WITH ALL OUR MIGHT….Last week I read With All Our Might, a collection of essays by liberal national security wonks that was published recently under the aegis of the Progressive Policy Institute, an arm of the DLC. As with any collection of essays, the quality is variable, but reading them crystallized in my mind a fundamental problem that this volume shares with Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight: although both books sound toughminded about national security, they both tiptoe around the most fundamental question of all.

I’ve previously mentioned that Beinart’s vision for the future is pretty much standard liberal boilerplate, and it turns out that PPI’s is too. It might be unfair to foreshorten the arguments so radically, but basically the essays in With All Our Might recommend that we ally ourselves with Muslim moderates, support democracy, pay attention to economic development, support nuclear counterproliferation, transform the military, engage with allies, work toward energy independence, etc. etc. With a few minor exceptions, there’s really nothing there that MoveOn or Howard Dean or anyone else on the left would argue with very much.

So what’s all the argument about? I feel sort of stupid for saying something so obvious, but the argument is about when to use military force. Or, more accurately, I would feel stupid about saying something so obvious if it weren’t for the fact that both books seemingly go out of their way to avoid addressing this question. For all their talk about allies and restraint and soft power, would these authors support military strikes on Iran? North Korea? Darfur? How about special ops attacks on terrorist camps? Should we have crossed the border into Pakistan during the Afghanistan war? Should Russia withdraw from Chechnya? How long should we stay in Iraq?

I know there’s no tidy answer to this. There isn’t a magic formula that tells us when it’s right to support military action and when it isn’t. And yet, in a 14-part book about the war on terror, shouldn’t at least one chapter be devoted to Iraq? Shouldn’t at least one chapter be devoted entirely to the Bush Doctrine and what we’d replace it with? Shouldn’t at least one chapter be devoted to explaining when we will support military force, not merely repeating the mantra that we won’t use it except as a “last resort”?

Maybe I’m asking the impossible. And God knows this discussion would do nothing except magnify liberal fissures, rather than finding common ground. And yet, if toughminded liberals are going to criticize their weak-kneed brethren, shouldn’t they be a little more forthcoming about exactly how tough they think we ought to be?