On Tuesday, May 30, former New Republic editor (and current Editor-at-Large) Peter Beinart’s book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals — and Only Liberals — Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, was released. The book, whose title nicely sums up its contents, grew out of a controversial December 2004 cover story for TNR in which he argued that contemporary liberals should take a page from their Cold War forbearers for an idea of how to fight the war on terror.
Paul McLeary: Your book was foreshadowed by a somewhat controversial piece (at least in the liberal blogosphere) for TNR in December 2004, which held, in a nutshell, that Democrats need to take the threat of Islamic totalitarianism more seriously. Your book expands on that piece’s thesis. Were you working on the book when you wrote the piece, or did it spur you to start the book?
Peter Beinart: I decided to start writing this as a response to that piece. I wrote two follow-up columns in the New Republic about it, and one shorter version of the piece in the Washington Post.
PB: It didn’t surprise me that much, since I had gone after MoveOn.org, which is a popular and influential group among the Democratic base. The response kind of confirmed my suspicions and fears that there was a lot of confusion and lack of clarity about even the different positions that liberals have in the war on terror. Even the dividing lines were not at all distinct, and part of what I wanted to do was to articulate the position that I believed in, in greater detail, but also to be clearer about the alternative positions on the right and the left that I disagreed with.
PM: In writing about the postwar or early Cold War years, you outline how the left purged communists from their ranks. Obviously, we don’t necessarily have communists anymore, and there’s certainly no jihadist wing of the Democratic party, so how does the Cold War analogy compare to the Democratic party’s current position?
PB: There are a couple things. The debates in the late 1940s in the Democratic party were not only even mainly between what I would call anti-totalitarian liberals and communists. Henry Wallace was not a communist. Most of his supporters were not communists. The debate was really over whether anti-totalitarianism would be at the heart of what liberalism was; so the fundamental debate was about whether liberalism was an ideology defined only against the right, or whether it is what Arthur Schlesinger called the “vital center,” which is an ideology defined not only against the right, but also against totalitarianism. So that was not a debate between liberals and communists, it was a debate between anti-totalitarian liberals and liberals who did not see anti-totalitarian as important to liberalism.
So, you’re right, there is no jihadist wing of the Democratic party today, of course not. What there is, is a latent debate that needs to be had about the degree that anti-totalitarianism should be a critical principle for liberals today — which means liberals are engaged in an argument not only with conservatives, but the values of liberalism need to be defined not only in opposition to George W. Bush, but also very critically in opposition to this new form of totalitarianism.
PM: In the original TNR article and in the book, you make the case that you think many contemporary liberals don’t see defeating al Qaeda as a paramount national challenge.