Thursday, June 29, 2006
Because I had to make a long car drive this weekend, I had the chance to listen to the whole of Peter Beinart's book The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. It's good on several levels. As readers may know from reviews like this one, the book argues for a revival and adaptation today of the Cold War liberalism practiced by Truman and Kennedy, which took extremely seriously the fight against totalitarianism but also recognized that America could only fight that war effectively if it (1) recognized limits on its own unilateral power and (2), along with military measures when necessary, also promoted economic development (abroad and at home) that would reduce the appeal of Communism. (It's a good question whether there are enough liberals who will go along with Beinart's vision; but it might appeal to a lot of "national greatness" conservatives as well.)
Among the book's heroes is Reinhold Niebuhr, whose Christian appreciation of original sin led him to emphasize that even as America combatted the evil of the Soviet system, it must also recognize its own flaws and capacity for evil acts. (Beinart unfortunately says little or nothing about the theological foundation of Niebuhr's views.) Part of Niebuhr's argument was that those who know that neither side in a historical conflict is wholly innocent will be better able to make the real historical distinction between evil and imperfect good, and will not be paralyzed by the shattering of illusions of innocence. We may be forgetting this lesson again; one worrying phenomenon Beinart mentions is that the Bush administration's moral and practical failings in Iraq may have turned off many Americans altogether on the central importance of promoting Middle Eastern democracy and development in order to undercut Islamic totalitarianism in the long run. It's not a Christian book, of course, and "mak[ing] America great" is by no means our ultimate concern. But a lot of the wisdom in the book about how best to preserve an acceptable level of freedom and justice in the world parallels Christian wisdom about human nature, and could easily overlap a lot with just-war principles.