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Imaginary liberals, Part Four

David Schraub thinks my comments regarding the pro-defense liberalism of Peter Beinart and Martin Frost are too harsh. David makes an argument that I anticipated from liberals. I took exception to Beinart’s imperial claim that, in part because of their domestic policy agenda, “only” liberals can lead a successful war on terrorism. David responds by calling this “the mirror image of the Rovian assault Republicans have made on Democrats since 9/12/01.” “Turn about,” he concludes, “is fair play.”

But in his rush to attack Rove, David has misunderstood my argument. There is nothing objectionable about either side arguing that the other is unfit to lead the war on terror by virtue of its positions with respect to fighting terrorism. What I consider cheap is a claim that the other side is unfit to lead the war on terror by virtue of its domestic policies. To my knowledge, this is not an argument Karl Rove or any other serious Republican has made.

Still, as I said in my piece, if supported by evidence, the Beinart-Frost argument cannot be shrugged off merely because it’s displeasing. In my view, however, there is no good evidence that either Republican domestic policy or administration policies regarding the rights of terrorism suspects precludes conservatives from leading a successful war on terrorism.

David responds by noting that during the early stages of the Cold War, some of our diplomats reported that the U.S. was being “mauled” in the Third World because we tolerated racial discrimination at home. He argues that these sorts of cables caused the Justice Department to intervene on the side of the NAACP in the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education.

I’m familiar with some of the literature to the effect that that anti-Communism fueled the government’s eventual assault on Jim Crow. On the whole, I think the thesis is overblown and, in its extreme form, represents an attempt to ascribe a mildly mercenary (and, in the minds of some leftists, disreputable) motive to actions that had more to do with a sense of justice, thereby denying our governement the credit it is due.

But that’s really not the point. Let’s assume that the Justice Department intervened in Brown v. Board of Education because diplomats said it would help us defeat Communism. Let’s assume that Kennedy proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for the same reason. What’s missing is evidence that these moves had anything to do with us winning the Cold War decades later during the conservative Reagan administration.

But what about our treatment of terrorists and other detainees in the war on terrorism? Here I argued that “people in other countries favor or disfavor democracy based on their perception of their own interests, not their perception of the U.S.” David seems to agree but shrewdly tries to show that the perception by Arabs of the U.S. can influence how they feel about “western democracy.” He posits an Arab male who, following the liberation of his country, is initially attracted to democracy because of its promise that a democratic government will treat him fairly, only to become disillusioned when he sees how the U.S. actually treats prisoners.

There’s no doubt that genuine human rights abuses like Abu Ghraib can create anti-Americanism. It’s conceivable that they can even cause people to take up arms against us. What’s far-fetched, I believe, is the view that human rights abuses by Americans will cause people who might prefer self-government over a dictatorship to decide that a dictatorship is better after all. Arabs can certainly have a democratic government without adopting specifically American policies, a point that critics of the administration are fond of making.

Finally, David questions my claim that Beinart’s pro-defense views do not resonate with most Democrats. He cites and apparently credits Kevin Drum’s view that Beinart “could give the keynote address at YearlyKos and not really say much of anything the audience would disagree with” and that “if Beinart really is the standard bearer for a new incarnation of liberal hawkishness, then we’re almost all liberal hawks now.”

It’s certainly possible that mainstream Democrats are more in line with Beinart’s views than I give them credit for. But Drum’s statement doesn’t pass the straight-face test. As Beinart told David Horowitz, he’s calling for liberals not to let their national security views be defined like groups like MoveOn and people like Michael Moore. In fact, Beinart’s original article on the subject called for a purge of these left-wing elements from the Democratic party. And Beinart cites a Pew poll that in 2004 asked conservatives and liberals to indicate their top foreign policy priority. For conservatives, destroying al-Qaeda was number one. For liberals it was tenth. (To be sure, Beinart contrives to blame President Bush for the Democrats’ lack of urgency when it comes to destroying al-Qaeda). The top priority for liberals was abandoning Iraq, something Beinart opposes. Thus, Drum’s twin claims that no gap exists between Beinart and the Kos crowd, and that essentially all liberals are hawks, cannot be taken seriously except perhaps as evidence of how profoundly some liberals (but fortunately not Beinart and hopefully not Schraub) misconstrue what it means to be “hawkish.”

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