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Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 7/14/2006 [Archive]

Peter Beinart Says Only Liberals Can Win the War on Terror

Only Liberals Can Win the War on Terror

Peter Beinart, the editor at large of The New Republic magazine, almost single-handedly makes up for the shortage of smart young liberals on the nation's political talk shows. Beinart, who served as the magazine's editor from 1999 to 2006 and now writes its famous weekly TRB column, pops up everywhere as a writer, speaker and as a guest commentator on places like PBS and MTV. And he isn't afraid to be a spokesman for the centrist liberal cause on the conservative Fox News Channel.

Beinart has recanted his initial strong support for the war in Iraq and is now a critic of how the Bush administration handled the war and its aftermath. His first book, out since May 30, is "The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again." I talked to him by telephone from Boston:

Q: Can you give a quick, 60-second synopsis of your book?

A: The argument of the book is that the liberal tradition -- particularly manifested in the liberalism of the early Cold War, the late 1940s and early 1950s -- offers the principles that America can use to win this new struggle against jihadism. Those principles are essentially that America has to live up to the ideals that it preaches to other counties, that our effort to help other countries govern themselves better -- to be more democratic, respect human rights, provide public health, regulate their financial systems -- is intimately tied up with America's efforts to itself become a society that is stronger and more just. And that is the model liberals should argue for today.

Q: Why should liberals read your book?

A: I think this struggle against what I think of as this new totalitarian movement since 9/11 is really a liberal struggle -- a struggle where liberal principles are critically at play. First, because I think jihadism really menaces liberal values in the Islamic world -- the rights of women, the rights of gays and lesbians, the rights of religious minorities, the rights of anyone who really wants to live as they see fit. But also because I think this new movement threatens liberal values at home. If America is hit again in another terrorist attack, it will be a very dark day for civil liberties in the United States -- the things that liberals care most deeply about. The struggle for civil liberties for a free society at home really also has to be the struggle against this new threat.

Q: Is it a question of America acting overseas the way we act here at home?

A: I think it's that America has to recognize that it also is not perfect, and our struggle to get other societies to act better also has to be a struggle internally for us to act better ourselves. That's why international institutions are so important. The liberals of the 1940s were these great institution builders. They built the United Nations and NATO and the IMF and the World Bank and what became the World Trade Organization. Those institutions allowed America to lead other countries to better govern themselves, in the recognition that if they better govern themselves we would be safer. And they also allowed America to hold itself to a higher standard. I think those institutions have atrophied, have weakened and are not up to the challenges of this new world and that part of the critical effort of winning this war on terror is rebuilding them.

Q: No more "cowboy diplomacy"?

A: A little bit. There's no question that the Bush foreign policy as it existed from Sept. 11 until 2004 or 2005 is dead in the water. Americans have reached the limits of our capacity alone to effect change in other countries. But I don't think that means America has to withdraw or that America can't be a leader for very important changes and a better world.

I think the recognition is that America has to be able to lead other countries to make those changes. International institutions give us the capacity to do so, the capacity to act legitimately in the world. But they also require things of us. You can't want international institutions to be able to go into Darfur and act in the internal affairs of other countries without recognizing that they may also hold America to higher standards on things like Guantanamo Bay or global warming, for instance.

Q: What are your politics?

A: I am a liberal. And for me, being a liberal means in domestic policy the recognition that capitalism requires democracy to survive and to flourish. Capitalism is a great producer of wealth. But capitalism if not harnessed by the democratic system, without sufficient democratic oversight, tends to destroy itself. It tends to produce such savage inequality and instability and cultural contradiction that in fact people turn against capitalism itself. The great role of liberals is to save capitalism from capitalists, to reform capitalism, to make it more humane, to make it work for more people, so that people believe in capitalism so the system can survive.

On foreign policy, what it means to be a liberal is the recognition that we are interdependent with the world, which means that we can not secure our safety or our prosperity alone, either through isolation or through empire, as I think conservatives have tended to try to do. But in fact America has to lead other countries in common efforts to solve problems that are too big for any one country to solve alone, like jihadism, or global warming or the threat of disease, for instance.

Q: What would be your definition of a good liberal?

A: The hero of the book in a way is the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who really had an enormous influence in the '40s and '50s on a whole series of people including Arthur Schlesinger, George Kennan and Martin Luther King. Niebuhr's idea was really this great paradox, that America's ability to be an exceptionally great nation was premised on the recognition that we were not inherently better than anybody else. ... If we became complacent about our own goodness, and we assumed that inherently everything was right and that everything we did was good, as I think Bush and Cheney often imply, then in fact we become no better than anybody else.

Q: In the real world, are there presidents who have followed that ideal or approximated it?

A: I think Harry Truman did best. America was in this amazing position in 1946. We represented 50 percent of the world GDP. Western Europe was on its knees. Most of East Asia was on its knees. And rather than acting the way that powers had in the past, which was basically in a predatory way, what the United States did as a world power was we built these international institutions that gave weaker nations some influence over our decision-making, in the recognition that if we did that American power would be seen as legitimate, and that people in Western Europe would recognize that our power benefited them and not only us.

George Kennan said that the Soviet Union was an empire, because it ruled in Eastern Europe based on brute force and coercion, but if we did not become an empire in Western Europe our power would become legitimate and endure. That basic idea of Truman’s, which was influenced by Niebuhr, was extremely important in laying the foundations of our victory in the Cold War. The Eastern Europeans started rising up against the Soviet Union as early as 1953, and finally by the late 1980s they actually were able to rise up successfully. But the Western Europeans saw that even though we had our differences, that American power, American primacy, actually benefited them and our alliance with Western Europe still endures today.

Q: What do liberals need to do to fight terrorism that the Bush administration is not doing?

A: There are a range of things. The first is we have to build the international institutions that allow America to project power, but to do so legitimately. Kosovo was a really good example of a situation where America used quite proactive military force. We didn’t actually have the U.N., but we had NATO and our democratic allies and as a result the war had much more legitimacy around the world than the war in Iraq did. Also, once the war was over and we had to keep the peace, we weren’t doing it alone. We haven’t had to bear all the burdens in Kosovo like we have in Iraq.

But the institutional capacity to do that in other parts of the world, in Darfur, for instance, is not there. NATO needs to link up with regional institutions and build them up so we can act aggressively internally in the internal affairs of other countries to prevent genocide and to prevent failing states, which become harbors for terrorists, in a way that we are not capable of doing now.

The second thing is that America has to live up to the ideals that it preaches around the world. Because George W. Bush’s often quite eloquent rhetoric about freedom has been very dramatically undermined by America’s own actions, where America is not seen to uphold those same values. And third, America has to be strong domestically, particularly economically, if we are going to fight this war. George W. Bush has laid out this very expansive vision of a long war against terror where America is very involved in the world for decades and decades and must spend all this money on the military and homeland security. But the looming fiscal crisis, which he has exacerbated with large upper-income tax cuts which are going to hit in the coming decades coinciding with the baby boom retirements -- hemorrhaging revenue from the federal government -- is going to make it very hard for America to be engaged in the world in the way that he wants us to be.

Q: Is there anyone among the Democrats today who embodies the liberal ideas you prefer?

A: The person who really embodies them best is not an American -- it's Tony Blair. What Blair is saying is really quite different than George W. Bush. What Blair is saying is, "Look: We live in a globalized world and in a globalized world pathologies that are bred in other countries can threaten America much more directly and quickly than ever before." .... In such a world America and Britain have to be much more involved in helping other countries govern themselves. Because if countries are democratic, if they can provide public health and financial regulation and secure weapons of mass destruction, they don't breed these pathologies that now come to our doorstep. But America can't do that alone. We don't have the capacity. And if we do it alone, we start to look like an empire. But if we build the institutions that can do that, which also hold us to a higher standard, then in fact we manage to start to solve these problems in a way that is legitimate and safeguards ourselves.

That's what Blair has been saying, and I am really hoping that some Democrats in the run-up to 2008 will start to say something similar.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at bsteigerwald@tribweb.com. ©Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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