Peter Beinart has a long piece in the NY Times containing what are most likely excerpts from his coming book. He makes the rather obvious point that current US policy is made up of half-baked cold war era plans:
Consider George W. Bush's story: America represents good in an epic struggle against evil. Liberals, this story goes, try to undermine that moral clarity, reining in American power and sapping our faith in ourselves. But a visionary president will not be constrained, and he wields American might with relentless force, until the walls of oppression crumble and the darkest region on earth is set free.The solution, according to Beinert, is for liberals to ressurect their cold-era story:
If this sounds familiar, it should. It was Ronald Reagan's story as well. To a remarkable degree, the right's post-9/11 vision relies on a grand analogy: Bush is Reagan, Tony Blair is Margaret Thatcher, the "axis of evil" is the "evil empire," the truculent French are the truculent French...
Over and over during the last half-century, conservatives have looked at America and seen a society enfeebled by moral relativism. In the 1950's, they saw America's enemies on the march — with China, half of Europe and half of Korea newly in Communist hands. The culprit, they argued, was liberalism. The New Deal, with its collectivist principles, had blurred the distinction between Soviet Communism and American freedom. And modern culture was undermining old certainties, above all the belief in God. As a result, Americans lacked the ideological confidence of their fanatical totalitarian foes. And that self-doubt was making them weak. Whittaker Chambers, the communist turned conservative whose 1952 conversion tale, "Witness," strongly influenced the early cold-war right, said Americans would suffer defeat after defeat until their "faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as Communism's faith in Man." The West, added James Burnham, the most influential foreign-policy thinker in the National Review circle, was losing "the will to survive."
After Vietnam, conservatives saw the disease of self-doubt growing even more acute. Many on the American right hailed "How Democracies Perish," by the French author Jean-François Revel, which declared, "Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is working to destroy it." Into this dark, dispirited landscape came Ronald Reagan, saying the things conservatives had been waiting three decades to hear. "The era of self-doubt," he announced, "is over." And in perhaps the most famous speech of his presidency, Reagan in 1983 invoked Chambers to denounce the right's old scourge: moral relativism. Calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire," he admonished listeners to resist the temptation to "label both sides equally at fault, to. . .remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil."
When the Soviet empire fell, it became an article of conservative faith that it was Reagan's policies, and in particular the moral clarity that underlay them, that had turned the tide. In this way, the old story was transmitted to a new conservative generation, which made it their guide to the post-9/11 world.
But before Vietnam, and the disappointment and confusion it spawned, liberals did have a clear story of their own. In the late 1940's and 1950's, intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and policymakers like George F. Kennan described America's cold-war struggle differently from their conservative counterparts: as a struggle not merely for democracy but for economic opportunity as well, in the belief that the former required the latter to survive. Even more important, they described America itself differently. Americans may fight evil, they argued, but that does not make us inherently good. And paradoxically, that very recognition makes national greatness possible. Knowing that we, too, can be corrupted by power, we seek the constraints that empires refuse. And knowing that democracy is something we pursue rather than something we embody, we advance it not merely by exhorting others but by battling the evil in ourselves. The irony of American exceptionalism is that by acknowledging our common fallibility, we inspire the world.Mostly, I thought the piece was good. But after spending god knows how many paragraphs lambasting democrats for not having a coherent story on world politics, Beinart comes back to, essentially, John Kerry's foreign policy proposals of 2004. If you are going to propose that lectures on the dangers of unilateralism, close consultation with allies to be the cornerstone of a set of foreign policy proposals, you ought to recognize that it was done before.
The liberal story began with a different fear about America. If cold-war conservatives worried that Americans no longer saw their own virtue, cold-war liberals worried that Americans saw only their virtue. The A.D.A.'s most important intellectual — its equivalent of James Burnham — was the tall, German-American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was a dedicated opponent of communism, but he was concerned that in pursuing a just cause, Americans would lose sight of their own capacity for injustice. "We must take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization," he wrote. "We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimized." Americans, Niebuhr argued, should not emulate the absolute self-confidence of their enemies. They should not pretend that a country that countenanced McCarthyism and segregation was morally pure. Rather, they should cultivate enough self-doubt to ensure that unlike the Communists', their idealism never degenerated into fanaticism. Open-mindedness, he argued, is not "a virtue of people who don't believe anything. It is a virtue of people who know. . .that their beliefs are not absolutely true."
The only difference between Beinart and Kerry that I could see is that Beinart would prefer strongly tying this message into a theme of good vs. evil. Indeed, Beinart seems to have an obsession with grand narratives - one gets the sense that the problem with democratic foreign policy, according to him, is not that the proposals are bad, but that he can't see to tie them in one big picture.
To which I say, so what? If Beinart's concern is intellectual, then it should be no surprise that the world is too complex to fit in one grand narrative. If his concern is about explaining policy to the voters, he should take it up with the PR people in the DNC. I get the sense that explaining policy to the voters has more to do with effective 30-second ads rather than grand naratives.