Sunday, November 26, 2006

# Posted 11:51 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BEINART'S HISTORY OF THE PRESENT: Now that the Democrats have taken both houses of Congress, who will listen to liberal hawks such as Peter Beinart and their call for a fundamental rethinking to the Democratic Party's approach to foreign policy?

Now that the Democrats have prevailed in an election that was all about foreign policy, will the party stop asking whether its losses in 2002 and 2004 reflected a profound confusion about how to approach national security? In his book The Good Fight, Peter Beinart anticipates his party's potential for overconfidence. He writes that:
The elections of 2006 and 2008 could resemble the elections of 1974 and 1976, when foreign policy exhaustion, and Republican scandal, propelled Democrats to big gains...

But if the United States remains under threat, [Democratic] victories will prove a false dawn, as they did during the Carter years. And eventually, the country will lurch right, since whatever its failings, the right at least knows that America's enemies need to be fought. (p.188)
Beinart is well-suited to play the role of his party's Cassandra. In Chapter Seven of his book, he recounts the history of the party's recent failures in a way that comes perilously close to echoing Republican criticism. (For commentary on previous chapters, see here.)

According to Beinart, his party ran away from national security in 2002:
With the midterm elections looming, party strategists yearned to remove foreign policy from the campaign. And the only way to do tht was to agree with President Bush on Iraq and then change the subject...

So while Democrats with safe seats mostly voted against the war, the party's congressional leaders, its vulnerable incumbents, and its likely presidential candidates generally voted yes. (p.174)
Beinart's history of 2002 includes the obligatory references to nasty GOP commercials that targeted Max Cleland and to the President's "McCarthyite" rhetoric. But he rejects the idea that Democrats could've prevailed if only they responded more forcefully to such attacks.

Ultimately, the party suffered because it had no clear and strong beliefs about foreign policy. Some sort of ideology compelled those with safe seats to vote against the war. But whatever that ideology was, it wasn't persuasive enough to get vulnerable incumbents and aspiring presidents to go along for the ride. In other words, those who were actually concerned about what the voters thought rejected the party line and imitated their adversaries.

This deviation provoked considerable anger among the base, fueling Howard Dean's challenge to a field of candidates that uniformly voted for the war. Why didn't Dean prevail? Because, Beinart says, the base thought Kerry could win:
For the most part, liberal voters weren't supporting Kerry because he had served in Vietnam. They were supporting him because they believed other, more hawkish, voters would support him because he had served in Vietnam.

Democrats knew that the war on terror would be a central issue in the fall campaign, and that Americans had anxieties about their party's strength on national security. But they chose to believe those anxieties were a matter not of ideology, but of image. (p.180)
Much as the base resented the party establishment for going wobbly, it did exactly the same thing. Lacking confidence in its own beliefs, it nominated a candidate who seemed to represent what other people believed. But this confused approach ultimately caved in on itself.

Did you know that, in 1997, John Kerry wrote a book about foreign policy called The New War? I certainly didn't. In it, Kerry described terrorism as the "fraternal twin" of organized crime. He wrote that "Our new enemies attack not by ideology or military might, but by the manipulation of of human weakness, greed and despair." (Quoted in Beinart, p. 181) Appropiately, Kerry felt that the United States' most important foreign policy objective was to negotiate treaties to facilitate international investigations and legal proceedings. A war on terror this was not.

Beinart's re-discovery of Kerry's book is a good example of his ability to add new and compelling detail to a story that has already been told many times before. So is Beinart's observation that in one two-hour interview during the campaign, Kerry used the word 'effective' 18 times. Like Dukakis, Kerry emphasized his competence while avoiding the subject of vision. In contrast, Bush kept invoking words such as 'freedom', 'democracy' and 'liberty'. He used those words 45 times during 2004's first televised debate. Kerry used them only six times.

Presumably, critics from the left would reject such anecdotes out of hand as irrelevant. What mattered in 2004, they would say, was the swift-boating of a genuine war hero. What does Beinart have to say about that? Beinart's inventive answer to this question is that the Swift Boat ads were effective because Kerry had no ideas to defend himself with:
Once again, liberals were vulnerable because they had no national greatness vision of their own. (p.183)
Personally, I don't think the Swift Boat ads, despicable as were, had much effect on the election's outcome. But I agree with Beinart that Kerry was vulnerable because all he had was a biography, not a set of principles.

(Friends of the Swift Vets may rebut my charge of despicability below.)

So where to now for the Democrats? Beinart cites the results of a 2005 poll which asked liberals and conservatives to "rate their top two foreign policy goals":
Conservatives were 29 points more likely to mention destroying Al Qaeda, 26 points more likely to mention denying nuclear weapons to hostile groups or nations, and 24 points more likely to mention capturing Osama bin Laden...

It wasn't that liberals didn't have worthy goals. Their top priority was withdrawing troops from Iraq, number two was stopping the spread of AIDS, number three was working more closely with America's allies. (p.187)
Beinart says that looking at such numbers, as well as at the activism of the liberal blogosphere or MoveOn.org, that "you could easily think liberals have no enemies more threatening, or more illiberal, than George W. Bush." (p.188)

A man of the left might respond that bringing troops home from Iraq and building closer relationship with our allies are integral to the war on terror. But I think Beinart is right that the Democrats' only hope for restoring their credibility on security issues to demonstrate a passion for going on the offensive against the enemies of freedom. And that passion can only come from commitment to a strong set of principles.
(5) opinions -- Add your opinion

It was Kerry's evasiveness in response to the Swift Boat crew's assertions that did the damage. It's the old story - it's the cover up that gets you in trouble.

Did the Swift Boat crew know beforehand that his response would be just splutter and waffle? Did they know it because they knew he had no substantive answer to their charges? You decide.

I think he really wanted to be President, and that if he had a defense capable of passing the laugh test then he would without a doubt have produced it.
I didn't see any of the Swift Boat ads, but I read plenty of the commentary around them. As I recall, most of their accusations were true and some of them were important.

So why does a group releasing accurate information about important issues get dismissed as "despicable"?
Speaking of which, it's been over 650 days since Kerry promised to publicly release all his military records.
I'd be willing to stipulate that John Kerry is the sort of military genius that would result from Alexander being impregnated by Ghengis Khan (ok, poor choice of historical figure) if it meant that he or anyone from his party had an idea of what to do in foreign policy besides retreat and apologize.

Fortunately for his party, they have no need to have ideas. Why would anyone listen to calls for rethinking Democrats' approach to foreign policy, now that they have prevailed in an election that was all about foreign policy?
"dispicable", certainly (I'll never look at a medal quite the same, again, will you?), but, sometime afterward, I do recall that their "success" was sufficient to get them a spot at some GOP get together in which they were warmly welcomed and expected to show their tactics as an example for the party ... so, condemnation here is their own party's political praiseworthiness.

who will listen to liberal hawks such as Peter Beinart and their call for a fundamental rethinking to the Democratic Party's approach to foreign policy?
Is that a trick question? Who else are we going to listen to - and that's the sorry conundrum, right now.

It's easy to say, "fight our enemies". The question is how best to do it (even the military now know they are not a single-handed solution). Tough-talking terrorism, calling for a "war", launching a GOP-style values campaign against Islam - all these point in the wrong direction. Fight them "over there", as a military proposition, isn't working out too well.

Two other perspectives:
The President is still responsible for foreign policy. It's not clear how much the Dems could change things fundamentally, if they wanted to, in the short time they have before the next election cycle.

It may not matter, at least in regard to Iraq in the medium-term. The fate of that situation may be sealed, with opportunities squandered, initiatives brought to a standstill, and "the fight" as currently conceived one of diminishing returns, if not outright negative returns. It's just too hard to know precisely, even though some might insist that no situation is ever quite so "lost" as that.
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