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The War of the Liberals | The Nation

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The War of the Liberals

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Having secured his reputation as a liberal hawk and withering critic of Bush's critics, Berman has returned to his earlier project, adding to his original essay on Fischer four lively chapters that trace the way certain former New Leftists (though not Fischer) went beyond their support for the Kosovo war and endorsed Bush's invasion of Iraq. His heroes are all highly cultured Europeans. They intuitively grasp, the way Bush's antiwar critics supposedly do not, "the dangers posed by the extremist currents in the Arab world." In their youth, curiously enough, some of them had thought the spirit of "absolute evil" (namely, Nazism) had survived World War II and mysteriously migrated to postwar bourgeois society and to Israel. Berman resurrects this idea, breathing new life into the metaphor of itinerant malevolence by varying the destination. The spirit of absolute evil (apocalyptic totalitarianism) has survived the cold war, he writes, and has now migrated to the Middle East, transmogrified into Arab and Muslim extremism.

About the Author

Stephen Holmes
Stephen Holmes teaches at the New York University School of Law. His most recent book is The Matador's Cape: America's...

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Although he sneers at Richard Perle ("Pangloss on the Potomac"), Berman ultimately allows little daylight between himself and the neoconservatives. He accepts their interpretation of antiwar liberals as quaking pacifists who live in denial, inventing a picture of the world that requires no military action, presumably because they are afraid to stand up and fight. It comes as no surprise, therefore, when he writes deferentially of "some people" around Bush who had a "strategic overview" and "entertained large geopolitical ambitions." And he basically agrees with them that "something ambitious had to be done, not just in Iraq but with an eye to transforming the entire region" and setting off "a broader revolution for liberal values in the Arab world." Military defeat had forced German extremists to abandon their apocalyptic anti-Semitism. So why couldn't military defeat force Muslim extremists to abandon their apocalyptic anti-Semitism?

This is how Berman formulates the neoconservative case for war, to which he subscribes: "The American strategists noticed that terrorism had begun to flourish across a wide swath of the Arab and Muslim world. And they argued that something had to be done about the political culture across the whole of that wide swath. The American strategists saw in Saddam's Iraq a main center of that political culture, yet also a place where the political culture could be redressed and transformed." Something had to be done "to bring about the downfall of extremist currents throughout the region," and that something would be war, "a human-rights intervention that was also going to be a national-security intervention." A side benefit would be the destruction of the one army in the region "large enough to worry the Israelis."

While making common cause with right-wing supporters of Bush's militarized response to 9/11, Berman apparently feels little cultural affinity for such prowar conservatives as Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol. For more agreeable companionship, he seeks out European writers like the ex-Maoist French philosopher André Glucksmann and Polish dissident Adam Michnik. He honors them for their belief that American tenacity alone can dislodge brutal tyrants from power. He admires Glucksmann as "an enemy of extreme suffering" who early abandoned anticapitalism and embraced hostility to tyranny in every form and who, in blessing Bush's war, memorably remarked that Iraqis, too, deserve their D-Day. And he is pleased to inform us that prominent Eastern European dissidents, among them Václav Havel and Michnik, claim that "people all over the world needed America to lead a resistance against the new totalitarianism of the Muslim world."

But the principal hero of Berman's story is Bernard Kouchner, a founder of Doctors Without Borders and head of the United Nations administration in Kosovo from July 1999 to January 2001. For Berman "nobody in Europe was more heroic" than this "fearless humanitarian doctor" who always seemed to be "on a mission against injustice." The basic principle underlying Kouchner's political activism was that "the supremely oppressed had a right to be rescued, no matter what the theorists of anti-imperialism or the defenders of the inviolability of borders might say." Kouchner supported the war because he knew that Iraq was studded with Srebrenicas. If you hate genocide, place matters of conscience at the heart of your thinking and appreciate the larger grandeur of the interventionist idea (in Kouchner's terms, the droit d'ingérence, or right of interference), then you can only applaud the American invasion of Iraq. Never mind that most ex-'68ers, including Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Joschka Fischer, opposed the war as an expression of the Bush Administration's revolutionary hubris. Kouchner's example reassures Berman that an ex-'68er could join the war party and preserve his "left-wing soul."

Like Kouchner, Berman was "furious that Bush didn't make the pure humanitarian case" for war. Instead of stressing the morally lofty casus belli advanced by Kouchner and other prowar European liberals, Administration spokesmen implied that the war in Iraq had purposes other than rescuing the oppressed and rolling back Islamic extremism. They emphasized the same short-run objectives that had rallied public support behind the brief Afghan campaign, namely revenge for 9/11 and self-defense against WMDs. That these were the "most widely publicized presentations to the general public," Berman remarks, indicated the Administration's deplorable lack of strategic vision.

"Why didn't the Bush administration, in trying to drum up a few European allies, look to these people and their arguments--to the dissident heroes and the admired humanitarians?" he asks. This question is presumably rhetorical. That Bush could have mobilized significant support from Europe by drawing on Kouchner's "moral prestige" defies belief. Berman knows that Bush had little to gain by embracing Europe's chastened '68ers, who favored giving war a chance on purely moral grounds. As Berman says, most Republicans had "sunk into nationalist isolation" and were "contemptuous of the Western Europeans." To rally his base, moreover, Bush regularly flaunts his indifference to the patronizing morality of lesser and weaker nations. For that reason alone, Kouchner's high-minded endorsement of Bush's war was destined to be just as inconsequential as Berman's.

Snubbed by the war party in Washington, Kouchner was forced to observe the invasion's disastrous aftermath from the sidelines. But the catastrophic bungling of the American occupation proved almost too painful to watch. According to Berman, at least, "Kouchner was beside himself," especially when Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army. When he was faced with such delirious incompetence, his "Gallic nostrils flared." As things went de mal en pis, "Kouchner fumed," "Kouchner was dumbfounded," "Kouchner was amazed," "Kouchner was apoplectic," "Kouchner was astonished" and "Kouchner was dumbfounded yet again." But these droll reminders of how prowar idealists became disillusioned when tyranny was replaced by anarchy seem oddly flippant. True, today's Iraq can be labeled "a tragedy." But this does not exculpate those who worked tirelessly to beautify the garbled motives behind Bush's war. Their surprise does not lift responsibility from their shoulders, for they could easily have taken more seriously the widely predicted possibility of a tragic outcome. Fischer did, and if he was sickened when things went badly, he was not "dumbfounded." For he understood, even before the invasion was launched, that the Bush Administration was probably incapable, in such a dauntingly complex environment, of accomplishing the lofty goals it had publicly proclaimed.

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