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The War of the Liberals | The Nation

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The War of the Liberals

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The ruses and stratagems of the current Administration are well-known to Rieff. But he has not quite absorbed their corrosive significance. The human rights advocates who initially supported the invasion lent moral legitimacy to a right-wing war undertaken for reasons having little or nothing to do with human rights. There was no "marriage" of left humanitarianism and the imperialist right; the affair was never consummated, except in words. The consensus between right and left that Rieff claims to have identified was a false one--a sham agreement without a genuine meeting of minds. By revealing the Administration's cavalier indifference to the fate of ordinary Iraqis, the grievously botched occupation was bound to unravel the bogus accord and drive most of the humanitarian left (with notable exceptions, such as Paul Berman) back into opposition.

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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The critical point here is that the Iraq War was not a humanitarian intervention, as Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, among others, has argued in an official paper. Why Rieff fails to clarify this elementary point is uncertain. Because humanitarian considerations had a negligible influence on the decision to invade, he should not have felt compelled, after visiting Iraq, radically to revise his thinking about interventions on humanitarian grounds. He dimly intuits this truth, it should be said, which is why he assures us that he would still support military action in Rwanda even after knowing everything he knows about Iraq. So why does he retreat into a pose of unprincipled inconsistency? He could have said, quite coherently, that the Iraq debacle teaches us less about the dangers of humanitarian intervention than about the appalling consequences of "the political instrumentalization of humanitarianism."

Having advocated a military response to genocide in the 1990s, Rieff now confesses to a sore conscience about the Iraq War. That is what makes his book so absorbing. At the Point of a Gun documents better than any other printed source the inner torment of humanitarian interventionists who, without forgetting Rwanda and Bosnia, have gazed into the Iraqi abyss. Power and the Idealists is equally riveting, but for the opposite reason. As intelligent as he obviously is, Berman has yet to pry open his eyes. His stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge that high ideals have been hijacked for nonideal ends, although not especially admirable, is a perfectly human reaction to a disastrous war launched and conducted under deceitful pretenses. The two books, in the end, leave us with one and the same question, namely: How is the left to regain its moral bearings in a world where the right has brazenly stolen progressive ideals (human rights, liberation, democracy, relief of suffering) and marched the country into a bloody calamity under a false flag of liberty? That this vital question remains unanswered is shocking and sobering. To have focused our minds on the challenge ahead is the shared achievement of these tortured and illuminating works.

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