I’ve published a new New York Times column. My excellent editor gave it the headline, “Biden Wants America to Lead the World. It Shouldn’t.” The editors—not the writers—generally choose the headlines. Which in this case is a good thing because I might have titled it: “Peter Beinart attacks Biden and his advisors for believing things Beinart used to believe himself.”
I’m of the same generation as Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Jake Sullivan, his incoming national security advisor, and Michele Flournoy, a top contender for secretary of defense. We went to the same kind of schools, and have worked at some of the same places. Blinken was a reporter at The New Republic before I got there. I was once offered a job at The Center for New American Security, the think tank Flournoy founded.
So although I only know Blinken and Sullivan a bit, and don’t know Flournoy at all, I have a sense of their formative influences. If you’re a Generation X American foreign policy wonk, the big world events that shaped your early adulthood were: America’s victory in the Cold War (1989), America’s victory in the Gulf War (1991), America’s victory in Bosnia (1995), America’s victory in Kosovo (1999)…Sensing a theme?
In the 1990s, democracy was spreading, American power was expanding and many of us thought the US should intervene even more. After leaving office, Bill Clinton said his biggest foreign policy regret was not sending troops to try to stop the genocide in Rwanda.
Baby Boomers had experienced Vietnam, but we hadn’t, which was why, in the 1990s, younger journalists and wonks were often more hawkish than their elders. Then 9/11 hit, and the hawkishness got turbocharged. Blinken was Biden’s top foreign policy adviser when the then-senator voted to authorize the Iraq war. Flournoy in 2002 endorsed George W. Bush’s doctrine of preemptive war. I was editing The New Republic back then—and we endorsed the Iraq war with gusto. (To be fair, there were exceptions to this generational folly).
Then I began to see the war’s effects. My sister-in-law, an army doctor, deployed to Iraq for a year, leaving her two-year-old daughter at home. She came back safely, thank goodness. But my former boss and mentor Mike Kelly—an extraordinary journalist and man—was covering the war when his Humvee came under fire and fell into a canal. He died on April 3, 2003.
After a while, I began to realize not merely that I had been wrong about Iraq, but that my entire worldview had been wrong. Filled with guilt, and intellectually adrift, I wasn’t sure how I could keep writing about foreign policy at all.
Between 2005 and 2010, I wrote two books trying to understand where I had gone wrong. By the second one, which about moments of hubris in American history, I saw dry land. Two key characters in that book are Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter Lippmann, who as young men believed America’s entrance into World War I would transform the world. Later in life they arrived at a more tragic, but also more honest, understanding of America’s place in the world. The insight of Niebuhr’s that stayed with me most was his assertion that nations—like individuals—cannot recognize the self-interest that lies beneath their supposedly high-minded motives. We’re never as idealistic as we think.
In 2010, our family left Washington. That influenced my evolution too. When you live in close proximity to politicians and government officials, there’s a greater incentive to tailor your views to what’s politically palatable. (Bill and Hillary Clinton attended the party for my first book—not because the book was so good, it wasn’t, but because it made arguments that a Democratic politician might find useful). In Washington, policy wonks are often asked: “How would you message that?” Which is a very different question than: “Why do you believe it’s right?” In New York, I gained more distance from government. I had also begun writing critically about Israel, which made me too treyf to advise a political campaign.
I don’t know how Blinken and Flournoy wrestled, intellectually and personally, with having been wrong about Iraq. (Sullivan may be too young to have taken a public position). I also recognize that, as government officials, they have limited latitude to rethink fundamental assumptions. Blinken has spent most of the last two decades working for Biden, and can’t deviate too far from his boss. Flournoy wants to be the first female defense secretary—and needs to overcome sexist assumptions about women not being sufficiently pro-war. Like many former foreign policy officials, they’ve worked at institutions partly funded by defense contractors. And they’re both Democrats, and thus members of a party that still looks fearfully over its right shoulder and worries about being considered insufficiently patriotic and tough.
I’m not suggesting that Biden’s advisors haven’t changed their mind, or expressed regret, about anything. They have. But I don’t think they’ve adequately reconsidered the notion of American “leadership”: The assumption that the US is not only exceptionally powerful, but exceptionally righteous, that the US should get to make the rules of international conduct even when it flagrantly violates them. I worry that they haven’t internalized Niebuhr’s call to see America as the sum of its actions, not its self-conceptions.
I ended the Times oped with Martin Luther King’s description of the US, in 1967, as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” (a statement that, in terms of foreign policy, is likely still true when you consider US arms sales and drone attacks). I chose that quote because King is one of the few historical figures who we now recognize as a great patriot even though he rejected American exceptionalism, the idea that the US possesses some inherent, superior, virtue. And it’s that kind of anti-exceptionalist patriotism that I want to advocate in my writing. I consider it a form of atonement.
A few more things:
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We’re hosting another Zoom call, this Friday, back at our regular time of Noon EST. Last Friday’s, with Trita Parsi, was terrific. For this one you’ll have to settle for just me. We can talk about the legacy of Iraq, Washington political culture, or whatever is on your mind. So far, the calls have been really fun. They’re for paid subscribers only. Subscriptions, by the way, make great holiday gifts! (Paid subscribers will get a link on Wednesday).
As you may know, I’m editor-at-large of Jewish Currents, a remarkable publication—led mostly by young people—that challenges the intellectual laziness and moral corruption that plagues American Jewry. Each week, I’m going to highlight a Currents piece in the Newsletter. This week’s is by Joshua Leifer, and it’s about the fall of former British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Josh is critical of Corbyn. (As I have been). But he’s also critical of the way charges of anti-Semitism were deployed to destroy the British left. It’s the most sophisticated analysis of Corbyn I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot). And it offers a warning for what might happen in the US.
After my oped came out, I debated American “leadership” on Christiane Amanpour’s show on CNN. (I look like Richard Nixon in that famous 1960 debate—in need of a shave)
Foodie wars are breaking out all over. South Korea and China are fighting over who created kimchi. Ukraine and Russia are fighting over who created borscht. Jews and Palestinians are fighting over who created hummus. If you know of any other national culinary rivalries, let me know.
More than a thousand people have signed up for an egg-throwing contest, set to begin when England unveils a statue of Margaret Thatcher.
Alan Dershowitz is considering nominating Donald Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize. I suppose if Trump doesn’t win he can always say the voting was rigged.
See you on Friday.