Liberal Words, Illiberal Ends

LIBERAL WORDS, ILLIBERAL ENDS….I have a few more things I want to say about Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight, and now’s as good a time as any.

First: it’s a pretty good book. Most of it is an intellectual history of the “anti-imperialist” left in America, a subject that dominates the first half of the book and then continues to weave its way through the second half even when the main focus of the narrative changes. I’ll leave it to others to judge whether Beinart summarizes this history fairly, but he does a snappy and readable job of telling his story. It’s a quick read.

Second: it’s a book that can provoke a lot of questions and start a lot of arguments. Here’s an example. One of Beinart’s biggest concerns is that liberals are throwing out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to the war on terror:

A November 2005 M.I.T. study…found that only 59 percent of Democrats ? as opposed to 94 percent of Republicans ? still approved of America’s decision to invade Afghanistan. And only 57 percent of Democrats ? as opposed to 95 percent of Republicans ? supported using U.S. troops to “destroy a terrorist camp.” George W. Bush, in other words, has used the war on terror to cover such a multitude of sins that for many liberals the whole idea of focusing the nation’s energies on defeating global jihad (whether you call that effort the “war on terror” or something else) has fallen into disrepute. Just as Vietnam turned liberals against the cold war, Iraq has now turned them against the war on terror.

Now, maybe he’s right about this. I don’t think the evidence is quite as damning as Beinart makes it out to be, but poll after poll makes it clear that at the very least the war on terror doesn’t rank very high on the list of things liberals care about these days.

But ? Beinart also makes it abundantly clear that he recognizes just how badly George Bush has politicized the war on terror, misused the military, and made fundamental strategic mistakes of a catastrophic nature. And as I mentioned a few days ago, his prescription for how liberals should conduct the war on terror going forward is decidedly non-martial. It is, frankly, not much different from what John Kerry said during the 2004 campaign, and not something that most liberals would find much fault with.

So what is it that Beinart really wants from antiwar liberals? The obvious answer is found less in policy than in rhetoric: we need to engage more energetically with the war on terror and criticize illiberal regimes more harshly.

Maybe so. But this is something that’s nagged at me for some time. On the one hand, I think Beinart is exactly right. For example, should I be more vocal in denouncing Iran? Sure. It’s a repressive, misogynistic, theocratic, terrorist-sponsoring state that stands for everything I stand against. Of course I should speak out against them.

And yet, I know perfectly well that criticism of Iran is not just criticism of Iran. Whether I want it to or not, it also provides support for the Bush administration’s determined and deliberate effort to whip up enthusiasm for a military strike. Only a naif would view criticism of Iran in a vacuum, without also seeing the way it will be used by an administration that has demonstrated time and again that it can’t be trusted to act wisely.

So what to do? For the most part, I end up saying very little. And Beinart is right: there’s a sense in which that betrays my own liberal ideals. But he’s also wrong, because like it or not, my words ? and those of other liberals ? would end up being used to advance George Bush’s distinctly illiberal ends. And I’m simply not willing to be a pawn in the Bush administration’s latest marketing campaign.

I don’t have a very good answer for this dilemma. And I’m not very happy about it. Feel free to whack away in comments.