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Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, December 10, 2004
 

Beinart's diatribe against Democratic softs - more dangerous historical analogising


As if we haven't suffered enough from the Saddam = Hitler, Chirac = Chamberlain analogising that lubed the way to war in Iraq, now the New Republic's Peter Beinart offers us - or rather, the Democrats - a new, and equally treacherous analogy: militant Islam = Communism.

In his piece (reprinted here) An Argument for a New Liberalism: A Fighting Faith, he takes us back to the old quarrel of 1947 between the Wallaceites (Henry Wallace, that is) and the Trumanites (bolstered by the new Americans for Democratic Action).

Prepare your Number Two Pencils to connect the dots: the Wallaceites are Michael Moore and MoveOn.org - the softs to use Beinart's term [1]; and the roll-call of Kerry advisers [2] - Richard Holbrooke, Joseph Biden, et al - are the ADA types, such as Arthur Schlesinger [3].

The softs, so the argument goes, think that global terror is a USG/neocon ramp; Dem activists rate the GWOT very low on their list of priorities, and the voters - who rank it much higher - duly took note and cast their votes accordingly. However tough Kerry was - and he was, at least some of the time - his credibility was undermined by the perceptions about his party.

The moral: do like Truman in 1947. Get tough: attack the problem of terror with a mixture of military response - Truman: military aid to Greece and Turkey - and economic - Truman: Marshall Plan.

The Dems' immediate problem, of course, is that they can't attack anything right now. They control no element of the elected branches in DC: the 80th Congress was GOP-controlled, of course, but Truman was at the helm, the leader not only of the country but of the Democratic Party, too. He could take action himself, and put the GOP Congressional majorities on the spot - peeling off erstwhile arch-isolationist senator Arthur Vandenberg to put his weight behind Marshall Aid [4], for instance.

At the moment, the Dems have no leader (or umpteen) and therefore no one with the power of initiative - not even over the party itself. (I'm no expert - but I don't think the chairmanship of the DNC over which Dean and the others are scrabbling comes up to the mark of a sitting US president when it comes to propelling party reform.)

And the softs have to their credit the momentum of the improvements in Dem GOTV results over 2000 that organisations like MoveOn, rather than the party apparatus, managed. They would not easily be purged, even if there were a mechanism to do so, and a man ready willing and able to ensure it happened. Which there aren't.

In raising the anti-communist purges of the late 1940s, Beinart only further underlines the inaptness of the analogy: that the CIO - perhaps the acme of communist organisation in the US in the Popular Front period - should start to purge communists in 1946 [5] is an indication of the much more fertile ground that Truman had to work.

And - one can scarcely stress this too much - there were actual communists to be purged in these organisations! So far as I'm aware, there are no known Al Qaeda operatives in MoveOn.org. The connection is indirect; MoveOn-ers aren't even fellow-travellers of Al Qaida. The analogy completely breaks down.

Leaving aside the mechanics of a (utterly implausible) purge, what would the analogy do to policy?

It seems to me to feed into very much the same simplistic approach - based on a surfeit of first principles reasoning and a bare scraping of local knowledge - that informed both Bush's invasion of Iraq and large parts of Cold War policy.

That Marshall Plan, for instance: in 1947, there were sound, practical reasons on both sides of the Atlantic: the US was in danger of being plunged into a post-war slump for lack of European demand for the product of its enormously expanded industrial capacity, and large parts of Western Europe were on the brink of, or were actually, suffering mass starvation and liable to fall into the hands of
local communist parties.

But the countries that received Marshall Aid had the political and economic capabilities to use the aid for the purpose intended, and PDQ, too. And they were duly grateful, joining in the creation of NATO and generally behaving in a collegial fashion. (De Gaulle, like Arnie, would be back - but later.)

None of these features are found in whichever countries Beinart supposes would be the beneficiaries of the GWOT equivalent of Marshall Aid. The satrapy of Iraq aside, the most congenial - Morocco? Jordan? - are neither recognisably democracies subject to the rule of law on the Western model nor have within them the capacity of soon making themselves thus - as West Germany managed a couple of years after Marshall Aid was enacted.

The prevailing popular tendency in the Middle East - as we may discover at the end of January in Iraq - appears to be towards Islamist rule (not that free and fair elections are held by which we might test the proposition!). And there are already large cash flows from the West to a number of the countries which in few (if any) cases seem to have wrought much in the way of liberal reform [6].

In discussing neo-Marshall, Beinart, reflecting that other JFK's infamous Inaugural, seems to be more concerned with the moral uplift of Americans that the good to be done in theatre.

Finally, the Cold War ideology as developed by the likes of Schlesinger was at best a blunt instrument in evaluating and meeting the communist threat. In a good many cases, it became a substitute for reasoning and a band-aid for a dismal lack of intelligence. The absurd notions in the 1950s and 1960s about the economic potential of the USSR , for instance; or the radical misunderstanding of the motivations of Ho Chi Minh [7].

The ideology infected the American media so as to blight coverage of the Bay of Pigs and the Tonkin Gulf Incidents, to name but two examples discussed here several times before.

With the PNAC theory now disproved that what the Middle East needed was an American Empire with a Viceroy in Jerusalem, could another grand theory of allegedly benign US hegemony command widespread support amongst US voters - at least by the time we get to the presidential primaries again?

Key wild cards are the tally of attacks on the US and its interests mounted by AQ and its many associates between now and then; and the reaction of American public opinion to any such attacks.

9/11 was a once-only, threshold event, with the shock that went with it being a first. Next time - if there is one - the attack, and the reaction, will almost certainly be different in many ways. The background is likely to be continued large-scale deployments in Iraq, and increases in military overstretch, with no prospect of early US withdrawal. The stealth draft will not ease up, one suspects.

By 2008, it is quite possible that the American voter will have reconciled himself to declaring victory in Iraq and bringing the boys (and girls) home, just as the Dems have completed a costly and painful process of internal reeducation to be able to support a presidential candidate who's a pay any price Scoop Jackson-style kickass liberal imperialist!

  1. From The New Leader of 1950, apparently.

  2. Familiar to regular readers here as I cast about in a (doubly) futile attempt to divine the stripe of a President Kerry foreign policy.

  3. Beinart refers to Schlesinger's The Vital Center - perhaps the bible of liberal anti-communism in the falsely-named McCarthy Era - I discussed the book on June 25 - with link to an etext.

  4. A Foreign Affairs retrospective.

  5. Sounds extraordinarily early: more research needed, evidently.

  6. So far as I'm aware - a hypothesis yielding to contrary proof, as ever.

  7. The idea that Ho could be simultaneously a communist and a nationalist blew the circuits over at the CIA, as I recall.

MORE

While the URL is to hand: an article (PDF) on The Demobilization Movement of 1946 - in the year of Winston Churchill's Fulton, MO iron curtain speech, the public mood in the US was very much Bring the boys home (aka Bring back Daddy) - and the Europeans a hair's breadth from Stalin's hordes could, in the words sanctified by the Vice President, go fuck themselves.

The boys were duly brought home - many of them in good time, I suspect, to vote in the mid-terms in November. Which swept the GOP to control of both houses of Congress. There's gratitude for you! (I'm sure the point's been researched, but I'm leaving it for the moment.)

(Strangely, this passage of post-war history seems to get rather less play than the Marshall Plan from the mythologists who burnish the conventional version of American history.)


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