Chuck Peña: Why Liberals (like Peter Beinart) Can’t Win the War on Terror


In a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Peter Beinart — former editor of The New Republic, who has declared that only liberals can win the war on terror (the self-proclaimed subtitle of his new book) — offers up a weak mea culpa for “mistakenly” backing the Iraq war but lauds President Clinton’s “multilateral war to prevent the neo-fascist Slobodan Milosevic from cleansing ethnic Albanians from their homes.” What he conveniently ignores is that Clinton’s war in the Balkans was no different than the Bush administration’s so-called unilateral invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein. Both were military actions against sovereign states conducted without the formal approval of the UN Security Council and neither represented an imminent threat to U.S. security — and both were rationalized on humanitarian grounds. As long as liberals like Beinart cannot fathom that liberal internationalism (or what he calls anti-totalitarian liberalism) is fundamentally the same thing as neoconservatism as implemented by the Bush administration, liberals cannot hope to fashion together a policy and strategy to win the war on terror.
Like the neocons and Bushies, Beinart believes the terrorist threat confronting America is a different form of communism or fascism. And he advocates the same cure for the disease: promoting freedom and democracy in the Islamic world. Where Beinart and the Bush administration depart company is the liberals’ preference for working with the United Nations and cultivating the support of the international community. But this difference is largely style over substance. It is about how to implement policy (via international institutions and multilateralism), not about policy itself — the equivalent of John Kerry saying “it was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein,” but that he “would have done everything differently.” The reality is that liberals like Beinart and neoconservatives both arrive at the same end point. The result is an alliance of strange bedfellows brought together by the belief that American security is best served by using military power to spread democracy throughout the world, as evidenced by a January 2005 letter from the Project for the New American Century to the leadership of the U.S. Congress calling for increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps for “promotion of freedom.” The signatories included many of the “usual suspects” of neoconservative ilk — e.g., Max Boot, Thomas Donnelly, Frank Gaffney, William Kristol, and Danielle Pletka — as well as many left-leaning luminaries — e.g., Ivo Daalder, Michele Flournoy, Michael O’Hanlon, and James Steinberg (not surprisingly, all except O’Hanlon served in the Clinton administration).

Like so many other liberals, Beinart fails to recognize that the terrorist threat represented by al Qaeda (now growing into a larger radical Islamic movement) is not due to a lack of democracy in the Muslim world. Such failure can only lead to failed policies. The reality is that Osama bin Laden has been very clear about why he attacked America on 9/11: as a response to U.S. policies, particularly in the Muslim world.
The key to winning the war on terrorism, then, is not a liberal internationalist version of neoconservatism or going back to the future by applying Truman anti-totalitarian liberalism against the radical Islamic threat. Rather, what is required is a real overhaul of U.S. foreign and national security policy based on an understanding that U.S. interventionism is a root cause of anti-American resentment in the Muslim world — which breeds hatred and becomes a steppingstone to violence, including terrorism. Accordingly, the guiding principle for U.S. policy should be to stop meddling in the internal affairs of countries and regions around the world, except when they directly threaten U.S. national security interests — i.e., when the territorial integrity, national sovereignty, or liberty of the United States is at risk. This is especially true in the Middle East and Muslim world.
Because bin Laden uses the plight of the Palestinians to appeal to Muslims around the world, conventional wisdom is that the United States must resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But a true peace can only be achieved when both parties are serious about wanting peace and willing to take all the necessary steps to achieve peace. Instead of improperly presenting itself as an honest broker and failing to produce peace, it would actually be better if the United States was less involved in trying to arbitrate and impose a peace settlement. Even if a peace could be forged, grievances about U.S. support for authoritarian regimes in Muslim countries will still exist. And the downside risk of active U.S. involvement if the peace process fails is that Palestinian terrorists could use U.S. bias towards Israel as an excuse for the failure and a reason to make America a target.
Conventional wisdom also holds that the United States is dependent on oil. But the realities of the economics of oil do not justify the U.S. obsession with Middle East oil and the need for special relationships with the regimes in the region (such as Saudi Arabia) to secure access to that oil. After the Gulf war of 1990, the United States maintained military bases in Saudi Arabia to help secure the kingdom and ensure stability and a continued flow of Saudi oil. The alliance between America and the Saudi royal family has generated enormous ill-will toward the United States on the part of thousands of Saudis who despise their government. The same can be said for America’s relationship with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, considered an autocratic regime even though it claims to be a democracy (which also highlights the hypocrisy of any U.S. policy based on promoting democracy). It is no wonder, then, that Al-Qaeda exploited that hostility to murderous ends: 15 of the 19 suicide-hijackers on September 11, 2001, were Saudi nationals and their ringleader, Mohammad Atta, was an Egyptian.
If liberals want to win the war on terrorism, then they have to be willing to re-evaluate their thinking on foreign policy. A kinder, gentler, humanitarian liberal version of neoconservatism, however, is not real change. The hard truth is that even before 9/11, the United States needed to re-adjust its foreign policy. The war on terrorism now demands making real changes. More than anything else, U.S. foreign policy is the cause of virulent anti-Americanism that is the basis for terrorism. Changing U.S. foreign policy may not guarantee victory in the war on terrorism, but not changing it will certainly spell defeat.
Charles V. Peña is an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project, senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, and analyst for MSNBC television. He is the author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism (Potomac Books, 2006), co-author of The Search for WMD: Non-Proliferation, Intelligence and Pre-emption in the New Security Environment (Dalhousie University, 2006), and co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War against al Qaeda (Cato Institute, 2004).


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