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The War of the Liberals | The Nation

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The War of the Liberals

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More instructive than the speechlessness of the Democratic Party, unable to react coherently to the bloody impasse in Iraq, is the debate among progressive writers about the justice of the invasion. To penetrate the thinking of the prowar liberals, whose zeal for toppling a malignant dictatorship split the left and therefore eased the slog to disaster, we need to cast our eyes back to the 1990s. Written by thoughtful observers of the current crisis, two new highly personal books help us understand the gestation of liberal hawks in the dozen years between the fall of the wall and the fall of the towers. Images of Rwanda and Kosovo were not especially poignant for the principal Bush Administration insiders who made the decision to invade Iraq. At the outset, for them, humanitarianism was not even a pretext for war. But the appalling failures and modest successes of humanitarian intervention during the 1990s did shape the thinking of certain sparkling liberal intellects. Their heady support for war played little or no role in the decision to invade Iraq. But it did diminish and isolate voices of dissent, helping insure that Bush's ill-fated war was set afoot with little national debate, even in the high-circulation liberal press.

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 tenor of Paul Berman's new book, Power and the Idealists, is suggested by the word "tragedy" in the title to his concluding chapter, "The '68ers and the Tragedy of Iraq." He freely acknowledges "the scale and gravity of America's blunders in Iraq." But he can find nothing especially critical to say about the handful of former '68ers who, invoking humanitarian commitments, clambered aboard the wagons of war. They should be judged for their good intentions alone, he implies.

The seeds of this forgiving and self-forgiving attitude are sown in chapter one. The book opens with a lengthy essay on the tribulations of Joschka Fischer, the popular Green politician and German foreign minister from 1998 to 2005, who had been embarrassed by the publication of some old photos that showed him as a young man beating a policeman. Originally published in the September 3, 2001, edition of The New Republic, Berman's reflections on Fischer open a window onto his own pre-9/11 mindset. His preoccupation, at that time, was to show "the evolution of the leading '68ers from revolutionary leftism to liberal internationalism." He traced the path by which Fischer, the young antibourgeois street fighter in bluejeans who flirted discreetly with lethal vandalism, came to endorse German participation in the Kosovo war. Berman's theme was "how someone with an extremely radical New Left orientation could have ended up, in the fullness of time, a friend of NATO."

Foreign-policy realists would never have backed the Kosovo intervention, Berman contends, because "realism is never genocide's enemy." The lofty principles that inspired the Kosovo action were kept alive, he speculates, by "the veterans of the student uprisings circa 1968." These idealists hated genocide and "put matters of conscience at the heart of their thinking." Thus, Berman concludes, "NATO's intervention could just as easily be described as the '68ers' War."

The shift from skirmishing with the police to bombing the génocidaires was "a generational trajectory," not limited to Fischer's swapping of bluejeans for a three-piece suit. It was the story, according to Berman, of how the New Left, beginning in France in the 1970s, shed its antimilitarist, anticapitalist, antibourgeois and anticolonialist stances and became, instead, fiercely antitotalitarian. The Cambodian genocide had been an earsplitting wake-up call, forcing open-minded leftists to admit that cruelty and oppression do not stem exclusively from Western imperialism. By the mid-1990s some had come to believe that American power could be a, even the, force for good in the world.

Under the impact of the terrorist attack on New York City, Berman put aside his chronicle of the New Left's coming of age and produced, in short order, Terror and Liberalism, a passionately written and widely heralded interpretation of the meaning of 9/11. The book's thesis was intentionally provocative. The consensus at the time was that a diffuse and mobile enemy such as Al Qaeda presented a radically new threat, impossible to compare with Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. Berman belittled such differences, declaring that the "war on terror" was really nothing new. It was certainly not part of an unprecedented clash of civilizations. It was, instead, just one more battle in the ongoing twentieth-century confrontation between liberalism and totalitarianism.

Modeling himself roughly on Hannah Arendt, who exposed the deep but underappreciated similarity between German Nazism and Soviet Communism, Berman drew attention to what he considered the underlying identity of state tyranny and nonstate terrorism. Or, rather, he set out to justify two farfetched analogies, both essential to defending the Bush Administration's response to 9/11. He first tried to convince us that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, far from being a tribal war over scarce land and water, is part of the wider spiritual war between liberalism and apocalyptic irrationalism, not worth distinguishing too sharply from the conflict between America and Al Qaeda. And then he attempted to show that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden represented two "branches" of an essentially homogeneous Muslim extremism. By hammering away at this second parallel, he echoed Bush's contention that the invasion of Iraq was both a fitting reply to 9/11 and a shrewd way to protect America from 9/11-style attacks.

True enough, Berman hurled an occasional jeer Bush's way. After all, the President's entourage did not disguise its contempt for "the Vietnam generation." Nevertheless, by enlisting antifascism to support the Administration's "war on terror," Berman made Bush into a steely résistant fighting the new totalitarian evil. Less explicitly but more worryingly, he implied that Bush's antiwar critics were, in some unwitting fashion, collaborators with violent extremism. They were playing into Saddam's hands, abandoning Saddam's victims and of course flirting with anti-Semitism.

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