David Greenberg: How neocons made liberals wary of idealism

Roundup: Historians' Take

n early November 1956, Soviet tanks swarmed into Hungary to crush an insurgency that had just thrown off Moscow's yoke. In the United States, where the presidential election was days away, the Democratic nominee was the professorial and sometimes equivocal Adlai Stevenson--the epitome of the peace-loving, arms control-pushing, diplomacy-advocating liberalism that Republicans loved to tar as squishy-soft. In Hungary's case, however, Stevenson didn't flinch.

At a Cleveland campaign stop, having just learned of the news, the candidate forthrightly pledged America's solidarity with Hungary's revolutionaries, "a brave and determined and desperate people ... struggling against enormous odds to shake themselves loose from Russian imperialism." Stevenson chided the Eisenhower administration for its sham policy of "rolling back" communism, but he didn't let the U.S. campaign trail overshadow the European theater. "As a spokesman for the Democratic Party," he affirmed, "I am sure we want and pray that President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles can make our influence and desire for right and justice felt once more, for we are Americans first and Democrats second."

No one denounced Stevenson as a warmonger or a me-too Republican. His heartfelt support for the Hungarians was fully in line with mid-century liberalism. The New York Times, for one, began its editorial with a simple declarative sentence: "We accuse the Soviet Government of murder." For liberals, an instinctive revulsion toward the invasion joined naturally with a ready sympathy for a foreign people rallying for freedom under the American flag.

There are important differences between today's crisis in Georgia and the crisis in Hungary. But one of the more salient is this: Where once liberals took the lead in decrying the subjugation of foreign peoples yearning for democracy, this time too many on our side of the aisle either lagged or lost their way. When Soviet tanks barreled into Georgia in early August on the absurd pretext of stopping "genocide," the first instinct of many liberals was either to lob verbal water balloons at President Bush and John McCain or to retreat behind a scrim of pox-on-both-their-houses pseudo-sophistication.

For many, blaming the Republicans took precedence. Diminishing themselves, liberals tried to make sport of McCain's appropriation of Wikipedia boilerplate for a speech and make hay of his aide Randy Scheunemann's lobbying for the Georgian government. Or they went after Bush (or American policy in general) for "provoking" Russia by expanding NATO, supporting Kosovo's independence, and embracing Georgia's pro-Western premier, Mikheil Saakashvili. "[W]e should acknowledge that at least some of the blame lies, as it does so often, with our own hubris," Michael Hirsh wrote in Newsweek, faulting "Washington's active support of the Orange and Rose Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia and its feckless encouragement of their Westernized, pro-NATO presidents." When the right language happened to come from McCain--who declared, "We are all Georgians now"--the general response among liberal pundits was to scoff. Writing on The Washington Post's website, Andres Martinez told the senator to speak for himself. "I am not a Georgian," he insisted, deriding the "over-the-top rhetoric about democracy and liberty" from McCain and Bush. Blogger Matt Yglesias, writing under the aegis of the Center for American Progress, called the statement "empty political sloganeering," "downright irresponsible," and "mawkish sentimentality."...

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