Archive for Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Can liberals support war?

July 26, 2006

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"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

Well, the heck with that. That guy sounds like he supports the war in Iraq. That guy sounds squishy on Bush. How can he call himself a Democrat, rattling sabers like that? Where's the nuance, for crying out loud?

Alas, poor Joe Lieberman. The Democratic senator from Connecticut, bidding for his party's nomination for a fourth term, is trailing a blue-blooded millionaire named Ned Lamont with the Aug. 8 primary just two weeks away. Lieberman has been tried and convicted in the liberal blogosphere for being insufficiently opposed to the war in Iraq.

A generation ago - perhaps two generations now - Lieberman would have fit neatly into the category of a "Kennedy Democrat." A recent reading of "An Unfinished Life," Robert Dallek's 2004 biography of John F. Kennedy, shows how much has changed over those two generations.

John Kennedy and, especially, his brother Robert were ardent anti-communists. Whether it was Cuba, Berlin or Vietnam, they were prepared to back up the "pay any price, bear any burden" rhetoric of JFK's inaugural address. They were wary of the party's liberal wing, embodied in Adlai Stevenson, and were pleasantly shocked when Stevenson, the U.N. ambassador, muscled up on the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis.

The Kennedy brothers were killed and turned into all-purpose Democratic icons. Vietnam turned into a disaster, and the Democrats swore off muscular diplomacy. When they tried it, as with Jimmy Carter's Desert One fiasco, it backfired. When they should have tried it, as in Rwanda and Bosnia, they were there only under U.N. cover and with too little, too late.

Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan appropriated Jack Kennedy's anti-communist interventionism for the Republicans and, with a Polish pope, helped end the Cold War.

Now Islamic fundamentalism, stateless and state-run alike, has replaced communism as the great threat to Western democracies. And a few Democrats - although apparently not many in Connecticut - are wondering if the party can and should reassert the muscular approach to foreign affairs of Harry Truman and John Kennedy.

It would be too much to expect Democratic politicians to debate these ideas themselves, lest they antagonize liberal interest groups. Instead, the debate swirls around a new book by journalist Peter Beinart. The argument in "The Good Fight" is contained in its subtitle, "Why Liberals - and only Liberals - Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again."

Beinart's thesis is that the core belief of liberalism is that individual good is achieved only when the common good is achieved. When liberals fail to engage totalitarianism, whether in the form of a dictator like Saddam Hussein or a system that subjugates individuals, they fail their ideals.

Reagan's approach, one shared by President George W. Bush, was America as "that shining city upon a hill," spreading its ideals to the world, whether the world wanted them or not, or, in the case of Bush, whether we abide by them ourselves.

By contrast, Beinert says, liberals must recognize America's own failings and approach the world with humility, offering a shared struggle. He writes:

"Abroad, America shares power because we recognize our limits, both practical and moral. And we see that recognition not as a sign of weakness, but of strength. At home, America shares power because only by reviving democracy - taking it back from the forces of private interest and concentrated wealth - can government call its citizens to great tasks."

How would this apply to Iraq, and to poor Sen. Lieberman trying to defend his support for the war?

Beinart writes: "Iraq was a war of hubris and impatience: impatience with containment, and, to a lesser extent, impatience with tyranny. And while it has proved to be a fateful mistake, the latter instinct is at least admirable - as admirable as the right's yearning to liberate Eastern Europe decades ago. Only the most hardened partisan can resist feeling that there is something profoundly right about seeing Saddam Hussein on trial and seeing Iraqis trudge to the polls to choose his successors."

Thus, he says, liberals should acknowledge that the impulse to bring democracy to Iraq and the Middle East was, and is, not a bad thing, and something for which a Democrat need not apologize.

Shocking.

- Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His e-mail address is <a href="mailto:khorrigan@post-dispatch.com">khorrigan@post-dispatch.com</a>.

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