Liberal Hawks

For at least three decades, a specie of political animal has garishly flapped its wings and left its markings around the world—America’s sui generis liberal hawk.  Beginning perhaps with Henry Jackson, a pro-labor but fiercely anti-communist Senate leader, the liberal hawk has popped its head up every time an international crisis erupts.  It’s been the bane of liberalism and has robbed hawkishness of its essential militaristic flavor.

Liberal hawks were common during the Cold War, when being anti-Soviet had no political consequences but being thoughtful about the insanity of the rivalry did.  More recently, the liberal hawk has fluttered noisily about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Putin’s tactics, Hugo Chavez’s bluster, Islamic terrorism, anti-globalization marchers, and those old stand-bys, Saddam, Arafat, Assad, Castro, and France.

The idea animating the liberal hawks is that they—perhaps green, feminist, multicultural, small “d” democrats—can also be tough when it comes to defending America and its ideals.  They excuse no dictators.  The banner of political liberty must be raised above all others.  The spread of democracy and the smiting of tyrants can and should be the work of the Upper West Side, Cambridge, and Berkley every bit as much as it is of Wall Street, Southie, and the OC.

Who can sneer at human rights, liberty, and democracy?  Not I.  But when I see a liberal hawk, I smell a rat.  And the stink comes from—how to put this delicately?—both expiation and exhalation.  The first draws upon a religious doctrine having to do with guilt: the way to make up for sins is not to inflict punishment on oneself, but on others who consent to this substitution.  We are guilty (as liberals) because we are weak and accommodationist, it would seem, but as reconstructed liberals we can punish those leftists who are not.  (It is “consent” in that liberal hawks always get the press.)   The exhalation part is simpler, constant, and from all ends.  But like air that comes from the body, it has been exhausted of oxygen.

And the absence of oxygen is indeed suffocating.  The most recent, and perhaps the most notorious, gathering of the flock was to urge the U.S. military to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003.  The arguments had to do with the now laughably deceitful WMD hoax, or Saddam’s ties to al Qaeda, and the other White House canards swallowed whole.  Most of these liberal hawks--Ignatieff, Hitchens, Remnick, et alia--argued later that they were really interested in human rights in Saddam’s Iraq, and liberating 25 million Iraqis from his grip.  (Some others wanted to protect Israel.) Fair enough, but was a U.S.-led war the way to achieve that?  We now know how weak Saddam was, and in fact smart sanctions may have brought him down sooner than was widely believed.

There has been little from LH perches about the extraordinary level of violence in Iraq, now perhaps 600,000 dead.  Nor has there been much thoughtful said about the de facto division of the country, the massive crime and corruption, the new training grounds for jihadists, the victory of Iran in the south, and other, similar wrinkles.  All these grisly possibilities were predicted by many knowledgeable people beforehand. This is the victory of liberal principles?

The retreat of the liberal hawks has been that reliable foil, which is that Bush somehow messed it up.  It was a grand enterprise, but the arrogance of the neo-cons is the real reason things went awry—not, heaven forbid, that it was a bad (illegal, immoral, bloody) idea to begin with.  Not that it sets a horrific example and precedent.  Not that it is imperialistic by its very nature.  Not that many many people were going to die.  Not that other important issues would be shrouded by the relentless pursuit of war.  No, somehow knocking off Saddam was a way to prove that we, too, can be tough guys, and nothing else mattered—not law, politics, human security, dignity, or that favorite catchphrase of 2002 and early 2003, “moral clarity.” 

When principles are abandoned, nasty consequences usually follow.  Liberal internationalism once had a proud pedigree, sullied and bastardized by the liberal hawks of the Iraq fiasco.

From 100 Ways America is Screwing Up the World by John Tirman