Peter Beinart and book reviewer Michael Tomasky debate whether it's possible for liberals to lead the fight against terrorism without repudiating the invasion of Iraq at Slate. Beinart argues that the war on Jihadism remains the right war; whatever the merits of OIF may have been. "Your basic point," he says to Tomasky, "was that while my argument about liberal foreign policy may be valuable, you're not prepared to engage with it—because I vocally supported the war in Iraq". Beinart rejects this but he concedes, however that it would have been better to fight Jihadism in
the Cold War liberal tradition—with its focus on legitimacy abroad and self-improvement at home—provides the principles necessary for winning the struggle against jihadism today ... it inclines liberals to support powerful international institutions—as they did at the dawn of the Cold War—not only because America cannot manage international problems alone but because we do not want unrestrained power. Because liberals recognize that America is not immune to imperial temptation, we build in the restraints that distinguish us from the predatory powers of the past. Second, recognizing that American virtue must be proved, not asserted, leads liberals to talk differently than George W. Bush does about democracy.
Tomasky on the other hand, refuses to address the question of how to fight radical Islamism because the debate has been poisoned. He regards OIF as making any liberal attempts to fight Jihadism futile. The soup has been ruined. No further point in stirring it. The only way back lies in throwing out the batch and starting from scratch. Bush's Iraq and "the warriors" have made it impossible to contemplate 'fighting the good fight' against the theocrats and made it impossible even to intervene in Darfur. Only after Bush's legacy has been scraped down to bare metal can one start again.
Is that will there now in either Democratic leadership or the American people? It is not. And the fact that it isn't is not the fault of the "abject pacifists." It's the fault of the warriors. It's because of Iraq. The war in Iraq is why we "missed" Darfur, a moral error that your magazine (under new editorship) recently lamented. And the war in Iraq looms over our national future. I fear that it renders the grand visions for liberal internationalism that you and I share useless nullities, for a generation, maybe more. That is the tragedy of Iraq; that's why I dwelt, and dwell, on it. And I tremble with fear—not for "my" side, but for the country and the world—that, should a Bush administration and an Iraq come around again, we will have forgotten everything I just said.
John Kerry agrees with Tomasky. The Boston Globe reports:
By Rick Klein, Globe Staff | June 14, 2006 -- WASHINGTON -- Senator John F. Kerry is placing himself at the center of congressional action over the war in Iraq this week with a crisply worded resolution to require President Bush to withdraw almost all US troops by the end of this year. The measure has exposed Kerry to attacks from Republicans and some Democrats, as critics rushed to tag the plan as a "cut-and-run" strategy. But it also has made him a rallying point for antiwar activists. ... "My friends, war is no excuse for its own perpetuation," Kerry said before a group of cheering liberal activists who had gathered in Washington yesterday for a "Take Back America" conference. "It is essential to acknowledge that the war itself was a mistake -- to say the simple words that contain more truth than pride. . . . It was wrong and I was wrong to vote for that Iraqi war resolution."
A New York Times article indicates that the Beinart-Tomasky debate, far from being academic, is actually the central issue dividing Democratic National security policy as reflected in the differences between Hillary Clinton (cast in the role as Beinart) and Barney Frank, John Murtha and Nancy Pelosi (and now Kerry) as the collective Tomasky.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, faced boos and shouts of "bring them home" from an audience of liberal Democrats here on Tuesday as she argued against setting a deadline, wading into what she called a "difficult conversation." Thirty minutes later, the same crowd applauded wildly as Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, the party's 2004 presidential candidate, implored the Senate to back his call for a six-month deadline for withdrawal, and said he regretted his initial support for the war.
Tomasky may be right though not for the reasons he thinks, when he says that "the war in Iraq ... renders the grand visions for liberal internationalism that you and I share useless nullities, for a generation, maybe more." Liberal internationalism faces what might be called the "body disposal problem". Post-Saddam Iraq, with it's internationally recognized government, constitutes an embarassing counterexample of what liberal internationalism has declared impossible to achieve. A President John Kerry would have to brazen out any invitations to Baghdad, pretending not to recognize that he is visiting a government he had done everything in his power to strangle in its crib. Even a semi-successful Iraq will have the same terrifying effect on liberal internationalism as the collapse of the Berlin Wall had on the "permanent stability" of the Cold War. The only way around the guilt of wishing Iraq to fail is to assure oneself that it was never possible for it to succeed in the first place. But it's inconvenient and one sympathizes with Tomasky's desire to make it all go away.
Unfortunately, there are even more bodies lying around defying disposal, and the most prominent of these is the decaying corpse of the Cold War world. Niall Ferguson in the Opinion Journal is not even sure of the survival of American power in the face of growing global chaos. He argues that in a world where America has "feet of clay"; "Old Europe" grows older; China faces its coming economic and demographic crisis; and Islam proves that it is only capable of fighting itself -- it will not be a question of supporting "powerful international institutions" but finding any effective institutions that will work at all.
The defining characteristic of our age is not a shift of power upward to supranational institutions, but downward. If free flows of information and factors of production have empowered multinational corporations and NGOs (to say nothing of evangelistic cults of all denominations), the free flow of destructive technology has empowered criminal organizations and terrorist cells, the Viking raiders of our time. These can operate wherever they choose, from Hamburg to Gaza. By contrast, the writ of the international community is not global. It is, in fact, increasingly confined to a few strategic cities such as Kabul and Sarajevo.
Tigerhawk points out that Pew research data showing a decline in public support for the War on Terror in Western Europe counterintuitively suggests it actually grew more popular from 2003 to 2006 in "frontline" countries.
The question of whether "liberal internationalism" really reflects the aspirations of the Third World and isn't largely implicitly and perhaps unconsciously Western European in orientation requires going back to the Second World War, which was welcomed in its way by independence movements throughout the Third World as ringing the death-knell of European empire. Support for Hitler in the Middle East was far from trivial; and many Asian "nationalists" immediately came forward to collaborate with the invading Japanese. If the Second World War were run to the same popularity standards as the GWOT the results would probably not be very flattering to Europe. The Atlantic Alliance was started by a rather exclusive club and while that does not invalidate it, it would be well to remember its provenance in a world where India is poised to overtake France.
The Beinart-Tomasky debate falsely revolves around the issue of Iraq when in fact it should revolve around whether the liberals have a strategy for dealing with the growing chaos and dysfunction in the Third World of which radical Islamism is simply an instance. Iraq only seems central to the debate because it has precipitated a crisis within liberal internationalism that can no longer be ignored. The world that gave rise to the Cold War; that gave international institutions "legitimacy"; the bipolar power alignments that made these institutions effective -- all of it -- is fading away. Long after George W. Bush's presidency is over the question will remain: can liberals and only liberals fight the global war on terror and make America great again?