June 28, 2006

Insipid, Pretentious, Poorly Written, Incoherent, Meretricious, Wrongheaded and Fraudulent

My, my. Dear me. Who on earth could deserve such criticism? Peter Beinart, that's who:
The Good Fight began life as an essay that appeared in The New Republic when Beinart edited that magazine. According to press reports, he received a handsome $600,000 advance to expand his essay into a book. The result can only be called a major disappointment: The Good Fight is insipid, pretentious and poorly written. At points it verges on incoherence. As history, it is meretricious. As policy prescription, it is wrongheaded. Beinart has perpetrated his fraud twice over.
I haven't read Beinart's book, but I did read his TNR article, which offered the same thesis. And since these broadsides come from a man whose writing and analysis I greatly respect, I'm perfectly prepared to consider his criticisms entirely valid for the moment.

That is the concluding paragraph from Andrew Bacevich's review of the Beinart book. Bacevich is the author of a genuinely excellent and valuable work, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. It is a terrible thing, to witness an amateur poseur, notably ignorant and dishonest in his arguments, subject to thorough examination by one who is a genuine expert in his field and deeply knowledgeable about history and foreign policy. It puts one in mind of Greek tragedy, and the piteous howls of anguish emitted by the horrified members of the audience. Well, it would have that effect if I did not hold Beinart in such very low esteem and view his policy prescriptions as so profoundly dangerous.

I will give Beinart credit for one thing: he understands the importance of the story we choose to tell, and the manner in which we tell it. This is a theme I return to repeatedly. The problem with Beinart, of course, is that his story is flatly wrong. Bacevich provides many examples of Beinart's convenient omissions, and the various ways in which he distorts history to serve his particular purposes. Narratives possess enormous potential for good when they are based on truth and facts. When they are founded on fantasy and our preferred, but fictitious, vision of ourselves, they become nothing more than propaganda -- and all such propaganda leads to only one result: destruction, of ourselves and of large parts of the world, as we see again today.

On the importance of narrative, note the opening of Bacevich's review:
When it comes to foreign policy, the fundamental divide in American politics today is not between left and right but between those who subscribe to the myth of the "American Century" and those who do not. Peter Beinart is a true believer. In his eyes America's purpose today remains precisely what it has always been: to confront and destroy the enemies of freedom at home and abroad. In The Good Fight, he summons liberals to recover their crusading spirit and to "put anti-totalitarianism at the center of their hopes for a better country and a better world." Liberalism must become once again what it was in its heyday: "a fighting faith."

A fighting faith requires "a narrative of national greatness."
God save us from the true believers and the "narrative of national greatness" -- the combination that landed us directly in the catastrophe of Iraq.

You should read the review in its entirety, but this is one passage that I found especially interesting and entertaining:
To legitimate this fraud and to wrap anti-totalitarian liberalism in a mantle of moral superiority, Beinart shanghais Reinhold Niebuhr and subjects the great Protestant theologian to ritual abuse. In essence, he uses Niebuhr much as Jerry Falwell uses Jesus Christ, and just as shamelessly: citing him as an unimpeachable authority and claiming his endorsement, thereby pre-empting any further discussion.

To establish his Niebuhrean credentials, Beinart sprinkles The Good Fight with references to "guilt," "moral fallibility" and "limits." Yet whereas the real Niebuhr's message was a cautionary one, Beinart-channeling-Niebuhr emits portentous exhortations. Like a third-rate stump speech, the results don't necessarily parse, but they do manage to sound awfully important. Thus Beinart lets it be known that "only when America recognizes that it is not inherently good can it become great." Then there's this chin stroker: "America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world." Or better still: "America's challenge lies not in recognizing our moral superiority, but in demonstrating it."

The real Niebuhr worried less about Americans demonstrating their moral superiority than about whether they would forgo temptations of moral irresponsibility. But then, the real Niebuhr did not conceive of history as a narrative of national greatness. Rather than bend the past to suit a particular agenda, liberal or otherwise, he viewed it as beyond our understanding and fraught with paradox. "The whole drama of history," he wrote, "is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management."

No such humility constrains Beinart. He not only comprehends history but insists with all the fervor of William Kristol that the United States has the capacity and duty to manage it.
After all, when the first phase of the American Century ended in 1989, it rendered a definitive verdict: "The core reality was that the United States had vanquished its chief ideological competitor and military rival, leaving it in a position of astonishing strength." Victory in the cold war imposed obligations; Americans were called upon to use that strength to carry on the work of liberating humankind. Today, when in Beinart's estimate "U.S. military and economic influence knows few bounds," he believes it is incumbent upon policy-makers to redouble American efforts to spread the blessings of freedom and equality across the Muslim world.
To balance Beinart's platitudes and his narrative of world transformation by military might, Bacevich discusses Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow:
A longtime foreign correspondent with the New York Times, Kinzer does not provide a lot that's new. Relying on secondary sources, Overthrow recycles and repackages material that will be familiar to the historically literate. But by collecting these stories in a single volume, Kinzer performs a useful service. Overthrow makes it abundantly clear that far from being some innovation devised in the aftermath of 9/11, "regime change" has long been a mainstay of American statecraft.


Kinzer is especially good at tallying up what he calls the "terrible unintended consequences" that frequently ensue when the United States overthrows a government that has fallen out of Washington's favor. Bush's removal of Saddam Hussein is by no means the first such enterprise to produce something other than the tidy outcome envisioned by its architects. ...

Most instructive of all, however, are the ironic consequences stemming from America's success in ousting the Soviets from Afghanistan. In retrospect, the results of regime change there serve as a sort of cosmic affirmation of Niebuhr's entire worldview. Of Afghanistan in the years following the Soviet withdrawal, truly it can be said, as Niebuhr wrote, "The paths of progress … proved to be more devious and unpredictable than the putative managers of history could understand."

Those, like Peter Beinart, who are gung-ho to wage their war against jihadist terror dare not contemplate present-day Afghanistan too deeply. Their depiction of the war as a contest that pits freedom against totalitarianism becomes plausible only if they ignore the actual history giving rise to the conflict. Much of that history occurred in the period enshrined as the American Century, but precious little of it had anything to do with promoting freedom. As experienced by Muslims, the American Century was marked by imperialism and intervention, manipulation and betrayal, Israel and oil. It goes without saying that in Beinart's account none of these matters qualify as relevant.
As I say, the entire review is well worth your time, and you're likely to learn quite a bit that may be new to you.

And it's entirely delicious.