Liberal Hawk Down

Liberal Hawk Down

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.


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.

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.

Berman’s central argument in his book Terror and Liberalism is perhaps the most historically illiterate and strategically pernicious of all the lines advanced by liberal hawks and their de facto allies on the right. This is the suggestion that secular radical Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism are essentially the same phenomenon, since both are supposedly expressions of an antiliberal, totalitarian international ethos and tradition stemming originally from the Europe of Fascism and Communism. “The Baathists and the Islamists were two branches of a single impulse, which was Muslim totalitarianism–the Muslim variation on the European idea,” he writes. The “global war on terror” is therefore a continuation of America’s past struggle against Nazism and Communism. In Berman’s view,

The totalitarian wave began to swell some 25 years ago and by now has swept across a growing swath of the Muslim world. The wave is not a single thing. It consists of several movements or currents, which are entirely recognizable. These movements draw on four tenets: a belief in a paranoid conspiracy theory, in which cosmically evil Jews, Masons, Crusaders and Westerners are plotting to annihilate Islam or subjugate the Arab people; a belief in the need to wage apocalyptic war against the cosmic conspiracy; an expectation that post-apocalypse, the Islamic caliphate of ancient times will re-emerge as a utopian new society; and a belief that meanwhile, death is good, and should be loved and revered.

By dating the start of this “wave” to twenty-five years ago, Berman identifies it temporally with the Iranian revolution. This was, of course, a Shiite revolution in a Persian land, fed by Iranian nationalism; yet Berman attributes to this wave an Arab identity. Baath Arab nationalism began more than four decades earlier. It has absolutely no interest in restoring the “Islamic caliphate of ancient times.” This is indeed the dream of Al Qaeda and its Islamist allies, but the Baath is dedicated to creating one modern, united Arab nation under the quasi-Fascist rule of the Baath Party. In other words, with the exception of a common hostility to Israel, this whole picture is a farrago of nonsense. Daniel Ellsberg has written that one central problem for the United States in Vietnam was that there wasn’t a single senior or middle-ranking US official who could have passed an elementary exam in Vietnamese history and culture. The American government today has no lack of Middle East experts in the State Department and the CIA; indeed, many predicted the disaster in Iraq well before the invasion. The problem is that the ranks of the US intelligentsia are packed with pseudo-experts who are willing to subjugate the most basic historical facts to the needs of their ideological or nationalist agendas.

Berman, this “man of the Left,” offers a portrait of “Islamic fascism” that is hardly distinguishable from that of such hard-line right-wing members of the Israeli lobby as Daniel Pipes. In terms of historical literacy, the argument is the equivalent of suggesting that because nineteenth-century European socialism and clerical conservatism shared a deep hostility to bourgeois liberalism, they somehow formed part of the same ideological and political tendency. In terms of strategic sense, it is equivalent to an argument that the United States and its allies should have fought Nazism and Soviet Communism not sequentially, but simultaneously. This strategy was indeed promoted by Churchill in the winter of 1939-40. If it had been followed, it would have insured Britain’s defeat and a dark age for the world.

In other words, this “analysis” deliberately promotes and justifies the most dangerous aspect of the Bush Administration’s approach to the war on terrorism: the lumping together of radically different elements in the Muslim world into one homogeneous enemy camp. As we can see in Iraq, this has been a magnificently successful example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It has created a perfect situation for Al Qaeda and its allies, on a scale they could never have achieved without massive US help.

Of course, as far as the Baath tradition is concerned, the existence of a strong inspiration by European Fascist thought is not in doubt. It was explicit in the original Baathist ideological writings, and especially that of the Syrian Michel Aflaq, one of the founders of the Baath Party. But Aflaq was a Christian Arab, and his pan-Arab nationalism, though violent, racist and extreme, was also secular and modernizing. He believed religion, whether Islamic or Christian, had no place in Arab politics.

In both Iraq and Syria, the overall tone of Baathism remained secular. In this, the Baath were following the original Italian Fascist model. The Fascists had their roots in bitterly anticlerical Italian radical nationalism, Mussolini himself having been a Socialist leader until the First World War. When in power, like Saddam Hussein’s Baath in the 1990s, the Italian Fascists made pragmatic deals with religion in the form of the Catholic Church; but in Italy and Germany, Fascism was never in any sense influenced by or close to the Christian religion. This does not, of course, make the Baathists or the Fascists more likable. It does make them very different from the forces of political religion.

Like their Fascist predecessors, on the one hand, the Baath ideologues have regarded religious allegiances and beliefs as backward, superstitious obstacles to modernization and development. On the other, they have seen them as fomenters of sectarian discord in what should be the united Arab nation. This ideological stance underlies the ferocious persecution in the past of the Islamists in Baathist Syria and Iraq, and the bitter hatred between the Baath and the fundamentalists. Of course, both the Baath and the fundamentalists have been hostile to the West and Israel, but for largely different reasons. In the case of the Baath, this reflects first and foremost secular pan-Arab nationalism. Islamist radicals for their part often draw strength from local ethnic and national resentments, whether Kashmiri, Chechen, Pashtun, Palestinian or Sunni Iraq Arab; but their central allegiance is always to the idea of the undivided umma, or transnational community of all (or, for Al Qaeda, right-thinking Sunni) Muslims.

By refusing to make this basic distinction between Arab nationalists and Islamists, Berman demonstrates the same disastrous, willful ignorance that led the Bush Administration into Iraq in the belief that by overthrowing the Baath they would also strike a mortal blow at Islamist terrorism. This applies with even greater force to the failure of Berman and others to make the critical distinction between Shiite and Sunni Islam, and between the different national agendas of Iran and various Arab states.

It is bad enough that most of the American public is incapable of making this distinction, without the error being actively encouraged by so-called experts. In consequence, the Bush Administration may be stumbling toward an attack on Iran’s nuclear program that could have the most disastrous consequences for Iraq, Afghanistan and the entire American position in the Middle East–without even a truly serious national debate taking place in the United States on the subject of US-Iranian relations.

This brings me to the parallel drawn by Berman, Pipes and others between the war on terrorism and the cold war. There are indeed very useful lessons to be learned from the cold war, but they are diametrically opposed to the ones presented by these authors. The cold war was indeed an ideological struggle waged across much of the world against a range of “Communist” opponents. These opponents, however, differed immensely among themselves, and a belated recognition of this was central to America’s eventual victory.

The Communist movements all shared a basic ideological hostility to Western capitalism but differed greatly in their degrees of ideological fanaticism and in their different and often mutually hostile national sentiments and interests. A good many Communists either started as enemies of the United States and then became allies, or need never have been enemies in the first place, as in Ho Chi Minh’s case. American policy toward Vietnam was characterized by the demonization of all Communists as irredeemably fanatical and hostile to the United States, the imposition on an alien culture and tradition of rigid American ideological paradigms uninformed by serious local research, and the lumping of all Communists into one undifferentiated enemy camp. We know the consequences.

Given the threat posed by Al Qaeda and its Sunni extremist allies to virtually every state and elite in the Muslim world, and given the savage divisions between these forces, the Shiite tradition and secular Arab nationalists like the Baath, there was a cornucopia of opportunities after September 11 to seek Muslim allies in the war on terrorism. From this point of view, for the Bush Administration to have succeeded in uniting Shiite radicals, Baath die-hards and Sunni extremists in Iraq; to have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq while simultaneously threatening Iran and Syria; and to have alienated both Turkey and Saudi Arabia–this almost defies description. It is a kind of baroque apotheosis of geopolitical cretinism.

The Bush Administration has sought to develop a political strategy–or at least the appearance of one–to accompany the war on terrorism, and has called it “democratizing the Middle East.” In line with their own liberal messianism, and belief in a “struggle of ideas” as a central part of the war on terrorism, this “strategy” has also been espoused by Berman and most of the other authors featured in The Fight Is for Democracy. I place “strategy” in quotation marks, for rather than a serious approach to the region, its problems and pathologies, this approach is rather something between a Potemkin facade and a deliberate diversionary tactic.

It has been suggested that in accordance with the view of the war on terrorism as a struggle against totalitarianism, useful parallels can be drawn between this strategy of “democratization” and the Helsinki process in Eastern Europe, which did something to undermine Soviet rule there. But these parallels overlook one rather important fact, which both “experts” like Berman and the majority of even the most educated Americans appear to be incapable of recognizing: In the view of most ordinary Arabs, the role the United States is playing in the Middle East is closer to that of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe than to that of a liberating force. And given the history of US (and British) involvement in the region over the past fifty years, Arabs have excellent grounds for this view.

The “strategy” of democratization has also been adopted by the Progressive Policy Institute and the Coalition for a Progressive Internationalism. This is a group of liberal hawks, devoted in domestic politics to a Blairite “third way,” who in October 2003 produced a set of proposals titled “Progressive Internationalism: A Democratic National Security Strategy.” The signatories included Ron Asmus, Kenneth Pollack, Michael McFaul and Philip Gordon. Most supported the Iraq war.

The language of democratizing the Middle East, and the liberal hawks’ brand of internationalism, are very attractive to the Washington political elites and indeed to many ordinary Americans, for they are rooted in what has been called the “American Creed” (a term coined by G.K. Chesterton and since employed by a range of writers from Gunnar Myrdal to Samuel Huntington). The American Creed involves passionate and absolutist belief in democracy and “freedom,” and is a critical element in American civic nationalism. Language derived from the creed therefore has a tendency to command the automatic and unthinking assent of many Americans, irrespective of the particular national, regional or historical circumstances.

The diversionary element in the “democratization” line on the part of both Republican and Democratic policy elites relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the US role in it. A truly intelligent and rational American strategy for the war on terrorism would require a wholly new approach to this conflict. The new strategy would have to involve a very different approach to the terms of the US-Israeli relationship and a drastic diminution of hardline Israeli influence in Washington. This in turn would permit another essential part of a rational strategy, which would be the active pursuit of reconciliation with Iran and Syria. Finally, a US and European strategy that truly took the Islamist and extremist threat seriously would require vastly increased economic assistance to various parts of the Muslim world, coupled with the genuine opening of both US and European markets to their exports. Yet the sums envisaged for the “Greater Middle East Initiative” are paltry compared with those spent in strengthening South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand against Communism from the 1950s to the 1970s.

These are, of course, all steps that would be very difficult for any US administration to take. They would be bitterly unpopular with many Americans, and would face determined opposition in Congress. How much easier, then, to evade these issues by making cost-free speeches about how democracy is the answer to every problem.

What is strange and well-nigh surreal is that the liberal hawks profess to believe that the gospel of muscular liberal democracy represents a radical alternative to the publicly expressed strategy of the neoconservatives and the Bush Administration. Thus, in his contribution to The Fight Is for Democracy, Michael Tomasky declares:

The hard part is backing up the critique [of the Republicans] with an alternative vision. That, too, should be simple, and for consistency’s sake it should follow from the critique: The world’s leading democracy should support…democracy. The Cold War is over; the twentieth century, the century in which all the “isms” became “wasms,” is over; it’s the twenty-first century; the United States should declare it to be–American liberals should declare it to be–the century of democracy…. Picture a Democratic president, or even a presidential candidate, making such a case forcefully on the world stage…. There will be initial resistance, but ultimately, who can afford to buck the United States? The world will start, in its lumbering petulant way, to change.

In another example of confluence with neoconservative positions, two signatories of the “Progressive Internationalism” manifesto, Michael McFaul and Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution, have called for the toughest possible US policy toward Iran, rejecting engagement in favor of regime change and democratization–thereby aligning themselves with neoconservative hard-liners and the Israel lobby, and against both Colin Powell’s State Department and the views of leading European allies, including Britain.

Somehow, all this is said by its Democratic exponents to be compatible both with “multilateralism” and with the provision of a clear alternative to Republican strategy. In fact, it is often impossible to see any substantive difference. Thus Tomasky echoes not only the messianic democratizing rhetoric of the neoconservatives but also their ostentatious contempt for “the world.”

McFaul’s proposal for US world strategy is arguably even more radical than the Bush Administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy. In his words:

The United States cannot be content with preserving the current order in the international system. Rather, the United States must become once again a revisionist power–a country that seeks to change the international system as a means of enhancing its own national security. Moreover, this mission must be offensive in nature. The United States cannot afford to wait and react to the next attack. Rather, we must seek to isolate and destroy our enemies by eliminating their regimes and safe havens. The ultimate purpose of American power is the creation of an international community of democratic states that encompasses every region of the planet.

It is true that the vision of the Democratic “progressive internationalists” differs from that of the American nationalist right on a range of other vital international issues, including the environment, foreign aid and various international treaties. And if actually implemented–a quite dubious possibility, given the past record of the Democratic Party in Congress with regard to these issues–such policies would not only be very good in themselves but would go far toward improving the entire atmosphere of relations between the United States and Western Europe in particular. However, when it comes to the specific issues of the conduct of the war on terrorism, and the use of force to improve the world, the “progressive internationalists” present no real alternative to Bush Administration policies. Rather, like the neoconservatives, they represent a form of liberal imperialism, of a kind that characterized much of the liberal scene in America and Europe a century ago. In the meantime, however, the historical circumstances have changed utterly. The liberal imperialists were explicitly antidemocratic. They believed that, at best, it would take generations of Western authoritarian rule before the “lesser breeds” they conquered could develop a capacity for constitutional self-government. They would have regarded as utterly ludicrous the idea that rapid “freedom and democracy” could be introduced by Western military force.

The whole democratizing project, as espoused by the liberal hawks and the neoconservatives, is therefore inherently contradictory; and this contradiction is apparent from the very language they use. From the neocons, as Seymour Hersh has reported in The New Yorker, professed support for Arab democracy is mixed with statements that “the only language Arabs understand is force” and that they can be manipulated by sexual shame. But the liberal hawks too combine professed belief in democracy with an openly macho nationalist contempt for the opinions of every other country and its inhabitants.

This is clear in the passages I’ve quoted by Tomasky and McFaul. America “eliminates” the enemies of liberty. It declares unilaterally what it wants, and the rest of the world has to follow, for “who can afford to buck the United States?” The “world” is, however, seen as inevitably responding “petulantly,” thereby delegitimizing any criticism and demonstrating yet again the need for firm American command over the whining and useless dregs who make up the rest of humanity.

It may be objected that whatever the political provenance of the idea, surely a strategy of democratization is in itself a good thing. And as the ultimate goal of the United States and European strategy in the Muslim world, this is true. But when this becomes the only goal and the only strategy, and when the understanding of the historical development of democracy is extremely simplistic, then this approach is very wrong. Its encouragement of a messianic vision of the United States and its role in the world fuels self-righteous nationalist extremism in America itself. Such attitudes openly despise the interests and views of other nations.

In particular, the authoritarian nature of most states in the Arab and Muslim world is used as an excuse to dismiss out of hand not only the views of their rulers but those of their peoples–with potentially catastrophic results for the struggle against Islamist terrorism. More widely, this messianic attitude leads to a curious but historically familiar mixture of rampant idealism and complete absence of charity, in the wider biblical sense. C. Vann Woodward warned of this danger during the Vietnam War:

The true American mission, according to those who support this view, is a moral crusade on a worldwide scale. Such people are likely to concede no validity whatever and grant no hearing to the opposing point of view, and to appeal to a higher law to justify bloody and revolting means in the name of a noble end. For what end could be nobler, they ask, than the liberation of man…. The irony of the moralistic approach, when exploited by nationalism, is that the high motive to end injustice and immorality actually results in making war more amoral and horrible than ever and in shattering the foundations of the political and moral order upon which peace has to be built.

As Woodward indicated, this attitude encourages contempt for and hostility to states; not only particular states but the great majority of states that do not conform to American standards of democracy and economic success; and even those that do, like the ones of Western Europe, can be damned for being too cowardly, cynical and decadent to support America’s courageous and idealistic mission to the world. This hostility represents a grave threat to US strategy in the war on terrorism.

A central question raised by James Mann in his book Rise of the Vulcans, and in my own forthcoming book, is why the Bush Administration and so many American citizens have been so obsessed with the alleged threat from states that have a tiny fraction of American power and can also be deterred by the threat of massive retaliation. In Iraq, this attitude has led the Administration to destroy a state that, though savagely oppressive, posed no serious threat to the United States. In the place of Baathist Iraq the Bush Administration and its supporters have created a brutal anarchy that is the ideal breeding ground for terrorists who really do pose a dreadful threat to the United States.

This hostility to authoritarian states–even those that have been very successful in improving the lives of their peoples–is, naturally, generally shared among liberals in the Western NGO world. It is reflected, for example, in the precepts of Michael Ignatieff’s recent work. The risk is that it can bring liberals together with imperialists of the neoconservative type in an alliance that much of the world is bound to see as highly reminiscent of the alliance between Christian missionaries and Western imperial soldiers in the nineteenth century. Despite their often genuine idealism and good intentions, the missionaries in the last resort depended on the soldiers, and had to abide the colonial orders that the soldiers created, however much these conflicted with Christian ethics.

The missionaries, and their democratizing descendants of today, would have done better to remember a certain Christian adage about the man who dines with the devil needing a long spoon. The liberal hawks in particular have failed to bring such a spoon to their relationship with the policies of the Bush Administration and the neoconservatives, and in consequence they are in the process of becoming dinner themselves. At present, the liberal hawks’ legs are still sticking out of the neoconservatives’ collective mouth, kicking faintly, but in a few years, at this rate, only a pathetic, muffled squeaking will remain, protesting that if only they had been in charge, all the disasters of the coming years would not have happened.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy