Can imaginary liberals, and only imaginary liberals, win the war on terror?

I admire pro-defense liberals like Peter Beinart who support shaking off liberalism’s post-Vietnam syndrome, waging a vigorous world-wide war against Islamic jihadists, and (within the constraints we face) promoting democracy throughout the world. I regard these liberals more as allies than as adversaries, whatever their position may be on tax cuts, health care, and gay marriage. Although in my view Beinart has very little chance of winning his struggle for the hearts and minds of contemporary liberals, it is pleasing to fantasize that our politics might return to the situation that prevailed for a time during the Cold War — bipartisan commitment to aggressively combating those who were trying to destroy us. In that environment elections would be contested primarily on the basis of domestic policy issues and (in presidential elections) also on the basis of which candidate can provide the best leadership within a generally agreed up policy framework.

However, one should not overstate the extent to which, even if Beinart’s thinking were to prevail, we would return to that happy state. For thing, Beinart is a gentleman warrior, which gives rise to serious disputes about how to deal with terrorism. He frets, for example, about the treatment of, and lack of process granted to, the Guantanamo detainees. Try to imagine Beinart’s heroes Harry Truman (who dropped the big one on Japan twice) and JFK worrying about this. I’m unable to conjure up that image.

Moreover, Beinart doesn’t envisage Democrats asking for votes primarily on the theory that their domestic policies are better for our domestic welfare. His theme is that voters should prefer Democrats because, by virtue of their domestic, civil libertarian and internationalist positions, they are best able to lead the global war on terrorism. In fact, Beinart goes one unconscionable step further and argues that because of these positions only liberals are fit to lead that war. I don’t recall the Cold War Democrats making such imperial claims (my memory doesn’t extend back to Truman though). JFK, the best Democratic Cold Warrior in my memory, never claimed that Republican domestic policy disqualified that party from leading the Cold War. Kennedy didn’t even like to be bothered by issues like the minimum wage (and indeed civil rights). He wanted to focus like a lazar on protecting our national security.

None of this would be fatal to Beinart’s argument if he could offer compelling evidence to support it. However, as I noted here, Beinart’s heavy reliance of the role of the civil rights movement in the Cold War seems misplaced. Similarly, the arguments made by his fellow pro-defense liberal Martin Frost are unpersuasive. Frost argues that our efforts to promote democracy abroad are being undermined by the alleged mistreatment of detainees and supposed civil liberties abuses in the U.S. Frost offers no evidence for this proposition, and a moment’s reflection is enough to conclude that it is entirely implausible. Surely Frost does not believe that the terrorists in Iraq are trying to bring down the democratically elected government because of the interrogation techniques at Gitmo. Or that the Saudi government is resisting democratic reforms due to the NSA electronic intercept program. People in other countries favor or disfavor democracy based on their perception of their own interests, not their perception of the U.S.

Frost also peddles the notion that “the Bush administration’s moral certainty that America is perfect and can never make mistakes rings hollow with much of the rest of the world” and is undermining our anti-terror efforts. But the Bush administration doesn’t take the position that America is perfect and can never make mistakes. President Bush does hold our country and its institutions in high regard, and is not apologetic about this. But neither were the great Cold War leaders. Indeed, our success in prosecuting the Cold War tended to be at its peak under nationalistic leaders like President Reagan and at its nadir under President Carter, who was much more ambivalent about the extent to which America is virtuous. There’s no reason to believe that the reverse dynamic applies now.

I suppose that a certain amount of Bush-bashing is required of Beinart in order effectively to battle the anti-war portion of the Democratic party. But truth should not be first casualty of Beinart’s war.