The war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan was anything but an intellectual’s war. If ever in American history a military response was a no-brainer, this was it. Three words explained why we fought: they attacked us.
Iraq is dicier. On the one hand, Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror is self-evidently evil and a menace. Less obvious are the reasons we should go to war with him now as opposed to, say, North Korea, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. Or, as some would have it, with nobody. The rationale behind it is complex and controversial, and it took Clinton Administration official Kenneth Pollack more than 500 pages to explain it all in The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. This is an intellectual’s war.
But where are the liberal intellectuals? Some are for it, some strongly against it, but most just grouse about it and wallow in incoherent objectionism. There is a near-religious certainty that Bush is an extremist and an idiot, and therefore wrong about everything. "A busted watch is right twice a day" is an insult even by the standard of backhanded compliments. But most liberal intellectuals won’t give Bush even that much.
Liberals are not pacifists. The Senate approved the Iraq Liberation Act without dissent when Bill Clinton was president. The overwhelming majority of liberal Democrats approved of the war against Slobodan Milosovic to end his campaign of genocide against the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo. More than ninety percent of Americans supported regime-change in Afghanistan, uniting nearly every conservative and every liberal in the nation. Only the straightjacket-left chose to sit that one out. (It cannot be stated often enough that leftists are not liberals. This is more true now than at any time since 1968, but most Americans still don’t make the distinction.)
A December poll showed the majority of registered Democrats approve of Bush’s policy on Iraq. Apparently, most of these Democrats are the working-class labor union types, rather than the intellectuals and journalists who so regularly opine against it. (Incidentally, this bolsters George Orwell’s axiom that the working class is the group most instinctively and reliably anti-fascist.)
While it is unlikely that leftists would have supported the war against the Taliban if Hillary Clinton waged it, it is almost certainly true that most mainstream liberals would support the war in Iraq if she were leading the charge against Saddam now. With only one exception, every anti-war liberal I have talked to admits this is true.
After weeks of arguing with one of my colleagues, I finally got him to concede that an American military intervention to depose Saddam Hussein is justified and appropriate. I convinced him by sending him reams of information about the brutal nature of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. He really didn’t know, and now he does, and he changed his mind. But with a catch. "This isn’t the right American administration to carry out the invasion," he said.
Robert Kagan recently wrote "Yesterday's liberal interventionists, in Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti, are today's liberal abstentionists. What changed? Just the man in the White House."
Anti-war conservatives are much more serious in their opposition. When Brett Scowcroft, for example, defends the Iraqi dictatorship, he means business. He lobbied to prop up the Soviet Union on the eve of its implosion. He wanted to leave Slobodan Milosovic and the Taliban in power. And he is a notorious apologist for the totalitarian regime in Beijing. Scowcroft and his ilk are stability junkies. Liberals place a far higher premium on human rights and democracy than on the supposed upshot of despotism.
That liberals ganged up with Scowcroft, a man they should rightly despise, is partly the fault of the Bush Administration. Bush has not emphasized the humanitarian benefits of regime-change in Iraq nearly enough. (Though you would think the erstwhile liberal hawks could figure this out on their own.) An ever-increasing number of conservative writers are advocating serious human rights abroad, but it remains that most activists and members of human rights organizations are liberals. Bush is squandering the support of these people by making liberalization a footnote in the anti-Saddam campaign.
But Bush has mentioned it. Recently he cited Amnesty International’s record on Saddam’s history of torture and genocide. Amnesty should have been elated that its work is taken seriously by the adminstration. Instead, Amnsesty’s Kamal Samari issued this baffling response: "There's no question that the regime has an appalling human rights record. But what we don't want to see for Iraq or any other country is that the human rights record is used selectively in order to achieve political goals."
George Orwell once wrote "The truth, it is felt, becomes untruth when your enemy utters it…There was even a tendency to feel that the Nanking atrocities had become, as it were, retrospectively untrue because the British Government now drew attention to them." Orwell was a leftist who took a bullet in the neck fighting fascists in Spain. Writing to his appeasement-minded comrades in Britain, he reminded them of the atrocities in Europe and said "These things really happened, that is the thing to keep one’s eye on. They happened even though Lord Halifax said they happened."
We got more of this during the Cold War. Ronald Reagan was laughed out of the room for denouncing the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire." That the Soviet Union was an empire is without question. It was animated by an expansionist ideology, it invaded and conquered its neighbors, and it fomented revolutions abroad to drag more countries into its orbit. That the Soviet Union was evil is crashingly obvious, given that its victims outnumber Hitler’s by an order of magnitude. But even Reagan’s staunchest anti-communist opponents yammered on about his "simplistic" characterization of the Soviets.
If Hillary Clinton were to go on television tomorrow and refer to the former Stalinist state as evil, would any liberal intellectual denounce her as a loose cannon or a wing nut? Of course not.
I can’t count the number of conversations I have with liberal friends and colleagues that go something like this:
Him or Her: Isn’t it strange that you’re a liberal and you agree with Bush on the war?
Me: Well, what are you doing on the same side as Pat Buchanan?
Him or Her: (Laughs)
They laugh because they know I’ve got them. No matter your opinion on Iraq, you have unlikely allies. On the one hand, so what? You’re either right or you aren’t, regardless of who else agrees. On the other hand, if this sort of thing matters to you, isn’t it better to have the so-called lesser evil as your unlikely bedfellow than the greater evil? Isn’t Bush preferable to Buchanan? And wouldn’t you rather have the Iraqi revolutionaries on your side than the fascist tyrant himself?
For decades now, Western liberals and leftists were the strongest and often only advocates of Kurdish liberation in the Middle East. Today – finally! – conservative Americans are taking an interest in liberating the Kurds, and the rest of the Iraqis, both for national security reasons and as a good cause in its own right. And the hard left, reactionary as it is, forgets the Kurds even exist. Whatever America touches is befouled, leftists think, so they’re out.
Unlike leftists, liberals know better. They supported, nay agitated, for invasion and regime-change in Serbia. Without American liberals, Slobo’s rampage would have exterminated the Muslims of Europe. The American intervention in the Balkans was launched unilaterally, without UN authorization, while nuanced European sophisticates scrambled to Slobo’s defense. Europe still thinks it impolite to root out the thugs in their bolt-holes in the Balkans.
Barham Salih, Prime Minister of the precarious Kurdish government in Northern Iraq, recently told Salon magazine, "I hope many of my human-rights activists and liberal friends who were on our side will engage in this debate and articulate their vision as forcefully as some of the other friends." Note the phrase "were on our side." He still calls these people his friends. Mr. Salih is too polite. His "friends" sold him out to Saddam for low-rent back-alley partisan points at home, and he’s okay with that. Actually, he’s not okay with it, but he is awfully gracious about it, especially since this is part of a larger pattern of betrayal.
The first president Bush was rightly criticized for abandoning the Iraqis to their deaths at the hands of Saddam after the Gulf War. And rather than side with the current Bush Administration, the American left tragically and stupidly replicates the first President Bush’s error. They will let their old friends be massacred before even quietly going along with the Bush Administration.
Mainstream liberals not mired in the fever swamps of hate-America leftism have no business chumming it up with this crowd. The Bush Administration and the liberal human rights organizations have much more in common with each other than either will admit. Each may scoff at the suggestion, and counter with the claim that the human rights organizations are opposed to the unilateral use of force. But this is nonsense. They weren’t opposed to a unilateral war against Slobo; they rightly demanded it.
Many liberal intellectuals are natural allies of the Bush Adminstration, and they know it. Paul Berman says "If their language is sincere and there is an idealism among the neo-cons that echoes and reflects in some way the language of the liberal interventionists of the 90's, well, that would be a good thing."
This is what separates grown-up liberals from reactionaries and partisan opportunists, who still see America as engaging in a trivial struggle between Democrats and Republicans, rather than America itself engaging in a titanic struggle against theocratic fascism. But Berman still won’t get on board, even though he wants to. Why? "Because," he says, "I don't actually know -- I believe that no one actually knows -- what is the actual White House policy." In the New York Times George Packer describes Berman as being "in the familiar position of intellectuals, with an arsenal of ideas and no way to deploy them."
Get over it, Paul! Roosevelt and Churchill were willing to work with Stalin, of all people, to take down Hitler’s Germany. And you think Bush is beyond the pale? The White House policy could not possibly be more clear to anyone paying attention. And if the Administration has other ideas which you don’t share, so what? How important do you think such philosophical abstractions are to an Iraqi peasant, desperate for intervention, whose family was gassed by Saddam?
It seems that liberal intellectuals need permission or ideological cover to agree with Bush on anything. If enough others go along, as they did in support of the war in Afghanistan, it’s okay. They won’t feel like partisan traitors, and their liberal credentials won’t be questioned.
So, here here, folks. All you Bosnia interventionists, hawkish anti-Taliban feminists, grown-up human rights activists, and would-be hawks-if-only-Gore-were-leading-the-charge, listen up. Like you, I’m a registered Democrat. And I stand unflinchingly against Saddam and with all the democratic forces in the world poised to depose him. Have a stiff drink, give the Bushophobia a break, and get over here. It really is okay. Only the jerks on the fringe will call you a traitor or a right-wing extremist. There are plenty of others from the Democratic Party and the left here already. Christopher Hitchens, Salman Rushdie, Ron Rosenbaum, Thomas Friedman, Steven Spielberg, Camile Paglia, Arianna Fallaci, Oprah Winfrey, Dan Savage, the "War Liberal" blogger, Bob Kerrey, Gary Hart, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, Zell Miller, Kenneth Pollack, the staff of The New Republic magazine, and even last year’s Al Gore model. If foreigners count, throw in Vaclav Havel, Shimon Peres, and Tony Blair as well.
You folks just can’t get over the fact that Bush is unsophisticated. You dug yourselves a mighty deep hole in the ground. I understand the dilemma. If you change your mind on Iraq now, it raises an awkward question. How could a dumb guy like Bush figure it out before the smart set? This is a good time to remember the First Rule of Holes. When you’re in one, stop digging.
If you don’t join us now, when Saddam’s regime falls and Iraqis cheer the US Marines, you are really going to feel like a jackass. And your jackassery will be exposed beneath klieg lights for all to see. Remember the Chomskyites who got everything wrong in Afghanistan? Remember the Europeans who wanted to give the Butcher in Belgrade one more chance? That is not where you want to be right now. The liberation of Iraq and the democratic transformation of the Middle East is the most progressive cause in the world today. It is the right side of history, and if you stand in the way or sit on the sidelines, your liberal humanitarian credentials are toast.
Michael J. Totten is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.