The Good Fight
The Good Fight

REVIEW: The Good Fight

Nov 17, 2006

By Peter Beinart (HarperCollins, 2006)

In The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, Peter Beinart offers the Democratic Party a "new liberalism." He bases his vision on the party's history of moral leadership and success combating totalitarianism in the post-WWII era. Beinart's new liberalism reappropriates the foreign-policy buzzwords to which the Republican Party had claimed exclusive rights: "strength," "toughness," and "patriotism." In so doing, Beinart lays claim to not only the language but also the values these words represent.

Nor does Beinart shy away from "liberal" itself, a much-demonized term. Rather, he 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 were to embrace it fully once more.

Beinart takes the reader through an excellent exposition of how policymakers such as Harry Truman, George Kennan, Dean Acheson, and John F. Kennedy joined with moral philosophers like Reinhold Niebuhr and tough anti-communist trade union leaders like 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).

The idea that liberalism links the moral greatness of America internationally with the moral greatness of America at home is one of Beinart's most intriguing arguments. He paints a picture of an America that is both virtuous and fallible, that does good while recognizing its capacity to blunder.

Beinart's argument draws greatly on the Niebuhrian concern that America never take its moral greatness for granted—a belief that served as a powerful check on the liberal interventionist instincts of days gone by. In fact, the Democratic Party to this day lives in the shadow of its greatest breach of Niebuhr's call for moral action tempered by restraint: Vietnam.

The Good Fight also offers a devastating critique of how the conservative tradition developed throughout the Cold War years and led to America's problems of the war on terror and in Iraq. The conservative tradition suggests that America is strongest when it is morally and politically unfettered. Beinart's compelling liberal alternative employs Kennedyesque idealism tempered by Niebuhr's acknowledgment of national limitations. Beinart successfully marries history with philosophy, pointing to a foreign policy future for liberals based on staunch opposition to the modern threat of Salafist terrorism.

Having elegantly explored the idea that American success in addressing civil rights issues at home strengthened America's moral authority in the world during the last great conflict with totalitarian forces, it is disappointing that Beinart does not explicitly state the need for a similar connection of America's weakness at home and its strength abroad at the dawn of the 21st century. From the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, to the 40 million Americans without health insurance, to enduring racial divides, it would have been an attractive prospect to see as accomplished a thinker as Beinart chart a path for how America might restore its moral image in the world by addressing its domestic crises.

Beinart's book dwells primarily on the Cold War, but considerable space is dedicated also to the Salafist terrorists, neoconservatives, Iraq war, and many failures of John Kerry's campaign. However, scant attention 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 response of liberal governments provide at least as valuable a context for developing a liberal security mentality as does the Cold War. Yet, Beinart deals with this array in only six pages.

Absent from his analysis 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 successes of Kosovo and Sierra Leone, is critical to articulating 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 subtitle is significant. Beinart's subtitle is "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.

Instead, the book's 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 Sept. 11. It is fitting that liberals should have spent the past five years engaged in such self-critique. Whether by accident or design, liberals have fulfilled Niebhur's imperative: They have considered carefully America's power and the need for the self-limitation of that power. Liberals now emerge better placed to offer answers to the challenges posed by the terrorist threat.

Beinart's book has set in place the context for a vision of liberal foreign affairs strength. Liberals now need the policies to enact that vision.

(A later version of this review appeared in the Council's journal, Ethics & International Affairs, 21,2 Summer 2007)

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