The Book Club

The Author Debates One of His Most Vocal Critics


In the coming days we’ll be discussing my book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again. The book argues that the Cold War liberal tradition—with its focus on legitimacy abroad and self-improvement at home—provides the principles necessary for winning the struggle against jihadism today. I’m eager to hear your thoughts on these issues, and I appreciate your taking the time to discuss them.

But first, a couple of points about your review of the book, which ran recently in the American Prospect. Your basic point was that while my argument about liberal foreign policy may be valuable, you’re not prepared to engage with it—because I vocally supported the war in Iraq.

That’s your prerogative. The problem is that in justifying your decision to largely ignore the argument of the book you chose to review, you misrepresented my writing—in astonishing ways. These aren’t differences of interpretation. It’s about basic intellectual honesty.

For starters, intellectual honesty suggests that when you truncate a quote, you accurately paraphrase the part you haven’t quoted, right? You quote from my December 2004 essay, “A Fighting Faith,” that “the party’s liberal base, which would have refused to nominate anyone who …” Then you stop quoting and begin paraphrasing: “without equivocation saw the Iraq war as central to the war on terror.” But the rest of the quote doesn’t say that. It says: “proposed redefining the Democratic Party in the way the ADA did in 1947.” That’s completely different. In fact, in the essay, I make absolutely clear that while Iraq became central to the war on terror after we invaded, redefining the party in the way I suggest didn’t require supporting the war in Iraq. Two of the Democratic presidential candidates I praise in the essay for attempting such a redefinition—Wesley Clark and Bob Graham— opposed the Iraq war. I can see why, for the purposes of your review, it would have been convenient had my essay “all but advocated purging the liberal critics of the [Iraq] war from the Democratic Party.” (In fact, the “critics” I attacked were Michael Moore and MoveOn, for opposing the war in Afghanistan.) But wishing I had done so doesn’t give you license to say I did. Did you not notice this sentence: “[E]ven if Iraq is Vietnam, it no more obviates the war on terrorism than Vietnam obviated the battle against communism.” Does that sound like someone who thinks people who opposed the Iraq war—including, presumably, people at my magazine—should be purged from the Democratic Party?

It also would have been convenient, for the purposes of your non-review review, had I not said I was wrong on Iraq. You quote me as writing, a few pages into the book, “I was wrong.” But then you claim that my refusal to acknowledge “plainly that the war in Iraq stands against the Cold War liberal tradition, rather than within it, damages, almost fatally, the credibility of the argument.” Here, again, we return to the issue of intellectual honesty: You can’t ignore sentences just before they contradict your argument. I refer you to Pages 152 and 153 of the book, where I write: “[I]n the case of Iraq, worst-case logic became a filter, preventing war supporters like myself from seeing the evidence mounting around us. Apocalyptic thinking represented a break with the cold war liberal tradition, and a grave mistake.” (Emphasis added.) Or to Page xiii of the introduction, where I write that my support for the Iraq war contradicted “this book’s central argument”—and it’s a book about what Cold War liberalism can teach us today! Amazingly, in the last paragraph of your review you declare yourself unwilling to discuss my ideas about liberal foreign policy because I haven’t declared Iraq outside the Cold War liberal tradition. But the book does precisely that, repeatedly—you just decided not to tell your readers.

Your review devotes very little space to what you acknowledge is my “central thesis”: that in the liberal tradition, unless America acknowledges that it can do harm in the world, it cannot do good. You write that “intellectually at least, he’s onto something.” I’m glad you think so; perhaps now we can discuss it.

For me, this idea has enormous implications. First, it inclines liberals to support powerful international institutions—as they did at the dawn of the Cold War—not only because America cannot manage international problems alone but because we do not want unrestrained power. Because liberals recognize that America is not immune to imperial temptation, we build in the restraints that distinguish us from the predatory powers of the past. Second, recognizing that American virtue must be proved, not asserted, leads liberals to talk differently than George W. Bush does about democracy. Bush talks about American democracy as a finish line we have crossed. We help other countries overcome tyranny, but our own work is done. Liberals, by contrast, should talk about democracy as a process—a means to overcome our capacity for injustice and become a better nation (a nation without places like Guantanamo Bay). It is American democracy as an ongoing struggle, not American democracy as a settled accomplishment, that inspired the world in the 1950s and 1960s, and can again today.

Politically, as you note, talking about America’s capacity for injustice may be tricky. But historically, liberal politicians have used more upbeat language to make the same basic point. They have talked—as John F. Kennedy did repeatedly in his 1960 presidential run—about the dangers of complacency, the dangers of thinking America is good enough as it is. Conservatives have long accused liberals of not being sufficiently proud of America. Liberals must argue that what conservatives call pride is actually complacency, and complacency is antithetical to our national character, our history of restless efforts to become a stronger, better nation—a nation capable of leading and improving the world.

These are some of the themes you might have discussed in your review, had you honestly acknowledged what my book says about Iraq. I hope we can discuss them now.