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The Good Fight: Why Liberals---and Only Liberals---Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 30, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
This stimulating manifesto calls for a liberalism that battles Islamist totalitarianism as forthrightly as Cold War liberals opposed Communist totalitarianism. Former New Republic editor Beinart assails both an anti-imperialist left that rejects the exercise of U.S. power and the Bush administration's assumption of America's moral infallibility. America shouldn't shrink from fighting terrorism, despite civilian casualties and moral compromises, he contends, but its antitotalitarian agenda must be restrained by world opinion, international institutions and liberal self-doubt, while bolstered by economic development aid abroad and economic equality at home. Beinart offers an incisive historical account of the conflicts straining postwar liberalism and of the contradictions, hubris and incompetence of Bush's actions. He's sketchier on what a liberal war on terror entails—perhaps a cross between Clinton's Balkan humanitarian interventions and the Afghanistan operation, with U.S. forces descending on Muslim backwaters to destroy jihadists and build nations. The tragic conundrum of a fighting liberalism that avoids enmeshment in a Vietnam or Iraq (the author now repudiates his early support of the Iraq war) is never adequately addressed. Still, Beinart's provocative analysis could stir much-needed debate on the direction of liberal foreign policy. (May 30)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Skittish about the "liberal" label, progressive politicians have virtually abandoned a history that offers lessons for addressing current domestic and international issues. Beinart, editor at large of the New Republic, offers a perspective on how liberalism has steered American politics away from its worse impulses, from the red scare^B through the cold war and Vietnam, in search of ideals of freedom that promised domestic and international security. He highlights the political trade-offs liberals have made, including struggles to remain true to ideals and avoid conservative charges of being soft on Communism, championing racial equality to strengthen the nation at home and abroad, later facing the brutal realities as the nonviolent civil rights movement transformed into rising militancy in the 1960s, and responding, ineffectively, to changes in domestic and international politics since 9/11. Beinart worries that liberals are so fixated on the threats posed by the Bush administration and the Right that they risk being too dismissive of the very real threat of terrorism. A thoughtful perspective. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top Customer Reviews
The first three chapters of this book are a recapitulation of the entire history of post-World War II American liberalism. The fourth chapter, "Qutb's Children," is about this generation of Americans' greatest enemy, whom Beinart describes as "Salafist totalitarians." It is immediately followed by a chapter entitled "Reagan's Children" explaining the predilections of the conservatives and neoconservatives running the Bush administration's foreign and domestic policies. The last three chapters cover, respectively, the Iraq war and how it was sold (unsuccessfully) to the world and (successfully) to Americans; the 2004 election; and the issues and playing field both domestically and abroad as they stood in 2006, when the book was written.
Beinart did not anticipate the Great Recession, but his Afterword, written in late 2007, did anticipate the other great test that faced President Obama: the withdrawal from Iraq. Here is what he wrote about that:
"As Democrats approach 2008, they face multiple challenges. For starters, they must explain why withdrawal from Iraq can help, rather than hurt, America's long-term struggle against salafist terror. It would be dishonest to suggest that US withdrawal will not have real costs. It may give jihadists greater room to operate, and it will certainly allow them to claim victory, bolstering their argument that America is weak. But fighting a war we cannot win does not make America look strong any more than it did in Vietnam. What's more, Al Qaeda's presence in Iraq is small. Foreign salafists are tiny in number, and they are unpopular even among Iraq's Sunnis, who are now turning against them en masse. We are learning in Iraq, as we learned when Afghans rejoiced at the Taliban's overthrow in 2002, that salafism has limited ideological appeal. Its influence has been magnified in Iraq because our occupation allows jihadists to drape themselves in anti-imperialism's banner. Once America leaves, Al Qaeda in Iraq will be a problem, and will require a continued intelligence and special forces presence. If we are very unlucky, it might even become as big a threat as the jihadist fighters holed up in the frontier provinces of Pakistan, whose presence we have permitted (!) by shifting resources from Afghanistan to Iraq. But there is virtually no chance that Al Qaeda will run Iraq. And while the jihadists will gain propaganda value from claiming they defeated the United States, they will also lose their best recruiting vehicle: the sight of American troops occupying a Muslim country. Withdrawal from Iraq will be painful, but it will staunch the enormous damage that the occupation is doing to America's military, our ability to address other challenges, and our good name. And over time, with wise leadership, America will come back (to preeminence on the world stage, not to Iraq, he means)."
I believe it would be fruitful for people reading this review to unpack this paragraph and its assumptions in comments on this review. All the same, the spectacle of the Islamic State does compel me to finally (at least for the next few years) cast my lot with the national greatness liberals against the anti-imperial left. That doesn't mean I will vote for Hillary. It means, rather, that I accept that the use of American military force may, in some limited situations, be more moral than letting a totalitarian ideology seize power. America's loss of the Vietnam War did not herald the end of freedom worldwide (and may even have delayed the end of the Cold War). But most of our major wars have not been so misbegotten; the Korean War, for example, allowed us to preserve what is today one of Asia's most vibrant and democratic societies against a threat from a uniquely evil neighbor (which unlike most of its Communist allies has remained uniquely evil).
After this book, Beinart wrote what I suspect is a somewhat more substantive one comparing the three great mistakes of American foreign policy in the last 100 years: our interventions respectively in World War I, Vietnam, and Iraq. "The Good Fight" is a well-written book and makes me more likely to read that book. More importantly, it makes me more willing to defend an assertive American role in the world as long as assertiveness is matched by realism and tamed by self-restraint. It came out recently that the chief limitation of the American airstrikes against the Islamic State is that they are carefully calibrated to avoid killing more than a few civilians. But this is as much an asset as a limitation. The use of force is most legitimate when the enemy is clearly killing more innocent people than we are. If we were to kill more Iraqi Sunnis than the Islamic State did, we (and its other enemies) would have no hope of defeating it in Iraq. It may well be true that we have no realistic strategy to defeat it in Syria, but that does not mean that invading Syria is a solution (though such would probably be undertaken by the next Republican President if they were convinced that an invasion of Iran was impractical without a draft, as it is). Given that one necessary precondition for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, doing nothing in the Middle East does not make us good men and women.
In the past two years much has changed. Although he is still trying to enlist Democrats in the good fight, he admits that he was wrong about Iraq in several ways. One, of course, was the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, but the other, more importantly, was the failure to realize the limits of American power and legitimacy. Borrowing from Rheinhold Niebuhr, he now believes we would do well with a little humility.
That said, Beinart still believes that liberals are uniquely equipped to fight global jihad. He supports his argument by drawing on the Cold War era and the Truman administration. Centrist liberals from the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) rejected communists and communist sympathizers at home as well as abroad. They set the Democratic Party on a centrist path and became mentors and supporters of the Truman administration. The policies of deterrence and containment advocated by Dean Acheson, George Marshall, George Kennan, and Paul Nitze served this country well up until the presidency of JFK.
In his potted history of this period, Beinart is trying to draw parallels between the fight against communist totalitarianism and today's Islamist jihad. There are, however, important differences. Osama Bin Laden is no Josef Stalin. Providing support for loosely connected cells of terrorists is much different than commanding the government of the Soviet Union and its nuclear equipped army. Moreover, demonizing communism in the 50's and 60's was one thing, but demonizing Islamist jihad, and by extension Islam, one runs the risk of inflaming a clash of civilizations that is already in danger of becoming full-blown. Even the Bush administration is tactful enough to call it simply a war on terror.
Fact of the matter is, Beinart doesn't need to draw on the Cold War era and the Truman administration. (Bush has already done that.) He should be paying more attention to Francis Fukuyama's latest book "America at the Crossroads." Fukuyama like Beinart agrees that the war on terror must be fought more agressively and more intelligently. And, if it is to be successful, it must be done multilaterally and through international institutions.
In the current chastened environment, Beinart is correct in noting that humility is in order. He tells us that when America recognizes that it too is capable of evil it will then be in a better position to determine the fates of others. This is why he believes Democrats will be better able to fight the good as opposed Republicans who believe in American infallibility and who confuse American interests with universal values. It's time to start leading more by example and consensus than by force, more by negotiation and less by confrontation. This will be the tone of the next administration whether it is Democratic or Republican.
Beinart's main thesis is that the Democratic party once demonstated a more nuanced and effective foreign policy than that of the Republicans and that it should be trusted and encouraged to take up the mantle of leadership in the current fight against the forces that threaten world peace.