The War of the Liberals

The War of the Liberals

Power and the Idealists clings to the notion that the Iraq War was waged for humanitarian ideals, while At the Point of a Gun documents the inner torment of humanitarian interventionists who, without forgetting Rwanda and Bosnia, have gazed into the Iraqi abyss.


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.

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.

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.

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.

But where exactly does Berman’s theoretical analysis go wrong? Five deficiencies in his argument stand out.

His analogies, first of all, are tendentious to an extreme. Islamist murderousness resembles Bolshevik and Nazi murderousness. The planetary battle against terrorism (World War IV) resembles the planetary battle against communism. Baath dictatorship resembles Islamic militancy. The problem with such comparisons is not only that they are strained. They are also transparently calculated to serve a partisan political program. Analogies that challenge the Bush Administration (such as Palestinian violence and anticolonial violence) are filtered out, not because they are unrevealing but because they introduce a dissonant note.

Take, for instance, Berman’s peculiar claim that “on the plane of anti-American propaganda, the Iraqi Baath and Al Qaeda were already allied” because Saddam’s press had celebrated the September 11 attacks. The nature of this purported alliance between religious insurgents and a secular oppressor is never explained. In other passages, moreover, Berman concedes that Islamic radicalism has arisen in opposition to authoritarian secular regimes. But he is much less interested in possible causal connections between the two than in their metaphysical identity. His false moral clarity rests entirely on his assertion that spiritually they are one and the same. The Administration’s attempts to associate Iraq and Al Qaeda logistically came to naught. Berman’s cultural and philosophical approach, by contrast, raises the identification of Saddam and Osama, the tyrant and the terrorist, to a level of blurry abstraction that no facts can possibly refute.

A second weakness appears in Berman’s repeated assertion that antiwar liberals are naïve optimists, oblivious to the deep roots of irrational violence in human nature and therefore unable to take the true measure of our fanatical enemies. But should someone who speculated that an American invasion of Iraq would force Islamic extremists to give up their paranoid conspiracy theories about the Jews accuse others of facile optimism? He classifies Saddam’s Iraq as “totalitarian” because “there was no sign of democratic opposition at all.” But did this absence not suggest that an occupying army would find no well-organized constituencies for a reconstruction of Iraqi politics along liberal lines? What kind of political system did Berman imagine would emerge in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam? Was it going to be a democracy, namely a system in which a well-organized incumbent party loses elections to a well-organized opposition party and voluntarily leaves office knowing that it will not be harmed once out of power? Is that what he, with his understanding of human irrationality, expected for Iraq?

And how good a job does Berman himself do at identifying and understanding the gravest threats to American national security? Here lies the third flaw in Berman’s framework. He uncritically endorses Bush’s repeated claim that 9/11 was not a crime of mass murder but rather an act of war against America. Putting his own thoughts, as he often does, in the mouth of his subject, he writes: “Fischer rejected the policeman’s view of Islamist terror–the idea that, with a handful of well-chosen arrests or the dismantling of a small number of underground cells, the problem could be solved.” Terrorism is not a police problem, because policemen cannot redraw the political map of the Middle East, spread freedom or compel extremists to abandon their extremism. Only soldiers, apparently, can do these things.

We are dealing, admittedly, with off-the-shelf categories, since neither the war paradigm nor the crime paradigm fits perfectly the battle against transnational Islamic terrorism, which involves political violence by nonstate actors. But Berman, like Bush, prefers the war model to the crime model, because the former seems to signal a more serious approach, a willingness to send young men to die in large numbers, for example.

But this suggestion of greater realism and seriousness is deceptive. The war paradigm, besides inflating all too conveniently the unsupervised powers of the executive branch, assumes that America’s unrivaled military superiority guarantees its success in the current struggle. It suggests that our enemy will eventually surrender and that we will be able to put the nightmare behind us. The crime paradigm has less rosy implications. It assumes that our government can no more stop the importing of a nuclear weapon into a major urban center than it can stop the clandestine flow of contraband drugs. That is to say, the crime paradigm, when applied to terrorism, has chilling implications precisely because it denies that “the problem could be solved.” To turn from the crime paradigm to the war paradigm, therefore, does not bespeak a greater willingness to face the enemy. On the contrary, it is a classic case of sticking one’s head in the sand (of Iraq).

A fourth and closely related objection concerns Berman’s insistence that our real enemy is Muslim extremism. This idea, too, appears confrontational but is actually escapist. The gravest threat to American national security today is no longer the Soviet nuclear arsenal, obviously, but neither can it be identified exclusively with Muslim extremism. American national security is threatened most seriously by those laxly regulated markets in lethal matériel and know-how that, in the aftermath of the cold war, have emerged alongside the global communication, transportation and banking systems created largely by the West. Terrorist groups have a global reach only because we have supplied it to them on computer discs, via the Internet and ATMs and so forth. And these are not the West’s only contributions. The petrodollars that we are now pumping at an unprecedented rate into politically unstable parts of the world may make it easier for a private group to acquire, without detection, a compact weapon of unspeakable destructiveness–a weapon, of course, originally created by Western science.

It may be disheartening to realize that the dangers we face, because deeply intertwined with American power and prosperity, cannot be eliminated. But candor in this respect can at least help us avoid the temptation to tie down a vast proportion of our scarce national-security assets in distant and territorially localized conflicts. Heightened self-awareness can also help us avoid identifying the ultimate source of danger, erroneously, with an odious enemy whom we can definitively defeat in war. Berman’s construct has the opposite effect. By encouraging us to focus obsessively on Islamic extremism, it fosters a cavalier attitude toward other threats, such as nuclear proliferation in Russia, Pakistan and North Korea. It also leads us to ignore the extent to which our economically open and technically advanced way of life, and not a replaceable network of zealots intoxicated by an amalgam of religious and revolutionary slogans, is the frighteningly enduring problem with which we have to cope.

A fifth obscurity in Berman’s thinking concerns the way faith has influenced both sides in the war on terror. He wants us to believe that we are witnessing a confrontation of freedom versus tyranny. The Europeans, by contrast, are much more likely to code the conflict as a struggle of secularism versus religion. The second polarity, needless to say, is embarrassing to an Administration that is no more eager to blame proselytizing religion and rogue religious charities for revolutionary violence aimed at the United States than it is to lay any responsibility on unregulated markets and geysers of petrodollars. A rogue state is a much more convenient scapegoat, distracting public attention from nonstate sponsors of terrorism (including rogue religious charities) that hit too close to home. The reader will not be surprised, therefore, when Berman labors to muffle the role of religion in 9/11, claiming that Islamic fundamentalism is really “a modern ideological temptation, familiar to Europeans.” He is particularly certain that “jihadi suicide” is “the height of modernity.”

In the Muslim world, over the past few decades, an obvious alternative to the God That Failed has been, well, God. Totalitarian ideologies–as Berman, too, learned in college–contained secularized eschatologies. Totalitarianism rejected the religious answers but retained the religious questions, re-creating a worldview that contained heretics and orthodoxy, sacred texts and martyrs, banishment and anathema, contamination and purity. So why is Berman so sure, when he sees these ideas resurface among Islamists, that they derive from the secularized religion of totalitarianism rather than from religion itself, which lent them to totalitarianism in the first place? After all, antiliberalism did not begin with twentieth-century totalitarianism. Nor is apocalypse a twentieth-century idea. Revealed religion is itself deeply antiliberal, to the extent that it makes a self-appointed vanguard of the faithful so certain of what God wants that it feels free to use coercion to force the rest of society to submit to God’s ostensible will. There is nothing “entirely modern” about such an outlook, nor about a “system of oppression that reaches into the coziest and most private corners of life.”

Berman’s decision to turn “totalitarian” into a catchall term, covering Osama bin Laden as well as Hitler and Stalin, also encourages Americans to cling unthinkingly to their cold war habits of mind. Why make any profound readjustments if we are still fighting totalitarianism? One stimulus to radically refashioning the country’s approach to national security is the striking fact that an antireligious enemy has been displaced by a religious enemy. Berman’s conceptual scheme blunts the impact of this obvious truth. It also helps conceal a deep perversity of the current war of good versus evil. The US President apparently believes that he has been personally assigned to punish the enemies of God. This fantasy is disquieting because we are now facing enemies who believe that they have been personally assigned to punish the enemies of God. By drawing such a clear-cut contrast between liberals and totalitarians, Berman throws a veil over this unsettling coincidence of self-images.

Interestingly enough, Berman admits that “fantasy role-playing”–the Bush Administration comes to mind–“lies at the heart of a good deal of modern history.” It is so pervasive, it turns out, that Berman indulges in it too. He poses as a modern-day Orwell, standing up to tyranny, however insufferable to the literati such a daring posture may prove to be. This is not the book’s most pernicious analogy, to be sure. It may be the most revealing, however, designed as it is to swat away pre-emptively Berman’s future critics by associating them with weakly conventional minds unable to recognize authentic moral courage when they see it. But readers should not be put off by this modest conceit. They should instead savor this colorful book for what it is: the last testament of an exotic species, the 1990s liberal hawk, by no means destined to survive the blast furnace of Iraq.

That David Rieff, too, aims to explore the relation between idealism and power is evident from his very title. But he is a more widely traveled observer of reality than Berman. Having spent years studying what he once called “the political instrumentalization of humanitarianism,” Rieff is well poised to help us understand how, in the Iraq War, human rights talk lent an illusory aura of legitimacy to an initially dubious and ultimately ruinous military adventure.

The first half of At the Point of a Gun consists of articles written over the past dozen years about genocide, sundry failings of the UN, Rwanda, Kosovo and liberal imperialism. The second half, to which the first is merely a prelude, is devoted to Iraq. Rieff appends a brief comment to each essay, informing us how his views have or have not evolved in the interim. Although Rieff “began the decade in Sarajevo a convinced interventionist,” today he is “no longer an interventionist,” having returned from Iraq with grave “doubts about the entire project of humanitarian intervention.”

Back in the 1990s Rieff denounced in scorching language “a left that would prefer to see genocide in Bosnia and the mass deportation of the Kosovars rather than strengthen, however marginally, the hegemony of the United States.” This accusation was meant to shame liberals into shedding their Vietnam-era distrust of US military actions abroad. At this period, then, Rieff was “at least partly of Wolfowitz’s party,” favoring “a recolonization of part of the world.” He wrote that “liberal imperialism may be the best we are going to do in these callous and sentimental times,” adding that “the real task” was not to destroy but rather to “humanize this new imperial order” and to correct its excesses where possible.

Rieff’s tenderness, a decade back, for American hegemony arose from the perceived absence of feasible alternatives. Who, if not the United States, could take effective action during humanitarian crises? Certainly not the pitiful UN–a “broken instrument” and “little more than a waste of hope,” as he put it. Passivity, servility, conformism, complacency, cowardice and indolence made a mockery of the UN’s implicit claim to be “the bureaucratic arm of the world’s transcendental values.” The Secretariat, because of “its wish not to raise problems, which the Permanent Five prefer to ignore,” stood by and watched massacres unfold without even making an effort to publicize or mobilize a response to the horror.

Contributing little to world peace and security, the UN has failed to live up to the hopes of its founders. The best that can be said for it is that it remains “the world’s leading humanitarian relief organization,” a kind of giant Red Cross. Absent US backing, the UN is unable to enforce the most basic human rights norms. It was almost inevitable, therefore, that the UN would become “a de facto colonial office to US power.” As a result, Rieff “could see no other alternative to western military power.” He therefore argued, quite forcefully, that “the deployment of US power is to be preferred to the alternatives on offer.”

And today? Faced with the “appalling and degrading” conditions in postwar Iraq, where things were “worse than anything I was able to write about it,” Rieff has felt compelled to reconsider his advocacy of US-led humanitarian intervention. What he discovered on his visits to Iraq was a collapsed state, not a liberated country. Those who fervently embrace American power, it turns out, are also condemning people to death. Rieff shifts his emphasis, therefore, from the complicity of noninterventionists to the complicity of interventionists. He begins to write persuasively about “the responsibility one has in advocating war when one will have little or no responsibility or say in how it is waged.” Idealists who trumpeted a purely humanitarian case for invading Iraq should have known that their benevolent motives were not sufficient to trigger the war and were not going to govern the way the war and the occupation unfolded.

Rieff’s analysis is appealing in many ways. But it, too, has a few critical shortcomings. Some of his most debatable claims appear in a chapter titled “The Specter of Imperialism: The Marriage of the Human Rights Left and the New Imperialist Right.” Here he argues that “human rights has become, however inconsistently applied, the official ideology of the American empire–something conservatives have understood, even if most activists themselves have not.” In the cold war, admittedly, “the American human rights movement collaborated intimately with Washington in its activism within the Soviet empire.” But is human rights now, or has it ever been, the ideology of American empire?

Rieff’s chief exemplar of the humanitarian left is Samantha Power, whom he takes to be “emblematic of the historic compromise between the human rights movement and the American empire.” Her book “A Problem From Hell” is “a breviary for this new military humanism.” In it she “has made the case for legal imperialism more elegantly and fastidiously than any other advocate on the American scene today.”

According to Rieff, Power wraps herself in the “antiseptic sheets” of international law, not admitting that her ideals can be defended only if the American empire expands unilaterally, without excessive regard for international law. In his own words: “For activists to now, after a decade of calling for the US to unleash its power, lament the demise of multilateralism and regimes of international law is grotesque and unseemly.” Here Rieff makes an interesting point: If you call for a war crimes tribunal you are implicitly calling for invasion and conquest, for there is no “Nuremberg-style justice without a Nuremberg-style military occupation.” From this reasonable premise he concludes, more contentiously, that liberals who both advocate human rights and distrust the military imperialism of a conservative, arrogant and secretive Administration are morally incoherent. After all: “These human rights regimes will be imposed by force of arms or they will not be imposed at all, and it is disingenuous of a human rights movement that, wittingly or unwittingly over the course of the 1990s, set the moral table for the new imperial mood in America, to suddenly recoil from the Bush administration Captain Reynault-style because, shock, horror, they’re unilateralist, Bible-thumping, gun-loving, anti-civil liberties reactionaries.” Neoconservatives like Robert Kagan and Max Boot are much more clearheaded than Power, Rieff concludes. They sleep perfectly soundly after running with the hounds.

One might have thought that Rieff’s attitude toward the humanitarian left would mellow as he became disenchanted with America’s imperialist project. But that is not what we find here. He dissociates himself further from Kagan and Boot, of course. But in this collection, at least, he reserves his most biting criticisms, again, for Samantha Power, this time for her “hubristic altruism,” which he interprets as an invitation to endless do-gooder wars. She wants to pledge America to righting the world’s wrongs, he claims, but she does not realize that this unleashing of self-righteous violence will end up corrupting the would-be saviors of mankind. An uncompromising absolutist, she is “on the same millenarian kick as the administration,” inadvertently corroborating the good-versus-evil simplicities that excited and misled Bush in his bungled response to 9/11. And arguments like hers, he suggests, have provided “a recipe for a recapitulation in the twenty-first century of the horrors of nineteen-century colonialism.”

After lambasting the humanitarian left first for its legalism and then for its millenarianism, Rieff launches a third line of attack. He explains that Power, Michael Ignatieff, Aryeh Neier, Kenneth Roth and other human rights activists ended up objecting to the Iraq War only because of their East Coast snobbery. They would have favored the war, or supported it much longer, if Clinton had launched it, because their “real objections” to the invasion were “aesthetic rather than political.” Bush is simply too uncouth to follow into battle, even against an appalling violator of human rights. Their antiwar sentiments, therefore, were mostly an expression of elitist bias and a “loathsome… narcissism of small differences.” This passage may seem intemperate. But it illustrates the emotional depth of Rieff’s alienation from the human rights community, whose imagined influence on US foreign policy he evidently regrets.

Why Rieff chooses to pick this particular fight remains obscure, however. He sometimes attacks human rights militants for willing the end without willing the means. They want to prevent genocide, but they do not feel comfortable handing a blank check to the US military, particularly under Bush’s control, to fight oppression abroad. I suppose someone could clobber Power and the others with this sort of objection. But it cannot be Rieff, whose book is basically a defense of this very stance.

Rieff’s scorn for “the vacillations of the humanitarian left” seems unbalanced, in truth, because he is such a flagrant vacillator himself. He criticizes action and nonaction, imperialism and anti-imperialism, hope and hopelessness, taking sides and neutrality, too much caution and too little caution. And he assumes these contrary stances simultaneously, not sequentially. He blames liberals for addressing effects, not causes, and at the same time advocates a modest approach to the world’s woes, alleviating wrongs rather than righting them, which boils down to addressing effects rather than causes. With one eye trained on Rwanda and the other on Falluja, he can neither renounce nor embrace “the selective recolonization of the world.” He identifies wholeheartedly with “the victims” and then feels sick when he sees how easily victims become perpetrators. He aims to be skeptical but not paralyzed, even though he recognizes that militant anti-utopianism will demoralize well-meaning reformers.

Although he excoriates the humanitarian left for its incapacity to make up its mind, Rieff cannot decide what he thinks about humanitarian intervention. He confesses it quite explicitly: “I am of two minds.” He does not like the Iraq War, but he cannot bring himself to criticize those who called for military intervention in Bosnia and Rwanda on moral grounds. And even about Iraq, his stance is hard to pin down. In these pages [see “No Exit Strategy,” August 1] he recently berated Larry Diamond and others for criticizing the execution of the war rather than denouncing the war itself. But in this book, composed earlier, he catalogues all the usual failures of execution, especially the unforgivable neglect of policing after the regime fell and the arrogant refusal to take advantage of available expertise, domestic and foreign, that could have improved the performance of the occupying power. The disaster was not fated. Opportunities were squandered. No serious planning was undertaken for the post-conflict phase. Thus, the calamity in Iraq is “a self-inflicted wound, a morass of our own making.” In other words, under better management, things could have turned out much better than they did.

What we have before us, then, is a co-written work–in effect, a debate between Rieff’s interventionist self and his anti-interventionist self. In this very personal back-and-forth, both parties are exceptionally courteous and forbearing. Neither side accuses the other of abetting genocide or promoting futile wars, for example. The errors Rieff acknowledges are few and relatively minor, moreover. But the unresolved disagreement is no less serious for that.

Rieff valiantly presents his inner dissonance as intellectual and moral virtue: “If this book argues for anything, I suppose it is against consistency, against ideology and utopia.” This candid admission of incoherence is meant to be, and is, disarming. Nor can we dismiss it as the fruit of laziness or sloppy thinking. It reflects, instead, a genuine moral dilemma.Powerful considerations point simultaneously in contrary directions. Anguished memories of Rwanda make it hard to renounce humanitarian intervention in principle, while sickening reports from Iraq make one hesitate to embrace the idea outright. Rieff’s book vividly documents this apparent moral dilemma. That is its most valuable contribution.

On the other hand, his renunciation of consistency, ideology and utopia raises some serious questions, especially concerning his understanding of the origins of the Iraq War. By publicly renouncing utopianism, ideology and dogmatic humanitarianism, he seems to be implying that these factors influenced the calamitous decision to invade Iraq. But is this true? Doesn’t Paul Berman, champion of the very idealism that Rieff now scorns, have a more realistic understanding of the influence of intellectuals when he laments the negligible role played by Kouchner’s humanitarian considerations in shaping America’s Iraq policy?

During the 1990s, according to Rieff, the “human rights revolution” provided “an over-arching moral context for the exercise of power by Western countries.” A new international consensus emerged around the idea that “certain conduct by nations within their borders should not be tolerated.” What happened, allegedly, was that “half a century of campaigning by human rights activists” had “a profound effect on the conduct of international affairs.” Indeed, human rights activism produced nothing less than a “post-Cold War moralization of international politics.” The willingness of the West to intervene in Kosovo signaled “a radical change in international affairs.” And this was all a direct result of “people’s faith in the idea of armed intervention in the name of democracy, human rights, and humanitarian need.”

But Rieff’s account of a human rights revolution is more fantasy than reality. Not even in the 1990s was the moral duty “to right the world’s wrongs” an especially powerful driver of American foreign policy. Rieff is therefore exaggerating when he says, “Human rights became an organizing principle for action in the 1990s the way anticommunism had been throughout the Cold War.” During the cold war, anticommunism was virtually America’s public philosophy. It was an irresistibly powerful force, reorganizing government, commandeering vast resources, sanctioning brutalities committed by US allies in Africa, Latin America and Asia, and even provoking suppression of domestic dissent. Nothing similar could be said during the 1990s about human rights. The dignity of all people everywhere may have been celebrated from podiums, but in the field human rights were defended only fitfully and selectively. They filled a rhetorical gap but did not mobilize the community the way lethal enmity did during the cold war and has done again during the war on terror. After 9/11 rescue missions became even more of a luxury than before, making it difficult, even impossible, to believe that the Iraq War sprang from a “hypermoralization of international political action.”

Did the Kosovo campaign, undertaken outside the UN system to rescue potential victims of genocide, set the table for the invasion of Iraq? To be sure, Republican publicists like William Kristol shrewdly played the genocide card in the run-up to the Iraq War to embarrass antiwar liberals and split the left. But did a utopian desire to rescue the oppressed have any influence on the actual decision to invade Iraq? Does it make sense, when discussing the war party inside the Administration, to speak of the “Carterization” of the American right? The fact that a majority of Republicans strongly opposed an active military role for the United States in the Balkan wars suggests not. Genocide in distant lands, these Republicans argued, had nothing to do with American national security. The existence of a handful of advocates of the Iraq War who had earlier favored the Kosovo campaign, like Paul Wolfowitz, is not decisive here. The questions that must be asked are: Did such thinking have much influence in the inner circles of the Administration? Did Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld lose sleep over Rwanda? Had their closest Republican allies supported the dispatch of American troops to protect Kosovar Albanians on moral grounds? Was their principal objective in toppling Saddam to create a decent society for Iraqis? These questions bear directly on what Rieff considers the central revelation of his book, namely the marriage of the human rights left and the imperialist right. And the answer to every one of them is a resounding no.

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.

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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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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