the apology of peter beinart

The neoconservatives now pretty much argue that they’re the new anti-totalitarian liberals. They more or less accepted the principles of the New Deal in the ’50s and ’60s, and largely feel that they’ve carried on the tradition of liberal interventionism. What I’d like to know from you is this: what part of Schlesinger, Truman, and Scoop Jackson’s lunch have the neocons not eaten?

That’s an important purpose of the book, to argue against that idea, and I would say a couple of things. The first is that the recognition of American fallibility is a very critical element of the liberal tradition, very central to Niebuhr’s thinking, which then became an important element in the Truman administration. That idea manifests itself internationally in a sympathy for international institutions, a belief that while it’s possible that the United States can be a force for good—indeed, that America must be a force for good in the world, which is certainly what neocons believe—that America can also be a force for evil. That since America can be corrupted by unrestrained power, America should take certain steps to limit its power and to express it through international institutions. That, I think, is the first element of the liberal tradition that has been lost in neocon thinking.

The second element that’s been lost, I think, is the recognition that America’s ability to be a force for good in the world rests on the economic security of average Americans. The early neocons had a certain sympathy for the labor movement, and the labor movement was a very important part of Cold War liberalism, because the ability of the United States to be generous around the world really depended on the government’s willingness to take responsibility for the economic security of its own people. Of course, that would have to mean something different today than it did in the 1950s. But widespread economic security remains a very important basis upon which the United States can act in the world, because it maintains the support of the American people for that action. I think that has been lost in neocon thinking since they adopted the—as I see it— quite radical economic ideology of the American Right.

more from the interview at the Atlantic Unlimited here.