A few days ago, reader Drennan Lindsay provided me with an insight with which I had been flirting but had not nailed down. Lindsay wrote, “The thrust of [Peter Beinart’s] thought is that only Liberals can win the War on Terror because they are morally superior.” Yes, I think that’s precisely what’s behind the odd notion that liberals, owing to the virtue of their domestic policies, are the only ones fit to lead the war on terrorism. It’s manifested in statements like that of Hamdan’s lawyer Lt. Col. Charles Swift, who told Chris Matthews that granting rights to terrorist detainees is “what makes us undefeatable ultimately.”
This is magical thinking, mixed with an unhealthy dose of narcissism. World history is full of examples in which unjust societies have triumphed militarily over more just ones. And we did quite well during wars in which we interned thousands of individuals due solely to their national origin, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, and so on.
Some might find it ironic that it’s liberals who think victory is inevitable as long as we remain morally superior. The Bush administration is supposed to be the home of theocratic, God is on our side, thinking. But conservatives seem less inclined to argue that moral superiority makes us “undefeatable ultimately.” We do believe that having a democratic system gives us an edge, but not that it renders us undefeatable. And we certainly don’t believe that our specific domestic policy preferences are a core component of a winning strategy in the war on terror.
Some liberals attempt to mask the magical nature of their thinking by arguing that our embrace of a civil rights agenda in the 1950s and 1960s was instrumental in winning the Cold War. As I’ve argued before, there is no evidence that this is true. Moreover, everything we know about how we actually won the Cold War tells us that our civil rights agenda played no part.
Before making this argument, however, it’s useful to ask what domestic policy today could play the role in the war on terror that the civil rights agenda is said by some liberals to have played in the Cold War. Health care policy? Not likely. Even liberals don’t argue that Medicare helped win the Cold War. Mass income redistribution? We won the Cold War without that. Gay marriage? Some ideologues seem to regard this as a civil rights issue on par with school desegregation. Even so, legalizing gay marriage is hardly the key to winning the hearts and minds of Muslims.
But let’s return to the Cold War. One problem for liberals arguing that the civil rights revolution helped us topple the Soviet Union is that, from a liberal perspective, this revolution ended almost 20 years before the Soviet Union fell. Indeed, Mary Dudziak, the leading exponent of the view that government’s embrace of the civil rights agenda was motivated by anti-Communism, complains that the government discontinued the civil rights revolution at the peak of the Vietnam War. Dudziak confuses income distribution with civil rights, but her underlying point tends to undercut the view that “progressive” domestic policies helped bring the Cold War to a successful end. That victory was achieved in a period when conservative domestic policies prevailed.
One might still argue that, had we not outlawed racial discrimination years earlier, we would not have won the Cold War. But that claim cannot withstand scrutiny. The Cold War ended when the Soviets threw in the towel. They threw in the towel for two related reasons. First, they knew they could not keep up with our weaponry. Second, they knew that their economic system had failed (and would continue to fail), and that our economic system was superior. These twin realities were enough to cause the Soviets to call it quits even at a time of sharp divisions in our alliance with Western Europe.
From this, one can infer that our strong defense policy and our pro-growth economic policies helped win the Cold War. But one cannot infer that Brown v. Board of Education played any role. Indeed, no rational observer could believe that the Soviet leaders would have elected to soldier on notwithstanding their untenable position and failing system had the U.S. not outlawed employment discrimination or passed the Voting Rights Act.
But, as I said, liberals are not being rational here.