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Authentically Liberal: How Democrats Can Defeat Terrorism and Win Elections

By Richard Holbrooke

Among the chattering classes, it has recently become commonplace to say that the Democrats are weak on national security. In the 1990s, when domestic issues dominated the public consciousness, polls showed little difference between the two parties on foreign policy. But after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there was a huge change. Until this spring, every poll taken in the past five years had indicated that the American public trusted Republicans -- seemingly any Republican -- more than Democrats on national security. "Foreign affairs assertiveness now almost completely distinguishes Republican-oriented voters from Democratic-oriented voters," a comprehensive report from the Pew Research Center stated in 2005. "Attitudes relating to religion and social issues are not nearly as important in determining party affiliation."

Given the actual record of the two parties since 1993, the Republicans' advantage is richly ironic. Although the first three years of President Bill Clinton's administration included foreign policy disasters in Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda, Clinton steadily gained in confidence and ability. When he left office, the United States sat alone on the commanding heights as the world's only superpower and was also, according to contemporaneous Pew polls, the most admired and respected country in the world.

The current administration still has more than two years left, and for the most part, its record is bleak. George W. Bush and his team came to office proclaiming that they would restore the United States' leadership role in the world. They have since diminished it. After 9/11 (which the Bush administration sought to blame on its predecessors), most of the world rallied in support of the United States, and the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan received the widest international and domestic support of any U.S. military action since World War II. But the 2003 war in Iraq caused a stunning decline in the United States' international standing, and not just among the tired, old, left-wing intelligentsia. Besides the war and its fallout, many other factors have further diminished U.S. influence abroad, including an unnecessarily pugnacious, often deliberately insulting style that is peculiar to certain members of the current sometimes dysfunctional national security team. There have been some real improvements, especially in high-level relations with Europe, since Condoleezza Rice took over the State Department. But these are not reflected in the United States' standing in most of the world.

Although there has been a recent outpouring of books on the foreign policy of the Clinton and Bush administrations, very little has been written about the political factors and processes that underlie U.S. foreign policy. Two new books shed light from entirely different angles on this elusive but critical issue. In The Good fight, Peter Beinart, editor-at-large of The New Republic, focuses on the internal struggle over national security policy that has raged within the Democratic Party since the end of World War II. In Politics Lost, Joe Klein, a Time magazine columnist and one of the leading political journalists in the United States, recounts how U.S. politics has been ruined by highly paid consultants and pollsters who mass-produce market-tested candidates lacking any soul or conviction -- the very process, as he describes it, by which Republicans gained their advantage on foreign policy.

THE ORIGINS OF ANTITOTALITARIANISM

Beinart has a Big Idea: liberal Democrats, who saved the free world during the Cold War with a sophisticated blend of idealism and pragmatism that he calls "liberal antitotalitarianism," can do it again in the war against the global jihad by returning to those ideals. Mining long-forgotten sources and recovering important buried history, Beinart's book is a fascinating journey through ancient, but still relevant, debates over national security within the Democratic Party during the past 60 years.

From 1946 on, including during today's debate over Iraq, Beinart argues, there have been two factions in the Democratic Party. One has opposed totalitarianism in all its forms, whether leftist, rightist, or jihadist; the other has been either semi-isolationist or soft on left-wing regimes. Beinart opens with a marvelous anecdote about a 1946 visit to Minneapolis by Henry Wallace, who had been Franklin Roosevelt's vice president until eighteen months earlier. Minneapolis' very young -- and very liberal -- mayor, Hubert Humphrey, who had supported liberals' anti-Nazi Popular Front alliance with the Communists during World War II, met Wallace, one of his political heroes, at the airport. Humphrey, then in the middle of a fight against communist efforts to take over his beloved Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, asked Wallace for support. Wallace's response was a blank stare and evasions. "Humphrey was stunned," Beinart writes. "Several open communists had driven Wallace from the airport. Liberalism was headed for civil war and the man [Humphrey had] once idolized would be on the other side."

In response to the far left's soft policy toward Soviet-directed communism, centrist liberals organized the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) in early 1947. Although they later came under fierce attack by right-wing Republicans as being soft themselves, these liberal anticommunists in fact provided seminal thinking and political muscle during the most creative period of U.S. foreign-policy making in history. In addition to Humphrey, the ADA's founding generation included Eleanor Roosevelt; Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; John Kenneth Galbraith; the great union leaders Walter Reuther and David Dubinsky; and the United States' leading Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. (Niebuhr's stunningly prescient writings, which called on Americans to seek a morally better universe while recognizing the impossibility of achieving it, set the theme for Beinart's book.) On domestic policy, members of the ADA were unabashed New Dealers; on civil liberties, they were very liberal; and on civil rights, they were well ahead of their time. But on foreign policy, the ADA's members "broke ranks [with the far left], declaring [the ADA's] opposition to communism overseas, and its refusal to cooperate with communists at home," Beinart writes. "They altered American history and committed themselves to a new liberalism."

The ADA was a perfect match and an important source of intellectual and political support for the legendary foreign policy team of Harry Truman's administration: Dean Acheson, George Marshall, George Kennan, Averell Harriman, Paul Nitze, Clark Clifford, Will Clayton, and, of course, Truman himself. In the eighteen months following the creation of the ADA, events in Europe -- the rape of Czechoslovakia, Stalin's blockade of Berlin, communist show trials and purges -- confirmed the worst fears of the ADA's founders and the Truman administration. Truman's response -- which included the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the formation of NATO and the modern National Security Council system (including the creation of the Defense Department and the CIA), and the Point Four program (the first foreign-aid project aimed specifically at the developing world) -- was a nearly pitch-perfect blend of military, ideological, political, and economic programs to meet the threat on every front. Liberal anticommunist foreign policy leadership reached its apogee in June 1950, when Truman ordered U.S. forces to defend South Korea after the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel. It is ironic that today's Republican leaders, whose predecessors mocked and fought Truman, single him out as a role model.

THE GREAT SCHISM

After discussing the presidency of John F. Kennedy -- whose masterful handling of history's only nuclear confrontation between superpowers deserves revisiting in light of the current Iran crisis -- Beinart turns to the Vietnam War era, when the pursuit of a laudable but unattainable goal led to the breakup of the mainstream Democratic consensus into factions represented by two powerful Democratic senators, Henry "Scoop" Jackson, of Washington State, on the right and George McGovern, of South Dakota, on the left. The split has continued, with different players, right up to today.

Vietnam also broke up the original ADA, many of whose founders became leading opponents of the war. But not all liberal Democrats turned left. In this regard, Beinart understates the importance of the rise of the neoconservative movement during the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. The original neoconservatives were all Democrats (most of them followers of Jackson) who continued to support the war in Vietnam and felt that Carter was not tough enough with the Soviet Union. Led by Jeane Kirkpatrick and Richard Perle, they attacked their Democratic colleagues ferociously, and eventually signed up with Reagan, who, as a former New Deal Democrat himself, understood the cultural and political roots of Franklin Roosevelt's coalition.

The prevailing sentiment among most of my left-wing Democratic colleagues at the time was "good riddance." After all, the neoconservatives were angry, nasty, and soft on right-wing dictators such as the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos and the Argentine generals. Even worse, they had been wrong on Vietnam, the defining issue for an entire generation of Americans. At first, they seemed to be not much more than a group of minor hothouse intellectuals. As the new Carter administration began controversial arms control talks with Moscow, Leslie Gelb (then head of the State Department's Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs) tried to bring Perle into the Carter-Cyrus Vance State Department in an attempt to create a broad coalition in the style of those Truman and Kennedy had built. But Gelb's efforts were rejected by Vance and his advisers. (Reagan, by contrast, gave Nitze a key negotiator's job, a shrewd move that turned an opponent of arms control into an advocate.)

At the time, few Democrats recognized the long-term costs of the neoconservatives' departure to the Republican Party. But the costs were real -- not only for the Democrats but for the country as a whole. The entry into the Reagan camp of this critical group of center-right and right-wing national security Democrats simultaneously eroded the Democratic Party's credibility with the public on national security and ended the dominance of the Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger-George H. W. Bush wing of the Republican Party (the so-called realpolitik school).

Today, according to Beinart, "neocons still call themselves the true heirs of the Cold War liberalism." This is only partly true. For one thing, the ideology of the post-Cold War neoconservatives weakens their claim. The new breed of neoconservative has a reflexive horror of most forms of international institutions: whereas Kirkpatrick supports strengthening the United Nations through reform, for instance, most younger neoconservatives would like to see the organization weakened or abolished. Post-Cold War neoconservatives are also too ready to use (or at least threaten to use) force. It is impossible to imagine Truman or Kennedy (or Dwight Eisenhower, Nixon, or George H. W. Bush, for that matter) starting a war in Iraq when the United States was already fully engaged, and had not yet achieved success, in a conflict in Afghanistan.

In fairness, George W. Bush's second administration has made a serious, and partially successful, effort to undo some of the damage the first Bush team caused. Secretary of State Rice has tried to rebuild many key relationships -- although without admitting there was anything wrong with them in the first place. Notably, she has pushed Washington to reengage the Balkans after four years of policy drift and neglect, seized the opportunity provided by a new government in Germany, and tried to adjust failed negotiating strategies with North Korea and Iran (although U.S. policy toward both countries currently seems to be stuck between old and new approaches). The United States' bilateral relationships with a few countries, particularly India, have improved. And Bush's greatest positive legacy in international affairs, his program for fighting AIDS worldwide, has already saved many lives and stimulated a worldwide effort.

But the damage from the first term has been so severe that it will be difficult to repair it fully on this administration's watch. Bureaucratic warfare -- far fiercer than normal -- still undermines clear, coherent policymaking on many issues, including North Korea, Iran, and the UN. But it is Iraq, more than anything else, that is weakening U.S. influence abroad -- not because of a loss of domestic support for the war, as conservatives like to argue, but because the situation there seemingly continues to get worse no matter what the United States does. Such a legacy seriously weakens U.S. leadership, even as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates and the Western alliance heads into what is sure to be a protracted confrontation with Iran. Yet conservatives, Beinart notes, "generally greet skyrocketing anti-Americanism with a shrug."

Beinart reminds liberals that they should not be smug about the problems the Bush administration faces. Because the president uses neo-Wilsonian rhetoric while following policies that often undermine Wilsonian goals, liberals who have long advocated human rights and democracy promotion face a real dilemma. Beinart is deeply concerned that many liberals, driven by their hostility to Bush, will "turn away from the very idea that anti-totalitarianism should sit at the heart of the liberal project." But, he argues, liberals must not repudiate their own principles simply because a Republican administration that talks the talk does not walk the walk.

And so back to Beinart's Big Idea. He thinks that the distinction between conservatives and liberals is simple: conservatives do not believe the United States should accept "international constraints on its power ... because American exceptionalism means that we do not need such constraints," whereas "in the liberal vision, it is precisely our recognition that we are not angels that makes us exceptional." "Because we [liberals] recognize that we can be corrupted by unlimited power, we accept the restraints that empires refuse. Those restraints insure that weaker countries welcome our preeminence, and thus, that our preeminence endures," Beinart writes. This is the root of his call for Democrats to return to their antitotalitarian roots and adapt the principles of their struggle against communism to the fight against the international jihad.

Like the Cold War, this campaign will be waged on many fronts for a long time. Beinart believes that because of their traditions the Democrats are far better equipped to win it. Of course, he does not mean all Democrats; he means only those who feel that the United States has a great mission to pursue in the world. "If today's liberals," he writes, "cannot rouse as much passion for fighting a movement that flings acid at unveiled women as they do for taking back the Senate in 2006, they have strayed far from liberalism's best traditions." This is somewhat unfair; I know of no Democrat who is not strongly opposed to such outrages, but responsibility for U.S. action lies with the party in power. There is, therefore, a perfectly valid rationale for making it a priority to retake the Senate; if the Democrats gain control of even one house of Congress, they will have far more influence on foreign policy, including how the United States reacts to the abuse of women in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

SEARCHING FOR BOBBY KENNEDY

It may seem curious at first to bracket Beinart's liberal cri de coeur with Klein's new book about the current state of U.S. politics. But although Klein discusses presidents and campaigns of all persuasions, it is the Democrats who can learn the most from Politics Lost -- even though some will find its lessons painful. (Full disclosure: Klein is a friend of mine.) Marshalling anecdotes from every phase of a journalistic career that began in 1968, Klein describes how almost every ounce of spontaneity has been squeezed out of politics in the United States by political consultants who view their candidates as commodities to be marketed.

Unlike most journalists, Klein writes from the inside out -- not because he is an insider, although he sometimes is, but because he throws everything he has into his emotional, often witty prose. His is not the cool analytic style of a David Broder or the detached irony of a George Will. Klein is on a perpetual search for the honest politician and for those magical moments when leaders connect with real people. For him, the quintessential event of modern American politics came on the evening of April 4, 1968, when Robert Kennedy, campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president, climbed onto the back of a flatbed truck in Indianapolis and gave a spontaneous, "powerfully simple" speech in which he told a predominantly black crowd that Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot and killed just an hour earlier. As Klein notes, Kennedy's appeal for calm was not only memorable but effective; in the days that followed, there were riots in 76 U.S. cities in which 46 people died and 28,000 were jailed. Indianapolis remained quiet.

What Klein sees as he reviews his long career drives him to despair mixed with rage. Although he well understands the importance of issues, television, new media, and the amount of time candidates must spend raising money, Klein focuses on the interplay between candidates and their advisers. He cites a few advisers and consultants whom he respects and does not hesitate to name those he thinks did the worst jobs. Many of those he has covered, especially Democrats, for whom he reserves the heaviest artillery, will be unhappy with his views. (Klein saves some of his strongest words for Robert Shrum, the longtime Democratic political strategist who has constantly sought to recast the candidates he has advised -- including Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 -- in neopopulist terms while downplaying the importance of national security and foreign policy.) At times, Klein lets Republicans off the hook too easily, perhaps because his personal closeness to many Democrats leads him to be tougher on them. But this is his story, and there is real value in seeing U.S. politics through the very personal lens of one of the country's best journalists.

Without planning to, Klein and Beinart meet on common ground. Both are searching for candidates who have convictions, not just positions; for politicians who are statesmen and stateswomen, not just cardboard figures. Klein's often hilarious book will not cure politicians of their dependency on political consultants, although if it diminishes the number of focus groups used in U.S. politics, it will have provided a truly valuable public service. Perhaps Politics Lost will stimulate a few more politicians to think for themselves, speak from the heart, and show Americans what they really stand for. And if Beinart's book gives the Democrats a better sense of their heroic history and helps them organize around a new-old principle about the United States' role in the world -- well, that would really be something.

Richard Holbrooke is former U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

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