Return of the liberal hawks

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Jacob Heilbrunn, a former Times editorial writer, is writing a book on neoconservatism.

DON’T LOOK now, but neoconservatism is making a comeback -- and not among the Republicans who have made it famous but in the Democratic Party.

A host of pundits and young national security experts associated with the party are calling for a return to the Cold War precepts of President Truman to wage a war against terror that New Republic Editor Peter Beinart, in the title of his provocative new book, calls “The Good Fight.”

The fledgling neocons of the left are based at places such as the Progressive Policy Institute, whose president, Will Marshall, has just released a volume of doctrine called “With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty.” Beinart’s book is subtitled “Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again.” Their political champions include Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman and such likely presidential candidates as former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who is chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council.


This new crop of liberal hawks calls for expanding the existing war against terrorism, beefing up the military and promoting democracy around the globe while avoiding the anti-civil liberties excesses of the Bush administration. They support a U.S. government that would seek multilateral consensus before acting abroad, but one that is not scared to use force when necessary.

These Democrats want to be seen as anything but the squishes who have led the party to defeat in the past. Interestingly, that’s how the early neocons saw themselves too: as liberals fighting to reclaim their party’s true heritage -- before they decamped to the GOP in the 1980s.

Indeed, the credo of the new Democratic hawks is eerily reminiscent of the neocons of the 1970s, who ran a full-page ad in the New York Times called “Come Home, Democrats” after George McGovern’s crushing defeat, in a play on his campaign slogan “Come Home, America.” In it, early neocons such as Jeane Kirkpatrick and Norman Podhoretz called for a return to the principles of -- you guessed it -- Truman and President Kennedy.

They lamented the fact that their party had been taken over by the forces backing McGovern’s run for the presidency in 1972 and wanted to purge the party of the McGovernites. They didn’t want self-abasement about U.S. sins abroad but a vigorous fighting faith that promoted the American creed of liberty and human rights abroad and at home.

Now, a generation later, as the crusading Republican neoconservatism espoused by Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol and others lies in the smoking rubble of Baghdad, a new generation of Democrats wants to dust off and rehabilitate those traditional Democratic principles, which they believe were hijacked by the Bush administration.

They want, in essence, to return to the beliefs that originally brought the neocons to prominence, the beliefs that motivated old-fashioned Cold War liberals such as Democratic Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson.


Where will all this lead? To an internecine Democratic war, of course. Just as Republicans are being riven by debates between realists and Bush administration idealists, so the Democratic Party is about to witness its own battle.

Just as the old neocons wanted to expel the McGovernites, so the new ones want to rid the party of the types and move it to the right. As Beinart puts it, “whatever its failings, the right at least knows that America’s enemies need to be fought.”

In “With All Our Might,” scholars Larry Diamond and Michael McFaul -- both Democrats -- outline a comprehensive democracy-promotion program. For example, they imaginatively call for transplanting the 1975 Helsinki accords, which insisted upon human rights monitoring in the former Warsaw Pact nations, to the Middle East. “Freedom,” they exhort, “is the fundamental antidote to all forms of tyranny, terror and oppression.”

Other Democrats, who call themselves the “Sept. 11 generation,” have formed what is known as the Truman National Security Project, whose avowed aim is to revive the “strong security, strong values of the Democratic Party -- for Democrats of all ages.”

Does this simply sound like Bush-lite? To the right and the left, it probably will, but the main opposition facing the would-be Truman successors will come from the latter. The battle will come from the generation of Democrats who came of age during the 1960s and who were instrumental in finishing off “Cold War liberalism” because of its failures in the jungles of Vietnam.

Vietnam, remember, was a liberal, not a conservative, war, undertaken by warrior intellectuals who were liberal at home but saw falling dominoes everywhere around the world. (The same lack of nuance plagues the Bush administration, which has been trying to depict a global kind of Islamic totalitarianism, when the foe, as in the Cold War, is really more diffuse and less of a monolith than American leaders are prepared to believe.)


The types are hardly prepared to go down without a fight. At the moment, with no end to the imbroglio in Iraq in sight, they -- the populist left -- are poised for their greatest influence in the party since the McGovern era.

The new Democratic hawks, like the old neoconservatives of the 1970s, represent an insurgency, a direct challenge to the establishment. And if they are to revamp the party, they will have to do a lot more than simply evoke the ghost of Truman and Co.

Still, it is amusing to see that at the very moment when hawkish realists are trying to extirpate the neocon credo in the Republican Party, it’s being revived in the Democratic Party that first brought it to life.