05/06/2006 05:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Liberal Imperialism Finds a Story Line

I often post on the long range prospects for progressives because, like some others at HuffPo, I worry that self-inflicted wounds on the right, severe though they are, will not be enough. What's left of the left won't recover until it decides what it stands for in this world as it really is. In the absence of a political philosophy and program on the progressive wing of the progressive movement, the vacuum is being filled by what I think it is fair to call "liberal imperialists." That's a general characterization that applies to "liberal hawks"--supporters of the war in Iraq, from politicos like Hillary Clinton to pundits like Tom Friedman.

It's important to understand that liberal hawks are liberal imperialists because only then can you see that their support for the Iraq invasion wasn't a blind reflex to 9/11 or a Machiavellian grab for oil, but a policy based on a philosophy that is genuinely liberal. That philosophy says that, on the whole, it is in the interests of both the USA and humanity in general to spread versions of Western institutions, more or less adapted to local conditions, around the globe. Liberal imperialists believe that this is the right thing to do, practically and ethically. So they have a vision to guide them. It isn't convenient to articulate it explicitly right now--they need to budget for MoveOn etc. in the upcoming elections--but they have a vision and, in time, it will prevail if an affirmative alternative to liberal imperialism is not forthcoming.

Peter Beinart just advanced the cause of liberal imperialism substantially in an article in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. Every movement needs a story to tell itself about where it comes from and why. That's part of what makes a movement coherent. And Beinart supplies that story. It's called "The Rehabilitation of the Cold-War Liberal" and the sub-head says "Maybe what democrats need post-9/11 is exactly what they rejected after Vietnam."

You couldn't ask for anything clearer than that. And the article supplies a lot of such clarity. What it all boils down to is a return to Henry (Scoop) Jackson and to the JFK who famously proclaimed (just before taking the US into Vietnam):

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

That's strong stuff.

The thing that will make liberal imperialism work is that it couples JFK's foreign policy vision with liberal domestic policies--that's what will distinguish it from Republicans and Neoconservatives if things shake out in such a way that these become the two "sides" in our future politics. In Beinart's words: "A government that leaves people to fend for themselves in the face of rising economic insecurity will face grave difficulty asking them to support enlightened policies aimed at helping people in other corners of the globe."

For Beinart and his cohort, don't forget, those "enlightened policies" include things like the invasion of Iraq. Their beef with Bush is that he botched the job. And they are perfectly sincere about promoting liberal policies on the home front--pro-gay, pro-choice, health care for all--they will be for that.

So this philosophy could become the only ideological game in town for progressives in a future which will no doubt include another act of mass terror on American soil. That means that progressives who oppose the exercise of imperial power under any, or almost any, circumstances, have their work cut out for them.

A good place to start is with a new book by Stephen Kinzer. It's called Overthrow; America's History of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq and it describes 14 actual cases of American intervention in foreign lands in the last century or so--including the overthrow in 1953 of an elected government in Iran. That led to the imposition of the authoritarian regime of our puppet Shah, which in turn led to the revolution of the Ayatollahs--which in turn led to the situation we are looking at with Iran right now. And that's just one example.

In other words the reality of American imperial adventures, a reality that Beinart brushes past--preferring instead to feature the most reasonable, civilized, and restrained remarks ever uttered by the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr and George Kennan, augmented by photos of them looking even more reasonable, civilized, and restrained than their remarks--the reality of those imperial adventures, according to Kinzer, has been one long, bloody, criminal disaster that in fact served no one's interests except for, you guessed it, United Fruit, ITT, Aramco oil and the rest of the gang.

But pointing things like that out isn't going to be enough in the long run. It's just a place to start. What's the opposing philosophy? That's the real question.