Opinion: Bush is No Harry Truman

Peter Beinart
Editor-at-Large, The New Republic
Thursday, June 1, 2006; 2:00 PM

Peter Beinart , editor-at-large at The New Republic and author of "The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again," was online Thursday, June 1, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss his op-ed on the Bush administration's comparisons between the President's foreign policy and that of Harry Truman . Beinart says that despite their common anti-totalitarian rhetoric, the two leaders differ greatly in their approach to spreading democracy in other nations, and that Truman favored international institutions and economic aid more than the defense-oriented Bush team.

Read the op-ed: Hijacking Harry Truman , ( Post, June 1, 2006 )

The transcript follows.


Washington, D.C.: You draw connections between the War on Terror and the Cold War, yet you also supported the war in Iraq. (Your more recent repudiation had more to do with 'facts on the ground' than core logic.)

If this were the Cold War, we'd be holding Moscow (even assuming Iraq can be compared to that) in the hopes that the rest of the Soviet Union would fall around it. Wouldn't the lessons to take from the Cold War be to surround the enemy with working democracies, and only attack when attacked? Iraq was never purported to have anything to do with 9/11, and the 'domino' theory has never been tested -inside- the enemy stronghold.

Peter Beinart: Actually, my repudiation is all about "core logic." As I write in my book, The Good Fight, I was wrong on the facts (thinking Saddam had a nuclear weapons program) but also wrong on the theory (not recognizing sufficiently the interplay between the war's illegitimacy in the world and its illegitimacy in Iraq. Yes, expanding democracy in the Islamic world, leading strong alliances and making America stronger at home--so we have the internal fortitude for a long struggle--is the lesson of cold war liberalism for today, I believe.


Bethesda, Md.: Peter, I'm not sure I buy into your belief that the threat of terrorism is on the same level as communism. In retrospect, it obviously makes sense that liberals would put anti-communism at the center of their platform - the Cold War after all lasted almost half a century, cost countless lives and threatened nuclear holocaust. Is terrorism - which is not a phenomenon that originated with 9/11 - truly worthy of being the central focus of a liberal foreign policy?

Peter Beinart: I'd say two things. First, terrorists are dangerously precisely because they don't control a state---because deterrence works against states that have something to lose. And the increase in technology, particularly in biowarfare, gives individuals potentially the ability to do what only states could once do.

But jihadism is only one of a range of threats we face today--all linked by the fact that they exploit globalization. pandemics, global warming, loose nukes, financial contagion--begin with one countries failures and rapidly affect other countries. That's the larger prism, which I think requires proactive, but legitimate American action, through empowered international institutions.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Outside attacking liberals and ridiculing Al Gore, what else interests "The New Republic" these days?

Peter Beinart: I'd suggest you read the magazine. In every issue, you'll extremely strong criticism of the Bush administration and its domestic and international projects. As well as disagreement with liberals where we feel they aren't living up to liberal principles, as we define them.


Atlanta, Ga.: Harry Truman famously said, "How can I trust a man if his wife can't?" I think Truman would be shocked by the way the Democratic Party responded to Bill Clinton's initial lies to his wife and subsequent lies to a grand jury. That Democrats would consider nominating his wife (who must either be incredibly gullible or else too cravenly ambitious to stand up for herself) would send him through the roof. Where am I wrong?

Peter Beinart: Truman also served at a time when politicians' private lives were private. That may have had costs (to the women exploited, for instance), but I don't think there is any logical relation between personal and public conduct. People are just too complex for that. Clinton was reckless personally, cautious politically. Bush is perhaps the opposite. I disagreement with Truman on that.


Silver Spring, Md.: Mr Beinart, I must confess that I am not sure I can trust someone who now promotes Truman's liberal foreign policy yet only a few years ago supported a war (Iraq) that was so obviously against the Cold War liberal tradition.

Why should liberals follow your vision liberalism if it could lead to another Iraq war?

Peter Beinart: My argument is about marrying power and legitimacy. Iraq fails that test, which is why I was wrong to support it. My view would be--if we're directly, imminently threatened, we can act alone, if need be. Perhaps even in some extreme moral emergencies (unfolding genocide) we should do so, if we can do good. But absent that, we should seek at least democratic legitimacy--our NATO allies of not the UN. That standard--which I should have applied in early 2003--would not have led to us to go to war the way we did, and probably not at all.


Chicago, Ill.: Mr. Beinart, I enjoy your commentary. Do you see any Democrat who can bring the party back in 2008 to a foreign and defense policy that is both strong and conveys a progressive, helpful agenda in the traditions of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy?

Peter Beinart: It's too early to tell. We don't know what Hillary Clinton, Mark Warner or anyone else will be saying in 2008. But I'd watch Barak Obama and his forthcoming book, which has a foreign policy chapter. He may break new ground.


Lexington, Ky.: Mr. Beinart: I am not a liberal, but I find your arguments fascinating and respect your willingness to get out your message even if it entails being unfairly demonized on Fox News. I think rooting liberalism in its foreign policy achievements of the late 40s and the intellectual force of its historic champions makes more sense than promoting DailyKos-Pelosism, for lack of a better term. Likewise, I found Howard Dean's appeal to Scoop Jackson admirable. But, what of the liberal instinct to tax and spend? Much of what hurts liberalism today is the belief that no matter what the problem is liberals will always claim that the solution is to increase taxes and spend the revenue on controversial programs disfavored by a majority of individual Americans and yet supposedly "in the public interest" or "for the common good". I'd appreciate your thoughts on this issue and hope to see you continue to engage in public debate with liberals, libertarians, and conservatives.

Peter Beinart: Thank you for the kind words. What Bill Clinton showed, I think, is that what should matter for liberals is the end results, particularly: is life getting better for poor and working class Americans, the least of these. That's the acid test. If you can improve their lives with market mechanisms like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which he did, with impressive results, that's fine. (The EITC is partially responsible for the great gains among poor Americans in the 1990s). I suspect it will take some new programs too, and some higher taxes--on unearned wealth, while perhaps cutting taxes on actual wages. My view is we should focus on ends--and be pragmatic on means when it comes to domestic social and economic policy.


Bethesda, Md.: Of course Bush is no Truman (and vice-versa). But isn't the principal distinction that their respective programs were implemented under very different international circumstances? President Bush inherited a dysfunctional global collective security apparatus that failed to respond effectively to the morass of dictatorships in the Middle East incubating terrorists -- and international institutions that favored indefinite toleration of Saddam's murderous regime. Isn't it true that under similar circumstances Truman might well have eventually rejected collective security and turned to those allies who would assist the United States in pursuing its preferred policies. Or at least, shouldn't we acknowledge that we don't know what Truman would have done?

Peter Beinart: Excellent question. Efforts at institution building can fail, and leave America with only coalitions of the willing. But the costs--as we have seen--are very high, in practical capacity and legitimacy on the ground. What Bush hasn't done--and Truman and FDR did--is try to empower, rebuild and build institutions. If the UN is too weak, let's make it more able to intervene in fail states and do peacekeeping (which, contrary to perception, it is pretty good at). But that will require effort by the United States--and a willing to help ourselves. Right now we don't participate in peackeeping at all. And besides the UN, we should be strengthening institutions of democracies, like the Community of Democracies.


Providence, R.I.: Hi Peter,

While I agree with your premise that only Liberals can win the war on terror, I'm not hopeful that enough of those true liberals exist. Do you see any hope that liberalism in the U.S. can break out of its current moral equivalency/isolationism cocoon?

Peter Beinart: Sure. I don't there is some rise in liberal isolationism in response to the Iraq war and alienation with Bush, as expressed in polling. But during the 1990s, and right after 9/11, there was very little difference in how seriously liberals and conservatives took the threat. With the right leadership and as Bush changes from the scene, I think attitudes could change.


American Univ: Mr. Beinart, I must say that when I read your article "The Rehabilitation of a Cold War Liberal" I became excited to read your book. However, now having looked back at your essay "A Fighting Faith" I have some serious misgivings. Most important, as a supporter of the Afghan war but against the Iraq invasion (but against withdrawal), and as an early supporter of and Michael Moore (who later canceled his MoveOn membership and refused to watch Fahrenheit 9/11), I feel as if you severely mischaracterized liberals like me, lumping us all together in a group of soft, anti-GWOT doves.

Do you still hold the same opinions as those presented in your earlier essay?

Peter Beinart: I don't think I did characterize liberals like you that way. The criticism was of Moore and MoveOn for opposing the Afghan war. And I further argued that liberals hadn't made fighting terrorism a central part of liberal identity, as I think it must be, because of the threat it poses to liberal values at home and abroad.


Bethesda, Md.: Other than your belief in international institutions, how do you differentiate yourself from neoconservatism?

Peter Beinart: On the domestic requirements for foreign policy strength. Neocons support the right's larger attempt to defund government, which runs smack into government's ability to act in the world--whether it be military spending, foreign aid or even homeland security spending. And by not making real efforts to address the economic insecurity of Americans--their lack of health care, child care etc--they make it harder for Americans to be generous abroad. As I write in my book, The Good Fight, Cold war liberals understood that to be generous abroad, government must be generous at home.


Boca Raton, Fla.: I have not heard any of you liberals say why places in Africa deserve liberation and the people of Iraq should not. Last night with Tucker Carlson, you ducked his question. You also gave an example of how people in Africa show in their polling they want to be liberated, yet you seem to have missed the elections in Iraq which show they want to be liberated as well. I feel that the hatred for President Bush overrides any clear thinking on the part of liberals and what he is trying to accomplish. It is not Africa or that region that wages attacks on the world. Please tell me what is the liberal plan for peace and safety for America in the Middle East.

Peter Beinart: I don't know if Iraqis wanted to be liberated in March 2003. There was no way to tell. But right now, it is debatable whether we have really improved their lives. For some, yes. For others, with the death and destruction, certainly not. And there is the question of opportunity cost--moral as well as economic--our inability to act in Darfur because we're overstretched. The increasing deficit. Our weak position versus Iran. These have to factored in.


Montreal, Canada: Thanks for doing this chat.

Surely another way that Bush is not comparable to Truman is the latter's very public campaign against war profiteering. How do you think Truman would have reacted to some of the Iraq reconstruction contracts signed in the last five years?

Peter Beinart: I'd like to think he would have more generally insisted on a policy of openness and accountability. His administration wasn't perfect on that score--but he didn't take power, as Bush and Cheney did, with a conscious desire to strip the executive of as much legislative and judicial oversight as possible.


Silver Spring, Md.: At the U.N. building in New York, and at SAIS here in D.C., there is a sculpture dedicated to Dag Hammerskjold and honoring his "Zealous Pursuit of Peace". When was the last time you ever heard anyone talk about the zealous pursuit of peace? Do you think that it is an honorable goal that should be occasionally included in foreign policy discussions?

Peter Beinart: Absolutely. What makes it complicated is that the threats to peace today are less often state on state wars, and more often non-state actors, and what governments do to their own people. The UN didn't address that when it was founded. But it has been moving in that direction, and the US must lead the effort. Because peace is also about an individuals ability to live safely in their own country, without fear of their own government.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think that being "strong" in the arena of national security also means that presidents should sometimes resist the clarion call for self-destructive wars?

Peter Beinart: Yes


Lyme, Conn.: Did you read some of the journal articles from the 1990s from some of today's neo-cons arguing for an invasion of Iraq even back then? There was a sense that America has a responsibility to itself to do as it pleases to protect its economy through protecting our access to oil. I fear our acting alone and acting only in our own self-interest in foreign relations decisions is making other countries lose their regard for us and that our regard for other countries aw comes through in other means, such as our lack of following international law during prison brutality. How would Truman have reacted to something similar to the prison abuses?

Peter Beinart: Truman wasn't perfect. But he did say that America must improve its own democracy in order to inspire others to struggle for democracy. That's one argument he made for civil rights. So I think he'd have a different view than Bush on torture, I think.


Annapolis, Md.: How can we liberals convince the candidates to be themselves -- and stand up for their beliefs -- and not listen to the handlers who seem to have molded them into mindless puppets?

Don't you agree that Gore and Kerry might have done a whole lot better without their handlers?

Peter Beinart: I do, and I suspect future candidates won't make that mistake. Democrats know the cost of inauthenticity--it may be as costly as the most unpopular positions. Bush said: you may not always agree with me, but you know where I stand. Democrats should try that.


Petaluma, Calif.: In "The Future of Freedom", Fareed Zakaria argues that there is a certain level of per capita income that is necessary for democracy to take root in a country. That seems to accord with Truman's interest in economic development as a tool of foreign policy. Given that, regardless of one's views on the Iraq war, now or at its beginning, do you see any hope of a successful democracy there?

Peter Beinart: Iraq is complicated because of oil. States with oil--even if they have high per capita income--often don't create the right kind of middle class necessary for democracy. On the other hand, its unlikely a dictator will ever be able to put the lid on in Iraq anymore, so they may have to create a more representative government, long term.


Reston, Va.: In a Utopian world, economy-related support of less fortunate nations should eventually solve the problems currently inherent in emigration to the US and other more economically advantaged nations that is based primarily on poverty (as opposed to oppression) in the home country. Do you see America and other more fortunate nations ever reaching a point where such an initiative becomes feasible and generally accepted?

Peter Beinart: There are rising calls from European leaders, evangelicals and others for more of a commitment to global poverty. Blair is excellent on this. With American leadership, I think a lot could be done.

_______________________ Thank you all for joining us today.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company