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How To End American Militarism: A Conversation With Peter Beinart

December 18, 2019 | post a comment | Philip Johnson

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 Atlanticsupported 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 interview transcript at Responsible Statecraft

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