Eric Alterman doesn’t like Martin Peretz, who was the publisher of The New Republic from 1973 until its sale earlier this year. Why? Because over the course of those 34 years, “Peretz has done lasting damage to the cause of American liberalism. By turning TNR into a kind of ideological police dog, Peretz enjoyed the ability – at least for a while – to play a key role in defining the borders of ‘responsible’ liberal discourse, thereby tarring anyone who disagreed as irresponsible or untrustworthy.”
Although Alterman has complaints about the tone of TNR under Peretz, and about some of its domestic policy positions, what really infuriates him is the magazine’s hawkishness, especially concerning Israel and the Middle East. Alterman writes, “TNR was not simply wrong about Iraq, it was viciously, nastily wrong. . . . By pretending to speak as a liberal but simultaneously endorsing the central crusades of the right, [Peretz] has enlisted The New Republic in the service of a ruinous neoconservative doctrine, as the magazine sneered at those liberals who stood firm in the face of its insults.”
So far, so bad. Peretz is a graceless writer; little of his work would see the light of day if he had to send it to editors not on his payroll. The relentlessness of his efforts over the past 20 years to chisel Al Gore’s face onto Mount Rushmore defies parody. The Alterman critique goes from angry to weird, however, when he says, “the hard work of coming up with a genuinely liberal alternative to the neoconservative foreign-policy nightmare, an alternative to which TNR might have usefully contributed, remains not merely undone but undermined in the pages of the magazine.” Is one publisher of one magazine really so powerful that he can stymie the otherwise promising efforts to reconceptualize liberal foreign policy? William Randolph Hearst didn’t throw that kind of weight around on his best days.
The hard work Alterman describes has been fruitless for longer than Peretz has been running The New Republic. It was 40 years ago that the Americans for Democratic Action denounced Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam, which Johnson had pursued in the belief that it was exactly the sort of commitment required by the liberal anti-communism that was the ADA’s raison d’être. Since then, “the Democratic Party has had no foreign policy,” according to a New Yorker article by George Packer at the start of the 2004 election campaign. Its “base remains instinctively uncomfortable with activism and armed force.” Liberals’ “intellectual shortcomings” include “isolationism and pacifism,” and the multiculturalist reluctance to “mount a wholehearted defense of one political system against another, especially when the other has taken root among poorer and darker-skinned peoples.” Liberals “have continued to speak the language of liberal internationalism” but “haven’t wanted to back up the talk with power.”
The “genuinely liberal alternative” Alterman longs for will have to solve all these problems. It will indeed be hard work. Alterman shows just how hard by contending that liberals who want their resolve in the face of Osama bin Laden to be credible are frightened of Martin Peretz.