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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Peter Beinart

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Peter Beinart





Last Build Date: Fri, 07 Jul 2006 07:30:47 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007
 



A Liberal Vision for American Power

Fri, 07 Jul 2006 07:30:47 -0600

------------- 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 go[...]