Earlier this month, in a much-discussed major article for The New Republic titled "A Fighting Faith" editor Peter Beinart pleads with fellow liberals and Democrats to get serious about confronting Islamofascism:
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.
Kevin Drum follows up and gets to the core issue:
Bottom line: I think the majority of liberals could probably be persuaded to take a harder line on the war on terror — although it's worth emphasizing that the liberal response is always going to be different from the conservative one, just as containment was a different response to the Cold War than outright war. But first someone has to make a compelling case that the danger is truly overwhelming. So far, no one on the left has really done that.
Once you digest Drum's post, grab a cup of coffee and read the comments thread that follows it (over 400 and counting), which clearly demonstrates why the democratic left in its present state is unable to resolutely confront Islamofascism. Either they simply don't see it as an ideological threat on the scale of Nazism or Communism, or they see Bush and the Republicans as the greater source of evil. And then there are the conspiracy-mongers who believe that Bush is carrying water for Israel.
A few commenters make the reasonable argument that Islamofasiscm does indeed pose a grave threat, but that the Bush/neocon strategy for addressing "root causes" via attempting to democratize the Arab world is pouring gasoline on the fire -- an analysis with which I disagree, but can respect. Unfortunately, this seems to be the minority view. Most accept Drum's argument that Islamic totalitarianism is not fundamentally expansionist: a few visits to Robert Spencer's site Jihad Watch might disabuse them of that notion.
But the bottom line is that even as some in the thread strenuously argue that of course they take the threat seriously, others are arguing equally strenuously that the threat actually doesn't exist, or that it pales in comparison to highway accidents, AIDS, global warming, or of course four more years of George W. Bush. Many of the commenters are comtemptuous of Kevin Drum for even linking to Beinart's article and challenging liberals to make the case. Which in itself speaks volumes about the challenges the Democratic party faces in being credible on national security issues.
Not content to let it rest there, Beinart gave his response the following week in his TRB column at TNR:
If Islamist totalitarianism is less of a threat than Soviet totalitarianism, however, it is far graver than Drum suggests. To say that Al Qaeda's ideology is "not fundamentally expansionist" is wrong. It is true that, unlike communism, which aspired to guide every nation on Earth, totalitarian Islam only recommends itself to the Middle East. But, in Al Qaeda's definition, the Middle East includes every country with a substantial Muslim population or once under Muslim rule. In other words, it extends from Southeast Asia to Europe. In the mid-'90s, Al Qaeda went to war in Bosnia. In February 2003, Osama bin Laden cited Pakistan and Nigeria as ripe for Islamist takeover--although both are far from the Arab world, and Nigeria is only 50 percent Muslim. As University of Michigan professor and Informed Comment blogger Juan Cole has pointed out, bin Laden envisions a unified Muslim state, ruled, as it was in the heyday of Islamic power, by a caliphate. And, as bin Laden pointedly reminded listeners early this year, that caliphate includes "Al Andalus"--Spain.
Is Al Qaeda likely to take power in all the places bin Laden desires? Of course not. But it could do far less and still send the United States into deep crisis. By many accounts, Al Qaeda has long enjoyed substantial support in the Pakistani security services. Were Islamist fanatics to assassinate Pervez Musharraf and ally themselves with the general who succeeded him--in an echo of the military-Islamist alliance that ruled Sudan from 1989 to 1999--Al Qaeda would be within striking distance of a nuclear bomb. Or take Saudi Arabia, where bin Laden is wildly popular. If bin Laden, or his local associates, took control of the Saudi oil supply, the U.S. economy would plunge into depression.
It is indeed a depressing state of affairs that well-informed liberals are debating such a fundamental issue as whether or not religious fascism that seeks to undermine and destroy liberal socities is a threat. It does not seem to be of interest to those in the discussion that the 19 9/11 hijackers, armed only with airliners converted into missiles, managed to inflict hundreds of billions worth of economic damage on the US. Imagine the economic consequences of a nuclear, chemical or biological attack on a major city that would render it uninhabitable - to say nothing of the loss of life and long-term effects on the population. That some of the "liberals" in Drum's discussion thread can be so cavalier in dismissing the effects of "just one bomb" as compared to the formidable Soviet arsenal completely misses the point of how and why an attack would be mounted and what the aims would be.
There is also a persistent and dangerous misreading of the scope of the Islamist threat, assuming it is confined to Muslim countries. But the long-term goal of Islamism is to supplant Western liberal democracies with a worldwide Islamic calpihate. In the US, this would amount to replacing the Constitution with Qur'an. Is this a big enough threat to civil liberties to persuade liberals they need to get serious about this war? Judging from the internecine struggles within the Democratic left and the growing power and arrogance of MoveOn.org, not yet.
A struggle is underway for the soul of the Democratic party, and the difference between the centrists in the Democratic Leadership Council and the more left-leaning activist wing may well boil down to whether liberals are serious about defending and promoting the ideals of liberalism, not just in this country but around the globe.
ANOTHER UPDATE: American Future has a roundup and summary of reaction from the left end of the blogosphere, and attempts a synthesis:
I've put the liberal responses to the question posed by the title of this lengthy post into three categories: (1) There's not much of a threat; (2) There's a threat, but it's broader than just Islamic fundamentalism; and (3) Too much Hard Power, not enough Soft Power. Those who fall into the first category are in a state of denial. In the second are those who claim that liberals could support the war on terror if it were properly defined. In the third are those who can't support the war on terror because they think it's being fought the wrong way. This small sample of liberal opinion shows that it will take a long time (if ever) for the liberals to put forth a narrative to which they can all adhere. That they will be arguing among themselves is good news for moderates and conservatives.
Maybe only good news in the narrow political sense. I believe that most conservatives would rather compete in the marketplace of ideas with a "sane" Democratic party that agrees on the nature of the threat (as represented by the New Republic) and differs only on social policy, rather than maintain a long-term majority over a marginalized and resentful party that insists on remaining in denial that there is a real threat. And I certainly believe moderates see it that way as well.