Re: How do presidents learn from defeat without easily acknowledge it?

Peter Beinart has been at The New Republic since 1999, where he is a journalist and editor-at-large. He is also a contributor to Time magazine and writes a monthly column for the Washington Post. Beinart graduated in 1993 from Yale University, where he was a member of the Yale Political Union. In 1995, he received his MA in international relations from Oxford University, which he attended on a Rhodes Scholarship. Critical of the Bush administration's handling of the war and its aftermath, Beinart was nonetheless a vocal supporter of the war itself, defending that position on the PBS show Buying The War, with Bill Moyers. However, in Beinart's book, The Good Fight: Why Liberals-and Only Liberals-Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again (2006), which he expanded from an essay as a guest scholar at The Brookings Institution, he renounced his position, claiming that if he'd known then what he knows now about the capitulation of the War on Terror, he wouldn't have supported it in the first place. Beinart is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

  • Transcript


Question: How do presidents learn from defeat?

Peter Beinart: I think that presidents, as a general rule, who take power in a time when Americans are feeling disillusioned, or embittered, or in some ways defeated either by war, or by something like the depression – or even, to a milder degree, the kind of economic malaise of the 1970s – that the balance that they have to strike is they have to find ways . . . they have to be naturally good at restoring American sense of self-confidence, faith in themselves, America’s belief in the greatness of their nation. Both Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were real geniuses at that. They . . . they were in some ways geniuses of self-confidence. Their optimism and self-confidence just flowed from them. That’s one of the things that people . . . people repeatedly commented on about them during their time in public office. But I think you simultaneously have to actually . . . have to be . . . have to recognize the limits in which you function; the limits that past failure has imposed; the fact that the legacy of World War I made it much more difficult for America to enter World War II; that Franklin Roosevelt had to wait much longer than he might have wanted to to bring America into World War II because of the disillusioning effects of World War I; that Ronald Reagan had to be chastened by the legacy of Vietnam, that he couldn’t send American troops into Central America. I think thank goodness he didn’t. But he was constrained by the . . . by the memory of America’s failed military intervention in the third world. So I think it’s that balance between restoring America’s sense of pride, optimism, and self-confidence while not being reckless, and recognizing the constraints within which one has to labor.

Recorded on: 9/12/07