Politics & Policy

Staying Soft

Peter Beinart's lonely voice.

I’m very confused.

As this is not news to many, let me be more specific. Last week, my friend Peter Beinart wrote a much-discussed cover story for The New Republic arguing that the Democratic party needs to become a “fighting party” that takes Islamic totalitarianism seriously. As I wrote in my syndicated column, I thought it was a wonderful and serious article, even though I thought his prescription was, if not naïve, then certainly overly optimistic.

Beinart opens with a flashback. “On January 4, 1947, 130 men and women met at Washington’s Willard Hotel to save American liberalism.” Their cause, according to Beinart, was the pressing need to purge the “softs” from the leadership of the Democratic party. The “softs,” Beinart writes, “were not necessarily communists themselves. But they refused to make anti-communism their guiding principle. For them, the threat to liberal values came entirely from the right–from militarists, from red-baiters, and from the forces of economic reaction. To attack the communists, reliable allies in the fight for civil rights and economic justice, was a distraction from the struggle for progress.”

Fast forward to today. Beinart says that today’s Democratic party is plagued by Softs: The Next Generation. Michael Moore is the most obvious soft, though one could have an endless debate about his influence in the party. What is not debatable, however, is that Moore is a caricature of everything that is wrong with the American Left when it comes to, well, everything. But let’s stick to the foreign-policy stuff. Moore doubts that Osama was behind 9/11 and certainly thinks Bush is a bigger threat than Bin Laden. He asks, “Why has our government gone to such absurd lengths to convince us our lives are in danger?” MoveOn.org dabbles in isolationism, complaining–as the hard Left has for 60 years when it wants to change the subject–that the threat to civil liberties is greater than any external threat. It was to this wing of the party that Kerry pandered when he complained that we were opening firehouses in Baghdad but closing them in the U.S. (I didn’t know there was a federal Department of Fire Departments, by the way).

Now, because it’s always the case that criticism from your own side gets more reaction than criticism from the opposition, I was curious to see what the response from Beinart’s fellow liberals would be. After all, in a broad sense there isn’t that much that is new to his argument; the novelty is the source more than the content. Conservatives have been saying that the Left is making the Democrats too dovish for a very, very long time. After 9/11 this became a standard refrain in most of the relevant conservative analysis. And, typically, the response from the knee-jerk Left and liberals was, “How dare you…” How dare you question my patriotism! (Kerry himself offered up that one quite often.) How dare you question my commitment to defense! How dare you assume that conservatives are better at foreign policy! Etc.

One regular source of this sort of complaint was Kevin Drum, the in-house blogger of The Washington Monthly and something of a clearinghouse for smart liberals on the web. He’s normally sober-minded, but sometimes he sounds like he’s lined up too many fallen soldiers on his airline tray. I still remember when John Ashcroft warned–presciently–that al Qaeda might try to influence the U.S. elections as it had in Madrid. Drum responded, “What a despicable worm. What a revolting, loathsome, toad.” The upshot was that Drum took some modest offense at the suggestion that Democrats would be any less resolute in their fight against America’s enemies.

So, I was particularly intrigued by Drum’s initial response to Beinart’s cri de coeur: “What he really needs to write,” harrumphed Drum, “is a prequel to his current piece, one that presents the core argument itself: namely, why defeating Islamic totalitarianism should be a core liberal issue.” He continues later on: “That’s the story I think Beinart needs to write. If he thinks too many liberals are squishy on terrorism, he needs to persuade us not just that Islamic totalitarianism is bad–of course it’s bad–but that it’s also an overwhelming danger to the security of the United States.”

Okay hold that thought.

By my very rough guess, since 9/11 National Review Online and National Review have run probably 500 articles from serious scholars to folks like me on why the threat from “Islamo-Fascism,” “jihadism,” or whatever you want to call it is real, serious, and likely to endure for a very long time. We’ve come at it from every angle, too–from narrow arguments about weapons proliferation to deep, sustained, philosophical treatises about the Islamic or Arab worldview and our own.

Of course, NR is not alone. Similar articles or articles on similar themes have proliferated across the mainstream media and the Internet. Whole categories of bloggers–the “war bloggers”–have sprouted up. The op-ed pages have groaned from the weight of serious people explaining how the battle against Islamic fundamentalism will likely be known as World War IV. Countless books from liberals, leftists, many, many conservatives, and a few allegedly “nonpartisan” whistleblowers have been written expanding these arguments. There’ve been campus debates, symposia, and course offerings. There’ve been international conferences, speeches, lectures, documentaries. Whole new chairs have been established at think tanks and universities, and there’ve even been new think tanks established, dedicated to defending democracy against this “new” form of totalitarianism. Two Cabinet positions have been created–with bipartisan support in response to this threat. Both presidential nominees staked their campaigns in large parts on their ability to fight and win the war on terror, a sometimes-clunking euphemism for Islamic fundamentalism.

But, what Kevin Drum thinks liberals need is a really good argument explaining the threat from jihadism. Where has he been these last few years?


This reminds me of a story about Hillary Clinton. When she was leading her health-care task force, she invited an army of experts and scholars to collect reams and reams of research about every facet of America’s health-care “crisis.” Computers performed regression analyses day and night. Fact-finders scoured the earth like knights seeking the grail for every scintilla of knowledge about everything related to health care, from the cost of an appendectomy in Phoenix to the co-pay for a root canal in Albany. After months of such tireless work, Hillary was asked whether there was anything more she needed. She responded that she’d be all set if she could get just a little more data.

If Drum needs another argument to be persuaded about the threat, he is flatly unpersuadable. Indeed, if Beinart could surf back on the space-time continuum, he could have used Drum’s response as an example of exactly his complaint: that the Democrats don’t care enough about fighting Islamic totalitarianism.

But that’s not even the annoying part. For the last two years, the main thrust of criticism from Democrats has been that Bush hasn’t been doing enough to fight Islamic terrorism. Drum was a big fan of Richard Clarke’s book. Well, Clarke’s book was a criticism from the right. Bush didn’t do enough. The whole “wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time” mantra was shorthand for the argument that Iraq was a distraction from the real threat of Islamic totalitarianism.

In a follow-up post, Drum wrote:

So let’s be more precise: the charge isn’t so much that liberals don’t have a serious approach to terrorism, it’s that liberals tend to think that terrorism and national security just aren’t very important in the first place. Beinart provides one telling statistic to support this: 38% of Republican delegates to this year’s national convention mentioned terrorism, defense, or homeland security as important issues. For Democratic delegates the total was 4%. Likewise, Matt Yglesias notes today that looking over the post-election roundtable at The Nation, the problem isn’t dovishness, it’s that nobody even bothers discussing national security at all. Whether or not liberals have serious ideas about combatting terrorism, I agree with Beinart that simple lack of interest in national security issues is a big problem for liberals. (Emphasis in original)

But before the pixels in this post could dry, he found it necessary to post this: “UPDATE: I guess I need to say this more plainly: I’m not taking sides on this debate right now. I’m just saying that I’d like to hear the arguments.”

Why not, Kevin? Do you need more data? This is not a new conversation. Indeed, it’s been close to the only conversation on the web for over three years now, and you don’t want to take sides?

So let me get this straight. The last two years of bleating and beating we’ve gotten from liberals–all the how-dare-yous and the Iraq’s-a-distraction stuff–all of that was just a pose? You guys don’t think any of it’s a big deal after all? It was all just a way to smack George Bush around? How sad. How frick’n dishonest. And why is Drum so comfortable constantly saying he’s not even going to address the “humanitarian” argument for fighting the war on terror? Since when are liberals so comfortable putting humanitarian issues in a box and hiding them away on a top shelf? He clearly sees that the argument is compelling on the merits, but can’t even bring himself to throw it into the equation.

And keep in mind Drum is a respected and decent centrist among Democrats. More popular bloggers on the hard left are peeved at Beinart for assuming that all serious liberals supported the war in Afghanistan.

Drum does make thoughtful points and tangential arguments, but on the big picture he demonstrates the problem with taking his advice. One of his biggest and most longstanding objections to Bush’s foreign policy is that the White House hasn’t been bipartisan in its prosecution of the war on terror. As he says in his response to Beinart, “The Republican party has made it as clear as it possibly can that the war on terror is not vital enough to require either bipartisan support or the support of the rest of the world. They’ve treated it more like a garden variety electoral wedge issue than a world historical struggle.”

Drum might be right that Bush has been too partisan, though I’m unpersuaded. But, by even offering this argument he in fact concedes that he doesn’t think Islamic totalitarianism is a serious threat–because if he did see it that way, he wouldn’t let a lack of bipartisanship get in the way. Isolationist Republicans didn’t back FDR because FDR was nice to them (neither did the isolationist Democrats Drum pretends didn’t exist). They did it because the threat was obvious. National Review and The Weekly Standard–hardly nonpartisan institutions–supported Clinton’s war in Yugoslavia (and according to the standards used to justify that war, Iraq was a no-brainer). Think about it. If you think Islamic totalitarianism is a real problem, an existential threat, you write articles like Beinart’s. You don’t say, “Y’know, I could really get behind this twilight struggle if only the Republicans were nicer to Democrats.” You don’t bend over backward for fear of seeming like you’re “taking sides.” Or at least you don’t if you love your country more than you love your party (or more than you hate George Bush). Meanwhile, how can you blame some Republicans for thinking Democrats aren’t worth reaching out to if at this point they still need to hear more War On Terror 101 arguments?

This is more than an academic point: “Sure, 9/11 was a wakeup call,” Drum writes, but since we haven’t been attacked as badly at home since, there’s no reason to conclude that 9/11 was our generation’s Pearl Harbor. In other words, if Bush hadn’t done as good a job fighting the war on terrorism, Drum might be more convinced that the war on terrorism is worth fighting.

Forgive me for ever thinking liberals couldn’t be tough on the war on terror.


The Latest