How to end American militarism: A conversation with Peter Beinart
Washington, DC isn’t necessarily known for self-reflection.
In fact, you can probably throw a stone in #ThisTown and hit someone who wholeheartedly supported the Iraq War, never admitted they were wrong, and yet continue to pontificate on television and in the nation’s most prominent newspapers, not just about U.S. foreign policy, but also U.S. wars in the Middle East.
Peter Beinart isn’t one of those people (well, he lives in New York, so the stone throwing analogy probably isn’t as apt). Nonetheless, Beinart, a professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York and a contributing writer at The Atlantic, supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. But he’s one of the very few who have seriously grappled with the failures of its intellectual underpinnings. He has not only taken responsibility for participating in the pro-Iraq war discourse, but Beinart has also emerged from the wreckage as one of the most prominent progressive thought leaders on U.S. foreign policy, offering bold solutions to some of the world’s most complex security challenges.
Responsible Statecraft recently spoke with Beinart and asked him about his journey from a self-proclaimed “liberal hawk” to a strong opponent of American militarism, perhaps as a way to provide a model for DC foreign policy establishment-types interested in making some changes of their own.
“You have some kind of intellectual edifice in your mind and then a certain brick is taken away and then another, or maybe you rethink a certain step and it leads you to rethink a certain other step,” Beinart said, referring to the process he went through moving away from a military interventionist mindset. “It’s also a constant effort to respond to things that one experiences and sees in the world, and as there’s mounting information which doesn’t fit within a particular system, intellectual or moral system, you try to see if you can arrange these new facts in some other way to tell a story that seems more compelling given the evidence around you.”
Beinart wrote a whole book, The Icarus Syndrome, about the folly of American hubris in the last century and examined how intellectuals of the time came to terms with their failures.
Through that process, he said, early 20th Century theologian, professor, and political commentator Reinhold Niebuhr became “like a bit of a life raft”:
“[F]or me his core insight is that nations, like individuals, cannot see the degree to which self-interest corrupts their notion of virtue. They may genuinely believe that they are high-minded. But just like individuals think they’re high-minded and can’t see how much of their behavior is based on self-interest. They can’t see themselves from the outside and nations have trouble doing that too. And that became a way to help me start to have a more skeptical eye about all this exceptionalist discourse that I think still defines a lot of American foreign policy.”
Beyond individual introspection, Beinart identified key structural barriers to changing the direction of U.S. foreign policy. One of the most difficult challenges he cited is confronting American exceptionalist discourse.
“There’s a notion that America should be doing great things, and I myself am still attracted to those notions in some ways,” he said. “But what’s happened is the notion of us as a nation doing great things, us as a special nation, us as a nation that has a special mission and can make the world better has really been diverted or perverted in some ways that are unhealthy.”
He cited the absence of an institutional infrastructure that can sufficiently challenge these notions. “There’s a lack of people who have respectability and institutions that can provide balance to the interventionist impulse,” he said.
This institutional infrastructure also includes the media. “The media tends to gravitate toward people who seem like they have respectable, elite, prestigious credentials,” he said, which of course the current DC foreign policy establishment can readily provide.
But at the same time, Beinart added, there’s a diversity angle. “If you think about the Americans who are most likely to take a skeptical view of American exceptionalist discourse, the notion that we are somehow morally free of sin, the people who would be most likely to gravitate to more skeptical views of America’s role in the world, I think often it is people of color given their experience in the United States. And yet with a few exceptions, the debate about domestic policy is much more integrated racially and in terms of different experiences and in terms of gender probably than the foreign policy discourse.”
Referring to one of the Quincy Institute’s foundations of transpartisanship, Beinart said that getting progressives and conservatives to work together going forward toward a less militaristic foreign policy based on restraint and diplomacy is going to be very difficult, particularly given that the GOP has jettisoned many of its principles to protect Donald Trump. But, he adds, there is a conservative critique to American hubris and overreach. “[I]f you believe that the government is not likely to be able to intervene and reengineer effectively problems at home, you should be even more dubious about the United States’ ability to do that half way across the world. So I think there is a coherent view there.”
Read the full transcript below, including how Beinart proposes we deal with issues of morality and U.S. foreign policy, particularly with regard to China and North Korea:
RESPONSIBLE STATECRAFT: You have, of course, talked a lot about and written about your conversion away from being a liberal hawk on foreign policy, and recently you discussed this with Mehdi Hasan of the Intercept. During that conversation, you talked about seeing the disaster of the Iraq war and the effect it had on people close to you allowed you to recognize the American hubris and the byproduct of that which was to intervene and remake other countries.
But I want to dig in a little deeper on that because you haven’t just acknowledged the folly of American hubris in the case of the Iraq war. You’ve gone well beyond that. In your piece in the Atlantic last year you talked about this idea of the insolvency of American primacy, or unipolarity, as you called it. So you’re not just talking about the failures of Middle East wars, you’re offering a somewhat radical proposal, I think by DC foreign policy establishment standards, of the U.S. pulling back from parts of the world that perhaps it no longer has any business exerting its power. On that point you mention East Asia and loosening the reins on Taiwan and allowing China to have a greater role there in regional affairs. So I guess I’m curious as to how you arrived at such a radical departure from being a fierce proponent of intervening abroad militarily to now wanting to upend the entire basis with which the U.S. projects its power abroad. Is it really just about the Iraq war or what else is going on here?
PETER BEINART: I think that when people change their minds, at least in my experience, changing one’s mind about things is a process. You have some kind of intellectual edifice in your mind and then a certain brick is taken away and then another, or maybe you rethink a certain step and it leads you to rethink a certain other step. It takes place over time and it’s also a constant effort to respond to things that one experiences and sees in the world and as there’s mounting information which doesn’t fit within a particular system, intellectual or moral system, you try to see if you can arrange these new facts in some other way to tell a story that seems more compelling given the evidence around you.
I think that most people are shaped by the experiences that occur in the world when they’re entering adulthood. And for me I think the really formative experience was the end of the Cold War and this sense of what in retrospect was clearly triumphalism. But I wouldn’t have used that word at that time. At that time I think I thought that it was important that liberals start recognizing the clear moral superiority of the American system to its dictatorial opponents. And that ideological self-confidence, I think over self-confidence in retrospect, became married to an excessive faith in the capacity of the American military.
I grew up in an age where people older than me on the left were constantly warning about the dangers of another Vietnam and that led many, many liberals who I respected to oppose the Gulf war and in some ways even more importantly for me to impose military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. And when those military interventions appeared to go pretty well and in the case of the Balkans, actually appeared to save people’s lives, I felt that this belief in America’s moral superiority and the efficacy of American military power which was asserting itself, it became this combination that led me, and there were some others of my general age group too, to become liberal hawks.
Also as a child of immigrants I just think I always had a very strong sense of American exceptionalism and how much better the country was than apartheid South Africa where my parents were from. I was also incubated at the New Republic. That in some ways was a formative thing. I came there right after graduate school. It was my first real job in journalism and I was there for 10 years and ended up as the editor. The influence of the people there had an influence on me. My views in some ways fused and got interconnected with that publication’s trajectory. Bosnia and Kosovo were very, very much crusades at that publication. And so all of that had an impact on me.
RS: Okay. So the Iraq war happens and then you sort of shift your mindset piece by piece over the years and you pick out different things, like “Oh that’s not right, that’s not right” and that’s kind of how ended up where you are, essentially.
PB: It was partly Iraq and subsequently being disturbed by the fact that I didn’t feel like the lessons of Iraq were being factored into debates about, let’s say, Iran for instance. In the wake of that Iraq experience I realized that I was in an intellectual dead-end and I didn’t really know how to write about foreign policy anymore and maybe shouldn’t be writing about foreign policy.
If you remember, there were a lot of people understandably as things were getting more and more horrible in 2004-2005 who were saying “wait a second, why the hell are people who supported this war continue to spout off as if they have some authority?”
I have to say I didn’t think that was a crazy question to ask, especially as my own personal life was affected by the war, my sister-in-law being deployed there. Michael Kelly who was a real mentor of mine died in the war. And I was in a crisis and turmoil about it and so I went off and wrote this book which is called “The Icarus Syndrome” which was an effort to try and go back and look at the last 100 years of American foreign policy. I went from World War I through Vietnam. I was really interested in the people who supported American intervention in World War I and people who had supported the war in Vietnam and then had to deal with the intellectual and moral wreckage of the failure of those visions. And I think in the heroes of that book are Morgenthau, Kennan, and Lippmann even though in some ways they’re not all such admirable characters. But it was their intellectual journey starting in the aftermath of World War I and then leading to their grappling with the aftermath of Vietnam, it became for me the template. And Niebuhr in particular just became for me like a bit of a life raft. Because I know people do all kinds of different things with Niebuhr but for me his core insight is that nations, like individuals, cannot see the degree to which self-interest corrupts their notion of virtue. They may genuinely believe that they are high-minded. But just like individuals think they’re high-minded and can’t see how much of their behavior is based on self-interest. They can’t see themselves from the outside and nations have trouble doing that too. And that became a way to help me start to have a more skeptical eye about all this exceptionalist discourse that I think still defines a lot of American foreign policy.
RS: Sure, absolutely. I actually want to move on to more of the present. It’s one thing for you to propose big ideas, like the ones I just mentioned in your Atlantic piece last year. But it’s entirely another thing to get those in positions of power to enact them, let alone to achieve any kind of constituency for them either inside or outside the Beltway. The Democratic grassroots are there, and they’ve done a lot of work on Yemen and Iran, but the DC foreign policy establishment isn’t necessarily going to get rolled over so easily. How do you think we can popularize these ideas that you’re proposing to make them more politically viable? Or maybe a better question is, what are the biggest structural impediments to realizing a shift away from an American-dominated unipolar world?
PB: Part of it, and obviously this is what Quincy is responding to, is the lack of institutional infrastructure, on both sides. We’ve had a series of presidents, not just Trump, but Obama, and even Bush in a way if you go back to his rhetoric in 2000, who were arguing for some kind of more modest foreign policy. And then I think to some degree in each case the presidents were responding to their own intuition but also where they thought the public was. But then they found that the bench of people available to them as advisers, to give them respectability in Washington, ended up often times being more hawkish. This is actually not just a recent story. You could see it with Kennedy as well being more willing to question the Cold War than the establishment advisors around him. It’s probably true for Eisenhower in some ways too. There’s a lack of people who have respectability and institutions that can provide balance to the interventionist impulse. Then there are the people who’ll say “why haven’t those kinds of institutions emerged?” I don’t know. There are some theories, I think Stephen Walt has the idea that there’s a certain excitement about wanting to be in the cockpit of the world that people in foreign policy have. I think also it’s just hard to run up against the exceptionalist discourse. It’s difficult. There’s something about, there’s a notion that America should be doing great things and I myself am still attracted to those notions in some ways. I think they’re really pretty deeply rooted in a lot of ways. But what’s happened is the notion of us as a nation doing great things, us as a special nation, us as a nation that has a special mission and can make the world better has really been diverted or perverted in some ways that are unhealthy. I still think that if you want to call it a missionary sense, it can be valuable in terms of questions like climate change or fighting global poverty or certainly our capacity to deal with our huge problems at home. But partly because the military has become so dominant in the budgetary process, a lot of that missionary impulse has gotten filtered through the military lens and that’s part of what has become so problematic.
RS: So I think that this leads into my next question or maybe partly answers it. I want to talk ‘“the Blob,” you know that general term used to describe the bipartisan DC establishment consensus that either actively or inadvertently enables this kind of thing. We often hear about what you talked about, institutions, individuals and think tanks that perpetuate this status quo, but we rarely talk about the mainstream media’s role. For example, just yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed by Paul Wolfowitz, who you know is one of the primary architects of the Iraq war. In the piece, he’s essentially arguing for an unending U.S. military presence in the Middle East, and without any sense of self awareness, he attacks Obama for not going all in and overthrowing Bashar al-Assad. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. I think you were the only one, really, to take any sort of meaningful responsibility for getting the Iraq war wrong, yet those like Bill Kristol, John Yoo and others who are partly responsible for some of the worst foreign policy blunders in U.S. history have refused to admit their failures. Yet they continue to be promoted on TV, radio, podcasts and in this case, the country’s most prominent newspaper. So is this ever going to change? And if so, how do we change that? Or maybe more broadly, do you have any thoughts on how the media perpetuates U.S. militarism and unipolarity or how it shapes American attitudes about the U.S. role in the world?
PB: On foreign policy, which is more remote from a lot of people’s daily experiences than domestic policy, the media tends to gravitate toward people who seem like they have respectable, elite, prestigious credentials. I think that’s part of it. And there’s an infrastructure for producing these credentials. I also think that one of the things that’s under-explored is the overwhelming whiteness of the foreign policy establishment. If you think about the Americans who are most likely to take a skeptical view of American exceptionalist discourse, the notion that we are somehow morally free of sin, the people who would be most likely to gravitate to more skeptical views of America’s role in the world I think it often it is people of color given their experience in the United States. And yet with a few exceptions, the debate about domestic policy is much more integrated racially and in terms of different experiences and in terms of gender probably than the foreign policy discourse. And that’s one of the reasons that this perpetuates itself.
RS: You’ve criticized the Democrats for their impulses to attack Trump and his erratic foeign policy from the right. One of the more obvious examples was their criticisms of meeting with Kim Jong Un. There was another instance during the 2016 campaign where Bernie Sanders was attacked by the Clinton folks for, God forbid, proposing that the U.S. one day open and embassy in Tehran. It’s very rare though that we see, in perhaps a campaign context, or maybe even more generally, political figures criticizing other politicians on foreign policy from the left. Why do you think the hawkish, GOP or neocon perspective most often represents default for criticism on foreign policy?
PB: What’s happened in the Trump era is because the Democratic Party I don’t think has a particularly well thought out foreign policy and foreign policy has not really been that central to — it’s not really what most Democratic voters are thinking about and I don’t think it’s that central to the identities of some of the presidential candidates. I think what’s happened is that Democrats’ foreign policy views have basically been dominated by their anti-Trump views, which is to say where Trump seems vulnerable, Democrats tend to move. And so whether it’s Russia’s involvement in the 2016 campaign or now Ukraine or Trump meeting with Kim, there’s a tendency when you’re the party out of power to basically just be in opposition and take the alternative view. I think because Trump himself is so personally egregious that’s made it easier. But what you have is that the issues of corruption have in some ways gotten intermingled with foreign policy perspectives. The people who want to say that there’s something that’s really wrong with Trump’s involvement with Ukraine, and I think there is, I think it’s an impeachable offense, have also ended up taking on the view that we should be basically going to the hilt to support Ukraine and fighting Russia, which ironically is not actually the position that Obama took. But it some ways it piggybacks on the narrative about Trump’s corruption. So in some ways there’s a cart leading the horse quality to Democratic discourse on foreign policy today.
Another thing that I think is perhaps underappreciated. If you’ve ever read Halberstam’s book “The Best and the Brightest,” one of his key arguments is that Americans’ inability, including the Democratic Party’s inability, to rethink America’s position on China ended up predetermining a set of responses not just to China but also toward Vietnam because if you couldn’t see China in a different way, you couldn’t really recognize that communism wasn’t monolithic. And if you couldn’t recognize that communism wasn’t monolithic, you couldn’t recognize that communists taking over Vietnam wasn’t necessarily such a big deal.
And similarly, to a degree that is underappreciated today, the inability to have a different conversation about Israel actually ends up structuring a whole series of other conversations that are not specifically about Israel. So I don’t think that you can understand the current state of American discourse about Iran or even American discourse about Saudi Arabia, American discourse about Yemen and American discourse about Egypt without seeing that an inability to challenge a certain discourse about Israel basically preconditions the set of tendencies toward all these other countries as well.
RS: Getting back to the China issue from the 60s. Do you see a similar pattern to what is happening today with China? Because I think you see still a lot of acceptable positions to have on China is very hawkish. Where do you think we are in terms of the discourse on China and where we need to be going forward in that respect?
PB: Our problem that we have vis-a-vis China which we have in general is there’s a conversation about morality that weirdly substitutes a certain kind of posturing often, from actual consequences. A conversation about China needs to grapple with the fact that what China is doing in Xinjiang is horrifying on an epic scale. It seems to be one of the great crimes of our age. If you can’t acknowledge that then I think that you’re morally completely blind, deaf, and dumb.
But then what happens from there is often that you’re considered more moral if you want to have a hostile relationship with China. You see it with North Korea too. North Korea, obviously is a grotesque, ghastly regime. And so you’re more moral if you want to impose sanctions on North Korea, even if you have no realistic suggestion whatsoever that these sanctions are going to make things better for the lives of the people. In cases like North Korea it’s literally making it hard for humanitarian NGOs to even operate in the country and so that’s probably making things worse for these people who already hideously being brutalized by their regimes and then our sanctions are probably just adding another layer of suffering on top of that. But that’s considered the moral position.
And so part of the problem is that the moral discourse seems to be so often disconnected from human consequences and more about a certain kind of preening so that the moral position about Iran is to basically want to support sanctions that make it impossible for ordinary people to import life saving medicine. This is really an Alice in Wonderland moral discourse. What’s underdeveloped in Washington is the ability to say, yes there are very very serious moral problems with these regimes, and we should care about that, but that actually a policy of diplomacy and interaction is probably actually in the long run going to be better in terms of actually helping the suffering people of these countries in many circumstances. And that our ability, tragically, is also quite limited to actually affect these things. But that generally cold wars don’t really benefit the people that are on the other side of the cold war. They often just create justifications for increasing the repression we oppose.
The other thing with China is that China has become a scapegoat for a lot of the domestic economic problems that the United States hasn’t really addressed. And so what we’ve seen is that you have the Republican Party now under Trump’s influence coming around to the idea of basically telling working class Americans, if we can really get tough on China then that will solve the fact that your standard of living hasn’t improved over the last 30 or 40 years. And you see to some degree openness to this in the Democratic Party and part of that is an evasion of the fact that we in the United States haven’t done the things that are necessary to actually help people that are economically struggling in some of our domestic policies.
RS: So I want to go back to the Democrats for a second. You’ve written a lot about what the Democrats, or maybe more specifically the Democratic candidates for president, should be saying on foreign policy. At the same time though, in its quest to upend the norms of the DC bipartisan foreign policy consensus, the Quincy Institute has, in part, rested on a foundation of trans partisanship, and the notion that in order to reorient U.S. foreign policy, the left is going to need some buy-in from the right and vice versa. What do you think the Republicans can do to get more involved in this project and how do you think the left and right can work together on changing some of the foundations of U.S. foreign policy making?
PB: Well it’s obviously not an easy environment in which to do that. The Republican Party has shown itself willing to basically jettison a lot of principles that once kind of at least rhetorically were important to what it meant to be a Republican in order just to protect Donald Trump. Also if the Republican Party remains of a party of climate change denial I think that is a huge obstacle in the sense that I think that climate change is becoming and should become more and more at the center of Democratic foreign policy because I think it’s the biggest national security threat to the United States and I think Democrats recognize it as such.
There has always been a conservative critique, a very understandable and natural conservative critique of American overreach and American hubris which starts with the basic conservative belief that governments often don’t do things very well. Moynihan said the core conservative insight is that culture matters more than politics. And so if you believe that the government is not likely to be able to intervene and reengineer effectively problems at home you should be even more dubious about the United States’ ability to do that half way across the world. So I think there is a coherent view there. And you have people like Rand Paul at times who try to give voice to that and even in his own kind of ugly way sometimes Trump has. But right now it seems to me that there are a lot of things in the political environment that would make that kind of bipartisanship harder to achieve.
RS: Finally, I guess this is more thinking ahead into the near-future and into a post-Trump world. And going back to Trump meeting with Kim Jong Un, I personally thought, actually, that was an incredible moment seeing an American president meeting with the North Korean leader on television. Now of course Trump’s motives for doing so were entirely self serving, and he has badly mangled and mismanaged whatever opening there was to resolve diplomatically some of the issues we have with North Korea. But regardless, this idea of “meeting with dictators” has largely been politically taboo in the U.S. foreign policy conversation and debate. But Trump not only blew right through that taboo, but Republicans, Fox News and the whole conservative movement, for the most part, supported and praised him for it. So how do advocates of restraint and diplomacy capitalize on that? If, say, a President Sanders or President Warren decided to meet with Kim, or Iran’s President Rouhani, will the right-wing attack machine have any credibility in opposing it? Or is hypocrisy dead and will the politics of these issues fall back into more traditional lanes?
PB: I think they probably will. You could argue that maybe it’s easier for Trump in that very typical “Nixon goes to China way” in the sense that there’s something about being a Republican that makes people, that makes him a little less susceptible to this. But it also has to do with our political culture.
It’s been a cliche but Republicans’ political culture has been more ambitious, less tentative than Democratic political culture in recent decades. One of the interesting things that we’re seeing on domestic policy is the degree to which that’s changing. There’s a boldness and a willingness to not be cowed which has allowed for the ascendance of things like the wealth tax and Medicare for All. And what I really hope is that this will filter into foreign policy too. [Bernie] Sanders is where you tend to see that the most. There’s a culture in the way that Sanders has started talking about foreign policy much more now than in 2016 where there’s a certain kind of “I don’t really give a crap about what the establishment critique is going to be.” Were he to become president, I don’t think he probably will become president, but were he, you could imagine him changing the party’s thinking on foreign policy. And if he did that, I think it’s quite possible that a lot of Democrats would fall in line. But part of the really important question with some of the other Democratic presidential campaigns is to what degree are they willing to have the same kind of progressive audacity on foreign policy that they have on domestic policy. And so far, with the other candidates, I don’t see it as much.