Middle East

Iraq's Summer Soldiers

Liberal hawks as ideological deserters.

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If President Bush's re-election demonstrated wide support for his "forward strategy of freedom"–the aggressive region-building scheme embodied in the Iraq war–you never would have known it from the people who took that strategy most seriously and argued most eloquently for it.

When the invasion of Iraq was still in its notional phase, a coalition of liberal hawks joined the president in arguing for the war as a Progressive intervention. Figures from academia, politics, and media–Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Fred Kaplan, Kenneth Pollack, Fareed Zakaria, Jeff Jarvis, Andrew Sullivan, Michael Ignatieff, and many others–defended the forward strategy as the main objective of the war. This was in sharp contrast to the Bush administration, which foregrounded the argument that Saddam Hussein's regime posed an immediate threat to the United States.

In one respect, the Iraq war's liberal hawks were more coherent than many of their counterparts, who had been happy to watch the Clinton-Berger-Albright foreign policy team pursue its humanitarian interventions in the Balkans but balked when the question of deposing Saddam arose. By any humanitarian measure, Slobodan Milosevic was small potatoes compared to Saddam. To the extent that you believe in an American mandate to correct problems abroad–and to be clear, this writer does not believe in it at all–the liberal hawks got through the pre-war and invasion period with a pleasing logical consistency.

It is in the open-ended occupation that they lost their nerve–even though this was when their arguments for regional transformation could have had the most impact. As the weapons-of-mass-destruction argument vanished, Saddam's supposed links to Al Qaeda proved chimerical, and the notion of Iraq as a robust or even functional adversary was revealed as a myth, the idea of transforming dictatorships into democracies throughout the Middle East became, by default, the only visible reason for an American role in Iraq. Instead of maintaining warts-and-all support for this colossal national mission, however, these summer soldiers expressed surprise and disdain that there are any warts at all.

Thus, Ignatieff dismisses the humanitarian intervention as a "fantasy." Sullivan seizes on the disappearance of explosives at Al Qaqaa as evidence that Bush failed to keep order in postwar Iraq. Jarvis tells reason, "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." Zakaria calls the president "strangely out of touch" and 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 Bush administration is either "reckless or clueless." Berman now recalls 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." Christopher Hitchens, while sort of standing by Bush's side, criticizes the administration's "near-impeachable irresponsibility in the matter of postwar planning in Iraq."

Set aside the question of where these tough guys got the detailed military expertise that tells them how many troops and what kind of occupation would have been sufficient. I want to know whether the liberal hawks understood the nature of war at all. Apparently, they thought you could invade and occupy a foreign country and still quibble over the niceties, carrying along caveats with your ammo.

Perhaps in their ideal world, where President Kerry and Secretary of State Biden run the show, such precision is possible. In the event, they must now either admit they were wrong or stick with the war Bush delivered for them. If it succeeds, perhaps they'll take some of the credit. They've already shown they won't take any of the blame.