This book has the wrong subtitle. Readers of the The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again would get more value for their dollar if the book had been How (Not Why) Liberals Can Win the War, etc.
No matter. This book has to be read as part of the thrust, parry, and jostle going on within the milky political spiral that is the Democratic Party. The author, Peter Beinart, is a war Democrat. His allegiance is to the Lieberman faction in the party. “Just as Vietnam turned liberals against the cold war, Iraq has now turned them [Howard Dean-type liberals] against the war on terror. America badly needs an alternative vision,” he writes, “for fighting global jihad. And yet the liberalism emerging today denies that fighting global jihad should even be a priority.”
Beinart himself is one of a string of New Republic guppies who have popped out of this pool watered by the rich men who own the magazine and are loosely affiliated with other rich war Democrats whose money has bought them no small control over the party’s congressional wing. This faction’s control used to extend to the party’s day-in-day-out precinct workers, who tend to be hair-up-the-behind lefties of one sort or another, because the lefties had scant ability to raise campaign money.
Then came the Internet, which has given birth to such cyberspace progeny as Moveon.org, organizations that have made it possible for the party portsiders to raise many millions of dollars. For the first time since the heyday of Walter Reuther and the United Automobile Workers, the left wing of the Democratic Party has something resembling an independent financial base. It is not enough of a base to go it alone, but it is enough to worry Marty Peretz, the very rich co-owner of The New Republic, and his faction, lest the Democratic Party go into open rebellion against American Middle Eastern policy. Beinart has been sent hopping off his lily pad to provide a rationale, or a “vision” as he would put it, to rank-and-file liberal Democrats for staying the course.
Peter Beinart may get a raise from Marty, for whom he still works, but he will be astonishingly lucky if the people whom he wishes to convert to his brand of hair-on-the-chest, war-waging liberalism read his book. He backed the invasion of Iraq, so the people he seeks to reach will question his judgment out of the gate. Nor will his confession of error in the book’s introduction be sufficient for him to be taken seriously.
Will anybody of any stripe take Beinart seriously? The man has written a book about the war on terror, a term the Left, at least, is suspicious of, without once considering oil or Israel. Whether or not one thinks that oil was a motive—or even the motive—for deciding to invade the Middle Eastern nation with energy reserves perhaps second only to Saudi Arabia, an author must at least discuss the topic. Anyone reading Beinart’s book could assume the United States was still a coal-burning, steam-puffing, early 20th-century society. Where does Beinart live?
Well, he doesn’t live in Israel. For the purposes of this book Israel may as well not exist. It’s there for everyone else, however. How in Sam Hill can anyone have thought up a book that purports to discuss the origins and causes of terrorism and the war thereon without at least refuting the broadly held conviction that Arabs first, and Muslims secondarily, have been maddened and driven to the bloodiest acts because of the fate of their Palestinian confreres? A book on the Middle East, Islam, and terror that ignores the Israel-Palestine disaster? A book on Christianity that fails to mention Jesus? Beinart has written one. Yet if there is a single issue that agitates left-liberal Democrats, the ones who do the work on election day, it is this one.
Beinart is of the opinion that “soft” liberals, the sort who are prone to see 9/11 as metaphorical chickens coming home to roost, all but guarantee a long future of electoral defeats for the Democratic Party. He wants them to toughen up and face facts, reality, the music, whatever. To make this point he has included moments in The Good Fight when he would have us believe that Michael Moore, a wingnut if there ever was one, is the chief expositor of the lib-lab faction’s position. Assuredly, liberals of the kind Beinart wishes to convert enjoy Sir Michael’s cinema, but those who are even half literate are able to separate emotion, fact, and error in the unprepossessing Moore’s work. Beinart would have set himself up a more difficult to refute lib-lab opponent had he gone after Noam Chomsky instead of the roly-poly, hirsute knight errant of the Left.
Without oil and without Israel, Beinart is left with only one element in his disquisition on terrorism and how to stamp it out—fanatical Islam. The gist of Beinart’s thinking is that the Salafist Muslim subgroup of which Osama bin Laden is part represents a totalitarianism akin to Soviet communism. Judging from his source notes, Beinart does not speak or read Arabic. Thus his delineation of what is what in Islam is secondhand stuff—which does not necessarily mean he is wrong, but it does mean that his analysis of how a bin Laden came to be and what he may or may not represent is not to be relied on. He is not an Arabist or a scholar of Islam, and in a period where there are so many people with little to no training in these fields sounding off in every direction, a prudent person will not put his trust in yet another guy who has read a bunch of books about a bunch of other books and now believes he is equipped to provide a reading public with authoritative analysis.
Beinart has reasons for replacing the hammer and sickle with a crescent. As he sees it, today’s liberals are divided much as they were in the late 1940s over communism. The hard liberals banded together in organizations such as Americans for Democratic Action and commenced the Cold War; the soft liberals pooh-poohed the communist menace, shunned confrontation, and became peaceniks.
In Beinart’s estimation they live on in the persons of 21st-century liberals who are prone to suggest that America has brought its terrorist woes on itself. They are “Wallacites,” the modern incarnation of the followers of Henry A. Wallace, a long forgotten one-term vice president who ran a Communist-infiltrated fourth-party presidential peace campaign in 1948 and got so few votes he has a hard time even making the footnotes in the history books.
The key to winning elections and defeating terrorism, Beinart wants us to believe, is to follow the road trod by the hard liberals personified in the careers of such people as Hubert Humphrey, another one-term vice president. Humphrey and his fellow liberal Cold Warriors had the exactly right combination of policies. Domestically, Beinart has them advancing Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and, in foreign policy, pursuing a strategy of containment as opposed to conservative Republicans wildly and dangerously thrusting at the communist foe.
It is a puzzle as to why such a large chunk of the book is given over to rehashing the factional infighting on the American liberal Left that took place more than half a century ago. It does give Beinart a chance to do some big-league kowtowing in the direction of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the other superannuated ladies and gentlemen who took part in these long-forgotten imbroglios. It almost seems as though Beinart were settling old scores on behalf of his grandparents, as though he were carrying on a dynastic quarrel about which we readers can only guess.
Few in the Democratic Party’s contemporary Left have connections to the arguments at the dawn of the Cold War, a struggle, it might be remembered, whose termination will soon be a generation in the past. More typical of the modern Democratic Left may be the man who is the party’s national chairman, Howard Brush Dean III. Far from having ancestors who flirted with the Commies or organized rubber workers in Akron, Ohio, in the 1930s, Dean is from Park Avenue and went to Yale, after which he landed his first job on Wall Street. Connecticut may be both the richest and most liberal state in the Union. It is filled to overflowing with liberal Democrats who could not care less or be less influenced by the ancient splits and splats that preoccupy Peter Beinart.
Moreover, much of what Beinart has to say about American politics and policy in the Cold War decades is debatable. Some is close to being wrong as, for instance, Beinart’s making Whittaker Chambers into a collaborator in Joe McCarthy’s escapades, but he needs to do what he does to make the liberalism of that era stand out as something different from conservative foreign policy. A different reading of the record might conclude the American stance vis-a-vis the Soviet Union was generally bipartisan.
Nevertheless liberals now must, it seems, do as their liberal ancestors did, “So liberalism’s first response to totalitarianism in a globalized world is freedom broadly defined—freedom as both greater liberty and greater equality of opportunity,” writes our author. The latter point is important for Beinart, who believes poverty is a contributing cause of terrorism, another debatable proposition.
If this sounds mish-mashy and vaguely abstract, as grandiose sentiments often are, The Good Fight is. Not a book destined to be remembered.
Nicholas von Hoffman is a former columnist for the Washington Post and Point-Counterpoint commentator for CBS’s “60 Minutes.” He is the author of many books, including A Devil’s Dictionary of Business.