George Packer's article in the latest New Yorker asks: "Can liberals take on Islamic fundamentalism?" His answer is, yes, but only if liberals change, boldly and thoroughly, the way they think about foreign affairs. But following Packer's advice guarantees they won't.
What Packer says about liberalism and the world is bracing. Since Vietnam, "the Democratic Party has had no foreign policy." Its "base remains instinctively uncomfortable with activism and armed force." He blames "intellectual shortcomings" for both the incoherence of liberals' global outlook and voters' fears about entrusting them with national security. These 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." Democrats (Packer speaks of them and liberals interchangeably) "have continued to speak the language of liberal internationalism" but "haven't wanted to back up the talk with power." No evidence of the decay of international organizations can shake liberals' faith in them, not even when the United Nations makes Libya the chair of its human rights commission.
It isn't as though evidence of these intellectual shortcomings is hard to track down. Indeed, we can go to the archives of The New Yorker. Writing in its pages the week after four jetliners were hijacked and turned into missiles, Susan Sontag, every quotation mark a sneer, asked, "Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?"
Packer undercuts his argument in two ways. First, he believes it is at least as urgent for the Democrats to oppose George W. Bush as it is for them to oppose Osama bin Laden. As in most of the articles and half the cartoons in The New Yorker, the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of Mr. Bush and his administration is the self-evident basis for every other political thought. Ms. Sontag, for example, devotes a line in her post-9/11 letter of condolence to the American people to denouncing our "robotic President who assures us that America still stands tall."
Packer is happy to lift any blunt object he finds if it can become a club for hitting George Bush. He concludes a bill of indictment against the Bush Administration for not following through on its stated goals by saying, "After the Iraq war the President vows to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only to stand aside a few months later." Packer believes, apparently, that the minor and irritating problem of getting the Israelis and Palestinians to live side-by-side in peace and harmony could have been wrapped up by now if only the president had a greater attention span.
The bigger problem is that, having challenged liberals to be stalwart, Packer recommends an approach that requires them merely to be . . . liberals. It turns out that what our new century's long twilight struggle needs most urgently is lots of Lady Bountiful social work around the globe. Lamenting the demise of Sen. Joseph Biden's $20 million proposal to build new schools in Afghanistan, Packer says, "The fate of the schoolgirl in Kabul is as critical to ultimate victory as the next generation of unmanned aircraft."
The welfare of schoolgirls is, of course, the terrain on which liberals want to fight every political battle. "The first step," says Packer, "is to realize that the war on terrorism is actually a war for liberalisma struggle to bring populations now living under tyrannies and failed states into the orbit of liberal democracy." And there are so many enlightened, uplifting ways to wage that war. For instance, President Bush "has failed to make the struggle to liberalize the Muslim world the concern of ordinary Americansto take one small example, by creating high school exchange programs." How can any Kabul schoolgirl fail to be our ally after a semester in Scarsdale? (Look at how a couple years studying urban planning in Hamburg improved Mohammed Atta's disposition.) And, in the bargain, Melissa can count on getting the thick envelope from Princeton once she lists a year at Tikrit Tech on her application.
Packer wants liberals to return to the muscular internationalism of the early days of the Cold War. This is the posture that liberals not only abandoned but vilified after Vietnam. (Ms. Sontag, now so contemptuous of George W. Bush's intellect, wrote a book about her travels to North Vietnam during the war. In it she assured her readers, "The North Vietnamese genuinely care about the welfare of the hundreds of captured American pilots and give them bigger rations than the Vietnamese population gets, 'because they're bigger than we are,' as a Vietnamese army officer told me, 'and they're used to more meat than we are.'")
Vietnam, says Packer, "badly divided Democrats, turning some into Republicans and others into pacifists." Packer wants to find a middle way between these appalling options. Yet despite his talk about power and armed force, Packer recommends nothing that would antagonize the pacifist wing of the Democratic Party, dominant since Vietnam. Publishing an annual list of dissidents imprisoned around the world, focus groups for Iraqis to talk about their future, "tax fairness" at home, along with alternative energy programs and greater spending on securitynone of these measures would elicit the hair-trigger wrath of Susan Sontag.
In the end, Packer's internationalism is a device for pacifists who want to convince themselves, and credulous swing voters, that they aren't really pacifists after all.