Ethics & International Affairs Volume 21.2 (Summer 2007): Book Reviews: The Good Fight: Why Liberals--and Only Liberals--Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again [Full Text]

Jun 1, 2007

Marcus A. Roberts (reviewer)

Peter Beinart's new book offers the Democratic Party a "new liberalism," a vision he bases on the party's history of moral leadership and success in combating totalitarianism in the post–World War II era. Opposing those who demonize the "liberal" label, Beinart holds up liberalism as the theme by which America achieved national greatness in the past and the means by which it might do so once again—if only the Democratic Party would embrace it fully once more.

Beinart's effort to reinvigorate liberalism involves reappropriating the foreign policy buzzwords to which the Republican Party has claimed exclusive rights: "strength," "toughness," and "patriotism." In so doing, Beinart seeks not only to lay claim to the language but also to challenge the way these values have been defined by Republicans, and to redefine them in more morally and politically constructive ways. Indeed, The Good Fight offers a devastating critique of the conservative view that America is strongest when it is morally and politically unfettered, a view that Beinart deftly traces back to the Cold War years.

Beinart's liberal alternative paints a picture of an America that is both virtuous and fallible, that does good while recognizing its capacity to blunder. In making this argument, Beinart draws substantively on Reinhold Niebuhr's concern that America never take its moral greatness for granted—a belief that in the past has served as a powerful check on liberal interventionist proclivities.

In one intriguing argument, Beinart effectively links the moral greatness of America internationally with the moral greatness of America at home. His exposition of the Cold War shows how policy-makers such as Harry Truman, George Kennan, Dean Acheson, and John F. Kennedy joined with moral philosophers such as Niebuhr and tough anti-communist trade union leaders such as Tom Kahn to fight the forces of totalitarianism at home and abroad. Drawing on the relationship between Cold War power politics and the U.S. civil rights movement, Beinart writes: "America's great advantage over the Soviet Union was its cohesion, its ability to meet domestic challenges without coercion. . . . As George Kennan, head of policy planning in the Truman State Department, put it, in the Cold War struggle ‘it may be the strength and health of our respective (political) systems which is decisive.' Then, as now, defeating enemies abroad required renewing democracy at home" (pp. 10–11).

Having elegantly argued that American success in addressing civil rights issues at home strengthened America's moral authority in the world during the Cold War, it is disappointing that Beinart does not explicitly draw a similar connection between America's weakness at home and its failing moral authority abroad at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Beinart could have considered, for example, how America's moral image in the world today might be restored by addressing its domestic crises, from the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, to the 40 million Americans without health insurance, to enduring racial divides.

Although Beinart's book dwells primarily on the Cold War, considerable space is dedicated to the contemporary situation, with a focus on the jihadist terrorists, neoconservatives, the Iraq war, and the many failures of John Kerry's campaign. Scant attention (nine pages), however, is paid to the modern liberal foreign policy of the 1990s as it played out in Somalia, Rwanda, the Balkans, and East Timor. These humanitarian crises and the responses of liberal governments provide at least as valuable a context for developing and evaluating a liberal security mentality as does the Cold War.

Absent from Beinart's analysis, for example, is the emerging doctrine of humanitarian intervention and the United Nations' acceptance of the "responsibility to protect." Understanding the liberal failures of Rwanda and Srebrenica, and the partial successes of Kosovo and Sierra Leone, ought to be critical to articulating a liberal narrative about the role liberals could play through the use of force against ethnic cleansing and genocide, particularly in Darfur today. Furthermore, such an approach would help create what Beinart calls "a narrative of American greatness" (p. 190), whereby America matches its military strength to causes of moral purpose.

It is important to know what this book is not, and in this regard the wording of the subtitle is significant: "why liberals—and only liberals—can win"—not how liberals can win. It is not a policy paper. It is not a manifesto for the Democrats in 2008. As such, Beinart eschews ideas popular in liberal circles, such as George Lakoff's argument for strengthening the image of liberals on security issues by strengthening liberal language. While Beinart does attempt to reappropriate the words "strength," "toughness," and "patriotism," he does not believe that wallpapering them over photo-op backdrops is sufficient to realize their true meaning. Likewise, Beinart avoids an exploration of the relative merits of the Iraq withdrawal options.

Beinart's thesis that victory in the war on terror is dependent upon a new liberalism is a compelling one—not least because he rests his case more on historical example than on contemporary political polemic. Reference is made to the importance of policy approaches, such as military restraint, multilateral action, economic development, and democracy promotion, but the book's real value lies in the depth of its exploration of liberal Cold War history and the heartening message it offers to liberals still questioning their own virility in the wake of 9/11. It is fitting that liberals should have spent the past five years engaged in such self-critique. Whether by accident or design, they have fulfilled Niebuhr's imperative: to consider carefully America's power and the need for the self-limitation of that power.

—Marcus A. Roberts, Carnegie Council

(An earlier version of this review appeared as a Carnegie Ethics Online Column, November 2006)

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