The Unsound Judgment of Peter Beinart

by A. Jay Adler on March 22, 2012
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Just over two years ago, I wrote a post titled “The Unsound Judgment of Andrew Sullivan.”

Sullivan, for all his true virtues, is a man of strikingly unsound judgment. He swings, he swings frequently, he swings with emotion from one impassioned response to another, a kind of journalistic Thaïs transforming regularly from the life of a courtesan to the devotions of ascetic convert, and always extreme in his commitment, whatever it is. On the ridiculous level, this results in his campaign against male circumcision (a fair enough position to take) by mischaracterizing it as “male genital mutilation.” His infatuation with Ron Paul, before succumbing to Obama, was typical on a more important level. Paul’s libertarianism has a quintessentially American appeal for some (and Sullivan’s Americanism is another of his impassioned conversions), but from his fiscal ideas to his 30s-era isolationism to his documented history of prejudices and conspiracy mongering, the shallow American individualism is a primer coat covering a totally cracked pot. And it was like Sullivan to inhale the steam without ever detecting the leaks.

Not to let my commentary date, Sullivan subsequently endorsed Paul in the 2012 Presidential election Republican primaries.

Peter Beinart, who certainly has written plenty, in addition to the similar journalistic careers he and Sullivan share as former editors of The New Republic, has not been a daily blogger for well over a decade like Sullivan, so has been driven less to ill-considered daily opining. But he appears to be making the most of his opportunities, and the result is the same dramatically – because, on a large scale, unreliable and fallacious – unsound judgment. It is not simply a matter of ever having been wrong, but of how one is wrong, what one makes of it, and whether one continues to be wrong in the same way on different issues.

In December 2004, Beinart famously wrote for TNR, “A Fighting Faith,” an acute, but too ideally titled call to attention directed at fellow liberals for a post 9/11 world. Belief is empirically grounded and moves us by reason; faith blinds and tends to the missionary. The title foresees the end of the article and the end of Beinart’s political passage over the next decade. But for now, the piece began,

On January 4, 1947, 130 men and women met at Washington’s Willard Hotel to save American liberalism. A few months earlier, in articles in The New Republic and elsewhere, the columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop had warned that “the liberal movement is now engaged in sowing the seeds of its own destruction.” Liberals, they argued, “consistently avoided the great political reality of the present: the Soviet challenge to the West.” Unless that changed, “In the spasm of terror which will seize this country … it is the right–the very extreme right–which is most likely to gain victory.”

During World War II, only one major liberal organization, the Union for Democratic Action (UDA), had banned communists from its ranks. At the Willard, members of the UDA met to expand and rename their organization. The attendees, who included Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Reuther, and Eleanor Roosevelt, issued a press release that enumerated the new organization’s principles. Announcing the formation of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the statement declared, “[B]ecause the interests of the United States are the interests of free men everywhere,” America should support “democratic and freedom-loving peoples the world over.” That meant unceasing opposition to communism, an ideology “hostile to the principles of freedom and democracy on which the Republic has grown great.”

At the time, the ADA’s was still a minority view among American liberals. Two of the most influential journals of liberal opinion, The New Republic and The Nation, both rejected militant anti-communism. Former Vice President Henry Wallace, a hero to many liberals, saw communists as allies in the fight for domestic and international progress. As Steven M. Gillon notes in Politics and Vision, his excellent history of the ADA, it was virtually the only liberal organization to back President Harry S Truman’s March 1947 decision to aid Greece and Turkey in their battle against Soviet subversion.

But, over the next two years, in bitter political combat across the institutions of American liberalism, anti-communism gained strength. With the ADA’s help, Truman crushed Wallace’s third-party challenge en route to reelection. The formerly leftist Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) expelled its communist affiliates and The New Republicbroke with Wallace, its former editor. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) denounced communism, as did the NAACP. By 1949, three years after Winston Churchill warned that an “iron curtain” had descended across Europe, Schlesinger could write inThe Vital Center: “Mid-twentieth century liberalism, I believe, has thus been fundamentally reshaped … by the exposure of the Soviet Union, and by the deepening of our knowledge of man. The consequence of this historical re-education has been an unconditional rejection of totalitarianism.”

Today, three years after September 11 brought the United States face-to-face with a new totalitarian threat, liberalism has still not “been fundamentally reshaped” by the experience.

In all of this, and most of what followed, Beinart was right. He understood, too, what disabled the liberal response to his call.

Instead, Bush’s war on terrorism became a partisan affair–defined in the liberal mind not by images of American soldiers walking Afghan girls to school, but by John Ashcroft’s mass detentions and Cheney’s false claims about Iraqi WMD. The left’s post-September 11 enthusiasm for an aggressive campaign against Al Qaeda–epitomized by students at liberal campuses signing up for jobs with the CIA–was overwhelmed by horror at the bungled Iraq war.

A major reason for Beinart’s support for the Iraq War was his belief in the existence of Iraqi WMD. But it was not his only reason. He ends,

Of all the things contemporary liberals can learn from their forbearers half a century ago, perhaps the most important is that national security can be a calling. If the struggles for gay marriage and universal health care lay rightful claim to liberal idealism, so does the struggle to protect the United States by spreading freedom in the Muslim world. It, too, can provide the moral purpose for which a new generation of liberals yearn.

A “struggle to protect the United States by spreading freedom in the Muslim world” – in Iraq and Afghanistan – is not liberalism. It is neoconservatism, especially as a Paul Wolfowitz, I think sincerely, and a Dick Cheney, cynically, have further fashioned it. The United States may wish for freedom in the Muslim world, should help support it benignly when the  opportunity presents, and should not actively ally with forces that prevent it, but a liberal vision of American foreign policy should not seek actively, in missionary excess, to spread freedom.

To have been wrong about the existence of WMD is to have been mistaken. To have been misled in so many of the particulars in the evidentiary case for war is to have been betrayed by one’s government. To have conceived a missionary purpose to the Iraq War was to be misguided in oneself.

This latter error haunted Beinart, who began, ultimately, to attempt redress. While many have referred to the attempt as an apology, I have not found that word anywhere. It has certainly been a mea culpa. In the The Good Fight: Why Liberals, and Only Liberals, Can Win the War on Terror, and in multiple other venues, after acknowledging the mistakes about WMD, the missionary military ideal, and trust in the Bush administration, Beinart goes further.

Partly, I was wrong on the facts. I could not imagine that Saddam, given his record, had abandoned his nuclear program, even as the evidence trickled out in the months before the war. And I could not imagine that the Bush administration would so utterly fail to plan for the war’s aftermath, given that it had so much riding on its success. But even more important than the facts, I was wrong on the theory. I was too quick to give up on containment, too quick to think time was on Saddam’s side. And I did not grasp the critical link between the invasion’s credibility in the world and its credibility in Iraq. I not only overestimated America’s capacities, I overestimated America’s legitimacy.

As someone who had seen US might deployed effectively, and on the whole benignly, in the first Gulf war, the Balkans and Afghanistan, I could not see that the morality of US power relies on the limits to US power. It is a grim irony that this central argument is one I ignored when it was needed most.

This acknowledges the distinction between liberalism and neoconservatism. However, from acknowledging errors in fact, Beinart proceeds to recanting what he now puts forward as flaws in belief. But to recognize that subsequent factual revelations about Iraq invalidated the conclusions about war drawn from them is not to delegitimize the premises upon which the argument was made, upon which one constructs a philosophy and a policy. Yet this is what Beinart leads himself to do, even as he grasps to preserve a vision of anti-totalitarian liberalism. And what we see is that his misperception now is rooted in his misperceptions before. Beinart’s confession drew mixed reactions from the left quarters he had previously criticized: there was appreciation of an honest self-appraisal, but lingering anger over the fullness of the earlier attack. For those quarters still do not share Beinart’s more benign vision of the first Gulf war, the Balkans and even Afghanistan. (All one need do is review the pages of The Nation from the last quarter of 2001 to be reminded that the far or “anti-imperial” left did not require six years of Bush administration ball dropping to oppose that engagement too.) Beinart argues forcefully for traditional international liberal values in addressing inequity and powerlessness, but on the key issue that both Afghanistan and Iraq raised – the willingness of the left to conceive legitimate American use of military force in defense of legitimate interests, against illiberal adversaries – Beinart now defers to liberal democratic consensus, which should rather be a means to community, not a method of irresolution.

So Beinart stands, more generally. Now, in the past year and half, Beinart, in article and books, has become a fierce “liberal Zionist” critic of Israel. In “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” The Crisis of Zionism, and repeated regular columns Beinart has, in extraordinary contradiction, allied himself with the very left elements he criticized. This week, continuing his profoundly mistaken history in portraying Israel’s West Bank settlements as the cause of continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he advocated in The New York Times boycotting the settlements. This is an attempt at nuance that has pleased no one, even as it so mistakes the issue

Writes Gary Rosenblatt of Beinart’s “myopia” in The Crisis of Zionism,

He seems to view the Mideast crisis through the prism of the settlements as front and center – the very core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He has little to say about the very real concerns of Israelis or about the history and context of a problem that goes back decades, if not centuries.

Says Sol Stern in the aptly titled “Beinart the Unwise,”

What is wrong with Beinart’s book is contained within its title, The Crisis of Zionism. Zionism itself is not in crisis. The liberal Zionism Beinart espouses is, because Beinart and others like him have decided to condition their belief in a Jewish national homeland on its pursuit of policies that make them feel good.

This is the very general case. Here is Elder of Ziyon offering a fisking in demonstration of how completely misrepresentative Beinart is in his particulars.

Peter Beinart in the New York Times has another incredibly misleading article about – well, you know what its about.

TO believe in a democratic Jewish state today is to be caught between the jaws of a pincer.
On the one hand, the Israeli government is erasing the “green line” that separates Israel proper from the West Bank. In 1980, roughly 12,000 Jews lived in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem). Today, government subsidies have helped swell that number to more than 300,000. Indeed, many Israeli maps and textbooks no longer show the green line at all.

In 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel called the settlement of Ariel, which stretches deep into the West Bank, “the heart of our country.” Through its pro-settler policies, Israel is forging one political entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — an entity of dubious democratic legitimacy, given that millions of West Bank Palestinians are barred from citizenship and the right to vote in the state that controls their lives.

For Beinart’s thesis to be correct, you must believe that the Palestinian Authority and the PLO has no political legitimacy, or power.

Yet it is recognized as a full state by 129 nations; its citizens vote (at least in theory) to elect their leaders, it has autonomy, a territory that all accept as controlled by its own security forces, a court system, an Olympic team, and its own passports. According to at least one distinguished legal scholar, it is considered a full state under international law. The World Bank is putting out reports about how ready the territories are for statehood. The entire Oslo process – that Israel still supports – was designed to give full self-determination to Palestinian Arabs in the territories, and (more recently) statehood. For Beinart to turn around and state that all of these don’t exist, and that for some reason the territories are (as he tries to coin the term) “nondemocratic Israel,” is nonsense. Israel has no intention of integrating Ramallah or Jericho into Israel. And as recently as January, Israel tried to hold negotiations with the PLO, and the other side refused.

Beinart, in his attempt to sound an alarm for Israeli democracy, chooses quite deliberately to ignore everything that happened to the Palestinian Arabs since 1994.

It is Palestinian Arab intransigence, not Israeli settlements, that has stopped a Palestinian Arab state. Beinart’s willingness to blame only one side shows that he is not being as evenhanded and “pro-Israel” as he tirelessly claims to be.

But, you might counter, what about Area C? Israel does indeed control all aspects of the lives of Arabs who live there, and while they vote in PA elections, they do not have much say in their own political affairs. Doesn’t Israel’s presence there endanger Israeli democracy?

The number of Palestinian Arabs in Area C is about 150,000 (about 2.5% of all Palestinian Arabs.) Which means that the percentage of people living under Israeli sovereignty who do not have political rights is, today, about 1.9%.

By way of contrast, the percentage of people living in US territories who are not represented in Congress and who cannot vote in presidential elections – those in Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands and elsewhere – is about 1.3%.

So is Israel’s control of Area C a danger to Israeli democracy? Not unless you think that US territories endanger US democracy too. The idea is ridiculous. It is an issue, it is not a death-blow to democracy.

To go further, if Israel would decide to annex Area C, wouldn’t that solve all the problems? No demographic issue, giving the Arabs there full citizenship – and Beinart’s argument is down the drain.

Somehow, I don’t think that Beinart would support that solution, or even a modified version of that solution. Because he has bought into the Palestinian Arab narrative that the artificially constructed 1949 armistice lines – which were not considered international borders before 1967 and were always meant to be modified in a final peace agreement between Israel and the Arab world – are somehow special, and that no peace can possibly result from a change in those lines that would include, say, Ariel.

This is a detail of specific knowledge that few people – few people, even, with strong views and of active involvement – have of conditions and history. It is public figures such as Beinart who, instead, more generally shape the moral sense of those ethically compelled to care about so central an international issue. What is the further reasoning process, beyond what we already see, that takes on this responsible role? Beinart has begun to answer his critics. In the following, he responds to what he characterizes remarkably as “right-wing critiques” – remarkable when one considers Beinart’s post 9/11 analysis and the profoundly illiberal character of so many of the forces, Palestinian and other, that oppose Israel.

The first [critique] is that it lets Palestinians off the hook. As Ambassador Michael Oren wrote, my proposal “absolves the Palestinians of any responsibility for the current situation, including their rejection of previous peace offers, their support for terror, and their refusal to negotiate with Israel for the past three years.” Oren has it exactly backwards. What actually absolves the Palestinians of responsibility is the growth of Israeli settlements.

Let’s assume that the Palestinian leadership hasn’t come to terms with the hardest concessions that a two state deal would likely require of them: a merely symbolic refugee return and something less than full control over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. It’s much easier for Palestinian leaders to evade those issues when they can point to the expansion of Ariel, a settlement that stretches thirteen miles beyond the green line….

When I called the West Bank settlements “An Historic Error,” I did so not just because I think them an ethical misjudgment, but because they have, indeed, provided the Palestinians more than three decades of excuse making, over thirty years opportunity to absolve themselves of responsibility, as Beinart puts it, for their statelessness. What Beinart completely, simply obtusely misses, however, is the key element to that excuse making, in addition to the settlements themselves: the cooperation of people like Beinart in accepting the excuse. The excuse – any excuse – has practical value only to the degree that those hearing it are willing to grant it acceptance and legitimacy – which is exactly what Peter Beinart does. If Peter Beinart and others did not use this excuse of the Palestinians as an argument against Israel, it would cease to have force and the Palestinians would cease to rely on it. It is an excuse not merely blindly accepted by Peter Beinart – it is an excuse manufactured precisely for Peter Beinart.

Even as Beinart locates error, he commits another; even as he exposes a ruse, he perpetuates it. Even as he swings from one strongly held view to its contrary, missing the essential detail in the haze of misty political faith, and the inclination to pursue it boldly, his arguments become less and less sound. And so do his judgments.

AJA

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