The American Political Tradition

On the Misuse of American History

| Mon Jul. 3, 2006 2:00 AM EDT

The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. By Peter Beinart. HarperCollins. 288 pp. $25.95.

Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq. By Stephen Kinzer. Times. 384 pp. $27.50.

[This column will appear in the July 17/24 issue of The Nation Magazine. It also appeared at Tomdispatch.com with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.]

When it comes to foreign policy, the fundamental divide in American politics today is not between left and right but between those who subscribe to the myth of the "American Century" and those who do not. Peter Beinart is a true believer. In his eyes America's purpose today remains precisely what it has always been: to confront and destroy the enemies of freedom at home and abroad. In The Good Fight, he summons liberals to recover their crusading spirit and to "put anti-totalitarianism at the center of their hopes for a better country and a better world." Liberalism must become once again what it was in its heyday: "a fighting faith."

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A fighting faith requires "a narrative of national greatness." To win elections, good ideas and qualified candidates won't suffice. "Liberals can churn out policy papers and nominate war heroes," Beinart writes, "but without their own narrative of American greatness, it will do them little good, either in gaining power or in wielding it." Here, according to Beinart, lies the genius of Republicans, whether in the era of Ronald Reagan or in the age of George W. Bush: "They have a usable past." Celebrating American virtue and righteousness plays well at the polls. To compete effectively Democrats will have to invent their own uplifting version of history -- "invent" being the operative term, since for Beinart facts as such are incidental to the process. "Empiricism," he suggests, "is no match for a narrative of the present based on a memory of the past."

The remembering that transforms the past into parable is necessarily selective. Indeed, what you leave out is as important as what you include. This is where Beinart takes present-day liberals to task. Ever since the 1960s they have shown a penchant for getting history backward, forgetting what matters (like standing up to Hitler and Stalin) and obsessing about what ought to be forgotten (like Vietnam). "Before today's progressives can conquer their ideological weakness," he writes, "they must conquer their ideological amnesia. What they need to remember, above all, is the cold war." In short, today's liberals ought to take their cues from the hawkish Democrats of yesteryear who led the epic battle against Communism. That struggle defined the second half of the twentieth century; with totalitarianism now having reconstituted itself in the guise of "jihadist terrorism," the struggle continues and, as Beinart sees it, promises to define the twenty-first century as well.

Beinart devotes much of The Good Fight to constructing this narrative of an anti-totalitarian crusade running from World War II to the present. In his telling of the tale, as long as steely liberals like Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy were at the helm, heeding the counsel of tough-minded liberal intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the crusade proceeded swimmingly. When liberals lost their nerve, however, and conservatives came to power, things went awry.

Sustaining this thesis requires an extraordinary combination of omissions and contortions on Beinart's part. Readers will learn, for example, that Kennedy was a visionary statesman who instituted the Alliance for Progress and created the Peace Corps. They won't learn anything about the Bay of Pigs, Operation Mongoose, or U.S. complicity in the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem. Nor will they get any assessment of what Kennedy's ostensibly progressive foreign policy initiatives actually accomplished. (Answer: not much.)

Readers will learn further about the unfortunate tendency of conservatives -- in contrast to sophisticated, worldly liberals -- to see things in terms of black and white. Beinart offers up John Foster Dulles, who "painted the cold war as a quasi-religious struggle between good and evil," as a prime offender. Yet he ignores a mountain of evidence, starting with the Truman administration's NSC-68, suggesting that liberals were equally susceptible to Manichean -- indeed, apocalyptic -- views. As for Dulles, Beinart rather conveniently overlooks the fact that the very pragmatic Dwight Eisenhower kept his Secretary of State on a short leash. Dulles preached good and evil; more often than not, Ike discounted the preaching and opted for prudence.

According to the Republican version of the American Century, Ronald Reagan all but single-handedly brought about the collapse of Communism. Not so, insists Beinart. Just as liberals framed the cold war in the 1940s, so too they saved the day in the 1980s by preventing reckless right-wingers from abandoning that frame. Credit for turning back the forces of totalitarianism in Central America goes to those hardheaded liberal Democrats in Congress who repaired the flaws in the Reagan Doctrine, thereby subverting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and keeping El Salvador from slipping into the Communist orbit.

This imaginative, if largely spurious, depiction of postwar history serves Beinart's larger purpose in two ways. First, by revalidating antitotalitarianism as the era's overarching theme, Beinart promotes it as the idea that ought to define U.S. policy in the aftermath of 9/11 as well. Second, by portraying hawkish liberals as heroes, doves as fools, and conservatives as knaves, he suggests that restoring the fortunes of today's Democratic Party ought to be a piece of cake: All liberals need to do is to reject the wimpy anti-imperialism of Howard Dean and Michael Moore and embrace the muscular principles that inspired the Americans for Democratic Action back in the late 1940s.

To legitimate this fraud and to wrap anti-totalitarian liberalism in a mantle of moral superiority, Beinart shanghais Reinhold Niebuhr and subjects the great Protestant theologian to ritual abuse. In essence, he uses Niebuhr much as Jerry Falwell uses Jesus Christ, and just as shamelessly: citing him as an unimpeachable authority and claiming his endorsement, thereby pre-empting any further discussion.

To establish his Niebuhrean credentials, Beinart sprinkles The Good Fight with references to "guilt," "moral fallibility" and "limits." Yet whereas the real Niebuhr's message was a cautionary one, Beinart-channeling-Niebuhr emits portentous exhortations. Like a third-rate stump speech, the results don't necessarily parse, but they do manage to sound awfully important. Thus Beinart lets it be known that "only when America recognizes that it is not inherently good can it become great." Then there's this chin stroker: "America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world." Or better still: "America's challenge lies not in recognizing our moral superiority, but in demonstrating it."

The real Niebuhr worried less about Americans demonstrating their moral superiority than about whether they would forgo temptations of moral irresponsibility. But then, the real Niebuhr did not conceive of history as a narrative of national greatness. Rather than bend the past to suit a particular agenda, liberal or otherwise, he viewed it as beyond our understanding and fraught with paradox. "The whole drama of history," he wrote, "is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management."

No such humility constrains Beinart. He not only comprehends history but insists with all the fervor of William Kristol that the United States has the capacity and duty to manage it. After all, when the first phase of the American Century ended in 1989, it rendered a definitive verdict: "The core reality was that the United States had vanquished its chief ideological competitor and military rival, leaving it in a position of astonishing strength." Victory in the cold war imposed obligations; Americans were called upon to use that strength to carry on the work of liberating humankind. Today, when in Beinart's estimate "U.S. military and economic influence knows few bounds," he believes it is incumbent upon policy-makers to redouble American efforts to spread the blessings of freedom and equality across the Muslim world.

Writing in the early days of the cold war, Niebuhr had urged "a sense of modesty about the virtue, wisdom, and power available to us for the resolution of [history's] perplexities." Were he in our midst today, he would likely align himself with those dissidents on the left and the right who reject the conceits of the American Century and who view as profoundly dangerous the claims of both neoliberals and neoconservatives to understand history's purpose and destination. The beginning of wisdom, Niebuhr counseled, lies in recognizing that history cannot be coerced.

Beinart is by no means alone in believing otherwise. Generations of American statesmen have pushed and prodded history this way and that. Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow surveys some of the results of their handiwork.

Unlike Beinart, Kinzer does not buy into the myth of an American Century in which the forces of freedom fought those of totalitarianism. His alternative version of that century, running from the 1890s to the present day, recounts the generally sorry record of US efforts to subvert and overthrow foreign governments that failed to meet with American approval. His new book catalogues fourteen such episodes, beginning with the "revolution" concocted by wealthy American planters in 1893 to depose Hawaii's Queen Liliuokalani and culminating with George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq 110 years later.

A longtime foreign correspondent with the New York Times, Kinzer does not provide a lot that's new. Relying on secondary sources, Overthrow recycles and repackages material that will be familiar to the historically literate. But by collecting these stories in a single volume, Kinzer performs a useful service. Overthrow makes it abundantly clear that far from being some innovation devised in the aftermath of 9/11, "regime change" has long been a mainstay of American statecraft.

When targeting some offending potentate for retirement, Kinzer notes, Washington has seldom if ever acted for altruistic reasons. "Every time the United States has set out to overthrow a foreign government, its leaders have insisted that they are acting not to expand American power but to help people who are suffering." In reality, however, the suffering of the oppressed has never figured as more than an afterthought. "What distinguishes Americans from citizens of past empires," writes Kinzer, "is their eagerness to persuade themselves that they are acting out of humanitarian motives." But Kinzer recognizes this as poppycock; like any great power, the United States has set its policy according to self-interest. Whether in Latin America, the Asia-Pacific or the Persian Gulf, the United States has seen regime change as a means for improving economic access, shoring up political stability and enhancing American control.

Kinzer is especially good at tallying up what he calls the "terrible unintended consequences" that frequently ensue when the United States overthrows a government that has fallen out of Washington's favor. Bush's removal of Saddam Hussein is by no means the first such enterprise to produce something other than the tidy outcome envisioned by its architects. A couple of decades of mucking around in Nicaragua yielded the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. U.S. promotion of the 1953 coup to remove Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran's nationalist prime minister, fueled anti-American resentment that eventually found expression in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The pursuit of Fidel Castro in 1961 paved the way for the missile crisis a year later. The toppling of South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 gave rise to chaos. And so it has gone.

Most instructive of all, however, are the ironic consequences stemming from America's success in ousting the Soviets from Afghanistan. In retrospect, the results of regime change there serve as a sort of cosmic affirmation of Niebuhr's entire worldview. Of Afghanistan in the years following the Soviet withdrawal, truly it can be said, as Niebuhr wrote, "The paths of progress? proved to be more devious and unpredictable than the putative managers of history could understand."

Those, like Peter Beinart, who are gung-ho to wage their war against jihadist terror dare not contemplate present-day Afghanistan too deeply. Their depiction of the war as a contest that pits freedom against totalitarianism becomes plausible only if they ignore the actual history giving rise to the conflict. Much of that history occurred in the period enshrined as the American Century, but precious little of it had anything to do with promoting freedom. As experienced by Muslims, the American Century was marked by imperialism and intervention, manipulation and betrayal, Israel and oil. It goes without saying that in Beinart's account none of these matters qualify as relevant.

The Good Fight began life as an essay that appeared in The New Republic when Beinart edited that magazine. According to press reports, he received a handsome $600,000 advance to expand his essay into a book. The result can only be called a major disappointment: The Good Fight is insipid, pretentious and poorly written. At points it verges on incoherence. As history, it is meretricious. As policy prescription, it is wrongheaded. Beinart has perpetrated his fraud twice over.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.

Copyright 2006 Andrew J. Bacevich

This article will appear in the July 17/24 issue of The Nation Magazine. It also appeared, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com, a project of The Nation Institute.