October 07, 2007

Liberal Hawkery

Tony Judt writes in the NYT today: "...the next time someone waxes lyrical for armed overseas intervention in the name of liberal ideals or “defining struggles,” remember what Albert Camus had to say about his fellow intellectuals’ propensity for encouraging violence to others at a safe distance from themselves. “Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed,” he wrote, “but in every case it is someone else’s blood. That is why some of our thinkers feel free to say just about anything.” You might well read Judt's op-ed in conjunction with this piece by Christopher Hitchens. Or as Paul Johnson put it in similar vein in "The Intellectuals": "(a)s the cases of Sartre and Edmund Wilson suggest, there is a common propensity among radical intellectuals to demand ambitious government programmes while feeling no responsibility to contribute to them."

A quick additional word or two--as someone who supported U.S. intervention in Bosnia and spent two years living in the former Yugoslavia during the conflict there--I'd like to quote Judt re: the Balkans too: "(t)he case for liberal interventionism — “taking a stand” — had nothing whatever to do with the Iraq war. Those of us who pressed for American-led military action in Bosnia and Kosovo did so for several reasons: because of the refusal of others (the European Union and United Nations) to engage effectively; because there was a demonstrable and immediate threat to rights and lives; and because it was clear we could be effective in this way and in no other." I think that's quite right re: the Balkan interventions. And re: Iraq , I supported the war based on realist grounds, believing erroneously that Saddam had a significant WMD program and (drawing inspiration from al-Qaeda's dramatic attack in NYC) would perhaps funnel biological or chemical agents to transnational terror groups despite not having had material links to such organizations before then. I was wrong, like many, about the WMD, and I will not revisit my mea culpas here (regular readers are likely tired of them, as there have been many in this space).

This being said, let us not kid ourselves our intervention in Iraq had anything to do, at least in the main, with mainstream 'liberal hawk' views (whatever we might make of them). If so, we'd have sent in the cavalry during Halabja, or when Marsh Arabs were being massacred. Or, perhaps, more people would be hankering for international intervention regarding these unspeakable crimes. We blundered into Iraq with criminal negligence after the staggering shock of 9/11, and we are there still not because it represents a direct national security threat to us, or because of deep humanitarian impulses, but because we have leaders (apparently on both sides of the aisle) incapable of extricating us in organized fashion.

P.S. Incidentally and as a brief aside, I think it's high time our 'liberal hawk' friends speak up more about the 2 milliion refugees outside Iraq, or the 2 million internally displaced. As often in war, the refugees end up the unsung victims of the carnage and its aftermath, and the 'humanitarians' among us might well pay greater attention to this unfolding situation (which may have destabilizing impacts on countries like Jordan and Syria), the greatest refugee crisis in the Middle East since 1948, after all...first however, we'll need to stop speaking about flag-pins and General Betray-Us...

Posted by Gregory at October 7, 2007 12:14 PM

The invasion of Iraq was not undertaken by liberal hawks, these being scarce in the Bush administration. But most liberal hawks supported it -- notwithstanding that Iraq was not the only human rights disaster area in 2003 (or later) or that it was not a human rights crisis that precipitated the invasion.

So it's a little misleading to assert that the invasion and mainstream liberal hawk views never crossed paths. Taking such views on their own terms, there was ample justification for removing Saddam Hussein from power. Of course, Iraq was not a case easily analogous to the former Yugoslavia, something that perhaps should have occurred to more liberal hawks five years ago than seems to have been the case. The intervention in Bosnia, and the later one in Kosovo, were primarily exercises in damage control -- Serb nationalists had been intent on imposing themselves on non-Serbs in ways the former Communist government had avoided, provoked a reaction, and vicious conflicts arose while Europe looked on in its usual feckless way and the United States reacted to events. With all sides exhausted by war, NATO was eventually able to help reach a settlement, putting a big, armed Band-Aid over the bleeding areas until.... whenever.

Liberal hawks whose view of the Balkan problem began with the atrocities of the Bosnian war in the mid-1990s tended to regard what followed as a great triumph, and a vindication of ideas about armed humanitarian interventions. In the longer view the matter appears in a more ambiguous light. The United States, and the European Union for that matter, did not cause the Balkan explosion. But we surely must ask whether it had to reach the state it did, whether its resolution would have been considered any kind of success had it been described to an audience in, say, 1991, and -- relevant to Iraq -- whether the armed Band-Aid is a solution that can be sustained in more than a small number of cases. This relevant to Iraq because of the widespread Washington acceptance of the view that a settling-down of the worst sectarian violence there, while a large American presence helps a legitimate government get established in Baghdad, is what success would look like. As if Iraq were a kind of somewhat more volatile super-Bosnia.

This is very far from being my definition of success in Iraq, as regular readers know. I only mean to point out here that the Balkan interventions of the 1990s were the liberal hawks great project (one undertaken, incidentally, with neoconservative support). Exaggerated ideas of how successful that project was probably influenced the thinking of liberal hawks when the neoconservatives got their chance to undertake their own great project, in Iraq.

Posted by: Zathras at October 7, 2007 04:03 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Could liberal hawking be justified if said liberal was very much willing to get involved in the violence? Both Bill Kristol and I absolutely support asymmetrical war in Myanmar, even western military intervention, but the difference is, I would gladly go to Myanmar to help. Is that any more intellectually sound, or just the same liberal hawking? Where is the line between suggesting change and participating in it, as least as far as international violence is concerned?

Posted by: UJ at October 7, 2007 04:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It seems apparent that the US invaded Iraq because of long-term oil strategy -- Mr Cheney's Energy Policy was rather forthright in its goals of increasing US consumption of Middle East oil (to save US domestic supplies) and increasing US control of oil production (to enable oil companies to invest and improve infrastructure, to increase flow).

But, of course, that is only why the Bush Administration invaded Iraq -- they were fairly clear on that, years before they invaded.

Of course, the way they convinced the Senate and House and their supporters, had little to do with their oil intentions, and lots to do with the imputations of nuclear weapons (later downgraded to WMDs), then later imputations of "human rights imperatives".

The people who were convinced by these various propagandistic arguments can be fairly said to have supported the war as a war against nuclear weapons, or a war against Saddam Hussein, or a war against torture, or a war against al Qaida, because they supported it believing it served those ends somehow.

But, I think it is useful to recall that the actual intents of those who made the decisions seemingly had nothing to do with such purported goals.

So, I do not think the Marsh Arab genocide has much relevance to the actual invasion, except as a talking point/debate point/propaganda point.

Posted by: Jay Blackweather at October 7, 2007 08:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Quite the weepy saga of Hitchen's alter-ego soldier. (I think I shed a tear or two.) Wars and warriors are forever the wormhole to the dead, yet rarely do they disappoint in their greater knack for illuminating life's vicissitudes. If we aren't soon awash in the gripping sentimentality of their heroic tales, then we are soon overcome-well, we ought to be-by their timeless morality parade. Somebody review the depths of the Faustian bargain, see what applies, and get back to us.

I forgot where the boundaries lie.

The quotes from Shakespeare and Orwell, also all poignant apercus of the blood-stained battlefield, add what meaning we might otherwise miss. I was reminded of an apocryphal epitaph-one that adds a wayward thought to the weighty equation-that I first saw on a mens-room wall:

Here lies Lester Moore
Shot with a slug from a .44
No less, no more.

Posted by: reshufflex at October 7, 2007 10:18 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Personally, I could give a rat's ass whether Kristol, Berman, et al (yes, I understand there is are differences between these types) got 'involved' in the mission themselves. It may be that the way they could contribute the most to the mission would be to physically stay the hell away from it.

I do, on the other hand, care about when the American people decide to send "others", that Camus speaks of, to what promised (if they did not know it before the war began, they were on constructive notice of that fact soon after) to be a long and bloody fight by an undermanned military. . I also care when said Americans decide it's ok to grab a tax cut, and, simultaneously, devise a convoluted scheme to hide the cost of the war...and to shift said cost to future "others".

That Kristol et al were the cheerleaders for these decisions is something they should not be forgiven for at any time in the near future. However, nor should the majority of American people who voted, in 2004, to validate these decisions, be quickly forgiven.

Finally, Zathras wrote: "I only mean to point out here that the Balkan interventions of the 1990s were the liberal hawks great project (one undertaken, incidentally, with neoconservative support)".

I agree. I also believe it fair to note that they, the liberal hawks, and neocons, also had the support, silent or not, of the hard core, big time, Dem political operatives... who saw this as their chance to jettison the burdensome legacy of McGovernism/Carter's Iran fiasco. It was to be, from their perspective, their Falklands war. Bill sorta screwed that up with the woman in the blue dress.

Posted by: jonst at October 8, 2007 11:46 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


From that more common bird, the liberal dove, I don't really hear much about refugees either. That would mean the US would actually take an affirmative humanitarian step, which does not ever seem to be the goal of the liberal dove.

As for the idiocy about flag pins and MoveOn ads (and it is idiocy), it seems pretty equally matched by the Congressional silliness and time wasting over Limbaugh. If they were only so diligent about attempting to eliminate torture as they are about attempting to intimidate obnoxious opposition...

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at October 8, 2007 03:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

re: This being said, let us not kid ourselves our intervention in Iraq had anything to do, at least in the main, with mainstream 'liberal hawk' views

Filkins in last sunday's NYT Mag:

I asked Allawi if Makiya, and the others who made the human rights case for war, were not responsible for the disaster that Iraq has turned out to be. “I think they are relieved of responsibility only because I think their influence was far less than they thought it was,” Allawi said. “Ahmad Chalabi, Kanan Makiya, all of these people became media stars, but their influence on decision making was next to nothing. I can’t believe that a person like Wolfowitz or Cheney or whoever it was in the neocon cabal would allow themselves to be manipulated in this way. They are far too cynical. They have their own agendas. And these agendas were boosted by Iraqis who seemed to be singing from the same song sheet. The Iraqis gave them credibility, gave them substance. But I don’t think they were influenced by them.”

People who opposed the war continue to express resentment at the abilities of liberal hawks to preserve august media positions (and senate seats) despite being completely wrong. Myself, I would appreciate that some of these people acknowledge what Allawi says here--that their support played a large role in the national acceptance of the war.

Posted by: jayackroyd at October 8, 2007 05:04 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The Hitchens article is well done, and very moving. What I don't understand is how people as intelligent as Hitchens (and many, many others) didn't seem to "get" that wars necessarily produce countless stories like this. The world is much the poorer because of the absence of people like Mark Daily, Pat Tillman, and so many more about whom we will never read or hear. I was struck that Hitchens seemed surprised that his cheerleading for the war actually had real-world, concrete consequences.

For me, the self-evident "moral" of this war is that nations should be extremely slow to enter wars, because the outcomes are rarely predictable and always horrible. The real tragedy is that World War I taught all these lessons, but too few people have applied them in the past 90 years.

Posted by: Tillman Fan at October 8, 2007 06:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

> US would actually take an affirmative humanitarian step

Yes, the US has quite a track record of missing any opportunity to oppose genocide, as Samantha Powers illustrated so well in her book. Of all the sad moments, the moment when Reagan told his people to go find something to divert attention from his Nazi fiasco, and they decided to join the UN Treaty on Genocide as a diversion, is one of the saddest -- the US only joined the Treaty on Genocide as a way to distract the public from Reagan's Nazi faux pas...

But, Europe in general has a rather weak track record as well -- by and large, it only looks strong on human rights when being compared with the US, I'd say, which isn't much of a standard.

Posted by: Zhulid Gayek at October 9, 2007 03:31 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

> the outcomes [of war] are rarely predictable and always horrible

Unfortunately, jingoism and chicken hawk posturing are very powerful, as has been shown over and over, both in tinpot tyrannies and democratic powerhouses. Opposing such on moral grounds requires serious character, and even some slight moral courage.

More unfortunately, the US schools, officer corps, officer promotional and ticket-punching systems, and (especially) political system greatly discourage moral courage, almost always punishing it in favor of moral cowardice.

Posted by: Zhulid Gayek at October 9, 2007 03:38 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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