A couple of years ago, Peter Beinart, a former editor of The New Republic, wrote a book entitled The Good Fight: Why Liberals - and Only Liberals - Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. It was a better book than the unfortunate title would suggest. What I took from it was Beinart's insistence that "antitotalitarianism should sit at the heart of the liberal project". Beinart maintains that the Bush administration, in prosecuting the war in Iraq, has failed to understand the limits of American power, and that liberals need to rescue the cause of the war on terror (a term he uses correctly and without irony) from conservatism. He considers it an irony that he himself failed to understand this point when extending (as he now believes) disastrously mistaken support to the Iraq intervention.
Christopher Hitchens wrote a fairly uncomplimentary review of the book for The Atlantic in which he took issue both with Beinart's historical parallel with the Truman Doctrine and with "Beinart’s wishful and halfhearted belief that Saddam Hussein could have been contained". My position is more sympathetic than Christopher's to the postwar liberal and social democratic tradition in foreign policy, and my own short book Antitotalitarianism, published in 2005, advances a similar argument to Beinart's but from British politics. I firmly agree, though, with Christopher's stance on the Iraq War and share his view that: "If American liberalism had seriously wanted to regain its moral standing after the Cold War ended, the re-emergence of the one-party, one-leader aggressive state, in the forms of Greater Serbia and Greater Iraq, should have provided the ideal opportunity." British liberalism has greater perspicacity on this point, at least in the form of a prime minister, Tony Blair, whose influence on international affairs I consider to have been powerfully to the good.
All of this is by way of background to an interesting piece on TNR's website by the historian Jeffrey Herf on the foreign policy positions of the contenders for the Democratic nomination. He comments:
"This year’s Democratic primaries raise the following question: Is the Democratic Party any longer the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that is, the Roosevelt of the New Deal as well as the Roosevelt whose leadership and decisions were absolutely indispensable to defeating Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan in World War II? Cass Sunstein, among others, rightly evokes Roosevelt’s legacy of domestic social and economic reform. Today, in the form of the now familiar varieties of radical Islamism, we face an enemy that bears more similarities to fascism and Nazism than any other ideological movement of similar dimensions since World War II. The radical Islamists celebrate the murder of innocent civilians, proudly declare their hatred for the Enlightenment, liberal democracy, capitalism, communism and socialism, feminism, wage war on black Africans in Darfur, despise the United States and yes, also revive radical anti-Semitism in ideology and practice. To point this out is not “neoconservative ideology.” It is the unpleasant truth. These ideas and actions call for an American counter-offensive, one animated by a liberalism with deep and abiding memories of Roosevelt."
Professor Herf is concerned that this unpleasant truth is largely absent from Democratic debates on foreign policy. This is a dispiriting conclusion for us European liberals. I believe it is true, as Herf says, that the difference between Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, "especially in foreign policy, [is] that she is a centrist Democrat whose ideas are far 'newer' than his while he is a left-liberal Democrat whose ideas are largely those of the Democratic orthodoxy of the pre-Bill Clinton Democratic Party." It is for this reason that I wish for a Clinton candidature. But Beinart's message is clearly a minority opinion within American liberalism, and I wish this were not so.
NOTE: Jeffrey Herf is the author of, among many other works, one of the best books I have read concerning the end of the Cold War in Europe. It is War by Other Means: Soviet Power, West German Resistance, and the Battle of the Euromissiles, 1991. A scholar of German history, Professor Herf traces the debate within the FRG in the 1980s over Nato's deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles as a counter to Soviet intermediate-range nuclear forces. I am very much in agreement with Professor Herf's view (p. x), as relevant now as when he wrote it, that: "A redefined Atlanticism with a united Germany still firmly anchored in the West, continued European economic integration, and a United States still engaged in Europe are all key to a peaceful Europe composed of free democratic states."