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December 06, 2004

Liberal war hawks

Peter Beinart is much smarter than I am. And so are all the people who have responded to Beinart's widely discussed article in The New Republic (site registration required) making the case for liberals to buy into the fight against Muslim extremism. I've read Beinart but not the people who responded to him, and my response here is not an intellectual one, which I am not qualified to make. It is a bitter, emotional one.

I'm a former Democrat. Formally, I switched parties in 1987, but the real switch for me was in 1980. I knew I was going to vote for Reagan a few months before the election, but I didn't realize until the morning after the election just how happy I was to have made that choice. And until I read Beinart's article, I had forgotten how angry I still am, as a former Democrat, at the party's foreign policy.

I have only two things to say about the article. First, Beinart's notion that Kerry and the party establishment's foreign policy advisors are liberal war hawks is absurd. Kerry is a dove through and through, from his disreputable efforts to undercut the American effort (and those still fighting) in Vietnam through his embrace of the nuclear freeze movement and his opposition to the Gulf War in 1991, all the way up to his crass, political decision to vote for the current war in Iraq because he knew he was going to run for President. The reason Kerry's pro-war position during the campaign was incoherent, in my view, is not so much that he was trying to cover his anti-war base at the same time (which is true) but that he did not actually believe in his own position.

Second, Beinart is deluded in believing that the military actions of the 1990s have anything to do with hawkishness. The unifying theme of Somalia, Kosovo, and Bosnia was altruism. While I fully believe there is an important place for altruism in American foreign policy, the peculiar form of altruism urged by Democrats in the 1990s made altruism the exclusive justification for American military action. If there could be found any possible American national interest in a military action, the moral justification for them was compromised. (This first dawned on me in 1993, when Anthony Lewis wrote in support of the action in Somalia.) What's different about the post-9/11 military actions we have taken, and what's different about the Bush Doctrine, is that we are taking action to protect American interests first and foremost. We make life better for the people living under Afghan and Iraqi tyranny by removing the national leadership that threatened the United States and by making institutions of freedom available to them. But we do this because establishing these institutions is likely to reduce the threat that these countries (and, optimistically, others) pose to us. If these near eastern nations were entirely peaceful, we would not invade to overthrow their governments, even if doing so increased the freedom enjoyed by their people (although I can imagine non-military means of trying to accomplish that goal).

Beinart's article simply reminded me of a big reason I left the Democrats behind. If his argument in favor of American power is the best that a Democrat can make, I have little hope for the party.