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Can the Democrats Fight?

Cold War Lessons for Reclaiming Trust on National Security

By Peter Beinart
Thursday, December 9, 2004; Page A33

At the beginning of the Cold War, liberals had a national security problem. As the columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop wrote in 1946, liberals "consistently avoided the great political reality of the present: The Soviet challenge to the West." Unless that changed, the Alsops warned, "it is the right -- the very extreme right -- which is most likely to gain victory."

Over the following three years, it did change. Anti-communism, a minority view among liberals in 1946, was by 1949 a cornerstone of liberal belief. Much of the credit goes to Harry Truman, who rallied liberals and other Americans behind containment and the Marshall Plan. But Truman didn't do it alone. At the Democratic grass roots, organizations such as Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) put the struggle against communism at the heart of a new liberal worldview. When former vice president Henry Wallace tried to ally liberals and communists in 1948, the ADA helped defeat his third-party candidacy. And after Republicans took back the White House in 1952, the ADA helped ensure that anti-communism never became an exclusively conservative faith.

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Today liberals have a national security problem again. The current "great political reality" is the threat from al Qaeda and totalitarian Islam. And in the shadow of that threat, the right -- including the extreme right -- has won two straight elections, partly because Americans don't trust Democrats to keep them safe.

The problem is deeper than John Kerry. Since Sept. 11 liberals have not created institutions, like the ADA, that make the fight against America's totalitarian enemy central to their mission. To the contrary, key organizations, echoing Wallace, see liberalism's enemies almost exclusively on the right. The result is a lack of liberal passion for winning the war on terrorism -- a lack of passion that has cost Democrats dearly at the polls.

Consider MoveOn.org, which the online journal Salon has called "the most important political advocacy group in Democratic circles." MoveOn was founded in the late 1990s to oppose Bill Clinton's impeachment. But it responded to Sept. 11 by opposing the war against the Taliban. In 2002 it incorporated 9-11peace.org, which also opposed the Afghan war, and questioned the need for greater CIA funding. In the years since, MoveOn has depicted the war on terrorism in overwhelmingly negative terms -- as a menace to civil liberties and a distraction from domestic concerns. Like Michael Moore, it has minimized the al Qaeda threat.

MoveOn didn't turn liberals against the Afghan war. Many of its more than 1.5 million members probably didn't even realize that their organization's leadership opposed it. But MoveOn has done something subtler: Because it is largely hostile to U.S. power, it has not cultivated a desire among liberals to use that power to defeat totalitarian Islam. Partly as a result, the three candidates who placed winning the war on terrorism at the center of their campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination -- Joe Lieberman, Bob Graham and Wesley Clark -- each failed to arouse liberal excitement. And when the New York Times asked delegates to the Democratic convention which issues were most important, only 2 percent mentioned terrorism, and homeland security and defense were each mentioned by 1 percent.

In the late 1940s the ADA saw the battle against Soviet totalitarianism and the battle against domestic injustice as morally intertwined. It used the Cold War to frame its calls for civil rights and civil liberties -- arguing that unless the United States respected human rights at home, communism would gain strength abroad. And it supported large funding increases for defense and foreign aid, insisting that it was the GOP, with its fidelity to tax cuts and a balanced budget, that would not aggressively wage the Cold War.

These arguments are available to liberals again today. The Bush administration's blind eye toward torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay has hurt U.S. efforts to convince the Muslim world that the war on terrorism is a war for human rights. The president's massive tax cuts are draining government of the revenue it needs to adequately fund homeland security and the military. And President Bush's democracy-promotion efforts in the Muslim world have been mostly talk.

Among Democratic foreign policy thinkers, these critiques are hardly novel. Sen. Joseph Biden, for instance, has called for a massive effort to promote secular education in the Muslim world. But Democratic candidates won't stress these ideas unless they gain a following among the party's base. They did during the Cold War because Democrats boasted organizations that connected the party's rank and file to the struggle against the Soviet Union -- building liberal support for efforts such as the Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps. The ADA did that crucial work, as did the vehemently anti-communist labor movement. But no one is doing it today. The result is a technocratic Democratic foreign policy establishment, isolated from its own party, and a liberal grass roots that views the war on terrorism in largely negative terms, reserving its positive energies for domestic issues such as health care and abortion rights.

This can change, but only if Democrats build institutions that make the fight against America's totalitarian foe a liberal passion. A half-century ago, they did just that. Now they must again.

The writer is editor of the New Republic. He writes a monthly column for The Post.


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