Why Did Liberals Support the Iraq War?

by Corey Robin on March 25, 2013

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.

{ 95 comments }

1

Matt 03.25.13 at 5:24 pm

Poor infrastructure kills and hurts more people every year than all repressive governments combined. Don’t families fear hunger, blindness, deadly diarrhea? Do hawkish liberals not understand that fear and want to vanquish it just as badly as they wish to vanquish dictators?

Military intervention is an extraordinarily inefficient way to help people, even if it works. This was clear even in 2002 when I thought the Iraq war cost would be “merely” hundreds of billions of dollar. The American military is an attractive nuisance, enticing people who really should know better.

2

Anarcissie 03.25.13 at 5:45 pm

‘… 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. …’ But the battles were actually waged by radicals. So it seems that liberals do not actually believe in liberalism, or I should write ‘liberalism’ since the third, most important pillar has been mysteriously left unnamed.

3

MPAVictoria 03.25.13 at 7:02 pm

Well I never supported the Iraq war. Didn’t expect it to turn out to be quiet as big a disaster as it ended up being though.

4

James Reffell 03.25.13 at 7:21 pm

Which liberals? Politicians? Liberal opinion writers? Democrats? The general public?

Just before the war general public support for it was high — but much higher supposing U.N. support (which we did not have). And at that time a majority of Americans believed that Iraq was behind 9/11. Any theorizing about public support for the war which doesn’t spend a lot of time on “people were lied to” has a hole in it.

Now, did the lies work more effectively then than in previous wars? And if so, why?

5

rootless (@root_e) 03.25.13 at 7:31 pm

This post rests on the ambiguous definition of “liberal” which allows people to attach any consequent they please to “liberals do/think ….”

Richard Rorty, who was kind of a liberals liberal was strongly against the war. So was Barack Obama, not generally considered “radical” around these parts. So was Ted Kennedy, kind of the liberal icon. I don’t know what value is then produced by generalizing about liberals waffling on the war when to do so one has to write off Ted Kennedy.

Paul Berman was and is an ass, however.

6

Corey Robin 03.25.13 at 7:32 pm

“Which liberals? Politicians? Liberal opinion writers? Democrats? The general public?”

Your questions will be answered if you read the post.

“Any theorizing about public support for the war which doesn’t spend a lot of time on ‘people were lied to’ has a hole in it.”

And any theorizing about a post in which the theorizer doesn’t spend even a modicum of time reading said post has an even bigger hole in it.

7

rf 03.25.13 at 7:36 pm

“Any theorizing about public support for the war which doesn’t spend a lot of time on “people were lied to” has a hole in it. “

Maybe not

http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/duckofminerva/2013/03/yes-bush-and-cheney-sold-the-war-but-why-did-americans-buy-it.html

8

Corey Robin 03.25.13 at 7:46 pm

Rootless at 5: The post is actually very careful to point out, more than once, that liberals were divided on Iraq. It’s also very careful to make the point that the philosophical version of liberalism of which Rorty was a (lesser) exponent would seem to argue against the war. And the last third of the post defends a version of liberalism that is anti-imperial. That said, the piece is taking on a strain of liberalism — and no one would question that Judith Shklar was a liberal or that Ignatieff, Beinart, Packer, etc. were also liberals (so not much ambiguity there) — that was very influential at the time, more influential, as it happens, than Teddy Kennedy’s. 29 Democratic senators — including Clinton, Biden, Daschle, and Kerry — voted against Kennedy; 20 voted with him. I wish it had been otherwise, but that’s how it went down.

9

rootless (@root_e) 03.25.13 at 8:09 pm

One of the themes of “Achieving our Country” is a kind of failed effort to rehabilitate what used to be called Cold War Liberals who carried on the tradition of the Great War Liberals that Randolph Bourne denounced. I think the pragmatism of liberalism is correct, but it’s easily turned into justification for of the exercise of raw power, much as the kind of bloody minded “realism” found in some marxist literature can do the same thing. To me, the comfortable and smug self-delusion that let Paul Berman to support the Iraq War is not all that different from what let his predecessors support the Vietnam war and the cold war (Petey Beinart even makes that argument himself http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/30/magazine/30liberal.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 ) or what let Dewey and friends sign up for Wilson’s crusade in Europe and red scare at home. Liberalism can easily become an ideology mostly concerned with the good intentions and benevolent self-image of the liberal. But human beings are good at that sort of stuff.

10

Marius 03.25.13 at 8:10 pm

Holding everything else constant, I sometimes wonder whether support for the war would’ve increased, decreased, or remain unchanged if in ’03 everyone was convinced that, no matter what happened, global crude oil prices would be hovering around $95/$108 (WTI/Brent) ten years later.

11

Lee A. Arnold 03.25.13 at 8:53 pm

Corey, I’m not sure I understand your first question because by the time Johnson escalated the war, the U.S. had already been there openly for five years or more, and the morass and bodybags were already televised on the nightly news, and the Tet offensive had just suggested that further immersion would be endless. You might ask instead, why didn’t more liberals oppose the U.S. moves, back in 1963? Because there weren’t very many at all who spoke out. Liberal hawks had been a major species (and they have never really disappeared). Robert Vaughan (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) was alone among the big outspoken names for a while, as I recall.

You seem to think that skepticism or faith in U.S. power is some sort of absolute, sans the situation. But I talked to a number of “liberals”, more or less, who thought that removal of Saddam was desirable because he was vicious, and that it was obtainable, because he had no backers like the Soviets. A million were slaughtered in the Iraq-Iran War, including children sent in as soldiers, and the Marsh Arabs were decimated after G.H.W. Bush incited them to rebellion, but then pulled the plug. I was against the war on IR grounds — I think we should stick to international law. I didn’t believe the WMD nonsense but I didn’t see WMD’s as a decisive reason, either way. If the U.S. was going in, then it was clear that there were no WMD’s, because you wouldn’t send U.S. troops in to be annihilated. The intentions of the Bush-Cheney administration were easy to discern: 1. To demonstrate that the U.S. will always respond disproportionately. 2. To overthrow a dictator whose presence served to complicate any U.S. military moves against Iran and Syria. 3. To construct military air bases and listening posts. 4. To install a strongman who would be friendlier to Western oil interests. Liberal hawks are likely to be happy with those objectives. The real question is, would liberal hawks be happy with the results: Bush outmaneuvered by Sistani into allowing a real democracy in Iraq, in which 60-70% of the people will likely vote for a Shi’ite theocracy, and be BFF with Iran?

12

roger gathman 03.25.13 at 9:09 pm

I wonder whether liberal honchos became comfortable with U.S. power because they became comfortable. Surely the think tanks, media access, and possible positions in Dem administrations went to those who were very comfortable with U.S. power. The institutional shifting, and the spirit that goes with it (the spirit in which you start defining liberalism as loyalty to certain media identified liberal figures), basically gave one group a huge advantage in terms of attention; the other group – the Chomskys out there – did gain attention in a DIY way, selling books and such, but had no real favors to pass out. On the contrary, from the weeklies to the cable networks, liberals and lefties who criticized the imperial adventures of the States were filtered out.
This as well filtered down to the next generation of liberal functionaries. Ezra Klein, recently, confessed he supported the war because “I thought that if U.S. President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell and former President Bill Clinton and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair all thought it was necessary, then that was because they had intelligence proving as much.” Liberalism, here, has simply become another way of ‘making it’ up the ladder. It has thinned out as an ideology to the extent that it can really embrace anything, provided that embrace follows some “liberal” leader. The dalliance with the outside – which was engaged in by figures like Rachel Carson or MLK or even John Kenneth Galbraith – has been closed off. Agreeing with Chomsky then becomes agreeing with the wrong “leader”, and is either futile or stupid from the making it point of view.

13

James Reffell 03.25.13 at 9:55 pm

Your questions will be answered if you read the post.

Cranky! So, I read it again, just in case I missed something, which does happen. Instead I found a lot of handwaving about “certain liberals” and “many liberals” and “the liberals of today, “and when you forgot to qualify, just “liberals.” When you get specific, it’s all about folks like Beinart. So I guess you mostly mean “liberal hawks who have opinion column,” rather than us schmoes who were out in the streets (despite your thesis about how liberals don’t believe in such things any more). And, indeed, those dudes did a lot of damage, though I suspect we would have had the war even without them. But as others have pointed out, there were no shortage of liberal dudes like that backing the Vietnam war either.

14

rootless (@root_e) 03.25.13 at 11:02 pm

Corey, fix the subject head. Support needs the “t”

15

Michael Cross 03.25.13 at 11:22 pm

But it was liberals who waged the Vietnam War and a dials who opposed it.

16

Michael Cross 03.25.13 at 11:23 pm

Oops. “Radicals” who opposed it.

17

Harold 03.25.13 at 11:25 pm

I don’t remember liberals supporting the war in Vietnam. NPR was against it 24 /7 (that’s why there was a sort of coup against it in 2003 and even in the 1990s). There were Senators Fulbright and Hatfield who went on speaking tours. Senator Eugene McCarthy opposed the war. Opposition to the war in Vietnam was much more robust than that to Iraq adventure.
The Cold-Warrior neo-con types peeled off from liberalism and supported Nixon. It was the working classes who brought to support the war — using racial fears.

18

rf 03.25.13 at 11:32 pm

“But it was liberals who waged the Vietnam War and a (ra) di (c) als who opposed it.”

Well it was a group of radical Leninists who waged the Iraq war..

19

rootless (@root_e) 03.25.13 at 11:33 pm

George McGovern, Robert F. Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Al Gore Sr – radicals. Who knew?

20

Salient 03.25.13 at 11:39 pm

Your questions will be answered if you read the post.

You’re certainly asking for a lot, there.

21

Salient 03.25.13 at 11:56 pm

Actually, that was way too harsh of me, I apologize. I don’t feel you were nearly cogent enough to justify snarking at irritated readers, and the lack of cogency in your long-form pieces has a consistent source — you get lazy with your adjectives and signal modifiers, resulting in a lot of completely unnecessary frustration and conflict. If you write “liberal hawks” in the first paragraph and then talk about “a fundamental shift among liberals,” you are no longer writing about the same thing. Specifically, for example, when you write…

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

…you are writing about the vast majority of liberals. In fact, the fact that you were careful to say ‘certain liberals’ or ‘liberal hawks’ elsewhere indicates you must have meant for this particular sentence to describe a much broader category of people.

At this point, I know that’s just not how you write. You put ‘certain liberals’ in at one point and assume the reader will mentally carry the modifier along. But, fixing this awareness in my mind, there are still passages that are just emotionally draining to read. There’s only so much “he doesn’t actually mean what he’s saying here, he’s actually specifically advancing claim Y only as regards group Z” that you can expect a reader to sustain for your convenience. That’s what I meant by the “you’re asking for quite a lot” snark.

But you know, this is a really easy writing issue to address, and if your snarking at people is expressing some genuine emotional frustration you feel at these sorts of complaints, you might consider rereading over your post, finding a signal word you used at one point, and just copy-pasting it everywhere. Otherwise, well, it feels like you’re trying to get away with something. And even if someone else finds it more wearying to read ‘hawkish liberal elite’ repeated verbatim twenty times, they’ll probably have a much easier time getting over it (and they’re much less likely to irritate you by complaining).

22

Anarcissie 03.26.13 at 12:18 am

When I started actively opposing the war early in 1965, making posters for the American Friends Service Committee, the only other groups I can recall making any noise were Women Strike For Peace, the War Resisters League, and the Catholic Worker — all radicals. Mr. Liberalism himself, Adlai Stevenson, was in the U.N. supporting the war until he dropped dead that summer. Indeed, ‘we’ could not get a single big-name liberal of any sort to come out publicly against the war. It was not really until early 1968 that things changed, when that noted peace marcher Ho Chi Minh convinced supple fellows like Senator Jacob Javits and so forth that maybe the war was not such a good idea after all.

23

Lee A. Arnold 03.26.13 at 12:44 am

#22 – God, that reminds me that I worked with a bunch of old War Resisters League folks in the early 1980’s on the UC Nuclear Weapons Lab Conversion Project. Sharp as tacks. I was absolutely in breathless awe of them. I hung on every word. It was a first-rate lesson for me in thinking and organizing. I will repeat here what I first realized while working with them: we are up against a “complexity-of-information” problem. People do not understand what is going on. There is lots of discontent among people everywhere, but very, very, very few people even have the time to begin to wrap their minds around what is going on. It is not simply an education problem, it is that the world “problematique” is becoming too difficult to conceptualize in language, as language now stands. It set me off on a course to try to figure out how to accelerate comprehension, which in turn led to
http://www.youtube.com/user/leearnold

24

PJW 03.26.13 at 12:45 am

It’s been decades since I read it and I have no idea how scholars regard it but Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest seemed like a pretty reasonable account of how the Vietnam War unfolded.

Anarcissie @22, that’s interesting stuff.

25

novakant 03.26.13 at 12:57 am

liberal hawks—who are right, after all, to press us on how to promote democracy in Iraq, human rights in Sudan and so on

Why are they right?

I don’t feel the need to figure out an answer either – apart from maybe “go f**k yourself warmonger”

Or, slightly more constructively: the US is the biggest arms exporter and human rights violator in the world, so why don’t we start there.

26

Anderson 03.26.13 at 1:16 am

” the US is the biggest … human rights violator in the world”

Okay, I’ll bite. How so? Moreso than China?

27

Peter T 03.26.13 at 1:20 am

There’s a close connection between intellectuals and policy-makers (the policy makers want justification, the intellectuals want to make policy). And policy-makers are there to solve problems – it’s their raison d’etre. So they get frustrated and reach for extreme solutions when the problems seem intractable. They can’t walk away – that’s not what they do. Policy on Iraq was in a dead end. Sanctions were not hurting the regime, but were hurting everyone else. Policing the no-fly zones was expensive and produced bad PR, but was plausibly preventing a massacres of the Kurds and Shia. I think the feeling was that surgery was preferable to perpetual quarantine, and once surgery was the policy, well, those against were just being wimpy. Of course, it’s easy to be tough when it’s not your pain, and they overlooked the fact that the surgeons were a gang of hyped-up teenagers with chainsaws, but…

Your analysis, Corey, is dispassionate and possibly accurate, but it misses the driver of really wanting to actually pull levers (or at least associate with those who do).

28

rootless (@root_e) 03.26.13 at 1:22 am

” When I started actively opposing the war early in 1965, making posters for the American Friends Service Committee”

I don’t understand the categorization you are using. Certainly the AFSC would have been denounced as reformist 3rd way petite bourgeois idealists by any self-respecting Communist at the time.

29

Dr. Hilarius 03.26.13 at 1:22 am

Anarcissie @22 is correct. Opposition to the Vietnam War evolved over time and never reached any kind of mass support until after Tet and the Chicago convention. As for the latter, recall the Humphrey was still regarded as a liberal. McCarthy was a radical, upsetting what was supposed to be a pro forma event. Humphrey did not deviate from the administration position on Vietnam until well into the 1968 campaign. Dan Rather getting manhandled at the convention did a lot to push the national media into a more critical stance on the war.

Another factor behind greater liberal opposition to Vietnam was the draft. When you, a family member or close friend is to be shipped off to the front lines, war is no longer an abstract political issue. When the draft was ended with “Vietnamization” the anti-war movement went into decline. The all-volunteer military serving in Iraq comprised a much narrower demographic than the Vietnam era military. Much more blue-collar, rural and less educated. College-bound kids were not going to war and campuses remained calm.

There were a lot of other factors behind liberals getting on board the Iraq war wagon. Reagan and a resurgent conservative movement pushed the national political consensus far to the right. What was liberal in 1968 became wild radicalism in 2003. Consolidation of national media and the rise of Fox built support for the war while marginalizing dissenting voices. What can you do when Tom Friedman is seen as a sensible voice of moderation?

30

rootless (@root_e) 03.26.13 at 1:37 am

War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense. The machinery of government sets and enforces the drastic penalties; the minorities are either intimidated into silence, or brought slowly around by a subtle process of persuasion which may seem to them really to be converting them. Of course, the ideal of perfect loyalty, perfect uniformity is never really attained. The classes upon whom the amateur work of coercion falls are unwearied in their zeal, but often their agitation instead of converting, merely serves to stiffen their resistance. Minorities are rendered sullen, and some intellectual opinion bitter and satirical. But in general, the nation in wartime attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State ideal, which could not possibly be produced through any other agency than war. Loyalty — or mystic devotion to the State — becomes the major imagined human value. Other values, such as artistic creation, knowledge, reason, beauty, the enhancement of life, are instantly and almost unanimously sacrificed, and the significant classes who have constituted themselves the amateur agents of the State are engaged not only in sacrificing these values for themselves but in coercing all other persons into sacrificing them.

War — or at least modern war waged by a democratic republic against a powerful enemy — seems to achieve for a nation almost all that the most inflamed political idealist could desire. Citizens are no longer indifferent to their Government, but each cell of the body politic is brimming with life and activity. We are at last on the way to full realization of that collective community in which each individual somehow contains the virtue of the whole. In a nation at war, every citizen identifies himself with the whole, and feels immensely strengthened in that identification. The purpose and desire of the collective community live in each person who throws himself wholeheartedly into the cause of war. The impeding distinction between society and the individual is almost blotted out. At war, the individual becomes almost identical with his society. He achieves a superb self-assurance, an intuition of the rightness of all his ideas and emotions, so that in the suppression of opponents or heretics he is invincibly strong; he feels behind him all the power of the collective community.

” What was liberal in 1968 became wild radicalism in 2003. “

It’s kind of interesting to reread the Port Huron statement which, although it has a number of virtues, is pretty tepid and, dare I say, moderate.

31

lupita 03.26.13 at 2:31 am

Why is it important whether liberals are for or against this or that foreign invasion? Even when they are against, the mere fact that they are debating the issue means that they believe they have the authority to decide, via internal democratic debate, whether the US should exercise its prerogative of invading.

32

Anderson 03.26.13 at 2:45 am

Once you’ve defined the question as a “foreign invasion” you’ve prejudged the result. Was it a “foreign invasion” when the US landed in Morocco or Guadalcanal in 1942?

33

David 03.26.13 at 2:47 am

“Once you’ve defined the question as a “foreign invasion” you’ve prejudged the result. Was it a “foreign invasion” when the US landed in Morocco or Guadalcanal in 1942?”

Unreservedly, yes. Of course it was.

34

Anarcissie 03.26.13 at 4:33 am

rootless (@root_e) 03.26.13 at 1:22 am

” When I started actively opposing the war early in 1965, making posters for the American Friends Service Committee”

‘I don’t understand the categorization you are using. Certainly the AFSC would have been denounced as reformist 3rd way petite bourgeois idealists by any self-respecting Communist at the time.’

I think by 1965 no one cared much about the Communist Party and what they called people except possibly the FBI, who were alleged to form half their membership. Radical is as radical does, and apparently it was radical to be against the war, because hardly anyone showed up to oppose it even in the most reformist petit-bourgeois idealist manner, whereas it is not really very radical to just sit around denouncing other people because they have the wrong theory, is it?

35

Mao Cheng Ji 03.26.13 at 8:01 am

But what is a ‘radical’? That’s someone, anyone, who is not allowed into mainstream discourse. When mainstream discourse, as lupita 31 noted, is firmly of the opinion that an aggressive war (a ‘supreme crime’, according to the Nuremberg Trials) is a legitimate policy, then equating the (principled) anti-war with ‘radical’ becomes trivial. And those who are anti-war for some practical reasons (too expensive, or whatever), are not really anti-war in any meaningful sense.

36

novakant 03.26.13 at 8:25 am

#26

War itself is the most grave human rights abuse in itself and inadvertently leads to many other such abuses in its aftermath – China hasn’t fought a lot of wars in recent times, the US has.

37

Bruce Wilder 03.26.13 at 9:07 am

If you are “radical” in the sense of being anti-war, any-war, on principle, — a pacifist, if you like — you’ve taken yourself out of the political discussion. No one had to actively exclude you; you excluded yourself. There’s nothing to discuss, in your view.

The discussion, if there is to be a discussion, is going to be among those, who regard the “how” — how the war will be carried out, and toward what ends by what means — as being of primary importance. Whether there is to be a war is, for people of such views, merely a waystation on the path policy takes. There’s a debate before, and the debate continues after, just on other terms and issues.

The latter is the course of all normal policy struggles. Decisions are taken, and the discussion moves on, and sooner or later, both winners and losers reconcile themselves with the “new normal”, which follows from decision, and new controversies ensue.

I think Peter T is right; a major factor in the Iraq War was that those, who were in the debate over policy were inclined to have a policy, some policy — war was something that hadn’t been tried yet. The pathology was the intellectual bankruptcy of the foreign policy establishment: all of their policy alternatives were impotent and counterproductive and costly and brutal. And, they conducted the war in exactly the same, incompetent and corrupt manner, as they had conducted foreign policy, generally.

I think if you are against war on principle, you tend to get impatient with criticisms of the way the war was conducted. But, the people, who will actually discuss what is to be done, are the people, who are focused on how policy is to be conducted. For the pacifist, how war is to be carried out is unnecessary complication; all war is very bad, evil in its essence. But the “how” is where all effective investment in politics is made, in relation to public policy.

38

Mao Cheng Ji 03.26.13 at 9:44 am

“But the “how” is where all effective investment in politics is made, in relation to public policy.”

That is not exactly true, or at least I hope it isn’t. I hope those “policy-makers” still operate under some restrictions, even though they like to state, chillingly, that “all options are on the table”.

If all options are, indeed, on the table, then you’re right, but in that case we’re probably already doomed anyway. But if there are still options that are off the table, then that could be a topic. And you could try to push more option into the ‘off the table’ category. The problem is, they always try to avoid this discussion. But maybe they can be forced. By some ‘radicals’.

39

Guano 03.26.13 at 10:58 am

Why not explore the possibility that some of these liberal hawks were paid to say what they said?

40

Chris Bertram 03.26.13 at 11:48 am

_Why not explore the possibility that some of these liberal hawks were paid to say what they said?_

Well, allowing for the necessary substitutions:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist
(thank God!) the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

41

Anderson 03.26.13 at 11:49 am

“War itself is the most grave human rights abuse in itself and inadvertently leads to many other such abuses in its aftermath – China hasn’t fought a lot of wars in recent times, the US has.”

Okay, whatever. Never mind the Great Famine, Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution. No human rights abuses there that could compare with, oh, the invasion of Grenada.

The US has done plenty of bad stuff without one’s having to exaggerate it. Or so I would have thought.

42

rootless (@root_e) 03.26.13 at 11:57 am

” whereas it is not really very radical to just sit around denouncing other people because they have the wrong theory, is it?”

No. It seems to me that often the ideological identity that is pasted on movements, even by the participants, doesn’t mean all that much.

43

Katherine 03.26.13 at 1:35 pm

I don’t quite get the point you’re making re Bosnia and Iraq. Are you saying that they were the same, or that they were different?

I’ve got to say also that drawing parallels between “liberals” vis a vis Bosnia and Iraq runs up against the problem of time – Bosnia was the early 90’s – effectively 20 years ago, and ten years before Iraq. The liberals of the early 90’s are not the same group as the liberals of 2001, or the liberals of now. Or any other group for that matter.

44

roger gathman 03.26.13 at 3:26 pm

Katherine, I don’t think that is true. Many of the advocates of intervention in Bosnia – for instance, Peter Galbraith – played major roles in the intervention in Iraq. Ignatieff in his apology for the war specifically compares them. These two instances are just what I can think of without researching now, but I am sure I can find other players.

45

rf 03.26.13 at 3:53 pm

Roger, but just because some liberals who supported intervention in the Balkans in the 90s also supported the war in Iraq, doesnt make those interventions comparable. This (imo) was the reason (as per your 12) that Chomsky et al were ‘shut out of the debate’, because they see imperialism everywhere, even where it isnt
The interventions in the Balkans, or Libya, had their problems..but despite some similarities, they weren’t waged for the same reasons, or in the same context, as Iraq (imo)

46

Anarcissie 03.26.13 at 3:55 pm

Katherine 03.26.13 at 1:35 pm @ 43: ‘The liberals of the early 90′s are not the same group as the liberals of 2001, or the liberals of now.’

If we’re talking about the leadership castes (politicians, organizers, media and academic celebrities) they seem pretty much the same to me. Liberalism is the political system of capitalism, therefore it must be able to justify the imperialism of the moment. This however allows for disagreements about tactics. As Lupita observes @ 31, the underlying assumption is always that ‘all options are on the table’ including unprovoked aggressive war. With this assumption, the liberal leadership can then discuss whether this or that military operation is desirable. Any sort of moral consideration about killing and terrorizing people and destroying their homes and livelihoods has long since been abandoned; all that matters are the interests of oneself and one’s ruling class. A good example of this behavior was exhibited by Gore in 2002, agreeing that Saddam Hussein had WMD, but, having crucially supported the justification for the war, dissenting from the conclusion that a war was necessary to solve the (fictional) problem. This was all the war fans needed to put over their war. If I, in my monumental ignorance, knew that Bush was lying, so did Gore, but the calculus of interests is not hard to discern. This strikes me as very much in tune with Adlai Stevenson lying about Vietnam in the U.N. 37 years previously.

47

lupita 03.26.13 at 4:59 pm

Bruce Wilder@37

If you are “radical” in the sense of being anti-war, any-war, on principle, — a pacifist, if you like — you’ve taken yourself out of the political discussion.

It is not a matter of pacifism but the US’ prerogative to invade. For example, Latin America, or any other region in the world, could form an alliance in which governments adhere to regional laws that, if broken, can justify an invasion without people in Kansas having to debate the issue around their kitchen tables, American generals wave spooky vials, the New York Times editorialize about world leadership and evil abroad, patriots wave little flags, the Chamber of Commerce talk about freedom, and feminists decry anti-abortion laws. Millions would not have to march around the country and wayward governments would not have to be blackmailed into voting yes at the UN. Obama would not have to preside over the whole farce with a determined look and a clenched jaw.

It is not about invasion per se, which can sometimes be justified, but about a world system in which the US, and only the US, can invade, bomb, boycott and send drones to any country in the world after a period during which all sectors of American society play their assigned part.

48

Corey Robin 03.26.13 at 5:09 pm

James at 13 and Salient at 21: I’m sorry for the confusion and I appreciate your efforts to clarify. The reason I didn’t take Salient up on his suggestion — which I did think about — to simply identify these liberals as liberal hawks is that, as I hope the piece makes clear, I was really talking about more than the liberal hawks. And I was also talking about more than liberals who supported the Iraq War. I was first and foremost trying to identify a mindset, a theoretical and political dispensation, that made it possible for liberals to support the Iraq War. That doesn’t mean all liberals of that mindset did support the War, as I acknowledge. But it does mean that they didn’t come out of the blue with the Iraq War, that their way of thinking had been prepared by others. So that’s why I didn’t limit it to liberal hawk. But I was also trying to get at a shift that has happened within liberalism, both as a theory (hence the focus on Shklar) and as a practice. These things, I grant, are hard to measure, but where I’d say that by the early 70s the predominant strain in American liberalism (and European social democracy) was a genuine wariness and skepticism of American power, and American military power — which would come to a fruition with the election of the Watergate Babies in 1974 — that strain had, by the 1990s and early 2000s been subsumed into a more imperial strain. Again, it’s hard to measure and quantify these things, but I try to point to some of the markers of this shift in the piece. It doesn’t mean liberals as a whole made these moves, but it does mean that the chief spokespersons for liberalism, again as a theory and as a practice, had.

Which is why James is right to say I’m talking about elites and not the schmoes. I am one of those schmoes who marched against the War, but if you were one too, you’ll recall that we had very few friends in the media and not that many in the leadership of the Democratic Party.

49

roger gathman 03.26.13 at 5:16 pm

rf, of course they are comparable. The question is whether the intervention in Bosnia was legitimate, and the same thing is true of Iraq. Certainly I find the intervention in Kosovo extremely questionable. But, more generally – I don’t understand the rules of a debate in which Chomsky et al. get shut out of it because they don’t come up with the “right” answer on Bosnia, and even oppose it. Is your point: nobody should oppose certain parts of American foreign policy? That is the opinion, certainly, that prevails in D.C., but I don’t think it is a good opinion. I don’t think it serves America very well. I think it leads to a very undemocratic foreign policy, one removed from question, one that operates with blatant propaganda, and one that ultimately leads to foreign policy disasters and brutalities.

50

Bruce Wilder 03.26.13 at 5:17 pm

Mao Cheng Ji @ 38 I hope those “policy-makers” still operate under some restrictions, even though they like to state, chillingly, that “all options are on the table”. If all options are, indeed, on the table, then you’re right, but in that case we’re probably already doomed anyway.

Accepting constraints and following rules, follows from acknowledging limits on knowledge; you know some stuff in the sense that you have a rough model that organizes and makes sense of some of the data, you don’t know other stuff, and there are risks and consequences no matter what you do, or don’t do. There’s a deep “complexity-of-information” problem, as Lee A. Arnold called it above. Collectively, we are threading through a swamp in the dark, and a lot of the public discourse on public policy isn’t about the particular issues of public policy, like war or not-war, but about how to handle the “complexity-of-information” problem, how to avoid getting lost, drowned or stuck in quicksand.

Pacifists don’t just advocate a point-of-view on the moral merits of violence, they advocate for a way to truncate the analysis of foreign policy. Ditto for Dick Cheney and the One Percent Doctrine. These are not just different views on the merits of violence as a means; they are arguments about how to process information.

I am more familiar with economics than foreign policy. In economics, the “free markets” doctrines underlying neoliberal “deregulation” are about how to truncate the analysis of economic problems.

My sense — and I honestly do not know how to articulate it well, so I beg patience — is that our public discourse — the global public discourse of the U.S. and Europe and Japan — on major issues of public policy — has been deteriorating in some profound way relating to the informational strategies. One aspect of that deterioration is that the competing strategies for truncating the informational complexity of the problems addressed create pathologies, by causing points-of-view to become either silo-ed or co-dependent. The pacifists silo themselves, and do not participate in the discussion of “how” war is to be carried out, with the consequence that wars happen, and wars happen very badly. There’s no useful compromise or modification of policy from the participation of pacifists in the public discourse; they are irrelevant and disregarded, and this is a consequence of the informational strategy they adopt in justifying their views. The rump, which is left after some points-of-view have opted out of the conversation to echo in their isolated silos, is co-dependent, and liable to a derangement of morals and competence. In other contexts, I’ve repeatedly tried to draw attention to the way that neoliberals want to converse solely with conservative libertarians, over economic policy, and how sick and ignorant the results tend to be.

To me, one of the most remarkable things about the Iraq War is the extent to which the public discourse deteriorated in quality. The lies were openly embraced, and went effectively unchallenged. [stifling myself, to avoid digression] I think a case can be made that the Iraq War was the stupidest mistake ever made in U.S. foreign policy; and it was carried out with a remarkable level of incompetence and corruption. I don’t want truncation to solve an informational complexity problem to mess with the recognition that “stupid mistake” forms a continuum with “incompetence and corruption”.

To a really important degree, elite policymakers really do not know their business. They do not know what they are doing. It is a secular deterioration in the ability of politics to process information and produce adaptive response. The cock-up, which is the Euro, and which is destroying the European project of 60 years, evidences the same sort of elite incompetence and mass incomprehension.

I don’t think the full extent of the debacle in Iraq and Afganistan and the War on Terror, generally, has really made an impression on the American people, at least not an impression strong enough to influence elite consensus opinion and conventional wisdom. I see articles speculating on whether we will learn any lessons, and taking a pessimistic view. I see the same kind of disconnect in the Euro crisis and the general response to the GFC and its aftermath: elite incompetence and mass incomprehension. And, then, there’s global warming, where the elite impulse seems to be: let’s burn tar!

There are ways in which valid critiques and alarm are simply gaining no traction. You can dismiss that as the ways of Power, and I’m sure that’s true to an extent, but Power has no inherent interest in being stupid, at least not this stupid.

51

rf 03.26.13 at 5:25 pm

“I’d say that by the early 70s the predominant strain in American liberalism (and European social democracy) was a genuine wariness and skepticism of American power, and American military power — which would come to a fruition with the election of the Watergate Babies in 1974 — that strain had, by the 1990s and early 2000s been subsumed into a more imperial strain.”

But wasn’t that a more general weariness and scepticism, and prevalent even in conservative foreign policy circles? Afaik there’s no evidence to show that Democrats (which we can take as liberals) have ever been more reluctant to use force than Republicans, they might use force for different purposes, but American liberals are not prone to be more sceptical of the use of force (historically)..or am I missing the point

“Which is why James is right to say I’m talking about elites and not the schmoes.”

Again though, there is evidence that the US public generally does support the use of force

52

Bruce Wilder 03.26.13 at 5:37 pm

roger gathman @ 49: I don’t understand the rules of a debate in which Chomsky et al. get shut out of it because they don’t come up with the “right” answer on Bosnia, and even oppose it.

Chomsky is something of an anarchist, a left-wing libertarian, and his favored style of argument involves an informational style featuring convenient fictions and null positions. He’ll argue that the urgent problem, to which an intervention is proposed as a solution, is not really a problem, or would not be a serious problem, if his opponents were not trying to solve it. It is not a debate frame that nurtures his opponents or improves their arguments, and, although he may succeed in increasing the moral awareness of his supporters, he doesn’t make them effective or realistic.

53

Hector_St_Clare 03.26.13 at 5:45 pm

Re: For example, Latin America, or any other region in the world, could form an alliance in which governments adhere to regional laws that, if broken, can justify an invasion without people in Kansas having to debate the issue around their kitchen tables, American generals wave spooky vials, the New York Times editorialize about world leadership and evil abroad, patriots wave little flags, the Chamber of Commerce talk about freedom, and feminists decry anti-abortion laws

Lupita,

You raise an excellent point. I particularly enjoy how you skewer feminists as just another appendage of American capitalism and imperialism.

54

rf 03.26.13 at 5:46 pm

Roger @49
I pretty much second what Bruce said. But just on 2 things

“rf, of course they are comparable”

I don’t think they were waged for the same reasons, is what I’m getting at. I think using Iraq to argue against the Balkans/Libya is disingenuous

“Is your point: nobody should oppose certain parts of American foreign policy?”

No of course not

55

rf 03.26.13 at 5:49 pm

“Latin America, or any other region in the world, could form an alliance in which governments adhere to regional laws that, if broken, can justify an invasion without people in Kansas having to debate the issue around their kitchen tables, American generals wave spooky vials, the New York Times editorialize about world leadership and evil abroad, patriots wave little flags, the Chamber of Commerce talk about freedom, and feminists decry anti-abortion laws”

But this is hardly unique to the US. Castro, for example, afaik had no problem exporting his own revolution and interfering left right and center in other peoples affairs. Neither did the Soviets..the list goes on

56

Corey Robin 03.26.13 at 5:50 pm

RF at 51: The 1970s were a bit of a watershed for both parties. Liberals in the Democratic Party had already broken with Vietnam in the late 60s (and there’s evidence to suggest even liberals in the Johnson Administration had broken with Vietnam). By the early 70s, the ascendant, if not dominant, strain was a desire in the party to “bring America home.” That strain reached its apogee among congressional Democrats in the mid 70s. The Church Committee and the Pike Committee were Ground Zero of that movement. Not always successful, never get what they fully wanted, but that’s the nature of congressional politics. On the GOP side you have an ascendant neoconservative crew that’s moving in the opposite direction. It is contending with detente on the GOP side, but by the late 1970s it is in the driver’s seat. So while I would never say liberals as such are more skeptical of American force — too many counter-examples in US history — in the 1970s that was one of the key lines of battle between the two ideologies.

57

lupita 03.26.13 at 6:10 pm

rf@55

But this is hardly unique to the US. Castro, for example, afaik had no problem exporting his own revolution and interfering left right and center in other peoples affairs. Neither did the Soviets..the list goes on

The US did have some competition in pre-neoliberal times, and leftists paid dearly for it, like being thrown out of death flights and such. But what about now, 2013? Is there anything remotely comparable to the Bush doctrine out there? Does not the US reign supreme in its prerogative to invade? Is another world order being debated in government, the media, universities, or think-tanks?

As to this not being unique to the US, in what other country do people routinely debate whether to invade this or that country?

58

rootless (@root_e) 03.26.13 at 6:13 pm

Bruce Wilder @50

To me, one of the most remarkable things about the Iraq War is the extent to which the public discourse deteriorated in quality. The lies were openly embraced, and went effectively unchallenged.

On the contrary, that was the most ordinary thing about the Iraq War as per Randolph Bourne’s essay.

59

rf 03.26.13 at 6:17 pm

“Is another world order being debated in government, the media, universities, or think-tanks?”

But when there *was* another potential world order available in the shape of the USSR they behaved in lagely the same way..and if they had triumphed in the Cold War there’s little reason to imagine that they wouldn’t be ‘routinely debate (ing) whether to invade this or that country?’..and if in the futue the US hegemonic order is replaced by a Chinese one I find it difficult to imagine they’ll be any better

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rootless (@root_e) 03.26.13 at 6:23 pm

“As to this not being unique to the US, in what other country do people routinely debate whether to invade this or that country?”

True. There was no debate before Rwanda invaded Congo, Sudan’s recent attacks on South Sudan were not debated, the French invasion of Chad was not debated, nary a fucking peep before China occupied Tibet, Russia invaded Chechnya, Serbia attacked Bosnia, …

All the world is ruled by peace loving communes run on a consensus basis, except for the USA.

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lupita 03.26.13 at 6:39 pm

rf@59

the future the US hegemonic order is replaced by a Chinese one

I have heard that fear expressed many times before in the context of the US’ prerogative to invade. A unipolar world can only be presided by the US. The alternative, China, is too odious to consider. End of debate.

However, the rest of the world is not only debating, but actually creating the institutions necessary for a multipolar world. The US is not part of the process, other than to obstruct it whenever it can.

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lupita 03.26.13 at 6:55 pm

rootless @ 60

All the world is ruled by peace loving communes run on a consensus basis, except for the USA.

Do not get defensive. Really, it is a unipolar world order we live in and the US really does preside over it. This does not mean that other countries do not invade a neighbor every now and then, only that the citizens of no other country consider the whole globe a potential target nor do they think their country is in charge of policing, spreading freedom, and enforcing human rights throughout the world. That would definitely be the US. Which is why Americans, and only Americans, routinely consider the merits of invading this or that country as part of their everyday duties as citizens of the greatest nation on Earth.

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rf 03.26.13 at 7:08 pm

“However, the rest of the world is not only debating, but actually creating the institutions necessary for a multipolar world.”

Sure, but the countries/regions that are creating these institutions are doing it primarily to increase their own influence and they’re doing it in the context of an international order that you’ve acknowledged has been (largely ) created and maintained by the United States. The fact that they are able to create the institutions necessary for a multipolar world, in this context of a world order maintained by an uncontrollable US hegemon, could reasonably be seen as evidence that the United States is (at least) not as powerful as implied.

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lupita 03.26.13 at 7:18 pm

rf@63

the countries/regions that are creating these institutions are doing it primarily to increase their own influence

Primarily, CELAC was formed in Latin America to promote regional integration and counter US influence, not to increase the region’s influence anywhere else.

The fact that they are able to create the institutions necessary for a multipolar world, in this context of a world order maintained by an uncontrollable US hegemon, could reasonably be seen as evidence that the United States is (at least) not as powerful as implied.

The empire is definitely crumbling.

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Anarcissie 03.26.13 at 7:21 pm

@ 50/58 — In my personal experience of getting wars started, there was much more public resistance to Bush in 2002-2003 than to Johnson in 1965. Possibly half a million people demonstrated against Bush 2’s war in New York City even before he got it started. It didn’t make any difference, of course. Possibly cognizant of that fact in advance, the r.c. put forth a much lower quality of propaganda than in 1965, which may have contributed to the mentioned deterioration of public discourse. It was pretty offensive to be offered such poor stuff.

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Trader Joe 03.26.13 at 7:28 pm

Perhaps its naive, but I’d like to imagine that war isn’t something a President (R or D) would undertake on a 51-49 party-line vote. The decision to invade Iraq was a clear consensus decision and reflected a variety of cultural influences, which as others argued above cut across party lines. I’d pick these, but they aren’t exclusive:

1) A post 9/11 concern about national security
2) A concern that Sadaam Hussein was a bad actor and a destablizing force
3) An iniative to “root out terror at its source” which was a popular meme that enjoyed cross party support

Its difficult to find real “roots” in past liberal thinking – but is it possible that we as Americans (not libs and conservatives), after suffering 9/11, and a recession felt a collective need to flex some muscle and rid the world of an honestly bad dude?

Just like the 2009 discourse was preoccupied with Health Care reform, regardless of how costly or whether it needed to be fixed – the 2002 discourse was dominated by concerns about Iraq, regardless of how costly or whether it needed to be fixed. In hindsight we know many of the arguments were rigged – but they convinced a clear plurality at the time (we may yet find the same was true of health care reform).

I’m hardly a war hawk, but I didn’t find myself all that opposed at the time, although my hindsight view is different – as hindsight views are inclined to be.

RF has a point (at several places) – inclination to use the machinery of war doesn’t seem all that partisan – just the justifications.

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rootless (@root_e) 03.26.13 at 7:36 pm

” nor do they think their country is in charge of policing, spreading freedom, and enforcing human rights throughout the world”

No, they are often content to simply loot weaker nations where they can. Very admirable, I’m sure.

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Bruce Wilder 03.26.13 at 7:36 pm

rootless: “the most ordinary thing about the Iraq War”

Truth is the first casualty of war and all that? Too easy.

Bourne’s essay (which I think is brilliant) is a reaction to the socialist surprise at discovering political solidarity with the state could overwhelm all the pious rubbish of socialist rhetoric and theoretical ideology.

The Iraq War did not mobilize the American nation-state at all. We were told to go shopping. It was at an opposite extreme from WWI or WWII, though some of the rhetorical forms were preserved and re-used as farce and self-parody. The President’s “strategic objective” was “success”. I’m sure you can find commenters on this website, who will assure us all that it was most definitely not about oil, but very little effort was placed on rationalizing the war’s purposes, or planning the war’s conduct, either within responsible elites or for consumption in mass comprehension.

If you want to take a cynic’s distant view, then my complaint is like the Woody Allen joke about the old ladies complaining about the food at a Catskill’s resort: “the food here is terrible” says one, and the other replies, “yes, and the portions are so small”. The lies were few and transparent; very little effort was made to spin them out into rationalizations, for planning or mobilizing or convincing. Woodrow Wilson’s “make the world safe for democracy” may have been a lie, by Bourne’s standards, but it was an elaborate one.

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rootless (@root_e) 03.26.13 at 8:11 pm

Bruce Wilder:

The Iraq War did not mobilize the American nation-state at all. We were told to go shopping. It was at an opposite extreme from WWI or WWII, though some of the rhetorical forms were preserved and re-used as farce and self-parody.

But it was an attempt to mobilize the nation-state and it was eventually defeated by a combination of the ineptness of the management and the unexpectedly strong public and elite opposition. As Anarcissie points out, the Vietnam war rollout unified the elite, the intellectuals, and the public. Opposition was limited to a fringe for a long time. The Bush administration got the press and much of the intellectual class to buy in and were able to create a short lived wave of public support – which was all expected. But in place of Frank Church only complaining in private and the very slow hesitant opposition of a few politicians, and literally only hundreds of pacifists protesting, you got immediate strong opposition from some establishment liberals like Ted Kennedy, millions of people in the streets and mainstream politicians saying things like

What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

So I think Corey has it backwards: the Iraq war showed a surprisingly strong resistance to state power by the liberals. To me the surprise is not that, having taken the White House, the neo-cons were able to mobilize support for their war, but that they ran into strong immediate resistance. To expect that the Bush administration would have been forestalled from going to war would be to be naive- once they succeeded in their coup against Gore that was a matter of time.

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William Timberman 03.26.13 at 8:12 pm

Power itself is certainly not tired, but its rationalist apologists and their rationalizations do seem to be, I’d agree. Perhaps when you believe you have all the advantages, the exercise of power doesn’t require doing the homework necessary for a seamlessly rational defense of what for one reason or another, you’d feel compelled to do regardless. If George Kennan was a thoughtful, though never altogether reluctant wielder of state power, George Bush, Dick Cheney and their yes-men and women both in and out of the institutes of influence, were clearly not merely eager and arrogant, but lazy as well. The result was as insulting to our supposed traditions as it was murderous.

Too bad for the thousands of hapless Afghans and Iraqis marked down on the scoresheet as collateral damage. Too bad for us, too, even though all we were expected to do was cheer.

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roger gathman 03.26.13 at 8:17 pm

Bruce, I dont see any reason for Chomsky’s polemic to fall into the debate mode. Chomsky’s ideas, i think,could easily be recast in a nice debate form by other people – which is what happens all the time, Is john gaddis a good debater? George kennan? I dont think so. Debate is a different skill set. When I compare say Thomas Friedman on Charlie Rose and Chomsky, I dont really see a difference in debating acumen. However, Friedman can rely on a set of assumptions that he shares with Charlie Rose, which eases conversation. Chomsky has to challenge certain of those assumptions and carve out his own.
However, this kind of groundwork can suddenly snap into place, not because Chomsky or his type of intellectual suddenly becomes more skilled in debate, but because the context of assumptions becomes more friendly, or changes in some way.
I think you are mistaken to take, on the one hand, this boyscoutish view that foreign policy has to do with “debate” and the “conversation”, and on the other hand, the view that soft pieties of socialism or pacifism never have a chance. On the contrary, I think Tolstoyan pacifism has had some astonishingly successful inheritors: Gandhi, for one, and Martin Luther King Jr., for another. That America has not had a race war is, I think, an incredible thing – it has all the properties of the kind of place that should have had a Haiti or two. King in that respect might be the most successful politician in at least the later half of the 20th century in the U.S. Of course you could say that the U.S. just substituted the mass jailing of blacks for Jim Crow, and there is something to that. Still, King’s was the triumph not of debate – I don’t think any segregationists were won over by debate – as of a pacifist strategy. A very good one.
Myself, I like much of what Chomsky says, and I like the pacifist baseline. But in cases like the Iraq war, where it was evident that the double sanction strategy started by Carter had ossified into an unworkable format, nobody even in the antiwar camp and no pacifist that I heard of was suggesting that this was the problem, and one easily solved by simply dissolving the sanctions on Iran – which is what Israel, after all, was urging in the late 80s, when they were selling weapons to Khomenei. This is a foreign policy strategy inspired by Wallace Steven’s fourteen ways of looking at a blackbird – there are many more ways of looking at foreign policy than are on display in D.C.

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Corey Robin 03.26.13 at 8:30 pm

Rootless at 69: “So I think Corey has it backwards: the Iraq war showed a surprisingly strong resistance to state power by the liberals.” No, very hard to make that case. Compare the Senate vote on the Gulf War, for which there was a much much stronger legal justification (and even moral justification, though I wasn’t in favor of that war either) to the Iraq War. In the first war, 10 out of 55 Senate Democrats voted in favor; almost all of the 10 were from the South, 9 of them were conservative, and one became a Republican. With the exception of Lieberman (and we know where he wound up), every liberal Democrat in the Senate voted against the Gulf War. Fast forward to the Iraq War (and see above for the stats there). Prominent liberals vote in favor of a war that has far less legal and moral justification. That you’d have to cite the speech of a completely unknown state senator from Illinois as one of your examples of strong liberal resistance should tell you something. And that all those liberals who voted in favor of that war wound up in the cabinet of that state senator when he became president should also tell you something. What was remarkable about the Iraq War was how early the popular resistance to it emerged. That is true. But among liberals in the government and in the media it was a real reversal from what you saw among liberals in the 70s and even into the 80s. The whole reason Reagan was forced to fund death squads in Central America rather than send in the troops himself — and then illegally sell arms in order to fund the Contras — was precisely because a liberalism that was skeptical of the US empire was strong enough — in the culture at large and in DC — to stop him from doing what the US empire had historically done in Latin America.

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Donald Johnson 03.26.13 at 8:53 pm

“But among liberals in the government and in the media it was a real reversal from what you saw among liberals in the 70s and even into the 80s. The whole reason Reagan was forced to fund death squads in Central America rather than send in the troops himself — and then illegally sell arms in order to fund the Contras — was precisely because a liberalism that was skeptical of the US empire was strong enough — in the culture at large and in DC — to stop him from doing what the US empire had historically done in Latin America.”

Backing up what you say is this link to a Glenn Greenwald interview with Brulin–

link

I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but apparently Democratic Senators actually said (accurately enough) that funding for the Contras and for the Salvadoran government was support for terrorism. That’s what Chomsky was saying. I was really surprised when I found this out (from reading the post above, not back in the 80’s.) All I remember from the 80’s what that when the Iran-Contra scandal broke, nobody in Congress referred to the Contras as terrorists. Instead, the issue was whether Ollie North’s “noble” motives in supporting the freedom fighters were sufficient justification for breaking the law.

Which makes me wonder if there was a noticeable change in outlook that occurred somewhere between the early 80’s and the later 80’s, or maybe Senators on national television were more reluctant to label a patriotic American like North as a supporter of terrorism.

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rootless (@root_e) 03.26.13 at 11:19 pm

Corey Robiin @72

But among liberals in the government and in the media it was a real reversal from what you saw among liberals in the 70s and even into the 80s.

The first Gulf war resolution was 1991. Is it your your argument that there was a real reversal between 1991 and 2002? It’s true that the right wing of the Democratic Party got stronger in the aftermath of Reagan/Bush 1 and a lot of the old New Deal Liberals died off to be replaced by DNC members like Hillary Clinton. Consider there were “NO” votes in 1991 from the Democratic Senators from Georgia, South Carolina, Nebraska, Kentucky, and Arkansas. None of those people could really be called “liberals” and they were not replaced by more pro-war liberals either.

But the real difference between 1991 and 2002 was (a) 9/11 and (b) that the Republicans became a lot stronger, not just in numbers of congressmen but in the fear they inspired in the demoralized remaining centrist Democrats.

As for the obscure Illinois legislator, he got a lot of political capital from that stand while George McGovern’s opposition to the Vietnam war was not all that popular. And I had already cited the most prominent liberal in the Senate for opposition to Gulf War Two.

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rootless (@root_e) 03.26.13 at 11:25 pm

Donald Johnson @73:

The change was that Reagan beat the Democrats repeatedly and that made the old guard timid and fearful. Losing elections makes politicians nervous.

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Bruce Wilder 03.26.13 at 11:48 pm

rootless: “. . . it was an attempt to mobilize the nation-state and it was eventually defeated by a combination of the ineptness of the management and the unexpectedly strong public and elite opposition.”

I’m sorry, but was something “defeated”? What was “defeated”?

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rootless (@root_e) 03.26.13 at 11:49 pm

Corey Robin @72 Part 2

The whole reason Reagan was forced to fund death squads in Central America rather than send in the troops himself — and then illegally sell arms in order to fund the Contras — was precisely because a liberalism that was skeptical of the US empire was strong enough — in the culture at large and in DC — to stop him from doing what the US empire had historically done in Latin America.

What you see as a failure of nerve and moral clarity on the part of liberals looks much more to me like a successful mobilization of the right. And things like the Boland Amendment did not stop the Reagan administration’s terror wars in Central America. If “strong liberalism” is the war in Salvador, I don’t want it.

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Corey Robin 03.26.13 at 11:54 pm

74: “George McGovern’s opposition to the Vietnam war was not all that popular. ” Actually it was extremely popular: it helped get him the nomination of a major political party (not unlike that obscure Illinois legislator), and it was by far the majority position in the country. Just not enough to get him elected president in 1972, when the economy was in recovery, and there was a sitting president on the ticket, who was hardly running on a platform of continuing the war and had in fact been reducing US troops steadily since he had come into office in 1969.

McCain of course found himself in a very different situation in 2008, most notably on the economic front.

In any event, my position is exactly what I said: starting in the 1970s liberalism was identified with real skepticism of US power, and you can see the tail end of that formation as late as the 1991 Gulf War vote. The liberal argument was still strong enough to carry all the liberals and some not so liberal. But that begins to change in the 1980s — as you point out in your comment to Donald Johnson, for electoral reasons in part (other forces are at work as well) — and that change comes to a fruition after 9/11. So that the vote on the Iraq War, far from demonstrating what you said above — “a surprisingly strong resistance to state power by the liberals” — demonstrates just the opposite. Again, at the level of elite opinion, which, as I’ve made clear all along, is the subject of this post.

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Corey Robin 03.27.13 at 12:03 am

Rootless at 77: You’re doing what you do when you cease to be interested in a substantive question (and where you show some genuine intellectual curiosity) and revert to merely wanting to defend today’s Democratic Party and/or today’s liberal against what you take to be its enemies. Sorry, not interested. Take it to your sparring partners at Daily Kos or wherever it is that people do that kind of thing. You’ll find yourself much more congenial company over there, as they’re interested in the exact same game, just from the other side. I’m done with you.

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rootless (@root_e) 03.27.13 at 12:38 am

I’m sorry you took it that way, but I can tell you that I’m not attempting to defend today’s Democratic Party here. I’m sure I am older than you and remember the Contra war and Reagan era very clearly and for me, politically, that time is marked by frustration and bitterness of defeat. All those brave speeches as the Right reshaped the economy, extended political and media influence, and trampled people all over the world don’t signify a high point of Liberalism to me, they signify a high point of failure. And the demoralization and defeat of that period aided the DLC take over of the Democratic Party which had so many bad effects.

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Anderson 03.27.13 at 12:57 am

“Prominent liberals vote in favor of a war that has far less legal and moral justification.”

That’s correct of course, and it was jarring to realize how little representation liberal *voters* had in Congress. I think the problem wasn’t so much with “liberalism” as that Democratic elected representatives had ceased to behave like liberals.

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Niall McAuley 03.27.13 at 1:36 am

I remember as a child reading about isolationists in the USA who wanted to stay out of foreign wars.

That was a puzzling idea, a bit like how in The Worm Ouroboros the different races were called Witches and Imps and Demons, without any regard for what you might imagine when you hear the words Witch, Demon or Imp.

Although I still think “Queen of Pixyland” sounds hot.

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Jerry Vinokurov 03.27.13 at 4:16 pm

I don’t know that this is really a competing hypothesis as such; maybe it’s mostly orthogonal to Corey’s OP. But anyway, my observation has been that lots of self-styled liberals actually really, really loathe anyone to the left of them. I don’t mean just find their policies repugnant in a political sense, I mean loathe them as people. Their greatest fear is that somehow, somewhere, a dirty hippie might turn out to have been right. Perhaps their philosophical underpinnings are so fragile that this would shatter their world, but I suspect the explanation is simpler: they belong to the same social class as the right-wing war champions, and they see anyone to their left as threatening that class privilege. I think the same thing ultimately drove a lot of the same resentment towards OWS, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a large number of “liberals” who supported the war did so because they just really, really wanted to stick it to the leftists.

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Bruce Wilder 03.28.13 at 3:49 pm

The problem of the soi disant liberal obscuring what it means to be a liberal (American denotation) in the early 21st century is just another manifestation of the general 50 year fading away of the Liberal Consensus of the 1950s, along with the generations for which liberal ideas had real substance and power. The 1991 Gulf War vote — the closest vote in authorizing force since the War of 1812 Wikipedia tells me — is just a milestone along the path of that long generational fade.

The masterful liberalism of the 1950s Liberal Consensus — and make no mistake, it was the master ideology of American politics, Democratic and Republican from the Fall of McCarthy until well after Nixon’s election amid the tragedy of Vietnam — had been fashioned in the New Deal battles of the Great Depression to create new institutions and, even more, in the New Deal successes realized under the cover of World War II, not least in the liberal success in defining the meaning of WWII as a “good war”, and a do-over for Wilsonian internationalism. The U.S. would correct the mistakes of WWI — there would be no armistice, only unconditional surrender leading to occupation and a forceful remaking of the political constitutions of Germany and Japan, Western Europe and East Asia. The U.S. would champion and host the new United Nations, which would have real resources and force. We talk today about the imminent end of a unipolar world, but U.S. foreign policy after WWII was aiming at establishing supranational multilateral cooperation: UN, NATO, ASEAN, OAS, GATT, etc.

The liberalism of the Liberal Consensus regarded the Great Depression, two World Wars and sixty years of Jim Crow as manifest and damning failures of conservatism. For American liberals after WWII, business and wealth were suspects to be contained by the countervailing power of the technocratic, regulatory state, heavy taxation of rents, the expert idealism of the college-educated professions, and a variety of not-for-profit public-spirited rival institutions (mutual insurance, savings & loans, charitable and public hospitals, public utilities, etc.).

The 1991 Gulf War, for someone of George H. W. Bush’s generation — he was a genuine hero of WWII, one of the youngest fighter pilots, shot down twice — was a perfect replay of the 1930s: an aggressive dictator engaged in unprovoked aggression must be met with the consensus of civilized nations, united and willing able to use force in a measured effort to contain and roll-back the aggression. Here was a clear chance to vindicate the liberal critique of Chamberlain at Munich and appeasement. He acted, frankly, with youthful idealism and the confidence and moral clarity that youthful idealism has in abundance.

Corey Robin concedes that there was a pretty good argument, on liberal principles, to support the Gulf War as Bush was conducting it. I’d say that this was the classic case for war on liberal principles: a limited response to aggression carried out supported by multilateral consensus. And, George H. W. Bush embraced that liberal case and made it his own. That self-described liberals opposed the Gulf War, exposed their own abandonment of liberalism, or at least, abandonment of the convictions and analysis, which had formed the foundation of the liberal consensus of the 1950s. Opposition did not make any sense in the liberal framework. Although they were able to marshal impressive numbers in the vote, they did so without deeply persuasive, well-anchored liberal arguments, and the course of subsequent events would discredit their judgement, as, from a liberal perspective, it should have been discredited. In the liberal view, the problem is to decide when to go to war and how to conduct a war, for what limited purposes; the ideal is a judicious judgement call, backed by systematic, expert method in operation. In the event, George H. W. Bush exemplified that kind of measured judgement, and the “so-called” liberals opposed him, opposed what had been, a generation-before, their own ideal, and, in doing so, they discredited their own fading philosophy.

Their judgement discredited by ill-chosen and false exercise in 1991, the remaining liberals were unable to oppose effectively the bad judgment of the second, farcical Bush, who chose the wrong war, for the wrong reasons, conducted in a farcically incompetent, criminal and reckless way.

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William Timberman 03.28.13 at 4:36 pm

You might also say that the first gulf war exposed with great precision exactly what was wrong with the liberal consensus forged in the wake of WWII, namely that the seeds of imperial misadventure were in fact planted by the illusion of technocratic control over uncontrollable events which everyone had — falsely — considered the greatest success of the New Deal. Interestingly, the direct lineal descent of empire from the infrastructure of the New Deal was something conservatives saw more clearly than liberals did, although their analysis of the relationship between the two was farcical. Odd, though, that the debacle of Vietnam disabused neither liberals nor conservatives of their prior illusions. Which answers, I suppose, Bob Dylan’s question of how much you have to pay to avoid going through all this twice — it was obviously more than any of us were willing or able to pay.

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Tim Wilkinson 03.28.13 at 7:43 pm

Bruce @50, 52 – I too disagree on this one.

Pacifists don’t just advocate a point-of-view on the moral merits of violence, they advocate for a way to truncate the analysis of foreign policy. Ditto for Dick Cheney and the One Percent Doctrine. These are not just different views on the merits of violence as a means; they are arguments about how to process information…The pacifists silo themselves, and do not participate in the discussion of “how” war is to be carried out, with the consequence that wars happen, and wars happen very badly. There’s no useful compromise or modification of policy from the participation of pacifists in the public discourse; they are irrelevant and disregarded, and this is a consequence of the informational strategy they adopt in justifying their views.

This reads a bit like a CIA ‘retrospective’, examining how the pacifists’ informational strategy was sufficiently alien that it sent all the wrong signals, sabotaging their own repeated attempts to draw attention, in detail, to the inadequacies of the case for war on its own terms. (Analyst’s lengthy comments relating to the period 2000-2002 redacted, for fear of damaging the National Security Interest by eroding Public Trust.)

I don’t think deontological pacifists were a big constituency, but that probably doesn’t affect my argument, since opponents of the Iraq war did not argue in terms of a principle of non-violence (non-agression, yes, but then this is the position of international norms governing armed conflict).

Those who were disregarded on grounds of ‘they would say that, they’re so anti-war’ were not irrelevant at all, they were right. If they had dropped their opposition to an Iraq War so as to concentrate on the (near-non-existent) debate about which invasion strategy is the very best of these good ideas, they would simply have added implicit support to the predominant frame. And anti-war types’ input would have been disregarded there too, on grounds that they were silo-ing themselves by being ‘international law absolutists’ or something.

[Chomsky]’ll argue that the urgent problem, to which an intervention is proposed as a solution, is not really a problem, or would not be a serious problem, if his opponents were not trying to solve it. It is not a debate frame that nurtures his opponents or improves their arguments

True, it’s not – why should it do those things? In the case of the Iraq War, for example, it is the only honest response to the ‘debate’, as it was at the time – the Iraq hawks did not offer a frame in which there just wasn’t any urgent crisis going on in Iraq. Only now that all the headline pretexts for war have been demolished, and now that there is some distance and, by some kind of reversed fallacy of hindsight, sunk coffins can be ignored, some commenters feel able to resort to a more realistic – ‘realist’ – assessment.

The ‘but seriously, folks’ kind of approach now being laid down in the second draft of history neatly sidesteps issues that were live at the time, such as international law, and whether it was really necessary to rush in so precipitately (‘no’ being a position defended in some detail IIRC by those silo-ed anti-war types). The frame becomes ‘something had to be done about Saddam one way or the other, sooner or later, so (mumble)’.

But this is quite ridiculous as a description of the situation of the war ‘planners’. Saddam was only a serious issue for them because they made him one, and they only made him one so that they could come up with a reason to invade. If they had not had a plan to invade Iraq, they would not have considered it any kind of urgent issue – all this stuff about how sanctions weren’t working very well, etc. just doesn’t get anywhere near eventuating in the conclusion ‘SHOCK AND AWE!’.

Also, The Iraq War did not mobilize the American nation-state at all. I certainly think this is true up to a point – and comments pointing out that Liberal (and much other) ‘support’ for the war was closer to acquiescence than to enthusiasm seem right so far as I can see, which suggests the OP is wrong to look for a newfound belligerence in the Liberal mindset.

(I’d add that actually, so far as its profitable to analyse a ‘Liberal’ mindset in this context, this has tended to take a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude to foreign wars; the exception has been those shortlived episodes in which complacency about foreign policy adventurism has waned, possibly due to identifiable shocks which have rendered the awful truth for a while impossible to ignore. I’d get a couple of research assistants, had I any, to see if this last idea can be made to cohere with some subset of the facts.)

But the thing is that it did ‘mobilise the American Nation-state’ enough (and ‘immobilised’ enough of it) for the limited purposes of those waging the war. We have testimony from those ‘mobilised’ to a limited extent over on the recent ‘Inspecting Iraq’ thread. Opinion management is not an all or nothing matter; it’s a highly stratified numbers game and if all you need to do is avoid massive opposition (and I suppose avoid some putative electoral meltdown), then you don’t need to put much effort into ‘mobilising’ some grassroots campaign.

The poor quality of this particular hurried effort is quite instructive, since it exposes the kind of strategies used in war propaganda in a particularly crass and obvious form. Unfortunately, it has not acted as a vaccine in very many cases, certainly not enough to provide herd immunity. The overarching slowburner, successor to the Cold War and to a lesser extent the awkward ‘War’ on Drugs, was of course the Global War on Terror – and this is much better run, having buy-in from all the usual suspects, its only weakness being that it’s not (as yet) usable directly for internal repression of anyone not plausibly depicted as muslim (it is usable indirectly for this purpose by means of ramping up the security state, of course).

The passage quoted below is so apparently naive, in particular in its appeal to the sketchy, abstract cock-up theory that I wonder if Bruce has been replaced by an impostor:

I think a case can be made that the Iraq War was the stupidest mistake ever made in U.S. foreign policy; and it was carried out with a remarkable level of incompetence and corruption. I don’t want truncation to solve an informational complexity problem to mess with the recognition that “stupid mistake” forms a continuum with “incompetence and corruption”.

To a really important degree, elite policymakers really do not know their business. They do not know what they are doing. It is a secular deterioration in the ability of politics to process information and produce adaptive response. The cock-up, which is the Euro, and which is destroying the European project of 60 years, evidences the same sort of elite incompetence and mass incomprehension.

Where is the evidence that anyone involved in fomenting the Iraq war considers it a cock-up? I don’t deny that at least some of it was badly done from any any plausible POV (I believe in a combination of impersonal but comprehensible ‘forces’, drift/cockup and intemtional/conspiratorial action) but I think many of the most grotesque aspects of the whole thing just didn’t matter to those concerned, and probably didn’t on balance damage the long-term interests of the USA as these are traditionally conceived by FP types.

Also, talking of Cold-War-Drug-War continuities, the cock-up theory, and the role of Saddam-baiting:

@84: The 1991 Gulf War, for someone of George H. W. Bush’s generation — he was a genuine hero of WWII, one of the youngest fighter pilots, shot down twice — was a perfect replay of the 1930s: an aggressive dictator engaged in unprovoked aggression must be met with the consensus of civilized nations, united and willing able to use force in a measured effort to contain and roll-back the aggression. Here was a clear chance to vindicate the liberal critique of Chamberlain at Munich and appeasement. He acted, frankly, with youthful idealism and the confidence and moral clarity that youthful idealism has in abundance.

This too, while not exactly a cock-up-over-conspiracy theory (except in a higher order sense: Liberal opponents had unknown motivations – ‘drift’ theory, as CW Mills mighht have put it – rather than detecting a conspiracy), seems naive to the point of self-parody. Youthful idealism? This would be the 67-year old oil tycoon and ex CIA chief, son of Prescott Bush who had assets confiscated in 42 to prevent his continued financing of the Nazi war effort, and who was named by Smedley Butler (this affair recently mentioned hereabouts) as one of the conspirators behind a planned right-wing coup, though like the others named, not called to testify by the House C’ttee that entirely accepted Butler’s testimony. (Last bit a slight digression or at least of dubious relevance, admittedly).

Recall where we are in history at this point. The Cold War has just ended, opening up the whole world to US expansion. Brzezsinski reports that the Middle East was at this time recognised as a vital strategic goal. The US has been backing Saddam in a war against Iran because the revolution there had removed the Shah, their only real presence there, (re-)installed by them in pref to an elected government, IIRC. (They had armed both sides, but had become clearly pro-Saddam in the latter half of the War – or in tinfoilese, Iran-Contra had been superseded by Iraqgate.)

(Within a year of inauguration, recall, Bush launches ‘Operation Just Cause’ in Panama to depose Noriega – the invasion being successfully justified to politicians and public by various deceptive means, including Drugs and Human Rights.)

With the I-I (‘WMD’) war over but inconclusive, the US still has no base in this strategic zone. The US, having noticed the massing of troops on the border, tells Saddam (via a relatively junior diplomat they sent along) in clear terms that it is not bothered whether Saddam invades Kuwait. He does so. The US squeals in mock-horror, runs to the UN, getsa the go-ahead and chases Saddam out of Kuwait – but leaves him in place. It uses the heaven-sent opportunity of Saddam ‘misreading’ the situation to install permanent garrisons in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

That, I submit, is what it was all about, and if any of this Liberals saw it that way, then that would put quite a different complexion on theior opposition (though they never seem to do very well at that opposing lark, do they – I’m roughly in agreement with Jerry V on US Liberals of the political and media classes.)

-BTW, on the impending regime change 3 in Syria, I heard some conservative saying that something must be done, but maybe the Saudis etc should do it this time (they have already been arming the rebels with full US awareness (at least) – though the news reports I’ve seen only mention Russian (-sounding) weapons like AK47s.

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Tim Wilkinson 03.28.13 at 7:45 pm

In moderation for length I guess – for which apologs; in my defence, it is a whole thread’s worth in one easy-to-skip dose…

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Bruce Wilder 03.28.13 at 8:21 pm

William Timberman @85

What was wrong with the liberal architecture, of the New Deal or the post-WWII international order, was that it made a world, which its ungrateful inheritors did not understand or appreciate, and could not competently operate. A competent and skillful operator can make something look easy, which is, in fact, terrifyingly difficult to control for the operator. The architects of the New Deal, WWII and the post-WWII international order were all about wearing a belt and suspenders, together. What they put together was designed to cope with a world of uncertainty and the limits of power. But, if you never had an experience of that uncertainty, never put your life at risk or saw friends ruined by years of unemployment or blown away on some South Pacific beach, you just didn’t get it.

It makes the generational issue paramount. The contrast between Bush père and Bush fils highlights this.

On some level, I suppose this kind of political entropy or anacyclosis is inevitable. Every institutional system is subject to corruption. Inevitable or not, we can recognize that it is corruption.

It is interesting that for a couple of generations, Chamberlain at Munich, appeasement and WWII was a seering experience and lesson, but for another Vietnam seems to have taught few lasting lessons. It is almost as if the lesson of Vietnam was that lessons are to be distrusted.

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Tim Wilkinson 03.28.13 at 11:01 pm

@84: The 1991 Gulf War, for someone of George H. W. Bush’s generation — he was a genuine hero of WWII, one of the youngest fighter pilots, shot down twice — was a perfect replay of the 1930s: an aggressive dictator engaged in unprovoked aggression must be met with the consensus of civilized nations, united and willing able to use force in a measured effort to contain and roll-back the aggression. Here was a clear chance to vindicate the liberal critique of Chamberlain at Munich and appeasement. He acted, frankly, with youthful idealism and the confidence and moral clarity that youthful idealism has in abundance.

This too, while not exactly a cock-up-over-conspiracy theory (except in a higher order sense: Liberal opposition was not to a ‘conspiratorial’ imperialist strategem, but instead just errant for undisclosed reasons – ‘drift’ theory, as CW Mills might have put it), seems naive to the point of self-parody. Youthful idealism? This would be the 67-year old oil tycoon and ex CIA chief, son of Prescott Bush who had assets confiscated in 42 to prevent his continued financing of the Nazi war effort, and who was named by Smedley Butler (this affair recently mentioned hereabouts) as one of the conspirators behind a planned right-wing coup, though like the others named, not called to testify by the House C’ttee that entirely accepted Butler’s testimony. (Last bit a slight digression, admittedly).

Recall where we are in history at this point. The Cold War has just ended, opening up the whole world to US expansion. Brzezsinski reports that the Middle East was at this time recognised as a vital strategic goal. The US has been backing Saddam in a war against Iran because the revolution there had removed the Shah, their only real presence there, (re-)installed by them in pref to an elected government, IIRC. (They had armed both sides, but had certainly backed Saddam in the latter half of the War – or in tinfoilese, Iran-Contra had been superseded by Iraqgate.)

(Within a year of inauguration, recall, Bush launches ‘Operation Just Cause’ in Panama to depose Noriega – the invasion being successfully justified to politicians and public by various deceptive means, including Drugs and Human Rights.)

With the I-I (‘WMD!’) war over but inconclusive, the US still has no base in this strategic zone. The US, having noticed the massing of troops on the border, tells Saddam (via a relatively junior diplomat they sent along) in clear terms that it is not bothered whether Saddam invades Kuwait. He goes ahead. The US squeals in mock-horror, runs to the UN, getsa the go-ahead and chases Saddam out of Kuwait – but leaves him in place. It uses the heaven-sent opportunity of Saddam ‘misreading’ the situation to install permanent garrisons in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

That, I submit, is what it was all about, and if any of the Liberals opponents saw it that way, then that would put quite a different complexion on their opposition (though they never seem to do very well at that opposing lark, do they – I’m roughly in agreement with Jerry V on US Liberals of the political and media classes, with the corollary that they have a class interest in going along with aggressive foreign policy, independently of a hatred of lefties, and which tends to place bounds on their opposition even when they are uncomfortable with the methods used.)

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novakant 03.28.13 at 11:01 pm

Bruce Wilder’s fairy-tale of righteous men made of steel forging a better world out of the ashes of the bombs they throw goes a long way in explaining the indifference of liberals to human suffering as long as the perceived cause is just – they might be preferable to the crazy neocons, but the differences are only slight. Those who have been getting the sharp end of the stick, the people wandering through the rubble amongst corpses, couldn’t care less about such noble distinctions.

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William Timberman 03.29.13 at 12:53 am

Bruce Wilder @ 87

The lesson I’d expect people supposedly as wise as Kennan, Marshall, Keynes, et al. to pass on with their blueprints to the next generation is Memento mori. I grant that they had every reason to believe that constructing a stable and lasting world order after the holocaust of two world wars in barely more than a generation was either their responsibility or no one’s. What I fault them for is forgetting that competent management skills aren’t the only virtues that the exercise of power requires.

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Bruce Wilder 03.29.13 at 1:12 am

TW: Youthful idealism? This would be the 67-year old . . .

I know how old he was. Give me a break. The “youthful idealism” to which I referred was the idealism of his own youth — my point was that people responded differently, depending upon their generation, meaning their own formative experience. Under other circumstances, I’m sure he might have responded with the cynicism and reluctance to act forthrightly of his mature years. As it was, he responded with a masterful self-confidence, which I posit was derived from the sureties of his own younger self. He thought he recognized an archetype, for which he knew the right thing to do, and he did it.

TW: “. . . if any of the Liberals opponents saw it that way, then that would put quite a different complexion on their opposition . . . “

It would put quite a different complexion on their liberalism.

Look, I don’t necessarily disagree with what you say about the shortcomings of American foreign policy. It does get hijacked on the ground by the worst sort of business interests, and, as the corruption has deepened and broadened, liberals have “drifted” toward more and more studied indifference to the ugly details. Broadly, American foreign policy in the Middle East has been handled by corrupt and incompetent hands, with the CIA among the most corrupt and incompetent. That the U.S. allies itself with Saudi Arabia, a regime which ought to be repugnant to us, and makes an enemy of Iran, which has no particular interest in hostility to the U.S. (apart from the history of hostility by the U.S. to Iran), is attributable, in large part, to the business needs of the Bush family.

And, who knows? Maybe, there was some cynical conspiracy behind the fumbling of Donald Rumsfeld and April Glaspie, which set up Saddam to invade Kuwait. Iran-Contra exposed a capacity for cynical conspiracy and stupidity, which knew few bounds.

That said, once Saddam had occupied Kuwait, it is hard to see what liberal foreign policy analysis gets you anything, but pretty much what Bush did: roll back the invasion without occupying Iraq or forcing regime change, which doesn’t come on its own. No liberal analysis can make honest sense of doing nothing; Saddam Hussein in possession of that kind of wealth and free to use his military power to intimidate Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States would be profoundly destabilizing and contrary to American and global interests. I’m not saying that someone couldn’t find good reasons to oppose the intervention from a non-liberal point-of-view, but given liberal commitments, it is hard to see much integrity at work in 1991, and that lack of integrity told in 2002.

Novakant: fairy-tale of righteous men made of steel forging a better world out of the ashes of the bombs they throw goes a long way in explaining the indifference of liberals to human suffering as long as the perceived cause is just

My point was that the 1940s didn’t seem like a fairy tale to the people, who lived thru that horrifying decade, only to those, who came after, and who knew only a calmer, safer, better fed world. I think the younger Bush, and many of the Project for a New American Century types around him, really did read the history of the Second World War and its consequences for America’s place in the world, as a fairy tale, in which the “good intentions” of high-sounding rhetoric and the confident use of force worked magic. And, as we adults know, good intentions are not the cause of consequences, nor is force the essence of power. The foreign policy of the younger Bush, compared to that of his father (whatever the other defects of his father’s foreign policy) was marked by a profound and striking immaturity of judgment and (that) vision (thing).

As Timberman @ 85 said, “the seeds of imperial misadventure were in fact planted by the illusion of technocratic control over uncontrollable events which everyone had — falsely — considered the greatest success of the New Deal . . .”

McNamara, the second-generation “Whiz Kid”, with the Best and the Brightest, created the debacle of Vietnam, and that tragedy was repeated as farce in this strange coda to the End of American Empire, as the dark side of the Boomer generation took over — the people, who dodged the draft and held in contempt the war protesters.

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Bruce Wilder 03.29.13 at 1:47 am

WT: ,“I grant that they had every reason to believe that constructing a stable and lasting world order after the holocaust of two world wars in barely more than a generation was either their responsibility or no one’s.”

I would split this, generationally. Those, who lived through the war and its aftermath as fully mature adults, by and large, embraced constructing a stable world order as their responsibility; the boomers and later often seemed to take what had been given them, as a natural order, which it was no one’s responsibility to maintain or manage.

I may be overly impressed by the success of Milton Friedman’s ideas in rationalizing schemes to take apart the carefully managed world of the New Deal economy, but it seems to me that he found a ready audience for the absurd notion that the well-balanced, well-ordered economy of the U.S. in the 1960s was an emergent property of “free markets”, and all that regulatory apparatus, the unions, professions, and non-profits and mutual companies, seen lying around were no more useful than stage props.

I wish they could have bequeathed two things: 1) the idea that politics is something you do as a community, not something you watch on teevee, or passively consume as if a ballot was a restaurant menu; 2) a healthy suspicion that the rich are dangerous and out to get them, and must be opposed at every turn by the power of government firmly in the hands of the people.

“When I consider and weigh in my mind all these commonwealths, which nowadays anywhere do flourish, so God help me, I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of commonwealth. They invent and devise all means and crafts, first how to keep safely, without fear of losing, that they have unjustly gathered together, and next how to hire and abuse the work and labor of the poor for as little money as may be. . . .these most wicked and vicious men, when they have by their insatiable covetousness divided among themselves all those things, which would have sufficed all men, yet how far be they from the wealth and felicity of the Utopian commonwealth?” Sir Thomas More, Utopia

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William Timberman 03.29.13 at 2:18 am

Well, I — and by extension, my fellow dissidents of the 60s — didn’t get to talk to the wizards of Bretton Woods, and the Marshall Plan, or the tired old general who, in a moment of clarity, realized what he and his contemporaries had actually wrought with their Arsenal of Democracy, but we did get to confront the LBJs and Clark Kerrs they left behind them. Too late by then, of course — the door had already been slammed shut on anyone who had the temerity to disturb all that basking in former glories. How far we were indeed from the wealth and felicity of the Utopian commonwealth.

First time tragedy, second time farce. Yep. Been there, done that. Thank God I’m too old for the present clown show, which neither the great ones nor the dirty hippies, it seems, saw coming in enough detail to prevent its coming to pass.

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Tim Wilkinson 03.31.13 at 1:03 pm

(The horrendously long #86 in reply to Bruce is out of moderation fwiw, some of it already resubmitted as #89)

1. I don’t think there can really be that much doubt, despite the implausible deniability, that the US expected Saddam to move on Kuwait, nor that it knew it could warn Saddam off quite easily, nor that it appeared to tell a Saddam it had inly recently been backing against Iran that it didn’t intend to get involved. even if Saddam went ahead and took ‘the whole if Iraq – i.e. Kuwait. I’m afraid a generic cockup theory seems wildly implausible here. This isn’t even a of ‘conspiracy theory’ in any usual sense – it’s a simple bit of diplomatic deception, and a bog-standard protection racket.
Just as a reminder: http://www.globalresearch.ca/gulf-war-documents-meeting-between-saddam-hussein-and-ambassador-to-iraq-april-glaspie/31145

And just assuming what I think is false, that the US were not planning in advance to do exactly what they did given this chance – sending Cheney to Saudi to ‘offer protection’, trying out all those smart bombs on Baghdad; just assuming that: if the US had happened to find Saddam’s cousin a more congenial dictator than the Kuwaiti royals, would Bush still have ‘rolled back ‘ the invasion? I doubt it.

2. GWH Bush flew a lot of missions by US standards as a kid, sure, How this affected him I don;t know – I’m not even sure if you’re saying the idea is ‘War is Hell’ or ‘War is Glorious’ or what. Perhaps his fathers discreet disgrace had some input one way or another. I’m not going to speculate on idiosyncratic psychology – but as anyone who is capable of comprehending Other Minds at all, I’m willing to draw on ordinary simple inferences about specific bits of behaviour (radical interpretation kind of thing), based on the most basic categories of belief and motive and standing facts about organisations, of course. But the US wasn’t that traumatised by the war, was it? The Holocaust no doubt made an impression but I’m not sure that even that really achieved its full iconic status until quite a bit later. Hiroshima and Nagasaki being the opening salvo in the Cold War, it’s not as if the US took much pause after having carved things up with Uncle Joe before getting involved in more military ops under the Cold War umbrella – Greece, Korea, Cuba, (Europe, esp. Italy), Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Dominica, Grenada, Libya, Angola – which the CIA seem to have escalated under GHWB.

That was my point; that the callow 20 year old pilot had been through the whole Cold War thing and a long stint as VP under Reagan; he’d seen and been involved in plenty of duplicitous military actions, and was steeped in that world. Maybe he did stumble through the thing in some kind of reverie, but he had plenty of time to get over it. He was somewhat moderate in his style and demeanor, but that is irrelevant of course. I’ve mentioned Iraqgate above, but it might be worth taking a look at the wiki entry for it – I won’t add a link for fear of moderation.

3. As for those Liberal opponents of Desert Storm, how wrong, and how un-Liberal, actually were they? Hostilities had pretty much ceased, I believe, by the time the US stepped in. In my book that means you have to think very hard indeed before starting them up again. Concerns about Saudi Arabia being threatened and regional instability are all very well, but given that the US moved in to protect Saudi anyway, that seems moot.

This document: http://socsci.colorado.edu/~beer/PAPERS/prjwgwd2.pdf mentions some of the reasons behind Liberal opposition, for example Senator Conrad (D-ND) pointing out that the Kuwaiti regime was not notably less repressive and dictatorial than Ba’athist Iraq, and suggesting a diplomatoc solution rather than immediately bombing crap out of Baghdad and Kuwait: “the sovereignty of Kuwait is a secondary issue. A well-crafted compromise can restore Kuwaiti independence. Freedom, at least as Americans understand it is not an issue in the Gulf.” Also, “The sand that Saddam
wants, and the oil under it, aren’t worth the sacrifice, and there should be no mistake; the oil is what the war is about.”

Also worth noting are the duplicitous tactics used to gain politocal and public support for invasion, such as the faked stories about the killing of babies in incubators; also the tight control over the media and use of TV images showing smart warfare, with lots of shock ‘n’ awe and no mangled corpses – lesson were learned from Viet Nam, just not the ones one might have hoped for.

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