Youâve probably already seen much discussion of Peter Beinartâs âA Fighting Faithâ piece in The New Republic. So let me add a few comments and start by making some broad points that I hope Iâll be able to follow up on in subsequent posts.
To review, Peterâs argument is that Democrats face a similar challenge to that they faced in 1947 when the founders of the Americans for Democratic Action (a group which, Iâm sure theyâll want you to know, still exists) pushed the Democratic party --- and its various institutional bastions --- into foursquare support for the Cold War. Anti-Communism, they argued, and argued successfully, was inseparable from liberalism.
Peter says Democrats face a similar challenge today: to transform themselves into a movement that puts the fight against terrorism at the center of their agenda and root out or purge those who are indifferent to the war against terror or doubt that American power --- military and otherwise --- can be a force for advancing liberal goals of democracy, openness and individual liberties around the globe.
I should start with what I agree with. In fact, I should begin by declaring a prejudice. Like Peter, I see that moment in 1947, the birth of the ADA, and more generally Cold War liberalism as a defining moment and one of the proudest moments of the liberal political tradition in the United States. It is a touchstone against which I measure my own political views.
I also agree with Peter that Democrats have a basic and non-cosmetic problem with national security policy. I wrote a number of articles about this in 2002 and had a hand in a couple of others. The problem is not principally dovishness but rather --- as Peter notes --- that Democrats are by and large simply not sufficiently interested in national security policy, as such. This is at least as much a problem in the Democratic operative world as it is at the grassroots. As Iâve written before, lack of interest in national security policy leads to lack of knowledge. And lack of knowledge leads to tactical and mutable political decisions on national security --- which is both bad on principle but also feeds public perceptions that Democrats arenât serious about the issue and that theyâre not trustworthy guardians of the national security in dangerous times.
To the extent that Peterâs piece can spark further discussion of this essential problem, great.
But I also have some major disagreements, which Iâll try to note here and hopefully expand on in later posts. Basically, I think Peter's diagnosed a key problem for Democrats. But the cure he prescribes is the wrong one, largely, I think, because several of his premises and assumptions are flawed.
First, the War on Terror is not comparable to the Cold War. Letâs focus the point a little more closely and say that the war against militant Islam is not comparable to the Cold War.
Letâs survey the world stage the ADA folks faced in 1947 for some points of comparison. Having vanquished fascism, the democratic world faced in world communism a political movement that in its basic hostility to democracy and liberalism was more similar to than opposed to fascism. Russia, half of Europe and (in a couple of years) China were all communist. The communists controlled the largest land army in the world and would soon have nuclear weapons. Communism had substantial minority support across Western Europe, including vast support (active or passive) among the most articulate in society. And in the United States many on the left saw communists less as enemies than as errant allies, with whom cooperation was possible on common goals.
Placing context or limits on the danger posed by Islamic terrorism is a hazardous business these days. But unlike communism in 1947, militant Islam simply does not pose an existential threat to our civilization. It just doesnât. It puts us all physically at risk. And especially for those of us who live in DC, New York or other major urban areas, it could kill us tomorrow.
But aside from middle eastern immigrants in western countries, this ideology has close to no support anywhere outside the Muslim world. As an ideology it controls at best a few small states; and it has possible access to Pakistan's small nuclear arsenal. But where is the danger of the Islamist takeover of any of the worldâs great powers? China? The US? Europe? India? Japan? Brazil? Will Germany or Canada becomes âfinlandizedâ by Islamist power? That doesnât mean the danger doesnât exist, only that itâs different. And those are fundamental differences we shouldnât ignore.
Admittedly, the lack of Islamist power, in this sense, will be cold comfort for many of us if al Qaida brings us cargo ship with a nuclear weapon into New York harbor tomorrow. But the difference between an existential threat and a physical one is an important one for thinking about its impact on our politics. Particularly, whether it should lead us to purge folks from the Democratic party or from American liberalism who havenât yet come around to a sufficiently serious view of the threat of terrorism or a coherent and tough-minded national security policy.
Peter rightly points out some instances where groups like Moveon and such consorted with some very illiberal outfits. And they shouldnât have. But I agree here with John Judis when he says that Peter is wrong in comparing Moveon or Eli Pariser to the old fellow-traveling left. And calling these folks the modern-day heirs of Henry Wallace is just bad history and bad reasoning.
I think many of the points Peter makes in his piece are more appropriate to the intra-Democratic debate over US military action in the Balkans in the late 1990s. That was a defining debate and one I think the right side generally won. This current debate is too muddled by the militaristic and neo-imperial policies of the Bush administration to make it as black and white a picture as Peter wants.
Much of the debate about how to practice anti-communism in liberal circles in the 1940s came down to basic questions about which errors were products of naivetÃ© or political inexperience and which represented something more sinister or a deeper failing of attachment to liberal principles. And hereâs where the differences between then and now become quite important.
I would argue that it is precisely those differences between today and fifty years ago which explain why we donât need and really canât afford to start to define ourselves by instituting any purges. To the extent that there is any analogy between Moveon and anything that happened half a century ago, the analogy should be to organized labor more generally. The ADA Democrats didnât try to purge labor. They mounted a campaign within organized labor to get unions to separate themselves from illiberal forces. In any case, whatever disagreements I may have with them on policy --- and particularly foreign policy --- I think Moveon is part of the solution not part of the problem in restoring a center-left in American politics that embraces liberal values both at home and abroad. And this comes from someone who vociferously attacked Dems and liberals who opposed US military involvement in the Balkans and is, Iâm sure, more of a foreign policy hawk than the majority of the people who read this site.
So, to summarize, the war on terror is not the Cold War. Tying the two together in too tight analogies leads to errors in judgment and prescribed policy.
A few other points.
I think Peter raises Kerryâs vote against the $87 billion Iraq supplemental to an ideological significance it simply wonât bear. This wasnât a vote for isolationism or against democratization abroad. It clearly did hurt Kerry in the general but it was a mix of political calculation and even more than that --- and something that couldnât really be discussed in the campaign --- it was an effort to exercise some control over a president who was well on his way to creating the disaster weâre now saddled with by placing restrictions and oversight of his conduct of the reconstruction. He didnât really vote against that money in way Peter implies.
Iraq. I donât think we can deal with the issue of Democrats, national security policy and the war on terror, without addressing Iraq front and center and recognizing just what a disaster our enterprise there has become. This isnât a secondary issue.
Finally, I should confess that ideally I would like to see the Democratic party unify behind a thorough and coherent TPM agenda, with TPM views on national security, social policy, fiscal policy and all the rest of it. Those who wouldnât go along with the proper TPM doctrine Iâd probably expel, I guess.
In the absence of that TPM party, though, Iâm happy to consider myself one more fallen and perhaps disagreeable member of the Democratic party, filled with people I disagree with but with whom I think I share some core political values and beliefs. And Iâll work to point them in what I think is the right direction.