Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Beinart: Part 1

I have started reading The Good Fight by Peter Beinart, and have found that it has me thinking a lot and I haven’t even finished the first chapter. Since reviewers usually wait until they finish the book to write something, I can’t really write a review of the book. Instead, I am going to write as I read it and explore the ideas the author presents. I think this will be a welcome difference to what appears to be a cat fight over the book at Slate.

Beinart starts by describing the Democratic party during the mid-term elections of Truman’s Presidency. At that time, there was a conflict within the party similar to what we are seeing now. There are certainly plenty of differences between that time and now, but Beinart does a good job of linking the moderate philosophy of that time to current events.

The basic tenants of Truman’s policies during his campaign for re-election focus on economic development, containment, and a realistic approach to competition over developing countries. Truman, and the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), believed that the poor and hungry would not be strong defenders of democracy. Beinart claims that Truman actually felt this (ie The Marshall Plan) was more important than the containment / military aspects of his foreign policy. The more I think about it, the more I think this is one issue that all liberals should be able to agree with. Nothing is better at producing insurgents or suicide bombers than poverty and joblessness. If someone like The Beard, or Macie, or Lizzie – basically any of my more liberal friends, can agree with me on this, I think we could make it our starting point for policy unity. From there, we can debate the next aspects of foreign policy while understanding we agree on the most important part.

Truman also believed in containing communism, instead of either direct engagement or isolationism. I think this policy is a little harder to project onto our current situation. I guess this would mean that we leave totalitarian governments in place, while preventing their spread to other governments. My gut tells me that Beinart will use this to explain why we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq. I can see that argument – containment might have been better in Iraq. The problem now though is that if we truly believe in containment, we have to stay in Iraq until it is stable. Any reasonable assessment of the situation leads to the conclusion that our premature departure will cause a regional war and a training ground for future terrorist attacks. In effect, we will not be able to contain extremism if we leave Iraq too soon.

The key to containment though is the belief that in the long run, democracy has the stamina to outlast oppressive governments. Stamina is never easy; the public is easily riled to war, but rarely wants to stay until it is over. But if we are to win this fight, it is completely necessary. This is why I agree with Bush's "stay the course" even if I wish it included regular assessments and changes to strategy.

Where Beinart is most critical is towards what Schlesinger called “doughface-ism”. Here is his quote:

“They opposed Communism, but would not endorse practical steps to combat it, so as not to implicate themselves in a morally imperfect action. In the ‘doughface fantasy,’ Schlesinger wrote, ‘one can denounce a decision without accepting the consequences of the alternative.’ It is a fantasy to which liberals fall prey to this day.”

From some of Beinart’s comments, I gather that the last sentence is specifically talking about people like Chomsky and Michael Moore who opposed the war in Afghanistan. But I would go so far as to also include those who want an immediate withdrawal of American troops in Iraq. No matter who he is indicting, all liberals would do well to consider the consequences of their proposals to be more important than their own moral self-righteousness.

This issue goes deeper though than mere name-calling. Each of us needs to think about what we are willing to accept to move towards our long-term goal of a world full of democratic governments. Truman seemed to accept less-than perfect regimes in developing countries so long as they weren’t Communist. In a more recent example, the Bush administration tolerated a violent government in Sudan because it was cooperating in the GWOT. We can also look at recent news in Mogadishu where the CIA was supporting war lords in Somalia against Muslim extremists.

I don’t really have an answer on this question, mostly because it depends on the situation. If we look at some of the governments we tolerated / supported during the Cold War, there are a number of which that were just as bad as a Communist government would have been. We do need to decide though how imperfect of a partner we are willing to accept to prevent the spread of Muslim extremism. This decision today is more confounded by our dependence on foreign oil. The fact is that a country like Saudi Arabia should be our worst enemy in the GWOT, but because of their oil reserves, we consider them a strong ally.

I guess if I had to conclude, I would emphasize Truman's focus on economic development. But I also have to stress that in the end, our decision and policies need to show an understanding of reality and the consequences of our decisions.

Stay tuned for more on this book, because so much of it is relevant to what we are dealing with today.