Imagine you’re Barack Obama. In Massachusetts, Scott Brown slammed you again and again for giving terrorism suspects civilian trials. The shouters on Fox say you’re too PC to profile Muslims; that you don't think America is at war; that you can't even call terrorism by its real name. Brown’s election, crows Rudy Giuiliani, “will send a signal and I believe a very dramatic one, that we are going in the wrong direction on terrorism.” How do you respond?
Here's the basic dilemma. Liberals and conservatives see the world differently. For most conservatives, the essence of international affairs is—and always will be—conflict. The world is like a town without a policeman, and in a town without a policeman, the only thing stopping the asshole across the street from stealing your car or raping your wife is the size of your gun and your willingness to use it. Trying to make him like you more, telling him he's breaking the law, seeking a diplomatic solution—it's all a waste of time. The key is to understand that your enemies are evil and the only thing they understand is force.
It means arguing that the threat of global economic collapse and of global environmental calamity—threats that require a more cooperative, less militaristic approach—pose a greater threat to the security and prosperity of average Americans.
Liberals often ape the right's "us versus them" mentality just enough to sacrifice their values, but not enough to win. They end up looking not like principled hawks, but like weathervanes.
To liberals, the world looks different. Sure, you have to keep your neighbors off your lawn. But you also have to get along with them because your interests and theirs overlap. If they go broke, that hurts your property values. If they pollute the environment, you choke on the smog. The guy across the street may not be Mother Theresa, but he worries about some of the same things you do. And thus, your motto should be not "us versus them" but "we're all in it together." The challenge is to help everyone in town cooperate for the common good.
Because conservatives and liberals see foreign policy differently, they prioritize issues differently. Conservatives latch onto issues that involve bad guys with big guns. Liberals often focus on threats of economic collapse and environmental destruction. Liberals gravitate to issues that can best be solved through cooperation. Conservatives gravitate to issues that can best be solved through conflict.
That's why terrorism is such a gold mine for the right. Since al Qaeda comprises some of the most unambiguously evil guys on the planet, and since they couldn't care less about the common concerns that worry most governments (global warming, global economic depression, global pandemics), they fit the conservative worldview extremely well. It's awfully hard to see jihadist terrorists as members of any meaningful global community. (The very term is a Rorschach test: If you hate the term "global community," you're a conservative; if you like it, you're a liberal.) It's awfully hard to suggest that our relationship with al Qaeda doesn't fall under the rubric "us versus them."
So when a terror scare hits—and we’ve been in a mini-one since the Christmas bomber—a liberal like Obama has basically two options. Option one is to accept the right's view that terrorism is the biggest threat America faces, and try to show that liberals are just as tough on it as conservatives. To a significant degree, that's what Obama has done. He's declared that America is at war with al Qaeda, and done little to suggest that Dick Cheney and company are blowing the terror threat out of proportion. Some liberal pundits have gone even further: endorsing racial profiling and warning that it’s too politically dangerous to close Guantanamo Bay.
By doing this kind of thing in the past, liberals have occasionally beaten conservatives at their own "us versus them" game. The best example is the election of 1960, where John F. Kennedy threw famed red-baiter Richard Nixon on the defensive by denouncing the Eisenhower-Nixon administration for allowing the Soviets to beat America into space and allowing Fidel Castro to take power in Cuba. The problem is that this same political logic—don't ever let yourself get called soft—led Kennedy to authorize the Bay of Pigs and escalate in Vietnam. The more you do to preempt criticism from people like Dick Cheney, the more your policies resemble theirs.
What's more, liberals often ape the right's "us versus them" mentality just enough to sacrifice their values, but not enough to win. They end up looking not like principled hawks, but like weathervanes. In 1968, when Americans had a choice between a real Vietnam hawk, Richard Nixon, and a faux-Vietnam hawk, Hubert Humphrey, they chose Nixon. In 2004, when George W. Bush and John Kerry offered them a similar choice on Iraq, they again chose conservative over conservative lite.
Which brings us to option two: Reject the right's prism. That means challenging the idea that terrorism is the defining foreign policy issue of our time. It means arguing that the threat of global economic collapse and of global environmental calamity—threats that require a more cooperative, less militaristic approach—pose a greater threat to the security and prosperity of average Americans. It means spending less time convincing Americans that Democrats are ultra-tough on the "war on terror" and more time convincing them that the "war on terror" and foreign policy are not synonymous. Polling, for instance, shows that while Americans generally trust Republicans more to fight terrorism and protect "national security,” they often favor Democrats on "foreign policy"—a phrase that doesn't connote military conflict.
Option number two is riskier. When the world seems serene, as it did in 1976, after détente had thawed the cold war, Americans are more open to electing candidates like Jimmy Carter, who challenge the conservative vision of endemic conflict. But it's hard to challenge that vision in the midst of a terror panic. It's unrealistic to expect Obama go on national television and declare that al Qaeda is far weaker than it was on Sept. 10, 2001 and that we shouldn't overreact to every terror scare—even though what he'd be saying would be true.
We can't expect it of him, but we can expect it of ourselves. By ourselves, I mean liberal commentators and activists. We don't have to worry about winning elections. We don't have to look at the polls. Our long-term challenge is to take on the conservative view that the biggest threats America faces are ones that require military force to solve. That means explaining, again and again, why the threat of another 9/11-scale attack on U.S. soil (or probably anywhere) is not nearly as great as Scott Brown and Dick Cheney suggest. And it means graphically highlighting the ways that globalization make us vulnerable to economic, environmental and public-health problems born in other parts of the globe. It means arguing that the smaller technology and commerce make the world, the more we must cooperate in order to be safe. Today, this argument remains marginal. When liberals make it mainstream, then America won't succumb as easily to terror hysteria as it has in the last few weeks. And liberal politicians like Barack Obama will be able to explain, without apology, what the principles of liberal foreign policy really are.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.