The Weekend Australian

By Miriam Cosic

PETER Beinart grew up in a classic small-l liberal American environment. His parents, South African emigres, were academics and the family lived in the university town of Cambridge in Boston's suburbs.

He rebelled, sort of, becoming a "liberal hawk": left-leaning in everything except foreign policy. He supported George W. Bush's war in Afghanistan and, more significantly, his war in Iraq.

"I was typical of what happened to post baby-boom liberals who became liberal hawks," he says, visiting Sydney this week. "It was a response to the very different experiences we had, compared to our parents' generation.

"Vietnam was the defining experience for the baby boomers. It was about the limits to American power, the limits of American understanding of other societies, the limits of any real relevance of democracy to very different, underdeveloped societies like Vietnam, and it was about great suspicion and hostility to the American military."

It was the successes of more carefully targeted military operations in the 1990s -- the Gulf War under president George H. W. Bush and the air strikes on Iraq and Serbia during the Bill Clinton years -- that allowed Beinart's generation, and the American public, to buy a resurgence of US military activity. It is something, Beinart suggests, most accounts of the Iraq war don't get.

"The Right says we went to war because of 9/11 and the Left says we went to war because we were lied to by George W. Bush," he says. "What both of those ignore is that, irrespective of 9/11, irrespective of Bush and his own peculiarities, and [Dick] Cheney, we would never have gone to war if we had not developed this renewed military self-confidence."

Beinart is a bright and hyper-talkative wunderkind with that drilling kind of American accent that could strip paint. Born in 1971, he was editor of US news magazine The New Republic by when he was 28. Now associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, and senior political writer for The Daily Beast website, he is in Australia to speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival this weekend.

His most recent book, The Icarus Syndrome, is an account of American foreign policy in the past century. He starts with Woodrow Wilson's progressivist policies, which drew the US out of self-absorption and into World War I, and ends with Bush's adventures in regime change. On the way, he unravels the motivations in America's cyclical shift between isolationism and engagement, and postulates that hubris and the seductions of success have been the risky motor of a much US military action. Beinart argues entirely from an American viewpoint: other nations and their leaders are bit actors on the world stage.

Many of his judgments are counter-intuitive for a modern US liberal: he is sceptical of Wilson's motives, admiring of Richard Nixon's political skill, ruthless in his descriptions of Clinton's sloppy personal habits and almost fond of Ronald Reagan.

"What makes Reagan a strange figure is that, although in certain policy ways he's on the Right, his view of human nature is one of an Emersonian liberal. Reagan had an incredibly positive view of human nature," he says.

Beinart puts Reagan's view down to his mother's Unitarian religion, in which sin did not exist, and his father's alcoholism, which taught Reagan to live in a Hollywood-style fantasy world.

"That's what made him dangerously out of touch with reality," Beinart says. "You understand why the Soviets freaked.

"But Reagan was an actor and he was very early to understand that politics in the television age was more about public presentation than it was about government performance. He understood in a very intuitive way the way Americans wanted to see themselves."

Beinart's analysis is strong on the cultural components of American foreign policy designed for domestic consumption: the fluctuation between Vietnam and World War II analogies, for example, the sleights of hand and the smoke-and-mirrors morality.

His support of the war in Iraq had nothing to do with chemical or biological weapons. Beinart says he was more concerned with the very real chance that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons, which seemed the case on the eve of the Gulf War, and that sanctions were not working but only hurting Iraqi civilians. He also believed that "it would be ridding the world of one of the worst dictators of the 20th century".

"My rationale had little to do with 9/11," he says. "It was that we had run out of options with Saddam. George Bush was playing fast and loose with his rhetoric. But I think my rationale would have been harder to sell."

Asked whether the citizens of a country shouldn't be trusted with the real reasons for going to war, however, he readily agrees.

"The immediate answer is, of course, yes. It's never acceptable for governments to lie," he says. "But the historical case here is FDR, who repeatedly played fast and loose with the truth in order to get America into World War II. That is the most challenging case for people who say governments should never lie."

Beinart eventually changed his view of the war and, despite his born-again belief in the efficacy of the US military, it was because of a scepticism his parents' generation might have been proud of.

"You should only support wars in which you think the rationale is so compelling you think it's worth doing even when you assume that worst-case scenario, that the war will be fought very badly," he says.

In his book, Beinart sketches out how fluctuations in the power balance between congress and the executive have affected US decisions to go to war. Congress was docile during the 1960s, assertive in the 70s and 80s, docile again in the past two decades. And it was Clinton, not the neo-con-influenced Bushes, who clawed back executive power.

"We go to war at times of presidential power and then the wars increase presidential power," he says. "And then when the wars turn out badly, Congress reasserts itself, and the stronger congress is, the harder it is to get into a war.

"It's an interesting question about [Barack] Obama, to what extent there is a rebalancing of executive power."

Party politics has had little to do with it. "This is what conservatives don't understand. Conservatives by the Bush years decided that conservatives had won elections by being the most militaristic party. But Reagan wasn't; he was much wilier than that. He understood Americans wanted symbolic victories at low cost. And Nixon understood that, too."

Beinart sees parallels between Nixon and Obama. "Obama and Nixon couldn't be more different, but there are parallels with the moment in time: a period of national exhaustion, in which there are financial restraints, in which you need to start doing things on the cheap."

By the time Nixon ran for re-election in 1972, for example, he had taken combat forces out of Vietnam and substantially increased air bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia. "It was a horror on the ground but domestically very shrewd because you look as though you're kicking the hell out of them, but the American casualties go down, the draft is eliminated, and once you get rid of the draft the anti-war movement collapses in the US. That's where I think Obama is ultimately going to go on Afghanistan."

Peter Beinart is a guest of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and the Melbourne Writers Festival.