POLITICS MARCH 3, 2003
"Last time, this nation entered a war to make the world safe for democracy and establish permanent peace; it was betrayed in the event because its aims were not embodied in the peace settlement. Do we now risk such a betrayal again?" Looking back to World War I, this journal asked that question on August 25, 1941, in an editorial called "For a Declaration of War." And that is the question again today.
Today's war debate also occurs against the backdrop of a past betrayal. The first Bush administration rallied the country behind war in the Gulf with impassioned denunciations of Saddam Hussein's cruelty. And that moralistic language helped win over the small contingent of hawkish liberals--people like Al Gore, Joseph Lieberman, Bob Graham, and the editors of this magazine--who gave the war its bipartisan veneer. But, when the Shia and Kurds rose up against Saddam, in the naive belief that the United States cared more about their freedom than Riyadh's displeasure, Saddam slaughtered them as America's nearby army watched.
In the ensuing decade, however, several factors have conspired to dim the memory of that betrayal. First, while the Gulf war should have induced cynicism about the use of American power for liberal ends, it fostered optimism about American power itself. It showed just how awesome America's post-cold-war military really was. And that new awareness of the effectiveness of U.S. military actions created a new Democratic awareness of the political risks of opposing them.
Second, the Gulf war was followed by a succession of wars that were undeniably liberal in spirit. Bosnia, Haiti, and Kosovo conditioned liberals to see altruistic intervention as the post-cold-war U.S. norm. Led by an anti- Vietnam president and scorned by conservative realists as "social work," these were our wars. Even Afghanistan, although fought in self-defense, ended one of the most sinister regimes in modern memory.
For many liberals, none of this justifies war with Iraq. Suspicion about George W. Bush's motives, combined with vehement international opposition and the lack of an imminent threat, has produced nervous opposition on much of the moderate left. That opposition is hardly surprising--it is the logical product of American liberalism's post-Vietnam inclinations. What is surprising is the willingness of so many liberals to turn against that tradition; the fraternity of liberal hawks is far greater today than during the Gulf war. The '90s created a historic opening in the liberal psyche. And the Bush administration has exploited it. Its suggestion that war might not only free the people of Iraq but also set off a democratic chain reaction throughout the Middle East is tailor-made to appeal to liberals newly hopeful about American power. The national security argument for this war may be based on pessimism about the inevitable spread of weapons of mass destruction, but the political argument is based on post-1989 optimism about America's ability to bring liberal government to every corner of the globe.
It is just this kind of liberal optimism that historically precedes liberal betrayal. Liberals support this war because they hope it will bring certain political results, but they have limited influence over whether it will be prosecuted with those results in mind. The Bush administration at times frames the war in liberal terms, but, then, it frames its education and budgetary policies in liberal terms too. And its record on democratic postwar reconstruction is not encouraging.
In Afghanistan, the Pentagon's dogged resistance to a nationwide peacekeeping force has condemned large swaths of the country to warlordism. In Iraq, the Bush team says it is committed to turning post-Saddam Iraq into a model for the Arab world. But its new budget allocates not one cent for the effort. The justification, as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith recently testified, is that the cost of post-Saddam nation-building is "unknowable." (Someone forgot to tell the United Nations and the Congressional Budget Office, which have both recently published estimates.) The truth is that making Iraq a template for Arab liberalism will be expensive and protracted. And the Bush administration won't say so for fear of undermining public support for the war.
Indeed, the best-case scenario is that the Bush team is misleading the American people about the intensive political effort they have in mind once Saddam is gone. The worst-case scenario is that no such effort is even planned and that, in the name of stability, Riyadh and Foggy Bottom will settle on an Iraqi Pervez Musharaf. It is not a good sign, as Janine Zacharia recently reported in these pages (see "Exiled," February 17), that the closer we get to war, the more despondent the genuine Iraqi democrats sound.
The unhappy truth is that, if the Bush administration wins the war but betrays the peace, the political consequences for the president will be small. Once the fighting is over, the American press will turn its attention elsewhere, just as it has in post-Taliban Afghanistan. But the consequences for hawkish liberalism will be great. Having been played for fools, most liberal hawks will retreat to a deep skepticism of American power. They will end up on the decent, feckless left--in the company of those who sincerely condemn men such as Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam but have no strategy for toppling them except empty exhortations to people power. And that soft isolationism will likely retake the Democratic Party. On the right, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney won't lose sleep if Chevron and Crown Prince Abdullah run things in post-Saddam Baghdad rather than Kanan Makiya. Paul Wolfowitz will either shut up or resign.
Many people would consider this ideological reshuffling an improvement. At home, liberals could reclaim the language of human rights for themselves, secure in the knowledge that it, and they, would no longer be sullied by an association with the 82nd Airborne. The collapse of hawkish liberalism might actually diminish anti-Americanism abroad since, absent their liberal allies, Rumsfeld and Cheney would be less likely to drape their actions in the moralistic talk Europeans find so grating. After all, no one protests Russia's intervention in Chechnya on the streets of Paris and Rome.
But, when the next Bosnia did come along, its leaders wouldn't find America's new separation between liberalism and power nearly so refreshing; between the realist left and the McGovernite left, they would have nowhere to turn. The truth is that liberalism has to try to harness American military power for its purposes because American tanks and bombs are often the only things that bring evil to heel. Opposing this war might have helped liberals retain their purity, but it would have done nothing for the people suffering under Saddam. If liberals are betrayed a second time in the Gulf, hawkish liberalism may well go into temporary eclipse. But one day we, and they, will need it again.