Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart; drawing by David Levine

It is not easy to be a professional Democrat in 2006. Out of power for six years and widely damned as out of intellectual steam, the party is regarded in nearly every political precinct and publication as a chronic invalid, doomed to obsolescence even though nearly all the stars are in alignment for a national rejection of all things Bush. When others aren’t kicking the Democrats, they are more than happy to kick themselves. The former Clinton hands Rahm Emanuel, now a hard-charging Democratic congressman from Illinois, and Bruce Reed, the president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, set the defensive tone of their election-year policy manifesto by quoting the Beckett-inflected soliloquy of Ross Perot’s ticket mate, Admiral James Stockdale, from the vice-presidential debate of 1992: “Who am I? Why am I here?” These days the Democrats would seem to have fewer answers to such existential questions than the sadly disoriented Stockdale did.

Since John Kerry’s defeat in 2004, pundits, Democratic politicians, consultants, bloggers from the “Netroots,” and outright quacks have been eager to fill that vacuum, offering often self-contradictory remedies for the party’s ailments. First came the religious cure: in desperate overreaction to a loaded exit poll suggesting that the Democrats’ 2004 showing might in part be due to a “moral values” deficit, party leaders sought out the liberal evangelical author Jim Wallis to learn how they might better make a public fetish of their faith.

Soon to follow was the marketing craze: George Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant!, advised some of those same leaders on how to “frame” issues so that they, like the Republicans, might popularize hard-to-sell initiatives with their own versions of insidious circumlocutions such as “death tax” and “compassionate conservatism.” Other nostrums have included calls for banning pollsters and consultants that package candidates in focus-group-tested platitudes1 (a capital idea but so far a nonstarter) and a return to talking about class issues2 (so far taking the tone-deaf form of Wal-Mart bashing, the rare cause embraced by both Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont).

If all else fails, there’s the default position of Clintonism, with or without Hillary Clinton, the putative 2008 presidential front-runner. A widespread fantasy has it that the freshman Illinois Senator Barack Obama, everyone’s favorite un-Hillary, might yet be persuaded to throw off caution and run for president while he’s still hot rather than waiting until he’s “ready.” Or perhaps he could serve his apprenticeship on a ticket headed by the new, Hollywood-burnished, and, to many, improved Al Gore.

But whatever the merits of any of these miracle elixirs, the party, no more than Senator Clinton and other potential presidential candidates, still cannot escape the most troubling of the questions that confront it, the question that gets to the heart of “Who am I? Why am I here?” That question, posed by Gary Hart in his own election-year manifesto, is this:

What brought the great Democratic Party, the majority party for much of the twentieth century—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the party of Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, the party that successfully led the nation through two world wars and much of the Cold War, the party of the New Deal and the Great Society, the party of great figures and instinctive visionaries, the party of civil rights and gender equality, the party that rescued America from the Great Depression, the party of the blue-collar working class and desperate Dust Bowl farmers, the party that provided the ladder of opportunity for generations of immigrants, the party of virtually all progressive movements for a century—what caused that great and historic political institution to cave in so quickly and so willingly to the most questionable military adventure since the invasion of the Philippines a generation before?

Neither holding public office nor planning to seek it, Hart has no qualms about addressing forthrightly the non-Republican elephant in the Democrats’ room. And the Washington Democrats will have to address it forthrightly too; the war and its aftershocks are not going away. In the campaign years of 2002 and 2004, the party hoped to finesse Iraq by either trying to change the subject to the economy or muddying the issue. Kerry, most memorably, was for the funding of the war before he was against it. Such indirection is untenable now; most polls show that Iraq is the most pressing issue to Americans, a drag on the nation’s sense of well-being (as much as 70 percent of the country feels it is on the wrong track) and a spreading threat not just to George W. Bush but also to Congress (which has a lower approval rating than the President does). Left unresolved, Hart’s question will continue to haunt the party, especially when it must field a national ticket in 2008. The Democrats are unlikely to be persuasive or coherent about national security or foreign policy—or perhaps to be listened to about much else—until they confront their own cave-in to Bush in his rush to war.


There could probably be no more representative illustration of this predicament than Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight. To his credit, Beinart is attempting to answer Hart’s question. As the former editor of The New Republic (he has since left that post to become a columnist for the magazine), he was a combative, at times shrill, voice of liberal hawkishness before the war. He has since, like many (nearly all) in his camp, had a change of heart. “I supported the war because I considered it the only remaining way to prevent Saddam Hussein from obtaining a nuclear bomb,” he writes in his introduction.

I also believed it could produce a decent, pluralistic Iraqi regime, which might help open a democratic third way in the Middle East between secular autocrats and their theocratic opponents—a third way that offered the best long-term hope for protecting the United States.

Since there were no aspirations for building such a regime in the Bush White House—Donald Rumsfeld had reaffirmed the administration’s long-standing opposition to nation-building in a major speech a month prior to the invasion3—this rationalization, also a commonplace among neoconservatives, was wishful armchair punditry at its most fatuous. In any event Beinart now says that he was wrong on both counts and on the facts. “But even more important than the facts,” he adds, he was wrong on theory. “I was too quick to give up on containment, too quick to think time was on Saddam’s side.”

His flat-out admission of being “wrong” is refreshing as well as anomalous among former Iraq war enablers. Having bitten that bullet, Beinart, not unlike the Democratic Party, wants to move on. This is not as easy as he might wish. As with the other election-year blueprints for a Democratic future, Beinart bills The Good Fight as prescriptive. His subtitle is Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. But for a book that aspires to deal with the future, it is more often than not mired in the past. Much of The Good Fight is a good student’s rather pedantic recapitulation of cold war history (“The term totalitarianism originated in fascist Italy…”), as Beinart sifts through the Truman era and its New Frontier–Vietnam aftermath to arrive at a template for a liberal foreign policy that is both muscular in its opposition to real security threats and circumspect in its acknowledgment of American fallibility and the necessity of multilateral alliances.

Yet the other, far more recent past that shadows his argument is the capitulation of liberals like himself to the Bush Iraq project. This capitulation was far from universal; a majority of Democrats in the House voted against the authorization of the Iraq war, and so did twenty-one Democrats in the Senate. But those who did speed the rush to war included the party’s national standard-bearers (John Edwards as well as Kerry) and legislative leaders like the now departed Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt. For them and, as we see, for Beinart and the many writers like him, this original sin is not so easily exorcised.

“It is a grim irony that this book’s central argument is one I myself ignored when it was needed most,” Beinart writes. That argument, as he sees it, is “that the morality of American power relies on the limits to American power.” But a grimmer irony, perhaps, is that the mea culpa that opens The Good Fight is mitigated by Beinart’s persistence in misrepresenting some of the history that preceded the American invasion. He still can be wrong on the facts. In revisiting the dubious arguments he so credulously swallowed before the war, Beinart writes:

It is impossible to know for sure what would have happened if the inspections had continued into the spring and summer of 2003. But most likely, the inspectors would have grown increasingly certain that Saddam had no nuclear program, and then, at some point Saddam would have kicked them out. Sooner or later, in other words, the United States would have needed a new containment strategy.

Such a new containment effort, Beinart adds, “could certainly have failed.”

It is impossible to know for sure what would have happened if inspections had continued, but Beinart’s “most likely” scenario wasn’t likely at all. When Hans Blix, the chief United Nations weapons inspector, publicly briefed the Security Council on March 7, 2003—twelve days before the American invasion began—he could not have been more explicit about the state of play. “No evidence of proscribed activities have so far been found,” Blix said. The Iraqi regime was abandoning conditions it had previously tried to impose on “the exercise of any of our inspection rights.” To complete the job, Blix concluded,


would not take years, nor weeks, but months. Neither governments nor inspectors would want disarmament inspection to go on forever. However, it must be remembered that in accordance with the governing resolutions, a sustained inspection and monitoring system is to remain in place after verified disarmament to give confidence and to strike an alarm, if signs were seen of the revival of any proscribed weapons programmes.4

In other words, after a circumscribed period of months, not years, inspections would have verified the truth: Saddam was bluffing and his WMDs had been almost entirely destroyed in 1991. Containment, which enjoyed the international support that a projected American invasion did not, was working. Had Saddam fulfilled Beinart’s hypothesis and tried to kick the inspectors out in the ensuing months, he would have been explicitly violating the governing resolutions’ requirement for sustained inspection and monitoring. Thus he would have handed the United States and its allies an unimpeachable, slam-dunk casus belli to go to war. (And that war, which might well have earned the same international support as the weapons’ inspections, would not have been the hasty, improvised fiasco that the Bush administration concocted.)

But that’s not a likely scenario either. The most likely scenario would have been, as Blix would say in 2005, “continued containment of Iraq rather than war,” enforced by continued international inspection of Saddam’s weapons capabilities. “It would have carried the modest cost of some $80 million/year and required only 200–300 UN staff. Saddam would have remained—perhaps like a Castro or a Khaddaffi.”5 That this scenario was prevented from unfolding was wholly due to the White House’s determination to fix the facts and intelligence around its determination to go to war and, to a lesser extent, to the intellectual and political cover this rash policy received from determined cheerleaders like Beinart.

In all his pages about the war fever that he helped gin up, Beinart still finds it hard to concede in plain language the simple facts of the matter, which are summarized without dependent clauses by Edward Kennedy in his own election-year book-length campaign document: “If America had allowed the UN inspections to be continued, war could have been avoided. We were never given a convincing reason by the administration to remove the inspectors and launch the invasion.” Beinart’s concession that he was “wrong” on the facts and the theory is welcome, but his explanation for this failure is at best disingenuous: “Worst-case logic became a filter, preventing war supporters like myself from seeing the evidence mounting around us.”

Standing on this shaky platform, he offers himself as a guide to the future. Taking as a departure point the 1947 meeting at the Willard Hotel where the Americans for Democratic Action purged Henry Wallace and Communist fellow travelers from their ranks, Beinart posits a reborn foreign policy in the tradition of cold war anti-totalitarian liberalism. Democrats must retrieve the mantle of tough-minded containment from the era of Truman, Marshall, and Kennan. They must reawaken to the hardheaded liberal realism of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr, battling jihadist terrorism without Bush’s cowboy recklessness and with self-restraint: “In the liberal vision, national greatness is not inherited and it is not declared; it is earned.” Unlike Bush’s war on terror, this policy will be tethered to a belief in human rights. It will win hearts and minds with a new Marshall Plan. Its hallmarks will include collaborating both with allies and with international bodies—i.e., with the likes of Hans Blix.

Much of this is commendable, picking up where second-term Clinton foreign policy, as tardily practiced in the Balkans, left off. Some of it is based on dubious, if not simplistic, analogies: Is decentralized Islamic terrorism, with fundamentalist religion at its angry core, interchangeable with secular totalitarianism, whether Stalin’s or Saddam’s, and can it really be fought by schematically analogous means?6 Some of Beinart’s program is simply wishful thinking. If Truman and Marshall came back from the dead, they could not sell a Marshall Plan to the isolationist and xenophobic America that the Iraq war has left in its wake, not just among some Democrats (as Beinart bemoans) but, in an even more virulent form, among the Republican base.7 The Marshall Plan we theoretically brought to Iraq, a $22 billion farrago of waste and corruption, will serve as a poster child against foreign aid in congressional races for years.

But for the most part Beinart’s prescription is already conventional wisdom in much of the Democratic Party: as a piece of rhetoric, The Good Fight seems to be a Rube Goldberg contraption laboring hard to fling open an already open door. Emanuel and Reed, for instance, call for “a muscular, progressive strategy to use all the tools of American power to make America safe in a dangerous world” and for enlisting “our allies in a common mission against the conditions” that breed terrorism. They specifically endorse The Good Fight and the nearly identical argument for “progressive internationalism” set out earlier by Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute.8 Indeed, Beinart’s position, an aggressive pursuit of terrorists joined with multilateralism and fidelity to democratic ideals, often sounds like the one that Kerry tried to articulate, none too clearly, during the 2004 campaign. In The Plan, Emanuel and Reed up the ante by calling for an additional 100,000 troops for the Army and an unspecified number of additions to the US Special Forces and the Marines. (They do not say whether they should be added before or after we leave Iraq.)

What undermines the sounder policy prescriptions in The Good Fight is its underlying animus—an animus that is all too much in keeping with the mindset that led Beinart and others like him to embrace the Iraq war with few questions and much self-righteous arrogance in 2002 and early 2003. However many quarrels he has with the Bush administration, Beinart is still hoping to prove that those who did not get it wrong were somehow wrong anyway—or at least more wrong than he was, and more frivolous. This leads him to echo the Bush White House, as he attempts to conflate the serious pre-invasion opponents of the Iraq war with a mindless, cut-and-run mob of peaceniks who don’t understand the threats to national security posed by Islamic radicalism, who opposed war in Afghanistan and who now can’t be trusted to protect America because they’re too busy hating Bush to take on terrorists. He warns darkly that this crowd could yet hijack the Democratic Party with apocalyptic results:

For too many liberals today, George W. Bush’s war on terror is the only one they can imagine…. If today’s liberals cannot rouse as much passion for fighting a movement that flings acid at unveiled women as they do for taking back the Senate in 2006, they have strayed far from liberalism’s best traditions. And if they believe it is only George W. Bush who threatens America’s freedoms, they should ponder what will happen if the United States is hit with a nuclear or contagious biological attack. No matter who is president, Republican or Democrat, the reaction will make John Ashcroft look like the head of the ACLU.

“Many liberals?” How many? Such overstatement, bordering on hysteria and laced with unearned condescension, is a common tic among liberal pundits who supported the war in Iraq and now regret it. This impulse came out in force after the victory of Ned Lamont over Joe Lieberman in the Democratic senatorial primary in Connecticut. Writing in Slate, for instance, Jacob Weisberg argued that Lamont’s victory over Lieberman “spells Democratic disaster” because it will lead the party to “re-enact a version of the Vietnam-era drama that helped them lose five out of six presidential elections between 1968 and the end of the Cold War.” Though conceding (in a marvelously revealing phrase) that “Lieberman’s opponents are not entirely wrong about the war,” Weisberg lamented that too many of those opponents “appear not to take the wider, global battle against Islamic fanaticism seriously.”9

“Appear,” of course, is as elastic a formulation as Beinart’s “many liberals.” Appear where? Usually on blogs, especially (in Beinart’s book) those at MoveOn Peace (since subsumed into, whose most naive post– September 11 pacifists he quotes with relish. Such bloggers certainly represent a constituency within the Democratic Party (or those that believe in the two-party system do). But there’s no evidence to support the liberal hawks’ fear that peaceniks who minimize the threat of Islamic fanaticism amount to a sizable contingent anywhere in America, including among Democrats. If this is a movement, it is one with no plausible national candidate or even statewide candidate (including Lamont, who is against the Iraq war but not against Beinart’s good fight against Islamic terrorists). Its most popular leader by far is Michael Moore, whose most risible leftist preachments are examined from as far back as 1986 in The Good Fight. Implicitly serving as the boogeyman heir both to Henry Wallace and his fellow travelers and to New Left radicals who greased the skids for the debacle of the McGovern campaign, the boorish filmmaker is Beinart’s exemplar of the kind of mindless lefty tempting to lead the Democrats astray.

He’s also a straw man. It’s hard to argue that Moore, a diva whose shtick is hyperbole and provocation, has fomented any movement that threatens to take over the Democratic Party or even Hollywood. Fahrenheit 9/11—seen by less than a third of the audience of leading 2004 hits like Shrek 2 and The Passion of the Christ—did not move election results; it did prompt an outpouring of liberal documentaries, most of which have barely registered at the box office (Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth being a modest exception). However many reflexive pacifists there may be in Moore’s audience, or at Cindy Sheehan rallies, or on blogs, the number of Americans who opposed defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban after September 11 was a tiny fringe; Bush enjoyed nearly 90 percent–plus support, including for the war in Afghanistan, with good reason.

The tragedy is that when Bush betrayed the country’s trust and hijacked a united citizenry for his own ends there were too many liberals who went MIA, whether in Congress or on opinion pages, at a time, as Beinart concedes, when such a principled opposition “was needed most.” That opposition could have rallied around the same principles that are espoused in The Good Fight without succumbing to Bush propaganda about a war that has done more to harm the battle against terrorism than any blogging pacifist has. It would have been a far better thing for the country if liberal hawks had articulated those principles clearly then without compromising them. Their inability to do so was a systemic intellectual failure that Beinart’s book only begins to address. And while it’s better late than never to stand up for the credo outlined in The Good Fight, what current Democratic leader does not now endorse the same basic national security catechism as Beinart’s, from Howard Dean to Hillary Clinton? The only real debate among Democrats today is over the timetable for the inevitable drawdown of American troops from Iraq, not from the battle against Islamic terrorists. So limited is the power of the leftist activists feared by Beinart that they have been unable to persuade most Democratic candidates in tight election races this fall to support any plan for a precipitous Iraq withdrawal.10

Even Gary Hart, who served as McGovern’s campaign manager in the ill-fated presidential campaign so central to the cautionary tales in The Good Fight, endorses the same foreign policy thinking as Beinart. Hart writes:

It is imperative now that the Democratic Party resolve the Truman principal of international alliance. If for no other reason, the struggle to suppress jihadist terrorism demands it. The center of radical Islamic jihad is not solely in the Middle East, it is in Europe as well…. It will prove impossible for the United States to defend itself against the international jihad without maintaining a close integration of Western intelligence agencies, secret services, and special forces.

The only real difference between Hart’s prescriptions and Beinart’s is that Hart is not losing sleep that the Democratic Party might be taken over by insurgents and does not make facile analogies between angry Bush-hating bloggers and the far more tumultuous, numerous, and radical New Left brigades of the 1960s.

Beinart’s hyperventilating over the threat of a supposedly resurgent left is a reminder of the habits of mind that led him to the mistakes this book wants to apologize for. Once again, worst-case logic has become a filter, preventing him from looking clearly at the evidence. Writing of liberal activists who blog at, he frets that “their idealism, and their outrage, is directed almost exclusively against the right.” But that’s the point of Daily Kos, which is a blog for letting off steam about partisan Democratic politics. At the equivalent Republican blogs, the outrage is directed almost exclusively against liberals. That the most volatile liberal bloggers rage at Bush more than at bin Laden and that their conservative counterparts rage at Nancy Pelosi more than at Zawahiri has nothing to do with the price of fish, except red herrings.

Once Beinart leaves foreign policy behind in The Good Fight to race through a laundry list of domestic policy points, he shows that it’s impossible to reinvent the wheel. From old liberal lions like Kennedy and Hart to Democratic Leadership Council centrists like Emanuel and Reed, everyone espouses variations on the same central principles Beinart does, whether they are the “Seven Challenges” specified by Kennedy (a happy middle ground between his brother’s eight profiles in courage and Nixon’s six crises) or the five big ideas bite-sized enough to “be counted off on one hand” in The Plan. With some variations, all endorse universal health care, energy conservation, universal citizen service along the Peace Corps/ AmericaCorps model, a reduction in income inequality, a restoration of constitutional protections of rights, and so on. Their renewed case for liberal governance is of a piece with Michael Tomasky’s influential essay arguing for a Democratic Party that stands for the core principle of the “common good” rather than a list of discrete planks pandering to every conceivable constituency.11

It is hard to imagine a large public listening intently to any of it as long as their government is enmeshed in a war with little promise of a happy resolution and no known exit strategy. Like Beinart, other Washington Democrats who endorsed the Iraq adventure on the way in are all too glad to talk about the long war against jihadists going forward, but all too cautious about confronting the endgame in Iraq. What the party transparently lacks is not ideas or pundits offering advice, but leaders. Those Democratic politicians who might lead have no intention of doing so until the night of November 7, after the voters have told them what to think.

This Issue

October 19, 2006