Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Liberals’ Eric Alterman Problem

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.

Discussions - 3 Comments

As a non-interventionist paleocon, I wish liberal policy tended toward isolationism. Liberal foreign policy is liberal internationalism sometimes back by force (Darfur, the former Yugoslavia, etc.), but always involving sovereignty sacrificing alliances with supra-national organizations. Neoconservative foreign policy is liberal internationalism backed by force and willing to act unilaterally, but not opposed to sovereignty sacrificing alliances per se and all for entangling alliances. (I find it instructive that the willingness to back up with force what one thinks others should do is asserted as some sort of obvious imperative.)

Liberal and "conservative" and "pragmatic" (Baker, Hagel, etc.) foreign policy are all peas in the same internationalist pod.

Conservatism needs a conservative foreign policy. One that defends our shores and otherwise minds our own business. That would be the foreign policy of Washington.

We couldn't leave the rest of the world alone then or vice versa and the same goes for today. While avoiding foreign intanglements something good to achieve, the reality, then and now, is that the world will not leave you alone.

Mr. Voegeli, thanks for this, and BTW your piece on Schlesinger in CRB is great.

Thanks particularly for the Packer peice, which is high quality all around, but particularly intiguing on that idea of there being no liberal foreign policy since the mid-to-late 60s abandonment, with Vietnam as the excuse, of the old liberal (and leftist) anti-communism. It's actually a fairly plausible idea if you run with it. Consider the all-too-typical pattern revealed in Alterman's crappy, half-true, knowledgable, and thus all-the-more-damnable hit piece, by which he rakes Peretz over the coals by saying that he never considers how US interests might conflict w/ those of Israel, without providing any account of what those interests are. Alterman's plan for US for. policy in the middle-east? He has none. His response to Peretz' most telling criticisms over the years against the bankrupt policy of "the president must push forward the peace process" ? Nope, no response. No explanation of what we're supposed to do in the a world in which Oslo was Oslo, Hamas is elected, the UN is what it is, etc., other than criticize Israel a lot more than we currently do. This at the very hour when Peretz' dire predictions about the Palestinians' ability (given their ideology) to run a state, predictions which Alterman dismisses as racist, have proven undeniably true. Contrast Alterman's basic ANTI-ness, his childish after-the-fact gotcha-on-Iraq analysis, with the actual statesman-like concern for real foreign policy that Sen. Biden, of all people, displays in the Packer essay. Or contrast it with what TNR's Beinart has tried to get liberals to take seriously.

Alterman deserves to be dismissed as the lying sack-of-sophistry he is, (see his ludicrous book revealing the right-wing dominance in the media, no doubt being taught to an undergraduate near you) but his essay unfortunately represents the circle-the-ideological-wagons attitude that has taken over the left. Peretz is bad because he published articles that sometimes helped the right. Berman, Gitlin, any liberal or lefty whose ciriticism has ever done real damage to the left, especially if there critique has offered an iota of justification for Iraq, is declared contaminated, not to be read. There is no admission by Alterman that the liberalism of the 70s thru 90s offered easy pickins' on many scores, and often needed to be spanked. He offers no real account of what main lines of TNR left-ward criticism were actually deserved by the left. He praises (Christian-hater) Weiseltier's book section again and again, to prove his fairness and intellectual creds, I guess, but never alludes to the fact that Weiselteir has spanked the left mighty heartily on a number of occassions, and on foreign policy in particular.

Dan Phillips, if you give Washingnton's farewell address a more nuanced reading than you apparently have, you'll see how Washington contextualizes his call for "no tangling alliances" in the reality of American weakness. He would have understood why FDR had to help Churchill, and why Truman, Ike, and the rest had to contain the USSR.

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