Yesterday's referendum on the Iraqi constitution should have been a special triumph for those few liberal thinkers who supported the Iraq War. After all, so-called ''liberal hawks," more than their conservative nest mates, have in recent years been the loudest voices for a foreign policy based on human rights and democratic transformation abroad. The last American war, in Kosovo, was a liberal war, led by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. The Serbian surrender, with the subsequent toppling of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, has gone down in history as a victory of military might deployed in the service of liberal humanitarianism. Might not an Iraqi constitution-or at least a constitutional referendum-count as well?Benett reviews books by Paul Berman, George Packer and the upcoming one by Peter Beinart, commenting that, "Each thinker, in his way, is trying to salvage something for liberal interventionism out of its ignominious association with Iraq." In particular, Peter Beinart, much like President Bush is comparing radical Islam to Communism (who did so first? Beinart, I think...).
But today the liberal hawks find themselves in a bind. The circumstances in which the country prepared for yesterday's voting-the assassinations, the suicide bombings, the tattered infrastructure-were not exactly what they had in mind. To make matters worse, once it became apparent that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration took up the liberal arguments as a sort of retroactive casus belli. Thus the liberal hawks find their arguments embraced by an administration they never trusted and whose conduct of the war and occupation they have harshly criticized.
Beinart's current work looks back. . . to an older, and distinctly American, liberalism. The historical touchstone of Beinart's call to arms (the article that his book grows out of was called ''A Fighting Faith,' and his book's provisional title is ''The Good Fight') is the emergence, in the late 1940s, of what came to be known as the Cold War liberal. Starting in 1947, and led by figures such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Reuther, and Eleanor Roosevelt, the Democratic Party, along with liberal organizations like the ACLU and the NAACP and most of the country's major unions, began to adopt a fiercely anticommunist line, distancing themselves from anyone, like the former vice president Henry Wallace, seen as soft on communism. ''The health of the democratic left requires the unconditional rejection of totalitarianism,' Schlesinger wrote in his 1949 book ''The Vital Center.'Bennett explains that liberal pundit-historian Joshua Micah Marshall has problems with this analogy.
The parallels to today, Beinart believes, are obvious. . . he argues that the United States faces a new totalitarian threat in al Qaeda, and that liberalism, unlike the American right, has not come to terms with it. ''There is little liberal passion," he wrote in his New Republic essay, ''to win the struggle against al Qaeda."
''Unlike communism in 1947," the liberal journalist Joshua Micah Marshall wrote on his widely read blog, ''militant Islam simply does not pose an existential threat to our civilization." Marshall has noted that even some hawkish liberals feel Beinart and Berman's analogy between militant Islam and Soviet totalitarianism does more harm than good, because it risks repeating the excesses of Cold War liberalism with much less justification. Beinart's Vital Center liberals, after all, were handmaidens both to McCarthyism and architects of the Vietnam War.Marshall has more to say, though. In his initial review of Beinart's TNR piece, he focused on the fact that liberals are simply less interested in foreign policy.
The problem is not principally dovishness but rather --- as Peter notes --- that Democrats are by and large simply not sufficiently interested in national security policy, as such. This is at least as much a problem in the Democratic operative world as it is at the grassroots. As I’ve written before, lack of interest in national security policy leads to lack of knowledge. And lack of knowledge leads to tactical and mutable political decisions on national security --- which is both bad on principle but also feeds public perceptions that Democrats aren’t serious about the issue and that they’re not trustworthy guardians of the national security in dangerous times.To be sure, Marshall's belief that the scope of the threat posed by radical Islam is simply not as broad nor obvious as that posed by Communism allows him to give liberals a pass on not having "caught up" to this realization. Nonetheless, it is this uninformed fear of "risk" that, it seems to me, continues to prevail among the left, (not necessarily "Democrats"). Many have tried to boil war down to a simplistic syllogism such that every war could be another Vietnam. (Similarly, the Patriot Act is likened to a caricature of McCarthyism)--especially when a Republican is in the White House. Therein lies the answer to the mystery of the vanishing liberal hawks.
It would seem that these doubts and concerns about the "risks" of U.S. policy are not informed so much by a studied analysis of U.S. History but are a directly tied to political ideology. I don't recall such outrage from the "mainstream left" when President Clinton engaged the U.S. in military ventures througout the world. (Though Marshall alludes to such a debate. I don't doubt Marshall, its just that any such debate occurred "under the radar," of an--at the time--casual political and historical observer such as myself). Nonetheless, the difference between Bosnia and other Clinton-led ventures were such that no obvious benefits were accrued by the U.S. We appeared to be acting selflessly, sans "interest." We intervened to stop a genocide that had no real affect on the material well-being of America and to help the Europeans to end conflict in a region that could threaten them, but, at least on the surface, not us. In truth, stopping genocide was a materially, though not morally, selfless act. We helped our collective conscious, after all. Ending the conflict was, in fact, in our own best interest: better to stop a small war than enter a big one. So we intervened for humanitarian reasons and to protect our own interests. Both reasons were, and are, perfectly legitimate and recognized as such be people across the political spectrum. So what happened?
The problem that liberal hawks are wrestling with is that, to many of their liberal brethren, an ideologically opposed, and especially an "illegitimate," President simply cannot do anything correctly and will certainly garner no credit when he does. Thus, the effect of American foreign policy, no matter how humanitarian--how liberal--doesn't matter if those effecting it are one's ideological opponents . As such, the contrast between the liberal reaction to the Balkans and that of Iraq gives us a clue as to what event will help bring the liberal hawks back to prominence. The liberal hawks will fly again when a liberal hawk is "legitimately" elected president--so long as that person doesn't advertise themselves as such until after the primary.