Today, three years after September 11 brought the United States face-to-face with a new totalitarian threat, liberalism has still not "been fundamentally reshaped" by the experience. On the right, a "historical re-education" has indeed occurred--replacing the isolationism of the Gingrich Congress with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney's near-theological faith in the transformative capacity of U.S. military might. But American liberalism, as defined by its activist organizations, remains largely what it was in the 1990s--a collection of domestic interests and concerns. On health care, gay rights, and the environment, there is a positive vision, articulated with passion. But there is little liberal passion to win the struggle against Al Qaeda--even though totalitarian Islam has killed thousands of Americans and aims to kill millions; and even though, if it gained power, its efforts to force every aspect of life into conformity with a barbaric interpretation of Islam would reign terror upon women, religious minorities, and anyone in the Muslim world with a thirst for modernity or freedom. . .
Islamist totalitarianism--like Soviet totalitarianism before it--threatens the United States and the aspirations of millions across the world. And, as long as that threat remains, defeating it must be liberalism's north star. Methods for defeating totalitarian Islam are a legitimate topic of internal liberal debate. But the centrality of the effort is not. The recognition that liberals face an external enemy more grave, and more illiberal, than George W. Bush should be the litmus test of a decent left.
Kevin Drum has a lengthy post analyzing Beinart's thesis.
In my judgment, to win Kerry needed to say convincingly and consistently that (1) totalitarian Islam is the enemy of the 21st century and the U.S. needs to confront it on every front, (2) the war in Iraq was not the next logical step in the battle against totalitarian Islam and, it was a mistake to invade, (3) but now that we are in Iraq, we must see it through and we must build a stable Iraq. He was pretty good about (3), but inconsistent about (2) and relatively silent about (1). As a result, just enough swing voters decided to go with the devil they knew.
(To view cross-post at Centerfield and comments posted there, click here.)