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Bring back the vital center

Democrats must rediscover the Truman legacy of anti-totalitarianism.

June 04, 2006|Peter Beinart | PETER BEINART is editor-at-large of 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," published this month by HarperCollins.

IN 1948, AMERICAN liberals went to war -- with each other. The chief combatants were Henry A. Wallace, Franklin D. Roosevelt's former vice president and the most popular politician on the American left, and Harry S. Truman, Roosevelt's successor and a man widely derided as a party hack.

The issue was anti-communism and whether liberals should see it as a betrayal of their principles or as their natural culmination. For Wallace, liberals had one enemy: the reactionary right. For Truman, they had two: conservatives, to be sure, but also totalitarianism, in its communist as well as fascist guises. Liberalism, as Truman supporter Arthur Schlesinger famously put it, represented the "vital center" -- defending social progress and individual freedom against tyrannies of both the right and left.

In one form or another, liberals have been replaying the Truman-Wallace argument ever since. Truman's anti-totalitarian liberalism carried the day in 1948 and reigned until Vietnam, when many liberals grew disgusted with the Cold War and nominated George McGovern, an old Wallace supporter, for president.

Even after the Soviet Union crumbled, Vietnam's legacy prevented most liberals from endorsing military action against the brutal Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, in 1991. But as the 1990s rolled on, Bill Clinton slowly learned some of Truman's lessons -- culminating in the 1999 bombing campaign against Kosovo, a multilateral war to prevent the neo-fascist Slobodan Milosevic from cleansing ethnic Albanians from their homes.

Informed by Clinton's legacy, and by patriotic fury at Al Qaeda's terrorist attacks on the United States, Truman liberalism seemed ascendant in the wake of 9/11. Polling in the months after the attack showed Democrats just as likely as Republicans to see the war on terror as a just and urgent cause. Had Al Gore been president, he would almost certainly have overthrown the Taliban. And facing a jihadist movement that, like Nazism and communism, seeks to stamp out all independent civil society in pursuit of a purified, utopian state, anti-totalitarianism would have likely come to define American liberalism again.

Tragically, things have not worked out that way. Instead, George W. Bush was elected, and he has wielded the war on terror as a political cudgel, spurning bipartisan compromises on issues such as the Department of Homeland Security and domestic surveillance even when they were easily achievable. His disastrous war in Iraq (which some liberal hawks, like myself, mistakenly backed) has left liberals enraged.

As a result, the war on terror has become just what Karl Rove hoped it would be: a wedge issue. In early 2005, when the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation asked self-described liberals and conservatives to cite their top two foreign policy goals, conservatives rated destroying Al Qaeda as No. 1. Among liberals, by contrast, it tied for No. 10. Last November, an MIT survey found that only 59% of Democrats, as opposed to 94% of Republicans, still endorsed the Afghan war. And only 57% of Democrats said they would use military force "to destroy a terrorist camp." Courtesy of President Bush, Wallace liberalism is back.

Politically, the problems this creates are obvious because Democrats have long been branded as weak on national security, and Republicans will keep making that an issue in elections to come. But the danger is far deeper. Defeating jihadism will require relearning liberal anti-totalitarianism's lessons. What Truman understood -- and Bush does not -- is that for the United States to change the world, it must also change itself. For Cold War liberals, the struggle against communism and the struggle for civil rights were intertwined -- because only by overcoming injustice at home could the U.S. inspire others to do so abroad. Moral progress, then as now, requires moral reciprocity. For the U.S. to promote freedom in the Islamic world, Americans and Middle Easterners must come together to define a common vision of democracy and human rights, one that challenges American actions at Guantanamo Bay as much as it challenges the autocratic regimes of the Arab world.

The vehicles for such reciprocity are international institutions and international law, something liberals -- unlike neoconservatives -- have long supported. From NATO and the United Nations to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the heyday of Cold War liberalism -- the late 1940s -- was an extraordinary period of institution building. Those institutions forged the democratic alliance that outlasted Soviet communism.

Today, they have atrophied. And they must be rebuilt to accomplish the myriad tasks -- from monitoring loose nuclear materials, to promoting democracy, to intervening in failed states -- that winning the war on terror will require.

In the nation's new anti-totalitarianism fight, the liberal tradition, properly understood, furnishes the intellectual and moral resources necessary for victory. If a new generation of liberals can look beyond their hatred of Bush, it is theirs to claim.

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