Intervention & Its Discontents

Intervention & Its Discontents

Brooklyn, NY


Brooklyn, NY

Given that Anatol Lieven had six pages to discuss The Fight Is for Democracy, it’s amazing how badly he informed Nation readers about its contents [“Liberal Hawk Down,” Oct. 25]. Lieven chose to spend all that space attacking–nastily and unfairly–two of the book’s contributors for their supposed sins of ignorance and extremism. Paul Berman and Michael Tomasky can defend themselves. But your readers have a right to know what else is in the anthology: essays on economic inequality, on globalization, on secularism, on critical thinking, on civic culture, on the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s. There is nothing “messianic” about these writings. They are, to use the current term, nuanced, and written by some of our best journalists and critics at a high literary and intellectual standard. All of this was lost on Lieven, who had another, narrower agenda than thinking about and responding to the anthology I edited. True, The Fight Is for Democracy criticizes some of the mental habits of the left. Many of them can be found in Lieven’s review. But the book is unequivocally on the side of making America more democratic–more equal and more free–and of turning US foreign policy toward the same ends abroad. These used to be the aims of American liberals; for me they still are. But Lieven wants to drum the book’s contributors out of the Democratic Party. Presumably, once the party is purified of anyone who challenges its least useful orthodoxies, victory will be within its grasp.


Brooklyn, NY

Exhaustive demonstrations of the errors in Lieven’s interpretation of Baathism can be found at a scholarly blog about Arab political theory ( called Across the Bay and in a recent post by Lee Smith at Slate.


Washington, DC

If Anatol Lieven were merely reviewing The Fight Is for Democracy, I suppose I could see how he might think I’d supported the war, since I did not state explicitly in that volume my opposition. But since his “review” was excerpted from his book, and since authors of books should do a little more research than that, I’d think he might have read at least a couple of my prewar columns for the American Prospect online, where I made my opposition to the war–based chiefly on my utter distrust of the Bush Administration’s motives and hegemonic plans–quite clear. Even in the essay in question, I discussed at great length what I saw as the Administration’s unstated aims regarding Iraq, as originally laid out in 1992, and I called for exactly the debate Lieven calls for, writing that “Democratic politicians have to have the courage to fight the Cheney-Wolfowitz argument head-on.” I have a hard time seeing the ambiguity in that sentence.

But my views have been mischaracterized before (in The Nation, no less!) and will be again. That’s life. The more serious problems with Lieven’s essay are two. First: I’m well aware that a magazine does not necessarily endorse every opinion presented by every contributor to its pages. But does The Nation really feel proud about giving space and lending its esteemed imprimatur to the proposal that the Democratic Party should “purge” everyone who supported the war, or who disagrees with Lieven? (I should think a magazine of the left would be careful about that word.) I take it from Lieven’s call for an ideological housecleaning that he admires the way Karl Rove and Tom DeLay run the Republican Party.

Second, I would ask Nation readers who are interested to reread Lieven’s essay with the following question in mind: What is he for? He doesn’t say. The whole point of my essay (and indeed of the book, if I may speak for George Packer, its editor) was to argue a liberal case for democratization–and the good things that tend to arise in its wake, like liberalized education systems and equality for women. Yes, the neoconservatives have adopted some of that rhetoric. But so what? The fact that the neocons claim to support democratization scarcely means that progressives must reflexively oppose the notion that the United States should try–through more benign methods than the neocons’, obviously–to promote ideals that I thought the left was supposed to embrace.


Washington, DC

Since The Nation doesn’t have the space to allow a full discussion here, I direct readers to to read a longer version. I do have a fundamental disagreement with Anatol Lieven about the purpose of American power. In the longstanding Democratic tradition of Presidents Wilson, Truman, Kennedy and Clinton, I believe that the US government and the American people should assist those oppressed by autocratic regimes. Lieven does not. On this issue, I look forward to demonstrating why my approach is not only more principled than Lieven’s but also more effective for defending American national interests.

We cannot have this debate, however, until Lieven actually reads what I have written on the subject. Lieven’s essay cuts and pastes arguments from so-called liberal hawks, so-called neocons, Bush Administration officials and his own imagination, and then declares that he is presenting a synthetic platform of the liberal hawks in the Democratic Party. The sum, instead, is a gross distortion of my position and others mentioned in his piece.

Lieven claims that I do not understand the difference between Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, and implores me to learn the lessons from the cold war, when US leaders confused nationalism and communism. Unlike Lieven, I am not an expert on the Middle East. When I have written on the subject, though, I have argued the following, now quoting from the same piece, “The Liberty Doctrine,” that Lieven cites in his article: “In spearheading the successful struggle against communism, the United States made mistakes that must be avoided in the new campaign. Oftentimes we confused means and ends, so that all users of violence against noncommunist states and actors were considered part of the world communist movement. Not long ago, Nelson Mandela was labeled a ‘communist terrorist.’… Distinguishing between those focused on territorial or ethnic disputes and those dedicated to a global messianic mission is critical in the new war. During the battle against communism, we initially treated the entire communist world as monolithic, a mistake we cannot repeat with the Islamic world.” In other words, I have written the exact opposite of what Lieven claims.

If The Nation would indulge me with more space, I could provide the same kind of quotations to refute the other truly vile arguments that Lieven assigns to me. I have never uttered anything even remotely close to the idea that “the only language Arabs understand is force”; I am not a unilateralist, but have written time and time again about the need for the United States to engage in reforming existing multilateral institutions as well as to create new international ones; I have written dozens of times that a true strategy for promoting democracy in the wider Middle East would have focused first on promoting democracy through nonmilitary means in Iran and Palestine; I am not opposed to “charity,” but I have testified before Congress and written often about the need for more aid, including calling for the radical idea of creating a new, Cabinet-level department for international assistance! I do not advocate a “firm American command over the whining and useless dregs who make up the rest of humanity” and “openly despise the interests and views of other nations.” Unlike Lieven, who mistakes the Syrian or Iranian dictatorships as the representatives of the views of their nations, I have written often that US officials must listen precisely to the views of the people (not their oppressors) in these and other nations. Finally, Lieven’s invocation of the “Israel lobby” as the sinister source behind all my ideas is just so distasteful that it deserves no response.

There are only two explanations for what Lieven has written. One is that his scholarship is just sloppy. An alternative explanation, though, is that Lieven cares little about the actual arguments and instead seeks to meddle in the internal affairs of the Democratic Party. For this British champion of state sovereignty, how ironic the second explanation would be. Of course, given my politics, I encourage external criticism of our internal politics. But mine is the very worldview that Lieven wants to eliminate from the Democratic Party.



Washington, DC

First of all, I must apologize if I unintentionally gave the impression that Michael Tomasky and Michael McFaul directly supported the decision to go to war in Iraq. As they have written, this was not the case. Equally, I am quite certain that McFaul never has and never would use a phrase like “the only language Arabs understand is force.” As Seymour Hersh and others have pointed out, and as I know from my own experience, such language is indeed characteristic of professed democratizers on the neoconservative right. By contrast, McFaul and Tomasky are undoubtedly entirely sincere in their commitment to the universal values of democracy.

My point regarding their work, however, was, or was intended to be, a different one: that the writings of McFaul, Tomasky and other “liberal hawks” have contributed to an intellectual and ideological atmosphere in this country that gave space for some of the key arguments used to justify the war. In this atmosphere, it is widely accepted that America has the universal right, duty and ability to spread what it defines as “democracy” and “freedom”–irrespective of local conditions, of local wishes and of an American historical record in various parts of the world that quite rightly makes local people extremely skeptical of American bona fides and benevolence (and incidentally, I must say as a British citizen that the records of the British, French and other Europeans have been much worse in this regard). The atmosphere I have described contributes to a national arrogance that was all too apparent in the run-up to the Iraq war, when cogent criticisms from well-meaning and pro-American foreigners were too often dismissed out of hand as illegitimate–often by liberal commentators.

I am afraid that the passages I quoted from Tomasky and McFaul do indeed manifestly point in that direction. On that score, McFaul’s use of the word “meddle” concerning my recommendations to the Democratic Party is rather revealing. From my point of view, he is more than welcome to write an essay for a British publication arguing that my views are incompatible with liberal values and that I should be thrown out of the British Liberal Democratic Party, as part of a general move to change that party’s approach to international affairs. I would of course disagree with him, and would argue strongly against this fate. But I would not accuse him of “meddling.” As the free citizen of a fellow democracy, he is free to write whatever he pleases in the British press, as long as it appears openly and can be openly answered. The same is true of Paul Berman, who has not chosen to exercise this right.

On the wider issue of democratization: To preach democracy while displaying indifference or even contempt toward the views of large majorities of those peoples you want to democratize is extremely contradictory, and is seen to be so by the targets of your professed benevolence. I am afraid that McFaul’s record with regard to the views of ordinary Russians concerning “liberal” reforms in Russia has often formed part of this melancholy pattern. Far from helping to democratize Russia, this kind of approach, combined with the disastrous results of the reforms themselves, has contributed to a situation in which “democracy” has become a dirty word for most ordinary Russians, and helped produce mass support for the present authoritarian reaction.

As the Russian example demonstrates, blind faith in America’s democratizing mission can help create a cover for ruthless oligarchical regimes, which under a mask of democracy plunder their own peoples. At worst, as in the case of Iraq, it can help justify aggressive war, launched in defiance of the wishes of a majority of the people of the region and motivated in large part by agendas that have nothing to do with spreading democracy and may well be contrary to that goal.

The repetition of “democracy” and “freedom” as mantras by the Bush Administration was intended to close down serious public debate on whether to go to war with Iraq, and to an alarming extent actually succeeded in doing so. The responsibility, however, lies not only with the Administration but with all those who have made this success possible by an unreflective use of these terms.

Tomasky asks, fairly enough, for an account of my own positive beliefs and wishes for US policy. I hope to have the chance to set these out more fully on a future occasion, but very briefly: The chief formative American influences on my approach to international affairs have been Reinhold Niebuhr, George Kennan and William Fulbright, proponents of a form of ethical realism, committed to resist aggression and totalitarianism but conscious of the West’s flaws and historical crimes and concerned to spread our model chiefly by the force of our successful example.

In the context of US strategy in the Muslim world, I believe this dictates a ruthless battle against the aggressive barbarism and fanaticism of Al Qaeda and its allies. However, this is a battle that must be conducted chiefly by Muslims themselves, though with our support. To enlist their help requires not preaching democracy at them while pursuing policies they detest but heeding their opinions and vital interests and assisting in the social and economic development of their region.

In particular, to preach democracy to the Arab world while failing to bring American pressure to bear on Israel concerning its policies in the occupied territories helps render our democratic professions ludicrous in the eyes of most Arabs. The failure of many would-be democratizers even to discuss this issue in public is also a very poor advertisement for Western democracy. Finally, any push for democratization, whether of Arab countries or Iran, must be accompanied by some public recognition or at least awareness of all the historical reasons Arabs and Iranians might have legitimate cause to be deeply mistrustful of America’s (and Britain’s) real intentions and motives; and why they might insist instead that if America wishes to show good will toward Iranian, Syrian and other peoples, the first step should be not to preach democracy but to show regard for their national interests.

In the long run, I am at one with Tomasky and McFaul in hoping that such development will lead to the establishment of stable and prosperous democracies. But I have seen far too much of sham democracy in South Asia and the former Soviet Union to have much faith that the outward forms of democracy in impoverished societies with authoritarian traditions can secure human progress or even basic human rights. This is especially true when these forms are brought in quickly from outside and not produced by a long process of indigenous political, social, economic and cultural evolution. But let me make it clear: I sympathize with McFaul’s and Tomasky’s ultimate goals, and I honor their intentions, if not their methods or their rhetoric.

If my tone concerning their work was excessively harsh, this stemmed from my horror at the failure of the Democratic Party to oppose the Iraq war and also at the way this reflected a deeper and extremely dangerous failure to remember the searing lessons of how America became involved in Vietnam, as taught at the time both by the disasters in that country and by great American intellectual figures like C. Vann Woodward (whose views I cited), Senator Fulbright and so many others.

This deeper failure, which I examine at length in my book America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, is closely related to an inability to re-examine certain fundamental national myths, including that of national liberal messianism. To say this is not the standpoint of an arrogant foreigner. It stands in a great tradition of critical American thought, which should be revived as a matter of profound intellectual and indeed patriotic urgency. If the lessons of Iraq are not to be forgotten as the lessons of Vietnam have too often been, it is essential that American intellectuals, and the Democratic Party, take a long, cool look at these myths and not contribute to perpetuating them.

Finally, I should indeed like to say that the The Fight Is for Democracy, edited by George Packer, is a valuable collection that contains not only the essays I have criticized but also some excellent ones, with which I am in agreement (for example those by Jeff Madrick and Susie Linfield). I did not mention these for lack of space and because they are not directly germane to the subjects I wished to discuss. I congratulate Packer on this book as a whole and regret that I was compelled to disagree so strongly with some of its authors.


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