Why Did Liberals Support the Iraq War?

In September 2005, on the fourth anniversary of 9/11, The Nation ran a long piece I did on liberal support for the Iraq War and for US imperialism more generally.  By way of Paul Berman, Michael Ignatieff, Christopher Hitchens, and Peter Beinart—as well as Judith Shklar and Richard Rorty—it addressed what I thought and still think are some of the deeper political and intellectual roots of the liberals’ support for the Iraq War. On the tenth anniversary of the War, I thought I might reprint that essay here. Some things I got wrong (Beinart, for example, went onto have something of a turnabout on these issues; it wasn’t Oscar Wilde but Jonathan Swift who made that jibe). Other issues I over-emphasized or neglected. But still, it’s got some useful stuff there. Without further ado…

• • • • •

It’s the fourth anniversary of September 11, and Americans are getting restless about the war in Iraq. Republicans are challenging the President, activists and bloggers are pressing the Democrats and liberal hawks are reconsidering their support for the war. Everyone, it seems, is asking questions.

Two questions, however, have not been asked, perhaps because they might actually help us move beyond where we are and where we’ve been. First, how is it that few liberals and no leftists in 1968 believed that Lyndon Johnson, arguably the most progressive President in American history, would or could airlift democracy to Vietnam, while many liberals and not a few leftists in 2003 believed that the most reactionary President since William McKinley could and would export democracy to Iraq?

Second, why did certain liberals who opposed the war in Iraq refuse to march against it? The reason they gave was that left-wing groups like ANSWER, which helped organize the antiwar rallies, failed to denounce Saddam’s regime. Yet many of those who could not abide an alliance with ANSWER endorsed the war in Afghanistan–even though it was waged by a government that recently invaded three Caribbean countries, funded dirty wars in Latin America and backed the government of Guatemala, the only regime in the Western Hemisphere condemned by a UN-sponsored truth commission for committing acts of genocide. Politics, of course, often entails an unhappy choice of associations. But if the deeds of the US government need not stop liberals from supporting the war in Afghanistan, why should the words–words, mind you, not deeds–of leftists deprive the antiwar movement of these very same liberals’ support?

Both questions register a fundamental shift among liberals, and on the left, since the 1960s: from skepticism of to faith in US power, and from faith in to skepticism of popular movements. During the Vietnam era, liberals and leftists believed not only in social justice but also in mass protest. Whether the cause was democracy at home or liberation abroad, men and women afflicted by oppression had to organize themselves for freedom. Yes, some of yesterday’s activists were blind to coercion within these movements, and others joined elite cadres bombing their way to liberation. Still, the animating faith of the 1960s was in the democratic capacities of ordinary men and women, making it difficult for liberals and leftists to believe in conquering armies from abroad or shock troops from on high.

Many liberals, and some leftists, no longer hold these views. Their faith is guided not by the light of justice but by the darkness of evil: by the tyranny of dictators, the genocide of ethnic cleansers and the terrorism of Islamist radicals. Despite their differences–some of these liberals and leftists support the war in Iraq, others do not; some are partial to popular movements, particularly those opposing anti-American governments, while others favor constitutional regimes, particularly those supporting the United States–theirs is a liberalism, as the late Harvard scholar Judith Shklar put it in a pioneering essay in 1989, that seeks to ward off the “summum malum” (worst evil) rather than to install a “summum bonum” (highest good). Reversing Augustine’s dictum that there is no such thing as evil–evil being only the absence of good–today’s liberal believes there is only evil and progress is measured by the distance we put between ourselves and that evil.

Hostility to popular protest and indulgence of American power follow naturally from this position. Mass movements, liberals claim, are blind to evil or apologize for it. Sometimes they actively court it. In their reckless pursuit of utopia, they march men and women to the gulag or into shooting galleries of terrorism and civil war. Only a politics of restraint can shield us from the temptations of violence. While such a philosophy would seem to militate against George W. Bush’s empire, many liberals have concluded that evil in the world is so titanic that only US power can deliver us from it.

Straddling minimalism at home and maximalism abroad, many of today’s liberals are inspired by fear. This “liberalism of fear,” as Shklar called it, is not to be confused with the terror Americans felt after 9/11 or with Democratic timidity in the face of Republican success. No, today’s liberal believes in fear as an idea–that it inflicts such suffering on men and women that we can assess governments by the degree to which they minimize it. Fear is the gold standard, the universal measure, of liberal morality: Whatever rouses fear is bad, whatever diminishes it is less bad. In the words of Michael Ignatieff, liberalism “rests less on hope than on fear, less on optimism about the human capacity for good than on dread of the human capacity for evil, less on a vision of man as maker of his history than of man the wolf toward his own kind.”

Though leftists in the sixties certainly spoke of fear, they viewed it not as a foundation but as an obstacle, a hindrance in the struggle for freedom and equality. Whites resisted civil rights, James Baldwin observed, because they were possessed by a “sleeping terror” of ceding status and privilege to blacks. Blacks, in turn, were like “the Jews in Egypt, who really wished to get to the Promised Land but were afraid of the rigors of the journey.” The goal was to eliminate or overcome fear, to take one step closer to the Promised Land. This required not only courage but also an ideologically grounded hope for progress. Without an answering vision of social justice, no one would make the journey.

Many contemporary liberals have given up that hope, turning what a previous generation saw as an impediment into a path. Fear is no longer an obstacle but a crutch, a negative truth from which liberalism derives its confidence and strength. “What liberalism requires,” according to Shklar, “is the possibility of making the evil of cruelty and fear the basic norm of its political practices and prescriptions.” Liberal values like the rule of law and democracy obtain their worth not from reason or rights–which many liberals no longer believe in as foundational principles–but from the cruelty and fear illiberal states and movements routinely inflict upon helpless men and women.

Today’s liberals are attracted to fear for many reasons, including revulsion at the crimes of the last century and the miserable state of the postcolonial world. But one of the main reasons is their belief that fear possesses an easy intelligibility. Fear requires no deep philosophy, no leap of reason, to establish its evil: Everyone knows what it is and that it is bad. “Because the fear of systematic cruelty is so universal,” Shklar wrote, “moral claims based on its prohibition have an immediate appeal and can gain recognition without much argument.” Once liberals realize that they are “more afraid of being cruel”–and of others being cruel–“than of anything else,” Richard Rorty has argued, they need not worry about the grounds of their beliefs.

How did a philosophy so averse to utopia and violence get hitched to the American empire? I don’t just mean here the war in Iraq, about which liberals disagreed, but the larger project of using the American military to spread democracy and human rights. How did liberals, who’ve spent the better part of three decades attacking left-wing adventurism, wind up supporting the greatest adventure of our time?

The answer is that liberals need fear: to justify their principles, to warn us of what happens when liberalism is abandoned. And so they are driven abroad to confront the tyrannies that make life miserable elsewhere, in order to derive confidence in their own, admittedly imperfect but infinitely better, regimes. A souped-up version of Churchill’s adage that democracy is the worst possible government except for all the others, the liberalism of fear sends writers and fighters to foreign lands in search of themselves and their beleaguered faith. In the words of Ignatieff:

 When policy [in the Balkans] was driven by moral motives, it was often driven by narcissism. We intervened not only to save others, but to save ourselves, or rather an image of ourselves as defenders of universal decencies. We wanted to show that the West “meant” something. This imaginary West, this narcissistic image of ourselves, we believed was incarnated in the myth of a multiethnic, multiconfessional Bosnia.

The moral exhilaration of which Ignatieff speaks is closely linked to the revival of an activism discredited since the sixties–an activism, ironically, liberals helped to defeat but now miss and mourn. The military incursions in Bosnia, Ignatieff notes, were “a theater of displacement, in which political energies that might otherwise have been expended in defending multiethnic society at home were directed instead at defending mythic multiculturalism far away. Bosnia became the latest bel espoir of a generation that had tried ecology, socialism, and civil rights only to watch all these lose their romantic momentum.”

Bosnia was certainly not the first time that liberals looked to a benighted regime abroad in order to compensate for the stalled pace of domestic advance. In 1792 France’s Girondins sensed that their revolution was in peril. Beholding long-suffering peoples to the east, they decided to export progress and promptly declared war on… Austria. And it was Robespierre, so often denounced as a utopian scourge, who issued this prescient warning to his distracted comrades: “No one loves armed missionaries.”

Nor was Bosnia the last time. Since 9/11 liberal hawks–and their fellow fliers on the left–have turned the rest of the world into a theater of social experiment and political reform, endorsing foreign expeditions in the name of an enlightenment they can no longer pursue at home. They have opted for a detoured radicalism, which, like all detours, paves a convenient path to an obstructed destination: yesterday Afghanistan, today Iraq, tomorrow ourselves. Though the peregrinations of Christopher Hitchens are by now familiar to most readers of these pages, his confession after 9/11 reveals how easily internationalism can slide into narcissism, the most provincial spirit of all:

 On that day I shared the general register of feeling, from disgust to rage, but was also aware of something that would not quite disclose itself. It only became fully evident quite late that evening. And to my surprise (and pleasure), it was exhilaration…. here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated. On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan…. On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting.

More recently, Paul Berman has called the war in Iraq this generation’s Spanish Civil War. Berman’s own biography, of course, makes mincemeat of the analogy. Spain’s civil war demanded, in Stephen Spender’s words, “a very personal involvement.” But unlike George Orwell, André Malraux or any of the other writers who fought for the Spanish Republic, Berman has yet to pick up a gun to defend the Iraqi government. Martha Gellhorn claimed that Spain’s foreign fighters “knew why they came, and what they thought about living and dying, both. But it is nothing you can ask or talk about.” Yet all Berman can do is talk… and talk and talk. Meanwhile, the only international volunteers who seem to believe that Iraq is worth fighting and dying for are joining the other side.

But the real reason Berman’s analogy does not hold up is that where yesterday’s progressive insisted that the struggle for freedom and equality was a two-front war–“if freedom and equality are not vouchsafed” for “the peoples of color” at home, A. Philip Randolph wrote in 1942, “the war for democracy will not be won” abroad–Berman and his allies hope to find in Iraq precisely what they cannot find in the United States. Trotskyists of defeat, they export revolution not in order to save it but in order to evade it.

Liberals and leftists panning for political gold in the wreckage of downtown Baghdad–or New York–is not a pretty sight, which has led some critics to chalk up these scenes to illicit motives. But the infatuation with political fear and imperial deliverance from evil cannot be explained away as mere opportunism. It has a long history in modern politics, arising whenever reform comes up against reaction, whenever movements for progress lose their bearings and buoyancy. At such moments of doubt, nothing can seem as real as fear itself, nothing more tempting than to make evil–and the fear it arouses–the basis of all politics.

It was Alexis de Tocqueville, I think, who first noticed this tendency. In one of his lesser-known writings on the French Revolution, Tocqueville noted the inevitable deceleration and disillusionment that consume failed movements of reform. After every great defeat comes a great despair. Comrade accuses comrade of treachery or cowardice, soldiers denounce generals for marching them toward folly and everyone is soon seized by what Tocqueville described as the “contempt” that broken revolutionaries “acquire for the very convictions and passions” that moved them in the first place. Forced to abandon the cause for which they gave up so much, failed rebels “turn against themselves and consider their hopes as having been childish–their enthusiasm and, above all, their devotion absurd.”

Since the 1960s, liberals and leftists have been beaten at the polls and routed in the streets. Equality no longer propels political argument, and freedom–that other sometime watchword of the left–is today the private property of the right. Unable to reconcile themselves to their loss, liberals and leftists are now seized by the contempt and embarrassment Tocqueville described. Berman cringes over the “androidal” complexion of sixties sectarians, with their “short haircuts” and “flabby muscles,” their “flat tones” of Marxism so “oddly remote from American English.” Others wince at the left’s lack of patriotic fervor and national identification, its hostility to all things American.

Lacking confidence in the traditional truths of God and king and the revolutionary truths of reason and rights, Tocqueville hoped that his contemporaries might find succor in the idea of fear, which could activate and ground a commitment to liberal ideals. “Fear,” he wrote, “must be put to work on behalf of liberty.” And so he dedicated himself to a career of liberal pursuits whose only success would be a scheme of mild improvement in Algeria–and leadership of the counterrevolution in 1848.

So has it been with today’s liberals: However much they may argue for domestic reform, it is liberalism’s conquering thrusts abroad–and assaults on the left at home–that earn their warmest applause. Again, other factors explain this turn to empire and fear, including the appalling violations of human rights throughout the world and the left’s failure to respond adequately to those violations. But given this vision’s periodic appearance at moments like ours–one could also cite the case of cold war intellectuals offering their own politics of fear after the setbacks of the late 1940s–it would seem that the appeal of fear has as much to do with defeat and disillusionment as it does with the stated concerns of its advocates.

If Oscar Wilde is right–that you can’t reason a man out of a position he has not reasoned himself into–it’s not likely that the liberals of fear will be persuaded anytime soon to give up their faith. (Indeed, proving that nothing succeeds like failure, Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic, has taken the Democrats’ defeat last November as the signal for a renewed commitment to the liberalism of fear.) Responding to political forces beyond their control, they won’t cede their beliefs until a vigorous movement marches past them. The question for the rest of us is: What should that movement stand for?

For some on the left, liberalism is a bankrupt project, hopelessly compromised by its alliance with capital and indulgence of empire. These critics see liberalism as a weak tea–too suspicious of social movements, too soft on capitalism. They long for a stronger brew: if not Marxism, then some notion of radical democracy.

No dispassionate observer of American liberalism would dispute these charges, and some liberals happily plead guilty to them. But what critics and defenders of liberalism overlook is how often liberalism has inspired the most radical of transformations. The war against slavery, the fight for industrial democracy, the struggle for women’s rights, civil rights and sexual freedom–each of these battles was waged in the name of liberty and equality, twin pillars of the liberal ideal.

Hoping to emancipate men and women from all manner of domination, America’s greatest social movements have sought to extend liberalism’s promise to every sphere of social and political life: the family, the workplace, sexuality and so on. Liberalism’s earliest armies marched against the personal–and physically coercive–rule of kings and lords. Its later militants have made war on the equally personal and physical rule of husbands and fathers, slave owners and overseers, bosses and supervisors. That idea–of freedom from external control, of personal volition, of saying no to those who rule and ruin us–is as radical today as it was in the time of John Locke.

Even America’s most left-wing voices have found in liberalism a useful vocabulary to advance their claims. Big Bill Haywood defended the general strike as a potent form of electoral democracy: It “prevents the capitalists from disfranchising the worker, it gives the vote to women, it re-enfranchises the black man and places the ballot in the hands of every boy and girl employed in a shop.” Malcolm X did not favor the bullet over the ballot; he insisted that “it’s got to be the ballot or the bullet,” that America had better live up to its ideals lest it face a more violent uprising. Stokely Carmichael defined black power as “the coming-together of black people to elect representatives and to force those representatives to speak to their needs,” which is a fairly good gloss on liberal pluralism. And we would do well to recall that the Black Panther Party repeatedly invoked the Constitution in its ten-point platform. More recently, Katha Pollitt has argued in these pages that if America took seriously the liberal commitment to equal opportunity, everyone would have “safe housing…healthy diets, doctors, fresh air…well-stocked libraries open all week”–Sweden itself.

There is perhaps no better measure of how radical and disruptive liberalism truly is than the ferocity of American elites’ resistance to it. It took more than a half-million lives to eliminate slavery. American workers suffered more strike-related violence than workers in Western Europe–just to get an eight-hour day, freedom of association and a weekend. And imagine how many feet would have to march–and heads would have to roll–to secure the equal opportunity Pollitt envisions.

Liberalism’s radical critics are not wrong about its failings and compromises. Nor would they be wrong to point out that the defenders of America’s old regimes have used liberal language to fend off challenges to their power. Slaveholders invoked the rights of private property, employers prized the freedom of contract, and big business still warns against big government. But these are not liberalism’s only or finest statements. If we are to recover its throatier voices and political momentum, we would do well to recall those moments when it marched as the party of movement rather than when it swilled as the party of order.

Of course, liberal hawks might argue that this history of liberal activism perfectly expresses their purposes in the Middle East. Indeed, Hitchens has mustered Thomas Paine and the American Revolution for his war against Islamo-fascism, arguing that America is once again fighting for “the cause of all mankind.” Beyond pointing out the evident hypocrisy–and wild implausibility–of a government reneging on the most basic liberal commitments at home while trumpeting its final triumph abroad, what’s a progressive to say to this? If we object to the marriage of human rights and American military power, what do we propose instead?

Again, American history provides an instructive answer. In the past, America’s most radical liberals looked to the rest of the world not as a tabula rasa for imperial reform but as a rebuke to illiberalism at home or a goad to domestic transformation. “Go where you may,” Frederick Douglass declared in 1852, “search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”

In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. reminded Americans that “the nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.” Even mainstream leaders of the National Organization for Women argued in 1966 that the American feminist movement was not a beacon to the world but “part of the worldwide revolution of human rights now taking place within and beyond our national borders.”

America under the Patriot Act is obviously not America under slavery, and the anticolonial movements that inspired King and feminists in the 1960s have not fared well. Yet this history reminds us that American liberalism, at its best, has always been internationalist, but its internationalism has meant taking instruction and provocation from abroad rather than flying freedom across the water.

Liberalism’s past also reminds us of another, more sobering, fact. During the second half of the twentieth century, progressives were able to look abroad for inspiration because there was something for them to look to. They could believe in international democracy because there were actual movements fighting for it–not under the kitschy banner of the American empire or through staged photo-ops of toppling statues but for real. If we on the left have a hard time today summoning the same belief, it’s because at the very moment those activists were heralding liberation movements elsewhere, the United States was doing everything it could–successfully, we now know–to destroy them.

It’s true that there are democratic movements today–in Latin America, the Middle East and Central Asia–that deserve and receive progressives’ support. But there’s always the risk of the US government hijacking them with arms or handouts. And though liberal hawks like to cite the occupations of Germany and Japan as models for current or future US interventions, we should remember that the New Dealers who led those occupations were far more liberal than the occupiers of today and–until something fundamental changes in the United States–tomorrow. Foreign assistance or interventions are not likely to generate democracy abroad if the powers doing the assisting or intervening are so resolutely antidemocratic at home.

So if we find ourselves at a loss when challenged by liberal hawks–who are right, after all, to press us on how to promote democracy in Iraq, human rights in Sudan and so on–it’s best, I think, first to admit defeat. We don’t know, because we lost the great battles of the twentieth century: not just for social democracy and anti-imperialism but for social democracy and anti-imperialism with a human face. Having admitted defeat, perhaps we can begin to figure out a better answer.


  1. troy grant March 25, 2013 at 1:47 pm | #

    I think a distinction between liberals, neo-liberals and left wing conservatives is called for.

  2. sj660 (@sj660) March 25, 2013 at 1:53 pm | #

    I remember reading this at the time. My reaction now is that, perhaps, you are giving far too much credit to the liberal hawks for having any kind of philosophy at all. You’re implicitly crediting them with having a good faith world view whose precepts the Iraq War accorded with. I doubt it.

    My sense is that some, like young Yglesias were merely being contrarian. Others realized that there was no stopping the thing anyway and so why lose? Most were probably suffering still from the sort of sociological PTSD brought about by 9/11.

    Having said that, it’s not entirely clear to me that mass protests (and there were mass protests, by the way) of even a larger scale if called for by “liberal hawks” under other circumstances would have done anything in our day and age.

    I also think the revanchism against the liberal hawks is a strange phenomenon. They should be criticized for being wrong, not being liberal and being wrong. What a “liberal” is, or what any other political point of view is, is largely defined by their reaction to and views on certain events and policies, and only in the rare case of the extremely thoughtful person are these connected by philosophical ligature.

    There is/was a kind of liberal with a contrarian view on just about any issue. Just read Slate for as many examples as you care to find. (Why global warming is really super! Why unions actually suck! etc. etc. etc.)

    The problem with Iraq wasn’t that liberals supported it, it’s that the criminal leaders of the incumbent government did, and their patsies in Congress were never going to stop them no matter how many articles the liberal hawks could have written the other way around. (51 senators including Zell Miller, Ben Nelson, et al. was not a real majority for a Democratic agenda, and people didn’t filibuster war resolutions in those good old days right?)

    Liberals opposed almost every single thing Bush did in office. It never made one iota of difference until 2005 at the earliest.

  3. Paul Rosenberg March 25, 2013 at 2:03 pm | #

    There’s a great deal I agree with here, and think it’s held up rather well. However, the primary successes of the civil rights movement & the feminist movement are by themselves enough to dispute the claim that “we lost the great battles of the twentieth century.” True, these are not the battles “for social democracy and anti-imperialism with a human face”, but they are left-liberal victories, nonetheless. And these victories now further complicate the challenges we face. For what is Obamaism, if not the triumph of the neo-liberal imagination, in which mantras of diversity entirely displace the concerns about inequality that have animated Occupy along with kindred movements around the globe?

    So, to move forward, it’s not just owning up to our failures that’s needed. It’s reclaiming ownership of our success as well.

  4. Drew Zalucky March 25, 2013 at 2:09 pm | #

    Hello Corey,

    A very thoughtful and informative read. I would like to know then, in reference to the final paragraph:

    “So if we find ourselves at a loss when challenged by liberal hawks–who are right, after all, to press us on how to promote democracy in Iraq, human rights in Sudan and so on–it’s best, I think, first to admit defeat. We don’t know, because we lost the great battles of the twentieth century: not just for social democracy and anti-imperialism but for social democracy and anti-imperialism with a human face. Having admitted defeat, perhaps we can begin to figure out a better answer.”

    Have Liberals or the Left come up with better answers now? If we care about democracy and human rights in the Arab world, yet oppose the use of military intervention by a corrupt, illiberal American government- what can we do then? This is not to say, “oh well, if you don’t want to aid these democratic movements by force, then you must not be serious about wanting to help!”- but it’s worth considering what Liberals in the US and elsewhere can do take a sensible internationalist stance.

    What do you say to this? I have some thoughts on this, but I’d be very eager to hear your take on it.

    Thank you

  5. swallerstein March 25, 2013 at 3:56 pm | #

    My take is that there is a bunch of people, for example, Hitchens, who were on the left in the 60’s when it was fashionable and as being on the left got less fashionable, drifted towards the right where the money and social status is.

  6. Alan Koenig March 25, 2013 at 4:28 pm | #

    Hi Corey,

    The passage of eight years may have revealed another error in your original article. Like myself and many, many others, you assumed that Paul Berman supported the Iraq War, probably after reading his piece comparing the stark choice of a generation confronting the Spanish Civil War, or his lament over the once-proud Leftist imperative to fight fascism (“A Friendly Drink in a Time of War,” published in Dissent in Spring ’04). As Paul explained very carefully to Heather Hurlburt on April Fool’s Day, 2008, he certainly supported the removal of Saddam, but knew (was “terrified”) that Bush’s War was bound to be a disaster. The Iraq invasion he supported was his own vision, on his own terms, a grand liberal adventure embodying the best of the FDR’s New Deal and Four Freedoms, and he takes some pride in being right that it would fail . . . but not boasting about it:


    A year beforehand, he made the same point in debating Ian Buruma; that the tragic negligence so obvious in the Bush administration’s approach before the war was not the proper way to fuse power and liberalism and redeem the world from fascism in all its bitter flavors. “It is true and it is a matter of satisfaction to me that, in the years since then, I have not made a career of saying “I told you so.”


    When it came to choosing war or dissent, he did it his way.

    • Rick Tudor March 26, 2013 at 1:54 pm | #

      Paul Berman has been the definition of this type of liberal “anti-totalitarian” for a long time and his support for an illegal bloody war against Iraq shouldn’t have surprised anyone. He spent much of the ’80s writing smear after smear against the Sandinistas while proclaiming the Contras (CIA sponsored death squads) to be Heroes fighting against communist totalitarianism. Whether in 1936 Spain he would have supported the Republic or the Nacionales is anybody’s guess.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr, a/k/a The Enemy Combatant March 27, 2013 at 2:02 pm | #

      Here is Paul Berman, in an on-line roundtable of sorts, giving his view on the tenth anniversary this governments genocidal project of global petro-imperialism disguised as revenge for 9/11-or-Saddam’sGotWMDs-or-TheGlobalWarOnTerrorism/Islamofascism-or-Whatever. Please take note of his third paragraph as the whack-a-doodle nonsensicality that it happens to be (he’s got to be making that stuff up there!). He knows he was wrong, wrong as all hell. He even tries to take backhanded credit for the Arab Spring by suggesting, with Fox News “some people suggest”-isms, that Bush’s war made it possible – and, by sly implication, so did Berman by his support of that war. He knows damn well that his moment of vindication will never happen, and his words betray that fact. His future will be that of Hitchens’: upon passing away, to be forgotten not because he is not read (he is now, because he is still alive to write) but because he was wrong.


      See for yourself: “PAUL BERMAN: “America was drawn into these conflicts of past and present because, in both cases, the isolationist alternative was fantastical nonsense.”

      “America’s experience in Iraq looks to me like a large and exceptionally miserable episode within a far vaster civil war, which is taking place across broad swathes of the Arab and Muslim world. The vaster war was brought about by the rise of mad ideologies, and it will end when the ideologies expire or evolve into ghosts of their previous selves. A gigantic civil war of this sort tore Europe apart in the last century, with fascism and communism as the culpable doctrines, and the conflict proved to be a prolonged business, though not always violent; and this will be true of the larger Arabo-Muslim catastrophe of our own time.

      “America was drawn into these conflicts of past and present because, in both cases, the isolationist alternative was fantastical nonsense. In the Iraqi instance we have been drawn in because, if I may lay out the reasons, during the first Gulf War, and then after the war, and then during the Clinton years, and then, and then—until, by 2003, the removal of Saddam was the only way to end the stand-off that resulted from all those other “and thens.” And then came the bad news that everyone knows, as well as its opposite: elimination of the region’s most murderous tyrant, prosperity for our ever-overlooked Kurdish friends, and so forth. Some people argue that al Qaeda in its global version underwent its most grievous defeats during the Iraqi surge, and other people insist that Saddam’s overthrow opened the door for the early liberal moments of the Arab Spring, and fervently I hope that these claims are correct, though really I have no idea.

      “But the Iraq war has not proved to be the decisive turning point in the vaster conflict. So there will be further developments and further American participation, too, though in forms that seem to me unpredictable—a point that is pressing upon me because, by peculiar happenstance, I am scribbling these words right now in a town in the western Sahara, where I have been meeting people who speak almost casually of gigantic personal and political transformations that no one would have dreamed possible, until they had taken place. Just yesterday I met a mayor who warned that some Polisario separatist rebels from his own Saharan region have joined the Islamist terrorists in Mali. I met a sympatico old Polisario Marxist who told me that he himself,
      instead of taking up the global jihad, has come out in favor of Moroccan royalism, which he confessed with a wry smile—all of which has reminded me that, in an age of wild ideologies, ideas and affiliations resemble (please pardon the cliché, which right now is no cliché to me) the enormous sand dunes that surrounded me an hour ago and that are said to migrate constantly and change shape under the pressure of invisible and invincible winds.”

  7. Howard Berman March 25, 2013 at 6:32 pm | #

    Your essay shows a sobriety that may have averted a bad choice if more widely shared. I think everybody was scared shitless, like the whole country was mugged by reality and they wanted to go after anybody who looked like the perpetrator and Sadaam Hussein to most Americans looked a lot like Osama Bin Laden in a police lineup or a dark alleyway.
    That’s the emotional side. On the logical side, everybody talked about that it was our right and our obligation for the good it would do to invade Iraq (including me, though I kept my opinion private) but nobody listened to the experts about the likely consequences

  8. BillR March 25, 2013 at 8:21 pm | #

    The song remains the same.

  9. Rutger March 26, 2013 at 5:39 am | #

    All the socialist movement managed in the US was to make it liberal.

  10. Glenn March 26, 2013 at 8:37 pm | #

    Democrats seem to have no moral compass, needing hand-holding guidance and the assurance of their better’s approval before taking a stand.

    Compare the Occupy response to police brutality on the California Davis campus, of calling out Shame! Shame! and backing off the out-of-line campus security guards.

    Then consider the response to police brutality in the 2007 Kerry Q&A where the Don’t Tase me ‘bro incident brought derision to insistent questioning instead of support to the questioner in the face of excessive force. Kerry couldn’t decide whose part to take and neither could his Democratic acolytes.

  11. archangelmichael2 December 18, 2013 at 7:35 pm | #

    And now Obama is being Bush 2.0 yet the Liberals aren’t making a peep.

    Just like that classic. “There goes that song again. We used to call it our serenade”

    • troy grant December 20, 2013 at 8:12 pm | #

      That’s NEO-liberals archi

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