THE “liberal hawks” are back. These, of course, are the politicians and pundits who threw in their lot with George W. Bush in 2003: voting and writing for a “preventive war” — a war of choice that would avenge 9/11, clean up Iraq, stifle Islamic terrorism, spread shock, awe and democracy across the Middle East and re-affirm the credentials of a benevolently interventionist America. For a while afterward, the president’s liberal enablers fell silent, temporarily abashed by their complicity in the worst foreign policy error in American history. But gradually they are returning. And they are in a decidedly self-righteous mood.
Yes, they concede, President Bush messed up his (our) war. But even if the war was a mistake, it was a brave and good mistake and we were right to make it, just as we were right to advocate intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. (“The difference between Kosovo and Iraq isn’t between a country that wanted peace and one that didn’t,” the Slate editor and onetime war cheerleader Jacob Weisberg, now tells us. “It was a matter of better management and better luck.”) We were right to be wrong — and that’s why you should listen to us now.
In addition, they say, we have the guts to call a spade a spade — to designate Muslim suicide-bombers “Islamic Fascists” (Paul Berman) and “Islamofascists” (Christopher Hitchens) — and to denounce Iranian demagogues as would-be Hitlers. We are the heirs, according to the former New Republic editor Peter Beinart, of the anti-totalitarian struggles of World War II and the cold war, and our battle against terrorism is the defining cause of the age.
We are going to hear much more in this vein in the coming months. And there is a new twist. For all its shortcomings, the Iraq war, we are now reminded, was “justified” (Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator) by its impeccable moral credentials. It was supported — and is still — by leading European intellectuals, notably former dissidents like Adam Michnik and Vaclav Havel. They understand evil and the need for America to take a stand. So do we. Our domestic critics simply don’t “get it.” They are appeasers and defeatists.
This is a seductive tale. But before it takes hold in the Democratic Party, here are some dissenting observations. First, we should not be so quick to wrap ourselves in the mantle of the pro-war Eastern European dissidents. The personal courage of these men is beyond question. Not so their political judgment.
Their common outlook was shaped by life under Communism and the need to choose between right and wrong, between good and evil — an uncompromising choice which they (like President Bush) subsequently projected on to the more complex realm of international relations. Vaclav Havel is now a co-chairman of the Committee on the Present Danger, a Washington lobby of ultra cold-warriors recycled as cheerleaders for the “global war on terrorism.”
The case for liberal interventionism — “taking a stand” — had nothing whatever to do with the Iraq war. Those of us who pressed for American-led military action in Bosnia and Kosovo did so for several reasons: because of the refusal of others (the European Union and United Nations) to engage effectively; because there was a demonstrable and immediate threat to rights and lives; and because it was clear we could be effective in this way and in no other.
None of these considerations applied in Iraq, which is why I and many others opposed the war. However, it is true that United States military intervention in urgent cases will be much harder to justify and explain in future. But that, of course, is a consequence of the Iraq debacle.
Liberal hawks have been quick to swoop down on dovish critics of the American military — condemning in particular MoveOn.org’s criticism of Gen. David Petraeus. Quickly, it has become conventional wisdom that liberals should never disparage the military.
But why not? Soldiers have to respect generals. Civilians don’t. In a free society, it is a sign of robust civic health when generals are pilloried for getting into policy issues. Liberal Democrats should ask themselves whether, amid today’s cult of military “heroes,” a president would dare cashier a Douglas MacArthur for insubordination, as Harry Truman did in 1951 — and what our liberal hawks would say if he did.
Finally: In a democracy, war should always be the last resort — no matter how good the cause. “To jaw-jaw,” as Churchill reminded Eisenhower, “is always better than to war-war.” So the next time someone waxes lyrical for armed overseas intervention in the name of liberal ideals or “defining struggles,” remember what Albert Camus had to say about his fellow intellectuals’ propensity for encouraging violence to others at a safe distance from themselves. “Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed,” he wrote, “but in every case it is someone else’s blood. That is why some of our thinkers feel free to say just about anything.”
Tony Judt is director of the Remarque Institute at New York University and the author of “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945.”