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.
Question: What is the struggle of what you do?
Peter Beinart: I think the struggle in what I do is . . . is . . . is the struggle of trying to impose analytical or intellectual order on . . . on . . . on human events, or trying to understand them. That’s the struggle . . . I think it’s the struggle for any commentator, which is to say we need to talk in terms of patterns, and understandable motives, and predictable behavior. And yet a nation, like individuals, to some degree has depths that are unknowable. You can’t truly under . . . You can’t truly understand. And so I think the struggle for me is to do my best to try to understand why America behaves the way it does, but to recognize that to some degree, as with all human behavior, there are things that are just inexplicable. It’s not like studying . . . being in a lab and looking at test tubes; that human beings and even nations have motivations that are . . . that . . . that lie deep below the surface, and that are not fully . . . cannot be fully understood in a rational way.
Question: Was it intimidating to join The New Republic as an editor at such a young age?
It was a somewhat intimidating experience. I think it was made a little bit easier by the fact that the magazine had had young editors before, one of whom, Andrew Sullivan, I had worked under; and another one, Michael Kinsley, I knew a bit. So I had . . . those . . . They were remarkably talented people. I certainly wasn’t sure that I was as talented as them; but I had seen them go through it, and I had worked at the magazine under a few different editors. So I had watched the process. So I knew the publication well. And . . . and I figured that the best thing I could do was not to worry about what age I was, but simply to do the best job that I could and kind of let things fall where they fell.
Question: What inspired your interest in liberal foreign policy?
Well liberalism is the tradition with which I’ve always identified myself. And I think that I was particularly troubled by the inability of John Carey in 2004, and liberals and Democrats more generally to respond to George W. Bush’s vision that he laid out of America’s role in the post-9/11 world in a way that seemed to me coherent and compelling. And I wanted to explore that, since I felt that while I disagreed with the narrative that Bush and conservatives had laid out, I admired its coherence; and I admired the degree to which conservative . . . it was rooted in a conservative tradition of which conservatives, I think, were fairly self-aware. And I didn’t feel that there was that same sense of awareness of liberalisms and intellectual traditions. And I wanted to sort . . . I wanted to think about our traditions and try to think about how you might bring them to bear today.
Recorded on: 9/12/07