ask both of you which missteps and mistakes of your own you most regret?
Bush responded:
I think the biggest mistake that's happened so far, at least from our country's involvement in Iraq is Abu Ghraib. We've been paying for that for a long period of time.
There is much to criticize about the President's record on prisoner abuse, and OxBlog has done it often. But willful blindness to America's imperfections does not seem to be Bush's way.

In Chapter 1, however, Beinart's concern is with the Republicans of the Truman era, not those of today. According to Beinart, the lies and paranoia of Joe McCarthy represented true face of the GOP in the Truman era. He writes that:
If conservatives saw the red scare as a sign of domestic health, anti-totalitarian liberals struggled to make the opposite case...

While conservatives applauded America's new faith in its moral superiority, liberals worried that McCarthyism undermined that superiority in the eyes of the world.(pp.20-21)
I would say that this is a grossly unfair caricature of conservatism in the 1940s and 1950s. Republicans dare not forget that McCarthy was one of their own, but theirs was also the party of Eisenhower, Dulles, Taft and Vandenburg.

Beinart also damages his own case by reminding his readers that Harry Truman imposed a "grossly unfair" loyalty program on federal employees for the purpose of forcing out Communists. Then, in 1954, liberal champion Hubert H. Humphrey introduced legislation that criminalized membership in the Communist Party. Although unhappy with this legislation, the heroic liberals of the ADA refused to come out clearly against it.

By Beinart's criteria, it would seem that liberals also had an exaggerated faith in America's moral superiority.

However, I think there is a clear dividing line that Beinart can employ to differentiate muscular liberals such as himself from neo-conservatives. For Beinart, the moral validation of American foreign policy depends on good faith efforts to let others, especially allies, exert a measure of control over our behavior. For neo-conservatives, the moral validation of American foreign policy depends on whether it serves the interests of democracy and freedom, regardless of whether other nations oppose it.

An interesting question is which side Truman would take if the choice were presented in this way. According to Beinart, there were "three interlocking planks" (p.15) that defined Truman's foreign policy. The first was the containment of Communism. The second was the economic reconstruction of Europe. And third:
Liberal foreign policy involved restraint. Rather than wield its enormous power alone, the United States would share it with other countries. NATO was the expression of this idea. So was Truman's support for the UN. (p. 16)
In an earlier post, I explained why I believe this to be a mischaracterization of Truman's foreign policy. NATO was a military alliance to which the Europeans were expected to deliver hundreds of thousands of soldiers. It was not about power sharing. With regard to the UN, Truman told Dean Acheson that he would've gone to war in Korea without its approval (which it only gave because of the Soviet ambassador's absence from the vote.)

From my perspective, the key difference between Beinart and the conservatives is the question of process versus outcome. For Beinart, moral validation rests on the process that determines when American power can be used. For neoconservatives, moral validation rests on the outcome that such a use of power achieves. In this instance, I side with the latter.
(13) opinions -- Add your opinion

Comments:
Beinart shoots out more strawmen consistently than any person I've ever read.
 
David,
Thanks again for confirming my belief in your non-partisian rationality.
Mike
 
"For Beinart, moral validation rests on the process that determines when American power can be used. For neoconservatives, moral validation rests on the outcome that such a use of power achieves. In this instance, I side with the latter."

Sounds a lot like, "The Ends Justify the Means." Your post reveals why neo-conservative statements about "democracy" and "freedom" should never be taken seriously. Liberals and neo-cons both claim to want "democracy" and "freedom". But neo-cons, by your own admission, think the ends are good enough. Liberals, on the other hand, believe "democracy" and "freedom" are constantly on the line and must be preserved vigilantly at home and abroad.
 
Listening to William Kristol some time back talk (sorry no link) about the outcomes versus process dichotomy, his view seemed to be slightly different than you present, although it was hard to be sure.

As near as I could tell, there seemed to be three levels of discussion. The first is a discussion of means or process, e.g. are landmines acceptable, should ventures like Iraq be attempted without "broad consensus" (however defined) or not. The second was a question of intent - i.e. you could justify the use of means based on intent.

Kristol, however, seemed to be operating at a third level, which seemed to be based on identity. In other words the U.S. is moral *because* it is the U.S.

The only way I could explain the distinction between intent and identity is to reference the first Star Wars movie, in which we see Obiwan almost casually slice someone's arm off. We are told that the rebellion are "the good guys" and the empire "the bad guys" so that we choose to interpret their actions differently.

I think some of these discussions may be underlined by clan or tribal affiliation, or a subjectively bias self-perception - the same thing that makes 95 percent of people say they are better than 75 percent of other drivers.

In any case - fascinating post - I got here via "The Moderate Voice".
 
But does moral clarity rely on the intended outcome or actual outcome? Let's say, for the sake of argument, that good intentions lead to an ugly mess. Do you then have moral clarity? My intentions were good so I'm off the hook come what may?

An undertaking may be based on good intentions, yet fail. Shouldn't the proponents and decision makers behind the undertaking be morally accountable, particularly when other options were available?
 
Hi,

From my perspective, the key difference between Beinart and the conservatives is the question of process versus outcome. For Beinart, moral validation rests on the process that determines when American power can be used. For neoconservatives, moral validation rests on the outcome that such a use of power achieves. In this instance, I side with the latter.

Fascinating. I think that I'll need some time to mull it over, but at first glance, I think that I lean towards the former - "process".
 
Anonymous : 12:47,

You are essentially paraphrasing the Oxblog Fallacy.
 
Interesting that leftists find moral validation in a completely amoral concept like 'process'. Would any process do? Are consultation with NATO, the UN, or the Arab League equally acceptable, so long as we have a procedure in place? Does Beinart ever examine leftists' ignorant, anti-empirical faith in other nations' moral superiority over America?

David, I think you can find Bush criticizing American policy in much stronger terms than that remark about Abu Ghraib. Hasn't he said repeatedly that the past 50 years of American policy in the Middle east been a mistake?
 
"Interesting that leftists find moral validation in a completely amoral concept like 'process'."

Exactly. They only care about feeling good about themselevs and feeling superior to the ignorant masses. Ultimately, the Left doesn't care about whether or not there is democracy anywhere in the world. They barely even pretend anymore.
 
"Interesting that leftists find moral validation in a completely amoral concept like 'process'."

I agree with you completely. Process concerns are just so vacuous and amoral. I think we should just dispense with all of them: the rule of law, jury trials, free and fair elections, probable cause requirements for government invasions of privacy... Let the ends justify the means, baby!
 
David writes: Bush responded: "I think the biggest mistake that's happened so far, at least from our country's involvement in Iraq is Abu Ghraib. We've been paying for that for a long period of time.There is much to criticize about the President's record on prisoner abuse, and OxBlog has done it often. But willful blindness to America's imperfections does not seem to be Bush's way."

"Words, meet deeds."
"Hi deeds!"
"Hi words!"
"Hey, deeds?"
"Yes, words?"
"Could you go hide yourself in the closet? I've got to say some things you won't like."
"Okay."
"When I'm done, you can come back out."
"Sure thing."
 
David, I've posted a lot on these distinctions in the past, but here's a relevant post:

http://duckofminerva.blogspot.com/2005/07/john-ikenberrys-pissed.html
 
While I'm at it, I apparently agree with you, if in a qualified sense;

http://duckofminerva.blogspot.com/2005/10/neocons-liberals-realists-and-all-that.html
 
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