The reviews are in

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

Say what you will about Peter Beinart's argument about liberals and foreign policy, it sure does inspire some brilliant reviews. I recently came across three of them, all excellent. First there was Kevin Mattison's in the Boston Review, here:

Beinart's effort to yoke the Taliban and the totalitarianism of the Cold War is understandable. It helps him de-emphasize radical Islamic zealotry as the motivating factor of terror and violence. It is a point that Berman had already made in Terror and Liberalism: any talk of a "clash of civilizations" is dangerous since it places the United States in the position of fighting Islam. Yoking radical Islam with Western totalitarianism, as Berman and Beinart do, allows one to evade a story of civilizational conflict. But good motives do not ensure effective analogies. And this analogy needs to work if it is to generate the level of anxiety that nurtures Beinart's liberal hawkism.

Cold War writers rightly understood totalitarianism as distinctly modern and Western. Fascism had arisen in Western Europe, after all, and Marxist communism was a by-product of the Enlightenment. This explains why totalitarian ideas demanded serious attention. They held a certain appeal for "Western man" living in a new "age of anxiety," as Arthur Schlesinger put it in his 1949 classic The Vital Center.

But who today believes that radical Islam offers something to Western man living in his current age of anxiety? Schlesinger knew their numbers were small, but he reminded his readers that the Soviet Union did have its supporters -- for example, within the ranks of Henry Wallace's Progressive Party. He could also point to numerous memoirs of ex-communists who explained why the ideology had appealed to them. The I-was-once-a-communist books were central to the forging of Cold War political thought. Whittaker Chambers's Witness, James Wechsler's The Age of Suspicion, the essays gathered in The God That Failed -- all had different interpretations, but each included a narrative about the author's life that explained the power and error of communist ideas. So where are the books by the former adherents of radical Islam? It is hard to imagine if John Walker Lindh told his personal tale today that it would matter.

[...]

Finally, and perhaps most embarrassingly, Beinart's historical analogy is misleading about the imperial ambition and power of our new enemy. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mullah Omar is neither Hitler nor Stalin. As Arendt wrote, totalitarian regimes are bent on "world conquest." Beinart admits that radical Islam's influence is shrinking geographically. But he doesn't think this point through. During the Cold War, people looked at the map, and it seemed that the Soviet Union really was gobbling it up. And, just as importantly, communism promised hope to alleviate poverty in Africa and Asia. Today, by Beinart's own admission, Salafist ideology "directs no governments and no armies" and lacks "communism's universalist appeal." We need to understand terrorism, but the category of totalitarianism obscures more than it illuminates.

From Kevin Baker in Harper's (this review, which is not online, contains the most wonderful takedown of Joe Klein's silly new book imaginable, before turning, much more respectfully, to Beinart):

In marked contrast to Klein's fake seriousness, Peter Beinart's The Good Fight is that rare pundit volume that offers something that is, in fact, serious -- a real historical narrative for liberals to rally around. Whether the narrative itself is the right one is another question. ... Liberals in the postwar era were willing to admit that America had problems with poverty; with health care, education, urban decay, and especially with race -- and they were going to do something about it. (Not coincidentally, these are all questions Klein professes himself to be the most bored with.)

Too often, Beinart glosses over much of his story, refusing to contemplate the things we actually did in the course of the Cold War. Patrice Lumumba, Salvador Allende, Archbishop Romero, and Nelson Mandela were all victims of "our" side in that murky struggle, along with who knows how many forgotten labor leaders, peasant organizers, intellectuals, schoolteachers and social workers, priests and nuns. Real moral courage means looking that in the face.

[...]

This is the tragedy that liberalism confronts today, the truth that dares not speak its name. No one wants to see the Islamo-fascists, the head-choppers, the death squads, and the woman-haters triumph in Baghdad, or anywhere else. But the real war the right wing is fighting is over here. It always has been, and it's difficult to understand why Beinart can't see that after the impeachment of Clinton; one (and maybe two) stolen presidential elections; the ruthless, cynical exploitation of every turn in the war on terror; and the relentless invective -- and now even calls for the imprisonment and execution of any number of liberals -- from the Republicans' privately sponsored media. During the Cold War, too, the Republican right usually displayed much more enthusiasm for destroying liberalism at home than rolling back Communism abroad. The crucial difference was that Democrats still held the White House at the beginning of that struggle. More moderate Republicans cynically exploited Cold War fears to win back the presidency, but at least they could be relied upon to check the worst excesses of the far right. What we have now is not Ike's Republican Party. Picture, instead, a dozen clean-and-sober Joe McCarthys, backed by a thousand Roy Cohns, majorities in every branch of government, and oceans of cash.

And here is the great Frank Rich in The New York Review of Books:

What undermines the sounder policy prescriptions in The Good Fight is its underlying animus -- an animus that is all too much in keeping with the mindset that led Beinart and others like him to embrace the Iraq war with few questions and much self-righteous arrogance in 2002 and early 2003. However many quarrels he has with the Bush administration, Beinart is still hoping to prove that those who did not get it wrong were somehow wrong anyway -- or at least more wrong than he was, and more frivolous. This leads him to echo the Bush White House, as he attempts to conflate the serious pre-invasion opponents of the Iraq war with a mindless, cut-and-run mob of peaceniks who don't understand the threats to national security posed by Islamic radicalism, who opposed war in Afghanistan and who now can't be trusted to protect America because they're too busy hating Bush to take on terrorists. He warns darkly that this crowd could yet hijack the Democratic Party with apocalyptic results:

For too many liberals today, George W. Bush's war on terror is the only one they can imagine.... If today's liberals 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. And if they believe it is only George W. Bush who threatens America's freedoms, they should ponder what will happen if the United States is hit with a nuclear or contagious biological attack. No matter who is president, Republican or Democrat, the reaction will make John Ashcroft look like the head of the ACLU.

"Many liberals?" How many? Such overstatement, bordering on hysteria and laced with unearned condescension, is a common tic among liberal pundits who supported the war in Iraq and now regret it. This impulse came out in force after the victory of Ned Lamont over Joe Lieberman in the Democratic senatorial primary in Connecticut. Writing in Slate, for instance, Jacob Weisberg argued that Lamont's victory over Lieberman "spells Democratic disaster" because it will lead the party to "re-enact a version of the Vietnam-era drama that helped them lose five out of six presidential elections between 1968 and the end of the Cold War." Though conceding (in a marvelously revealing phrase) that "Lieberman's opponents are not entirely wrong about the war," Weisberg lamented that too many of those opponents "appear not to take the wider, global battle against Islamic fanaticism seriously."

"Appear," of course, is as elastic a formulation as Beinart's "many liberals." Appear where? Usually on blogs, especially (in Beinart's book) those at MoveOn Peace (since subsumed into moveon.org), whose most naive post-September 11 pacifists he quotes with relish. Such bloggers certainly represent a constituency within the Democratic Party (or those that believe in the two-party system do). But there's no evidence to support the liberal hawks' fear that peaceniks who minimize the threat of Islamic fanaticism amount to a sizable contingent anywhere in America, including among Democrats. If this is a movement, it is one with no plausible national candidate or even statewide candidate (including Lamont, who is against the Iraq war but not against Beinart's good fight against Islamic terrorists). Its most popular leader by far is Michael Moore, whose most risible leftist preachments are examined from as far back as 1986 in The Good Fight. Implicitly serving as the boogeyman heir both to Henry Wallace and his fellow travelers and to New Left radicals who greased the skids for the debacle of the McGovern campaign, the boorish filmmaker is Beinart's exemplar of the kind of mindless lefty tempting to lead the Democrats astray.

He's also a straw man. It's hard to argue that Moore, a diva whose shtick is hyperbole and provocation, has fomented any movement that threatens to take over the Democratic Party or even Hollywood. Fahrenheit 9/11 -- seen by less than a third of the audience of leading 2004 hits like Shrek 2 and The Passion of the Christ -- did not move election results; it did prompt an outpouring of liberal documentaries, most of which have barely registered at the box office (Gore's An Inconvenient Truth being a modest exception). However many reflexive pacifists there may be in Moore's audience, or at Cindy Sheehan rallies, or on blogs, the number of Americans who opposed defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban after September 11 was a tiny fringe; Bush enjoyed nearly 90 percent-plus support, including for the war in Afghanistan, with good reason.

The tragedy is that when Bush betrayed the country's trust and hijacked a united citizenry for his own ends there were too many liberals who went MIA, whether in Congress or on opinion pages, at a time, as Beinart concedes, when such a principled opposition "was needed most." That opposition could have rallied around the same principles that are espoused in The Good Fight without succumbing to Bush propaganda about a war that has done more to harm the battle against terrorism than any blogging pacifist has. It would have been a far better thing for the country if liberal hawks had articulated those principles clearly then without compromising them. Their inability to do so was a systemic intellectual failure that Beinart's book only begins to address. And while it's better late than never to stand up for the credo outlined in The Good Fight, what current Democratic leader does not now endorse the same basic national security catechism as Beinart's, from Howard Dean to Hillary Clinton? The only real debate among Democrats today is over the timetable for the inevitable drawdown of American troops from Iraq, not from the battle against Islamic terrorists. So limited is the power of the leftist activists feared by Beinart that they have been unable to persuade most Democratic candidates in tight election races this fall to support any plan for a precipitous Iraq withdrawal.

Abe Foxman: Commissar, McCarthyite

Some of these official Jews have really gotten out of hand. Personally I disagree with Tony Judt's solution for the Middle East, and his essay on American liberals was way unfair and imprecisely argued. But my goodness, just who does Abe Foxman think he is? And by what right does he think he gets to decide who's an anti-Semite, this little McCarthyite judging a distinguished historian and foreign policy scholar like Judt. Take a look at this email I received yesterday forwarded to me by a number of people:

You might be interested to learn the following:

I was due to speak this evening, in Manhattan, to a group called Network 20/20 comprising young business leaders, NGO, academics, etc, from the US and many countries. Topic: the Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. The meetings are always held at the Polish Consulate in Manhattan

I just received a call from the President of Network 20/20. The talk was cancelled because the Polish Consulate had been threatened by the Anti-Defamation League. Serial phone-calls from ADL President Abe Foxman warned them off hosting anything involving Tony Judt. If they persisted, he warned, he would smear the charge of Polish collaboration with anti-Israeli antisemites (= me) all over the front page of every daily paper in the city (an indirect quote). They caved and Network 20/20 were forced to cancel.

Whatever your views on the Middle East I hope you find this as serious and frightening as I do. This is, or used to be, the United States of America.

Tony Judt

Might George W. Bush actually issue a pardon to I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby before his mid-January trial even begins? Former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega believes this a genuine (if explosive) possibility after the midterm elections are finished, in part because the trial judge has been moving the case, a potential major embarrassment to the administration, toward trial with all due speed.

In such a scandal-ridden, edge-of-election moment in Washington, it's easy enough to let older scandals slip from sight. Right now, that's the case with Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's upcoming prosecution of I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Cheney's former right-hand man. As it happens, however, even if we've taken our eyes off the case (and the set of scandals behind it), key administration figures haven't, because, as de la Vega explains, the Libby case, when laid out in court, will threaten to unravel the Vice President's command post in full view of the public and Libby's hopes to avoid a trial by various legal maneuvers have faded badly.

Bill Moyers' three-part show on the Abramoff scandal starts tonight. The Mets will already have won, so you can watch it live if you want. Read all about it here.

May I suggest Joe Klein, Andrew Sullivan, and Charles Krauthammer in that order...

Nahh, ABC News doesn't pay for interviews. They only pay licensing fees for really, really important stories like dead croc hunters. ... Other stories, well, they're not so sure. Made-up stories about Bill Clinton? Priceless.

Remember that Times story about the Yale women all dropping out? Forget it. (Well, remember it, but not for the reasons the Times wants you to.)

Alter-reviews:

I don't feel like I have anything to say about the Stones or Clapton last week. But I did want to give what the young folks call a "shout out" to "my main man," Wynton Marsalis and the JAZZ@LC presentation of Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. It was a concert and a history lesson at the same time, which is my favorite kind of concert. Wynton took the music that -- as much as any other -- "invented" jazz and made it modern, but he also showed us from whence it came as well. Actually, it was hardly just Wynton; the ensemble was air-tight except when it was purposely loose. Wycliffe Gordon taught us all something about scat singing, and "Potato Head Blues" never sounded so damn "important" but also fun ... which is a pretty good description of the entire J@LC project, if you can afford their prices. I love the Armstrong versions, of course, but the sound quality makes them feel distant, while this is in your face (and your heart) if you've got one. Also, last night, I was back in that monster of a building in Dizzy's for a party for the release of the Jazz Icons DVDs. I've not heard or seen much of them yet, but the party was great, and hey, look, how bad can they be? If you're a librarian or an educator, you should buy them. If you know of a poor school somewhere, you should buy them for the library. (I guess I'm talking to myself here, too, OK, I will.) But the set also strikes me as a perfect Bar Mitzvah or Sweet Sixteen present. (Do kids still have Sweet Sixteens? I'm not sure I approve.) Anyway, I love the care and historical precision that went into these, even if the guys did talk way too long before the band could begin, um, Monk-ing around.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Josh Silver
Hometown: Free Press

Hi Eric,

This excellent Salon.com article ("The telecom slayers," Daniel W. Reilly) about the state of net neutrality in Washington sums up how we would have lost the issue already if not for public involvement -- especially from bloggers.

As of last week, the FCC was set to approve a $67 billion mega merger on Oct. 12 between AT&T and BellSouth. The move would effectively reconstitute the phone monopoly that was broken up by regulators decades ago. Powerful senators weighed in at the 11th hour, and the merger vote may be postponed. In the current political environment we cannot stop the merger; our goal -- along with FCC Commissioners Copps and Adelstein -- is to make permanent net neutrality a condition for the merger. More info here.

The first official FCC hearing on media consolidation happens tomorrow in LA with all five commissioners. We are pushing as hard as we can to get people out. Info at Free Press' campaign site. The FCC will stream audio of the hearing at www.fcc.gov.

Name: Dave C.
Hometown:

Alterman,

I've always disliked you since you dismissed Mr. Nader as Bush's lapdog.

I'm glad you're a loser who will never amount to a hill of beans.

Bad Luck in all your endeavors.

Name: Don Nelson
Hometown: Gardnerville, NV

Professor Alterman,

Like paying taxes, I wish at times there were mandatory, required readings for every American adult of voting age. Many works come to mind but as our great nation hangs on the precipice of the ditch 'W" and his gang have run us towards, The Nation's piece "The Revolt of the Generals" would certainly top my current list. Anyone, regardless of how hard-core their ignorance and how blind their loyalty, who could not read what America's finest military minds are now saying about the Iraq disaster and not be swayed, I can't even fathom. I especially relished the statement that the military plays the accountability game for "keeps". It is one reason to hold out hope that perhaps ruinous clowns like Rumsfeld and Cheney will someday down the road squirm like guilty little dogs under intense and viscious scrutiny by Congress and the aformentioned generals. This country as a united whole could take no more a positive step than to admit to the world that we were duped by these criminals and we are now ready to set things right, beginning with talking to the Iranians. Just like Russia, China, Germany and France, who wisely counseled us against such a stupid and disastrous endeavour, the Iranians represent an ancient and wise civilization, and it would be more than prudent for our beligerent and belicose government to at least listen to their concerns.

Name: Charles Perez
Hometown: Marion, NY

Eric,

Long a secret, guilty pleasure of mine, it was great to see Sal's review of the reissue of three of my favorite ELO albums. I use "album" purposely as I have owned these three records in every format save 8-track: vinyl, cassette, CD and digital (iTunes download).

These three discs are a snapshot into concept rock and the early 1970s when it seemed anything was possible in rock. They also remind me of long hair and long summer nights; but that's a different story altogether.

Although not part of the reissue, Sal could have also mentioned the album that was probably the pinnacle of ELO's concept album work, Eldorado. Reissued a couple of years back completely digitally remastered, it's a tour de force of a rock opera.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.