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More on Peter Beinart's "Fighting Faith"

I saw Peter Beinart speak at a lunch last week, which was off the record so I won't say much about what he said, although it wasn't very different from his essay, "A Fighting Faith," apparently soon to be a major motion picture perhaps starring John Cusack as the late Senator Henry M. Jackson. Suffice it to say that I was a lot more comfortable with his argument as he presented it than with the original essay, and I'm confident that the work of expanding it to book length will add a lot of subtlety and perspective.

Still (and this is the question I was going to ask but didn't, so I'm not really violating any off-the-record rules) it seems to me that a remaining problem for his argument is just that very subtlety. If Beinart were drawing a line between tough Democrats and not-so-tough Democrats based on support for the Iraq War, that would be pretty clear, and I would know which side of the line I was on. But he's not arguing for that war, of which his magazine asked "Were We Wrong?" [UPDATE: Originally, I had this headline as "We Were Wrong," not an insignificant difference. But the key point is that Beinart does not now make a pro-Iraq war argument.] He is clear that the Democratic Party should "renounce" those whose resistance to the use of military force extends to opposing U.S. action in Afghanistan; while I disagree with renunciation, it's also a bit of a red herring since that is very much a minority position within the Democratic Party and there was no presidential candidate who held that view. So the real, meaningful distinction winds up being between perhaps Kerry's legalistic, realist view that emphasizes multilateral institutions as a good in themselves, and perhaps Biden or others who have a more tough-minded tone and have absorbed some of the idealism of the Kosovo intervention, and are willing to dismiss international institutions in the interest of democracy and freedom or clear U.S. interests.

I don't intend to argue those distinctions and I'm probably not even doing them justice by my shorthand descriptions. It's not my field. But it strikes me that one of the things that those of us who are more involved in domestic policy have learned, and which is relevant here, is that the Bush approach grinds all such subtle distinctions into dust. Like Nicholas Kristof or Gregg Easterbrook, I could argue for a different approach to Social Security or tax reform, for example, and I have, but right now the only question on the table -- and the only one that will even be permitted onto the table -- is whether you are for or against the president's proposal as he has loosely put it forward. Any alternative has value only as rhetoric, and perhaps only to avoid the charge that you don't have an alternative.

I have an image in my head of Beinart as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, facing Bush in a debate. (Assuming that we amend the Constitution to get rid of that pesky 35-year-old rule at the same time that we amend it so Jennifer Granholm can run.) How would Beinart respond when Bush says, "You're not sending a message that supports the troops. First your magazine endorsed the war, then you said, 'We Were Wrong.' That's not leadership. You're not reliable." Is Beinart's answer really going to be much better than John Kerry's attempt to get around that same crude bludgeoning?

Beinart says he wants to redefine the terms of debate between liberals and Bush on national security, which is great. I'd like to redefine the terms of debate on the domestic issues. But that's not working right now. It's an academic exercise. Just as Bush said to Kerry, in effect, "either you're for the war on terror as I've defined it, or your shaky on it," he says to domestic liberals that we're either for Social Security "modernization" and opportunity, or for tax reform, or shaky and uncertain. This will be the third time in a few weeks that I've mentioned the two academic studies of last year -- Larry Bartels' "Homer Gets a Tax Cut" and the more prosaically titled paper by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson -- that basically show that the details of policy are of no significance whatsoever to public opinion or political success. Bush has used this phenomenon brilliantly, and we have to understand it.

[UPDATE: I have some real doubts about my own point in this paragraph, and was tempted to pull down the whole post. But there have been a lot of good comments, so that would be wrong. I'll say more about it shortly, and talk about some other examples of the kind of nihilistic despair that I lapsed into here.]

Again, this is not to say that the foreign policy approach Beinart argues for is wrong on the merits. It may be exactly the right approach to the question, and thus worth arguing for in its own right. But I would argue that it is a little naive to conclude that getting the policy just right will easily translate into political success. I wish that were the case, but it's not.

Here I think those of us who have been focused on domestic issues might have a better sense simply because we have more examples. We've seen the bludgeoning of distinctions on taxes three times, on Medicare, on Social Security, on tort reform, on the budget deficit, on education, etc., etc. It's heartbreaking. People like me live to develop alternatives, to redefine the terms of debate. It is extremely frustrating to be so unable to do so. we have to break down the current political dynamic so that these subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions can begin to matter again.


Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 7, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

'Where's Osama Bin Laden?" was always the natural response to Bush's formulation on the war in Iraq. It should have been the centerpiece of Kerry's campaign, the unifying message about national security: "Where's Osama Bin Laden?" When OBL's tape came out days before the election it was a perfect opportunity for Kerry to get on television and ask why OBL was still free. The Republicans recognized that, if their panicky response about not politicizing the tape was any indication. It should be the centerpiece of the Democratic response now.

Posted by: David | Feb 7, 2005 2:27:25 PM

I think that the elephant in the room -- which Beinart wants to say but doesn't -- is that it is the Democratic base itself that is that problem, both from a policy standpoint and a political standpoint.

That's one aspect of fram theory that Lakoff doesn't really talk about: it matters who is delivering the message, too. As a linguist, he focuses on language. But the GOP understands that framing goes beyond just words; they would never have had Nancy Pelosi deliver the national security rebuttal to the SOTU, btw.

You're into the more academic aspects of this stuff, so I you may want to take a look at some of the work of David Snow and Robert Benford.

Posted by: praktike | Feb 7, 2005 2:38:16 PM

Last week, Peter Beinart just outed himself as a PNAC'er, that is member of the neoconservative, ultra hawkish group Project for a New American Century. You can read the letter he wrote calling for an INCREASE in American troops in Iraq here:

http://www.newamericancentury.org/defense-20050128.htm

I've decided to ignore all of his foreign policy advice now that I know the crowd he hangs around.

Posted by: MediumDave | Feb 7, 2005 6:30:51 PM

Say what you will about Beinart's thesis, but it proposes to restore liberalism's moral compass. It is WE who have the principles to effectively fight this generational struggle. We should find common cause.

Posted by: Scotty | Feb 7, 2005 8:33:31 PM

The only agenda here is to use Beinart's book to bludgeon the Democratic party -- look, your own partisans say you are weak and soft! The fake liberal "apostate" still serves a function in the conservative media. Beinart appears more than willing to sell out for this. His spreading the canard that Democrats were against intervention in Afghanistan shows exactly where his loyalties lie. Certainly no one who put the fortunes of the party ahead of his own desire to cause a stir would have done this.

That anyone could say, as in the comments above, that an unwillingness to kill lots of people and violate international law for unclear reasons shows you have "lost your moral compass"....well, I guess that's where we are as a country.

Posted by: Marcus Stanley | Feb 8, 2005 1:32:45 AM

"When OBL's tape came out days before the election it was a perfect opportunity for Kerry to get on television and ask why OBL was still free. The Republicans recognized that, if their panicky response about not politicizing the tape was any indication."

Hear, hear!

I firmly believe that if Kerry had come out with a strong partisan attack that Friday on the airport tarmac, he would've won the election. That was his moment to steer his boat into the enemy, and he missed it.

---

"I think that the elephant in the room -- which Beinart wants to say but doesn't -- is that it is the Democratic base itself that is that problem"

I think Beinart was saying that pretty explicitly.

---

"I have an image in my head of Beinart as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, facing Bush in a debate. ... How would Beinart respond when Bush says, "You're not sending a message that supports the troops..."

Assuming that Beinart, unlike Kerry, would've been willing to Sister Souljah Michael Moore, he might well have ended up with stronger defenses against such an attack.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 8, 2005 1:53:02 AM

The only agenda here is to use Beinart's book to bludgeon the Democratic party -- look, your own partisans say you are weak and soft! The fake liberal "apostate" still serves a function in the conservative media. Beinart appears more than willing to sell out for this. His spreading the canard that Democrats were against intervention in Afghanistan shows exactly where his loyalties lie. Certainly no one who put the fortunes of the party ahead of his own desire to cause a stir would have done this.

That anyone could say, as in the comments above, that an unwillingness to kill lots of people and violate international law for unclear reasons shows you have "lost your moral compass"....well, I guess that's where we are as a country.

No, I think Beinart sees what a lot of people see when they look at the faction known pejoratively as "the left": incoherent national security strategy. This is politically crippling in a post 9.11 world.

I don't think the unwillingness to do those things you talk about is where liberalism has gone wrong. History will judge that fairly. But perhaps the real loss has been the dearth of purpose that seems to capture the spirit of the moment for liberals. Where are our true believers? Where do we go from here? Where do we define ourselves?

The consequences of not answering those questions are politically very grave. If we don't believe in doing as you say, "killing lots of people" for reasons "unclear," then exactly what do we believe in, and which reasons are clear? Under what circumstances do we agree with spreading democracy? Do we even think that's a legitimate national purpose?

Liberals cannot avoid these questions any longer. Beinart posits that if the left does not put forth an answer to counteract the Republican version, it will sentence itself to political bankruptcy -- a fate and judgment I do not wish (nor do I believe he wishes) to see. You can't fight something with nothing, and that's been the operative political strategy for the past 4 years. It's no wonder we're becoming less relevant in people's minds.

At any rate, calling Beinart an ideological saboteur when he offers some pretty sage advice is tightly wrapped in tin foil, if I do say so.

Posted by: Scotty | Feb 8, 2005 5:03:40 AM

Had Beinart wanted to lay out a coherent Democratic foreign policy, he could perfectly well have done so by attacking the Republicans. That's what a successful Democratic foreign policy has to do, after all. His choice to do so by excommunicating Democrats was a calculated one, and a smart one given the crowd he wants to run with. How often do you hear writers for conservative opinion journals attacking Rush Limbaugh? Never, that's how often. There was no large or influential segment of the Democratic party opposing the Afghanistan war. The fact that Beinart has to posit one for his rhetorical strategy shows you where he is coming from.

It's completely true that you can't fight something with nothing. But the reason the Democrats are perceived as putting forth "nothing" is not that we do not have coherent strategies. It's that the Republicans have so effectively demagogued the multilateral approaches that were central to the success of our previous foreign policy approaches. The UN successfully disarmed Saddam, put inspectors back in, etc. NATO was important in supporting our Afghanistan efforts. God knows it was far from a perfect status quo and needs to be tinkered with. But it had the advantage of preventing disastrous cock-ups like Iraq.

The crucial point here is really that the Republicans do not have a coherent national security strategy. They have never put forward a clear connection between their tactics in the Middle East and genuinely improving American national security. At least not a connection that has appeared reasonable for any length of time. What they do have is a set of attitudes (I'm tough, I kick ass) that resonates with a frightened public and some effective ways to demagogue criticism. But no logical coherence -- for example I would love to hear a clear Republican position on "spreading democracy" that is actually supported by administration actions. The Iraq invasion serves long standing U.S. geopolitical goals in the gulf and one does not have to appeal to democracy to understand it.

Kerry thought he could compete with the Republicans on attitude by emphasizing his military record and then put forward a multilateral, law enforcement type approach for actually fighting terrorism. That is a very coherent and sensible strategy for fighting what is essentially a transnational criminal gang. (So long as it is backed up by military action against rogue states such as Afghanistan that genuinely do provide a home for anti-U.S. criminals...as I said the Dems supported this). Democracy promotion by means short of invasion is easily compatible with this.

Kerry failed for lots of reasons, but he did have a coherent strategic understanding of where we are.

Posted by: Marcus Stanley | Feb 8, 2005 12:01:12 PM

Marcus, you're getting at another Democratic problem: too much meta-commentary about what's wrong with the Democrats and not enough commentary about What It is To Be Done. It's tempting to fall into that trap--I did it above. But I suspect the biggest problem is that Beinart isn't up to the task of creating something; he can only criticize.

Posted by: praktike | Feb 8, 2005 2:39:36 PM

Marcus,

I think it's a bit fallacious to say that Beinart advocates a purge or anything of the sort. I think what he's saying is that can't be even the perception of Democratic foreign policy -- I think its true that there wasn't a passionately articulated vision that Democrats talked about, and his most resonant point to me is that we have the ideological tendencies that best match up with this so-called generational struggle to defeat totalitarian Islam. You can say tha the Bush vision is bankrupt itself, but attempting to fight that vision without making clarion calls to do things like expand the military and argue against fiscal irresponsibility in the form of tax cuts for the rich when that money could be better spent on a Marshall Plan for the Middle East of sorts comes from a lack of ideological coherence.

I'd like to comment more later, but for now, that's what I've got.

SH

Posted by: Scotty | Feb 8, 2005 3:47:01 PM

Caring about the Country, trying to find solutions, anything other than complete and total ravenous desire for power unhampered by the slightest other consideration will not work.

The current generation of politicians, journalists (particularly those on television), and pundits really are completely self-interested people will no concern for the country's wellbeing, no desire to educate themselves about issues, and no interest in anything other than their own personal stock.

I know this sounds ludicrous and overly-negative, but as a 25 year-old who has been around DC and politicians, involved with political organizations and following the debate, I cannot come to any other conclusion. If we view the right-wing as anything other than a power hungry machine unbound by ethics or rules, we're lost from the start.

Personally, I don't plan to try to do anything about any of this. Most Americans are lazy and uninformed, and the elites are infinitely worse than anyone else. There's no point in fighting these battles, and I honestly wonder what counter-argument anyone who has been following the last 5 years can really give.

Posted by: MDtoMN | Feb 8, 2005 5:05:20 PM

"Personally, I don't plan to try to do anything about any of this. Most Americans are lazy and uninformed, and the elites are infinitely worse than anyone else. There's no point in fighting these battles, and I honestly wonder what counter-argument anyone who has been following the last 5 years can really give."

The counter-argument is that history shows quite clearly that it matters who wins elections.

American federal politics is a bloodthirsty and cynical game. But it still matters who wins elections.

I support much of what Beinart has been saying because he's thinking clearly and accurately about what it will take for the left to win elections.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 8, 2005 5:51:08 PM

Yeah, but Petey, don't you think Beinart would be better off leading by example rather than constantly sniping at the left?

Oh, and by the way, his point about unions--which as far as I can tell is the only concrete idea in his piece other than refighting the Cold War or something--is uninformed as far as I can tell.

Unions in the ME are either coopted by regimes or infected with Marxists and Islamists. So it's not clear to me, based on Beinart's general views, what he thinks could be accomplished or how by such a maneuver.

One could go on to talk about his misinformed understanding of Truman and his team and whether they would have been neoconservatives (and I'd call Beinart a neoconservative at this point).

In any case, I agree that there is a problem on the left, but I think that Beinart is the last person on Earth who understands how to solve it, based on what he's written so far.

Posted by: praktike | Feb 8, 2005 6:27:33 PM

I absolutely agree that it matters who wins elections. However, I have become convinced that no one can win elections in the US currently without compromising themselves so completely as to make the entire process worthless. I was involved in the last election, but I think I'm going to call it quits. I don't think a decent human being has a shot now days, at least not for president. I also don't think the Democratic Party has a shot nationally, because we generally nominate people who are decent human beings or close enough to it to sink us.

Also, I think Mark's point is right. Regardless of whether Beinhart is right or wrong on policy, it isn't at all clear that that bears any relationship to success on politics. Beinhart would never have a shot in an election. Not now days, regardless of his policy options.

Finally, praktile, I'm not sure the term "Islamist" is particularly helpful here. I'm not being PC, I'm actually just not at all sure what you're talking about. That's not your fault by the way, as far as I can tell, no one has developed any useful terms for discussing the political/religious situation in the ME.

For the record though, religious attitudes and institutions, and Islamic ones in Islamic Countries, have to play a major role in society and political movements. Otherwise, one would be talking past people's thoughts and one would fail completely to connect to their worldview. Talking about trying to find a reform movement in the ME that is actually (1) reformist (2) popular and (3) non-Islamic seems highly unlikely. I mean, there might be some, but no one seems to have identified any. Also, based on US history, where religious institutions, attitudes, and groups have played major roles in our reform movements - abolitionists, labor, civil rights, environmentalism, even feminism and to a lesser degree homosexual rights (though that may shock many) - I don't see why we would be trying to build reform movements that aren't "Islamic" in the ME. Now, you're refering to "Islamist", but it's not at all clear what the distinction between Islamic is and Islamist. It's also not clear that we should really be seeking government entirely separate from religious and cultural norms, when successful democratic governments tend to involve a serious balancing of religious and cultural norms with concerns about personal liberty, rationality, and due process. IF you doubt that, ask yourself what the reasonable man standard really means in court, or why it is that you can't walk through the streets naked, or even where most progressives get their fundamental values - concern for the poor, etc. Religion permeates our government, and that's ok. the secret is balancing that.

Posted by: MDtoMN | Feb 8, 2005 11:07:56 PM

Can someone help me out, here?

Who the hell is Beinert and why would anyone care what he thinks?

Thanks in advance.

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Feb 9, 2005 12:28:36 AM

MDtoMN -- in this case, I was referring to the Muslim Brotherhood. I should have specified. Not all Islamists would be an issue for the U.S., e.g., the AKP in Turkey could be considered Islamist but they're popular and democratic. A good overview of Islamist politics is here.

Posted by: praktike | Feb 9, 2005 9:06:07 AM

"I absolutely agree that it matters who wins elections."

"However, I have become convinced that no one can win elections in the US currently without compromising themselves so completely as to make the entire process worthless.

I find it difficult to understand how anyone can believe both of these sentiments simultaneously.

If the entire process is worthless, it obviously doesn't matter who wins.

For myself, I think that while the process is very cynical and ugly, it very much does matter who wins elections. Thus the process is very much worthwhile, even if it is cynical and ugly.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 10, 2005 2:22:09 AM

Ellen1910 --

(Peter) Beinart is the editor of the NEW REPUBLIC, who just went on a nine-month leave to expand his essay "a fighting faith" into a book.

People care about what he thinks because TNR is a long-established, establishment journal, which is influential in some circles, and/or because they find his arguments compelling (whether or not they agree). Whether you should care depends on your point of view about these things. (For instance, I didn't find his arguments compelling so much as disingenuous; but I care about rebutting them anyway, since I fear others will take them seriously.)

SF

Posted by: Stephen Frug | Feb 10, 2005 1:34:28 PM

Marcus is right. Peter Beinart's "Fighting Faith" is really disengenuous. If you think the Iraq war is a good idea and central to the war on terror, then fine, attack the Democrats for not supporting it. But, if you agree that the link between the Iraq war and the war on terror is non-existant (as I think Beinart does), the STFU about critzising Kerry and other democrats.

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