Desertion In the Field

Twilight of the liberal hawks


One of the most dramatic and least surprising developments of Election 2004's final period has been President Bush's abandonment by the "liberal hawks," the collection of left-leaning thinkers, commentators, and pundits who approved of the invasion of Iraq as a progressive operation, offered well reasoned and often enthusiastic support for Bush in the prelude to the war, were granted their wish by the White House, and have now paid the president back with withering criticism and endorsements for John Kerry.

Anybody seeking to prove the Kerryan criticism that George W. Bush doesn't know how to build an alliance need look no further than the pan-ideological coalition he built right here at home. In the heat of battle, when their support was most important, the liberal hawks broke ranks and fled the battlefield. Nor will they acknowledge having betrayed the president who gave them what they claimed to wish for: In the minds of the liberal hawks, it is Bush who has betrayed their grand ideals with his "mismanagement" of the postwar situation.

You could argue that the liberal hawks' desertion is just a regression to the red-state/blue-state mean, that as the election approached these folks would never have voted for Bush under any conditions, and that the fussy complaints about the Iraq war's failure to meet their specifications are just window dressing for that essential difference. I believe that this is true, but Bush's fair-weather supporters have been so insistent in blaming him for the postwar "mess" that it's worth considering their arguments in detail.

What unified the liberal hawks was that their support for the war was based unreservedly on what is popularly understood as the "neocon" vision, the prospect of exporting democracy to the Middle East through force of arms. According to the "forward strategy of freedom," a democratic Iraq with an emancipated citizenry would serve as an example and beacon to the Arab autocracies, empowering liberals in the region while undermining dictatorships; opening up avenues of freedom and self-expression for ordinary citizens in the Muslim world would in turn remove the impetus for terrorism. For liberals whose taste for progressive-minded interventionism had been whetted by the Clinton administration's operations in the Balkans and Haiti (and probably even more so by the counterexample of Clinton's failure to stop the massacre in Rwanda), the invasion of Iraq looked like a natural fit, even if it was advanced through a Defense Department with whom they had little stylistic or political affinity.

Thus, in late 2002 and early 2003, we found such luminaries as Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Fred Kaplan, Kenneth Pollack, Fareed Zakaria, Jeff Jarvis, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Ignatieff, and many others arguing for the expenditure of American lives and treasure in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

These days, none of those luminaries can summon a kind word for the president who acted in accord with their own arguments. Ignatieff dismisses the humanitarian intervention as a "fantasy." Sullivan has in recent days seized on the nebulous circumstances surrounding the disappearance of explosives at Al Qaqaa as evidence that Bush failed to keep order in postwar Iraq. Jarvis tells Reason, "though I think the execution of the war itself was good—Rumsfeld is really smart—the aftermath has been really fucked up." Friedman declares, "Iraq is a terrible mess because of the criminal incompetence of the Bush national security team, and we are more alone in the world than ever." Zakaria calls the president "strangely out of touch," unaware that his "attitude" is responsible for the problems of postwar Iraq. Pollack condemns "the reckless, and often foolish, manner in which this administration has waged the war and the reconstruction." For Kaplan, the only question is whether the Bush administration is "reckless or clueless." Berman is now relieved to recall that even while championing the invasion he was cautioning against the president's "rhetoric, ignorance, and Hobbesian brutishness," and declaring himself "'terrified' at the dangers [Bush] was courting." Even Hitchens, while standing by Bush's side (or is he?), criticized the administration's "near-impeachable irresponsibility in the matter of postwar planning in Iraq."

This is a neat arrangement of responsibility by the liberal hawks: All the blame falls on the president, none on themselves. Bush's former supporters channel what is now the overwhelming conventional wisdom that the administration (in the person of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld) failed to provide a large enough force to run the country adequately. Leave aside the question about just how large a force would be adequate, given that even under the current deployment the armed services are strained to meet their commitments and relying on callups of the Individual Ready Reserve to fill manpower gaps. Ignore for a moment how 300,000, or 500,000, or a million, non-Arabic-speaking troops would prevent, for example, an insider from helping massacre 50 Iraqi police recruits. Under any conditions, the liberal hawks' brand of armchair generalship is stunningly glib.

Still, the inadequate-force objection might hold water if the liberal hawks had supported the war for the same reason the majority of Americans apparently did—a sincere belief that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and posed an immediate threat to the United States. This would have made the invasion a straightforward conquest of a lethal foe, in which case a vast and overwhelming force, and all the sacrifices that conquest demanded, would be not only justified but required, with the assumption that the postwar situation would involve suppression of the local population and military rule of the conquered enemy.

But the liberal hawks, by and large, did not emphasize (and in some cases did not even believe) the weapons of mass destruction argument. They supported the forward strategy of freedom, which had at its base the notion that postwar Iraq would be capable of self-sufficiency. If you took seriously the idea that the United States was liberating the people of Iraq, then the Rumsfeld doctrine of minimal force was the only one that made sense. If keeping Iraq on life support meant committing a vast occupying force indefinitely, then clearly Iraq wasn't a very good test case for the democratic experiment.

To support the forward strategy of freedom and condemn Rumsfeld's minimal use of force is to ignore that the two are related. More "boots on the ground" is not a recipe for success; it's an admission of failure, an acknowledgement that the Iraqis can't run their own country. It doesn't surprise me that the neocons' opponents believe (wrongly, in my view) that they want to establish a puppet government in Iraq. It does surprise me that so many of their supporters seem to believe the same thing.

In the event, of course, Rumsfeld's "inadequate" force was sufficient to conquer Iraq in three weeks, even as Saddam Hussein's military put up an uncharacteristically stiff fight. For the liberal hawks, this victory shrinks to insignificance compared to the postwar mismanagement. I am inclined to agree that the occupation period has been grim, but I didn't think invading Iraq was a good idea in the first place. People who supported the invasion, but believed they could bring along a kit bag full of caveats, codicils, and lawyerese about how the war should be conducted, have no such deniability.

Since Iraq hawks are fond of citing analogies from World War II, let me join in the fun. American Marines were slaughtered at Tarawa because the pre-invasion bombardment of the island was woefully deficient. Hundreds of American paratroopers were killed by American anti-aircraft fire during landings in Italy—for that matter the entire campaign up the Italian boot was an obvious waste of time, resources, and lives that prevented the western Allies from getting seriously into the war until the middle of 1944. (If anybody deserved impeachment, it was Winston Churchill, whose imperial obsession with the Mediterranean "underbelly" led to disasters in both world wars.) In late 1944, Allied commanders failed to anticipate that the Germans would attack through Belgium despite their having done so in 1914 and 1940. Abuse and murder of prisoners, targeting of civilians, and indiscriminate bombing all were common. On any given week, World War II offered more fuckups and catastrophes than anything that has been seen in postwar Iraq. Anybody who seriously believes Operation Iraqi Freedom is a worthy national effort must explain Roosevelt's incompetence before denouncing Bush's.

More than that, the liberal hawks must consider the very real possibility that what is happening today in Iraq is not an unforeseeable disaster but the best outcome any reasonable person could have expected. When you say yes to war, the only certainty is that you're saying yes to rape, murder, theft, destruction, starvation, torture, madness and every other calamity flesh is heir to. Fewer than 2,000 dead, cooperation from some of the conquered country's most respected figures, and the dim prospect of elections are not the natural consequences of any war: They can only be regarded as freebies.

So if the liberal hawks honestly thought the war could be conducted without brutality, they were merely na?ve. If, however, they are not so much disappointed in the war as tired of Bush, they are something worse. I'm not going to prescribe how anybody should vote, but are there any issues of greater moment than the invasion of Iraq? What is the case for turning out a president who delivered something of such importance to people who say they wanted it? That Bush supported the Federal Marriage Amendment? That No Child Left Behind is underfunded? That Michael Powell has been too rough on Howard Stern? Are these the same people who spent the last three years reminding me that there's a war on?

I realize that supporters of the Iraq war could use the very same arguments I'm making here. They're welcome to them. The old-fashioned conservative hawks may not be a very attractive bunch, but at least they have the courage of their convictions. If it eventually turns out the invasion of Iraq leads to an outbreak of peace and freedom in the Dar al-Islam (and I hope to be proven wrong on this matter), the liberal hawks will undoubtedly swoop back in to show they were on the right side of history. If that day ever comes, just remember one thing: When the going got tough, they were the ones who looked to Secretary of State Biden to bail them out.