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Liberal Hawk Down | The Nation

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Liberal Hawk Down

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The failure of the Democratic Party to oppose the Bush Administration's push for war in Iraq may have doomed its chances in the 2004 elections. It exposed John Kerry to the jeering shrieks of "flip-flop" heard at every Bush rally--and not wholly unjustly, it must be said. From whatever mixture of fear and opportunism, many Democrats who at heart opposed the war reckoned that the wave of mass nationalist fervor that followed 9/11 made such a stance politically unviable in 2002-03.

This essay is adapted from Anatol Lieven's next book, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, to be published this month by Oxford University Press.

About the Author

Anatol Lieven
Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College, London, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author...

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The Obama administration simply cannot afford a confrontation with Russia, given the challenges we face elsewhere.

But it would be unfair to accuse the Democratic foreign policy establishment as a whole of acting cynically. For there exist within that establishment powerful groups that shared and continue to share not only the Administration's case for war but most of the neoconservative philosophy and agenda in international relations. Some of these Democrats--particularly "liberal hawk" intellectuals--contributed considerably to building the public case for war.

The liberal hawks firmly believed that the Iraq war was both a humanitarian intervention and an important front in the "war on terrorism," even if they made no secret of their distrust of the Administration waging it. Nor have they been held to account for their views, even as the neoconservatives rightly take a beating for the war. Bizarrely, the liberal hawks continue to advance their approach as a radical Democratic alternative to Republican policies. In fact, they are taking the same route as the Scoop Jackson Democrats three decades ago, most of whom traveled via neoconservatism into the Republican Party.

Today, the Democratic Party should encourage these figures to take the same route to the Republican Party as their Scoop Jackson predecessors, but much more quickly, and give them a strong push along the way. For as long as they continue seriously to influence Democratic thinking, they will make it much more difficult for the Democrats to emerge as a clear foreign policy alternative to the Republicans, and much more difficult for a genuine national debate on foreign policy to take place in the United States--particularly when it comes to strategy in the Middle East and the war on terrorism.

To rid the Democratic Party of their influence, however, will be extremely difficult, since the style of messianic and muscular national liberalism they represent has deep roots both in the history of the Democratic Party and in American political culture. In the context of the war on terrorism, the argument that "democratization" of the Middle East constitutes a genuine and viable US political strategy also provides an all too convenient way for the Democratic establishment and the liberal hawks to sidestep the charged question of Israel and US support for Israel.

One of the philosopher kings of the liberal hawks is Paul Berman, still in his own self-description a "man of the Left." In a New York Times op-ed of April 15, 2004 ("Will the Opposition Lead?"), he argued that only the Democrats can "achieve what Mr. Bush seems unable to do." While scolding the Bush Administration for its "incoherence," he defended the Iraq war as "a logical place to begin" the "war on terrorism," which he characterized as a battle against "totalitarianism" in the Arab and Muslim world. For liberal hawks like Berman, the problem with the Iraq war is not so much the invasion and occupation as its execution.

What the Bush Administration fails to appreciate, according to Berman and other like-minded writers whom George Packer has assembled in the collection of essays The Fight Is for Democracy, is the importance of ideas in the war on terrorism. In their view, the war with radical Islam is an analogue (and, in Berman's stronger formulation, an extension) of the struggle against totalitarian Communism and, before that, Fascism. Just as the United States and its allies prevailed in the cold war by promoting liberal ideas--and not just by direct military intervention and proxy wars--so, they argue, the US government must fight for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world through culture, and not just on the battleground. (It should be said that Packer's own views, as expressed in his reports from Iraq for The New Yorker, are considerably more sophisticated than those of most of his contributors.)

The liberal hawks are partly right: Ideas are critical both to stemming the tide of Islamist revolution and its terrorist offshoots and to maintaining the unity of the West. But the approach they advocate all but insures American defeat, for reasons that should be all too apparent from the unfolding debacle in Iraq. These reasons are fourfold, and closely interconnected: (1) The approach lumps together all Muslim forces critical of the United States and Israel into one hostile and ideologically united camp; (2) it ignores the critically important role of local ethnic feeling not only in hostility to the United States but in the historical processes of democratization and modernization across much of the world; (3) it turns a blind eye to Israeli crimes; and (4) it treats America's allies as useful but contemptible idiots whose views and interests need not be seriously considered.

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