“A Fighting Faith”

This past week’s New Republic’s cover article was Peter Beinart’s “A Fighting Faith”, a post-election call for American liberals to confront Islamic totalitarianism, or else fade into irrelevance. Though these ideas have been floating around for a while, at least in general, this is a significant article, as it comes from one the flagship magazines of center-left opinion. Beinart begins by going recalling the efforts of the anti-Communist Left in organizing themselves against Soviet totalitarianism in the early days of the Cold War, and wonders why there haven’t been similar efforts among today’s Left in organizing itself against Islamic fascism, three years after 9/11.

He finds an answer in the world views of the most prominent “Softs” of today’s Left, represented (willinging or unwillingly) by Michael Moore and MoveOn.org, who apparently view Islamic totalitarianism as a scare tactic by the GOP to drive fearful Americans into the arms of conservatives. Moore says, “There is no terrorist threat,” and MoveOn argues that the “war on terror” (their scare quotes, not mine) diverts resources from domestic policy initiatives. The prominence of Michael Moore, MoveOn and similar groups among Democratic Party circles can be noted by the seats that they took at the convention and the money they raised during the election.

Kerry’s candidacy, Beinart argues, was a “compromise between a party elite desperate to neutralize the terrorism issue and a liberal base unwilling to redefine itself for the post-September 11 world.” Early Kerry votes that were hawkish were reversed when Dean’s candidacy looked strong (Dean was speaking directly to the Democratic base). After moving leftwards to quash Dean, Kerry couldn’t convincingly move back to the center and advocate a more aggressive war on Islamic totalitarianism. And this is what broke him in the end.

And so we have The New Republic’s article calling for a liberal mobilization against Islamic totalitarianism. Basically, liberalism’s voice must be taken back from the Moore faction of the Left. Beinart leaves out the details on how this is to be done, but it clearly involves a change in modern liberalism’s mindset about America’s role in the world and the morality of using American power. This struggle for the meaning of liberalism is deeply important, for both practical and philosophical reasons. Practical reasons, because liberals should be able to undertake the tasks in this war better that Bush’s conservatives, which will include nation building, the creation of multilateral instutitions, and so forth. That I voted for Bush in this past election was because I did not believe the Democrats did not see or understand this struggle with Islamic totalitarianism, whereas Bush got it. I believe we Democrats will do a better job once we, as a whole, get it. And doing a better job is vitally important.

And there are the philosophical reasons on why all this is deeply important, for what do we mean when we say we are liberals but oppose efforts to change totalitarian regimes? Consider that

when the Times asked Democratic delegates whether the “United States should try to change a dictatorship to a democracy where it can, or should the United States stay out of other countries’ affairs,” more than three times as many Democrats answered “stay out,” even though the question said nothing about military force.

What about feminist groups who should be support the spread of liberalism to the Muslim world as the way to change for the better the plight of Muslim women? Why should we ignore the illiberalism of supposed allies, merely because they dislike Bush? Whatever happened to liberalism’s humanitarianism, at least in terms of the big questions on the governments people live under?

Since the article’s publication, there has been a storm of reaction, positive, negative and in-between. The New Republic has published two pages of reader responses. Most interestingly is Kevin Drum’s piece for his Washington Monthly blog, which, at the end, asks if Islamic totalitarianism is the overwhelmingly dangerous threat we face today. Beinart’s response is that, yes, Islamic totalitarism is less of a threat that Soviet Communism, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t today’s paramount threat (his analogy is that segregation was the biggest issue in 1954, even though it pales in comparison to slavery; but by 1954 slavery wasn’t an issue). He takes Drum to task about the expansionist aims of Islamic totalitarianism, noting the ambitions of Al Qaeda vis-a-vis Nigeria (far from the Middle East, and only 50% Muslim) and Al Andalus. Beinart doesn’t note that Islam, particularly in the way its interpreted by bin Laden and his ilk, is a universalist movement, and that totalitarian movements, if not confronted, will grow in confidence, strength and violence. Lastly, Beinart notes that, while the Soviets had far great capability to kill Americans than the Islamists possess, the Soviets were constrained by intent and deterrence. In contrast, the Islamists are constrained only by capabilities.

WindsOfChange.net has a nice piece on the Beinart article, as do many other places. WoC also has their own responses to Kevin Drum. Jonah Goldberg notes that if Drum hasn’t already been convinced about the threat of Islamic totalitarianism by the wealth of articles that can be found by a casual web search, by the near incessant discussion on this topic since 9/11, then he can’t be convinced at all.

As a sort of side note, Michael Totten has an interesting post on modern liberalism’s unwillingness to study military history. This unwillingness, born from the 1960s anti-Vietnam War protests and its descendents, seriously hampers liberal critique of how the war on terror is being fought today. Trivially, we get a bunch of crappy anti-war slogans these days that show ignorance on, and indifference to, how wars are fought; there is no credibly alternative policy being proposed that doesn’t, say, lead to abandoning the Iraqis to their own fate. More seriously, Democrats can’t be credible about national security in a time of war; this will lose elections, and will also reinforce the problem, as liberal institutions that do serious thinking about national security are becoming fewer and fewer, the longer Democrats are away from the White House. And with fewer such insitutions, there are fewer places where a liberal interested in such matters can work for, and so on.

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