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The Good Fight

Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight is an interesting, but flawed, book.

The Good FightBeinart’s book breaks down into two parts. The first half of the book is a history of cold war liberalism and its influence on American foreign policy. Beinart lionizes Harry Truman as a model for hawkish liberal foreign policy, as would be expected from a hawkish liberal. As others have pointed out, his portrait of Truman and his history of the cold war is oversimplified and a bit contrived. Beinart attemps to paint Truman as more of a multilateralist than he may actually have been, using NATO as an example of deference to foreign countries. Just how much influence other countries in NATO had or wanted is debatable, though it does look like Truman made some statements in the direction of allowing other countries to have a say. More than you can say for the current administration, but it doesn’t make Beinart’s examples any more convincing. In all honesty, I wonder about the point of this half of the book. Beinart wants to make some points by analogy, but is 100 pages of history necessary? It feels like an extended introduction more than a necessary portion of the book. Given the short length of the book (just over 200 pages), I’m inclined to think it’s just padding.

The second half is a critique of Bush’s approach to the war on terrorism and an argument for what we should actually be doing. Beinart makes a powerful argument for taking the war on terrorism seriously. Instead of seeing actual harm from terrorists as the main worry, he points out that further attacks will almost certainly curail our freedoms more than they already have been. So while terrorists will likely not cause a lot of actual damage, they’re still a threat to our country due to the fear they create.

Beinart continues with an explanation for terrorism. This is where he begins to go off course. He correctly notes that it is who we are that causes terrorism, but what we do. He correctly notes that our presence in Saudi Arabia is a major contributor to terrorism, but also argues that the poverty of the region is a significant cause.

Now, we know suicide terrorists are not poorer and less educated than the societies they come from. It’s the opposite, in fact. The data we have shows that. Beinart argues that this is a result of skimming off the top:

Terrorist groups are, after all, like any other employer: They accept the best candidates who apply. The University of Pennsylvania’s Marc Sageman estimates that only 10 to 30 percent of the people trained at Al Qaeda camps in the 1990s were invited to join the organization. And of those, an even smaller number were selected for spectacular attacks like 9/11, which require living undercover for years in the West. By design, these jihadist elites are more cosmopolitan, and better educated, than the movement they represent.

This is decent enough as an explanation of why terrorist organizations pick more upscale people. It doesn’t help Beinart’s argument much, though. He wants to claim that improving the Arab world socially and economically will solve our problems. First, it shows al Qaeda’s goals have a significant political attraction to people who are doing pretty well in life. Second, what makes al Qaeda so deadly is the competence brought by more cosmopolitan recruits. Shouldn’t we be focused on that? Without the people to organize, direct, and carryout complex operations, the threat just isn’t so impressive. Beinart’s claim is that the poor and uneducated masses in the Middle East provide crucial support to groups like al Qaeda. This is true enough. The nature of suicide terrorism is such that it depends on a replenishing pool of recruits along with popular support in order to hide among a population. Now, improving the living conditions of the Middle East isn’t going to decrease the pool of important recruits for al Qaeda. If anything, it increases them, as there will be more competent educated people in the region. What about the overall support of a community? Even if the poor are more likely to join a group like al Qaeda, we know that al Qaeda attracts the non-poor in significant numbers, as I said above. What guarantee do we have that the political attraction will diminish enough that the low level support of communities will disappear? None. I think Beinart fails to provide a full argument that his proposed remedies will do enough. His only example is the tsunami that devasted Indonesia. The citizens of that region became much less hostile to our war on terrorism after we reversed ourselves and offered a great deal of aid to them. However, Indonesia is hardly a significant source of recruits in the first place. Places that meet Robert Pape’s criteria (occupation by a democracy of a different religion) would be a real test.

Beinart’s proposed solutions are good in and of themselves, but I’m skeptical about their efficacy in eliminating jihadist terrorism. Sure, if we make Saudi Arabia look like Germany, it’s hard to imagine it spawning a significant number of bin Ladens. But how long is that going to take? 30 years? 50? We’re at rock bottom and we have the overwhelming hostility of the region to deal with. Perhaps we should be pursuing such policies, but I’m not sure we should be thinking it’s a good solution. Certainly we can’t abandon the region (which would, in all likelihood, solve our problems), but going the opposite direction is likely to take a long time and probably make things worse before they get better.

Beinart makes solid arguments that Bush’s policies are wrong and the ideas of the Michael Moores of the world are not much better. Beinart’s solution is more palatable than either of them, but I wonder if it’s really what we need. I’m all for national greatness liberalism and promoting reform in the Arab world, but I have my doubts about it being the solution.

Categories: Foreign Policy, The media
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