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A Liberal Vision for American Power

By Peter Beinart

What follows is an excerpt from Peter Beinart's new book The Good Fight : Why Liberals---and Only Liberals---Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again, published last month by Harper Collins.

This is a book about American liberalism, a political tradition so reviled that its adherents dare not speak its name. Sometime in the 1960s, conservatives began using "liberal" as an epithet, and after a while, liberals gave up trying to defend its honor. When pressed for a self- description today, many prominent liberals choose "progressive." And then they explain that they don't like labels.

There's no shame in ideological change. In its modern American context, liberalism--the belief that government should intervene in society to solve problems that individuals cannot solve alone--began with Franklin Roosevelt. Progressivism has older roots and different emphases. But yesterday's liberals haven't become today's progressives to evoke a different intellectual tradition; they have become progressives to escape intellectual tradition. With the flip of a label, they have cast off decades of disappointment and failure. Unburdened by the past, they can now define themselves on their own terms.

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What they need to remember, above all, is the cold war. Bill Clinton--by defusing racially saturated issues like welfare and crime, and wisely managing the economy--restored public faith in government action. But he did so at a time when the United States had turned in on itself, when international threats no longer shaped national identity. Today's political environment is more like the one that stretched from the late 1940s through the late 1980s, when debates about America were interwoven with debates about America's role in the world. And in this environment, conservatives have a crucial advantage: they have a usable past. Ask any junior- level conservative activist about the cold war, and she can recite the catechism: how liberals lost their nerve in Vietnam and America sank into self- doubt until Ronald Reagan restored America's confidence and overthrew the evil empire. Since September 11, conservatives have turned that storyline into a grand analogy: the Middle East is Eastern Europe, George W. Bush is Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair is Margaret Thatcher, the appeasing French are the appeasing French.

And running through this updated narrative is the same core principle that animated conservative foreign policy throughout the cold war: other countries are cynical and selfish, but the United States is inherently good. The more Americans believe in their own virtue, the stronger they will be.

Liberals have mocked the simplicity of this vision. They have derided the Bush administration's foreign policy by analogy, and its often tenuous grasp--and promiscuous rearranging--of the facts at hand. But while liberals pride themselves on their empiricism, that empiricism is no match for a narrative of the present based upon a memory of the past. When liberals finally got their shot at George W. Bush in 2004, it turned out that Americans didn't much care which candidate could recite his six- point plan for safeguarding loose nuclear material. They gravitated to the man with a vision of national greatness in a threatening world, something liberals have not had in a very long time.

The argument of this book is that there is such a liberal vision, and today's progressives can find it in the heritage they have tried to escape.

Its roots lie in an antique landscape, at the dawn of America's struggle against a totalitarian foe. And it begins not with America's need to believe in its own virtue, but with its need to make itself worthy of such belief. Around the world, the United States does that by accepting international constraints on its power. For conservatives--from John Foster Dulles to Dick Cheney--American exceptionalism means that we do not need such constraints. Our heart is pure. In the liberal vision, it is precisely our recognition that we are not angels that makes us exceptional. Because we recognize that we can be corrupted by unlimited power, we accept the restraints that empires refuse. That is why the Truman administration self-consciously shared power with America's democratic allies, although we comprised one-half of the world's GDP and they were on their knees.

Moral humility breeds international restraint. That restraint ensures that weaker countries welcome our preeminence, and thus, that our preeminence endures. It makes us a great nation, not a predatory one. At home, because America realizes that it does not embody goodness, it does not grow complacent. Rather than viewing American democracy as a settled accomplishment to which others aspire, we see ourselves as engaged in our own democratic struggle, which parallels the one we support abroad. It was not the celebration of American democracy that inspired the world in the 1950s and 1960s, but America's wrenching efforts--against McCarthyism and segregation--to give our democracy new meaning. Then, as now, the threat to national greatness stems not from self- doubt, but from self- satisfaction.

And at home and abroad, the struggle for democracy is also a struggle for equal opportunity. For many conservatives, liberty alone is the goal, and government action to promote social justice imperils it. But for modern liberals, championing freedom around the world requires championing development, because as the architects of the Marshall Plan understood, liberty is unlikely to survive in the midst of economic despair. And liberty also relies on equal opportunity at home. Vast economic inequality and deep economic insecurity alienate Americans from their government and leave it easy prey for the forces of private interest and concentrated wealth. That undermines American democracy, and with it, American security, because it is democracy's galvanizing power that gives America its critical advantage in long standoffs against dictatorial foes.

This vision has sometimes divided liberals themselves. Recognizing American fallibility means recognizing that the United States cannot wield power while remaining pure. From Henry Wallace in the late 1940s to Michael Moore after September 11, some liberals have preferred inaction to the tragic reality that America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world. If the cold war liberal tradition parts company with the right in insisting that American power cannot be good unless we recognize that it can also be evil, it parts company with the purist left in insisting that if we demand that American power be perfect, it cannot be good.

Peter Beinart is editor-at-large at The New Republic and author of The Good Fight: Why Liberals--and Only Liberals--Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (HarperCollins).

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