The Book Club

Punditry Has Consequences


I guess I’m coming to the conclusion that you genuinely don’t understand the impact your words about Iraq and the liberals who opposed it had. Your words were divisive, unleaderly, aggressively accusatory, and quite unfair (implicitly if not explicitly) to a large number of people whom you caricatured in a grossly unwarranted fashion. You are clearly aggrieved by my review, and undoubtedly by other reactions to a book that is important to you, and of course I can understand that. But you are not the only aggrieved party here. If you genuinely want more people to take seriously what you have to say about foreign policy in the future, I hope that, however mad you may be at me, you’ll try to understand this.

The purge business. Since you seem to care so much about partial quoting, I might as well note that you partially quoted me. The full sentence from my review that used the word purge looked like this (it summarized your New Republic piece, “A Fighting Faith,” from December 2004): “Drawing a historical parallel with the struggles that engulfed the Democratic Party of 1948—when the party’s ‘hard’ liberals encouraged those who were naïve about the Soviet Union (or worse, working for it) to take a hike and sign up with Henry Wallace—Beinart, whether he meant to or not, all but advocated purging the liberal critics of the war from the Democratic Party.”

I will freely acknowledge this much error: I was wrong to write “liberal critics of the war,” by which I meant Iraq; you were indeed talking in that essay about Afghanistan and the war on terrorism more broadly. So for that, I ungrudgingly tender my apologies.

The rest of it is entirely accurate and fair. My accusation, such as it is, is twice cushioned, with the “all but” that you quoted in your first entry, and with “whether he meant to or not,” which you chose not to tell Slate readers about. To me, this is not a minor thing. I remember fretting over that sentence; I thought about and chose that phrase with care, and I included it precisely because I did not feel that it was fair to ascribe to you a motivation that I couldn’t possibly know for certain or prove. So, I specifically allowed for the possibility that you did not intend your TNR essay to be thought of as calling for a purge.

I’d note for readers of this exchange that I did not come up with this purge idea out of whole cloth:

  • Ruy Teixeira commenting on your essay, on the Emerging Democratic Majority blog, Dec. 8, 2004: “Yes, it’s purge time in the glorious spirit of the late ‘40s actions against Communists and those soft on them within the Democratic party.”
  • Stanley Kurtz, the National Review, Dec. 9, 2004: “Invoking the late 1940s purge of Communists and their fellow travelers from the Democratic party, Beinart says that a similar winnowing is needed today.”
  • Mickey Kaus, Slate, Dec. 7, 2004: “Beinart argues that, just as liberals needed to purge non-anti-Communists from their ranks in the late 1940s, Democrats need to purge today’s ‘heirs of Henry Wallace’ … “
  • Noemie Emery, the Weekly Standard, Sept. 26, 2005: “Last year, the New Republic’s Peter Beinart urged a purge of the left … “

There are more where these came from, and I haven’t even quoted anyone from the actual left—i.e., the people you were going after. In that domain, your piece was (in my anecdotal but somewhat extensive experience) nearly universally seen as a call for a purge. Are you really unaware of all this chatter?

Punditry has consequences, Peter. And the consequence of your essay among many people who opposed the war was, to put it benignly, a conclusion that you were not interested in reasonable debate. I have to say that I believe it was possible to draw this conclusion even earlier, via some of your TRB columns and those Washington Post quotes I mentioned yesterday. I understand how newspapers work, and you may well have said more reasonable things to Kurtz that he didn’t use. Nevertheless, you did say what you said. I remember reading that article at the time and being shocked at your overgeneralization of war critics. Here are a few people who opposed the Iraq war besides Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Larry Korb, Gary Hart, Bill Galston, James Webb, Lt. Gen. William Odom, and, implicitly but in my view clearly, Eric Shinseki. Are these men intellectually incoherent abject pacifists? You went too far, Peter, way too far.

And now, you seem to expect that all can be forgiven with a few sentences’ worth of apology in The Good Fight. By the way, I noted in my review that it took you “just four pages” to say you were wrong about Iraq, and I observed that those three words had “miraculously eluded the grasp of just about every other liberal war supporter,” an observation that obviously reflected some credit upon you.

Perhaps, ideally, I should have quoted the sentence you cited in your first entry, from pages 152-53. (“[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.”) All I can say is, I honestly expected a lot more on this point—the dramatic break from Cold War liberalism that Iraq represented—than a few scattered sentences. Not, I emphasize, because I wanted you to eat crow. But because the yoking of Cold War liberalism to liberal (and centrist) support for the Iraq war seems to me the prime example of the intellectual superficiality and deceit of the time we live in. As you know, many a neoconservative has bashed war opponents by invoking Truman. This is a grotesque lie about both, and it has had profound and contagious real-world consequences.

What I devoutly wanted to read in The Good Fight, what I believe would have been of tremendous service to liberalism, was a lengthy exegesis of the nature of this lie—how it grew, who formulated it, and so on. Coming from you, a war supporter who is respected by thinkers on the right, a polemic that forcefully wrested the legacy of Cold War liberalism from the hands of neoconservatives who use it to beat up liberals (see Max Boot in today’s L.A. Times) would have been of enormous value. Doing it in a sentence here and a sentence there does not accomplish what I believe The Good Fight needed to accomplish on this score. This is what I meant by “acknowledging plainly that the war in Iraq stands against the Cold War liberal tradition.” If you had done this, TheGood Fight, your past overgeneralizations notwithstanding, would have been an extremely important intervention in the debate.

I hope this clears up some things. I see you’ve been writing lately that it’s appalling for President Bush to invoke Truman. That helps. But you went way out on a limb in 2002 through 2004, and the climb back isn’t quite as easy as you want it to be.