Commentary Magazine


The Democrats’ Iraq Syndrome: Defeatists and Demagogues Call the Shots

The Washington Post has an interesting story today on the absence of the “liberal hawks” in the debate over intervention in the Syrian civil war. As the story goes on to acknowledge, they aren’t actually “silent”–as the Post calls them initially–but merely quiet and outnumbered on the left. There are prominent liberal voices quite explicitly calling for more military involvement in Syria–Vali Nasr, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Leon Wieseltier, Bill Keller. The rest are chastened by Iraq, according to this analysis.

The Post actually downplays the volume of liberal drum beating in the run-up to Iraq, saying they “provided intellectual cover on the left for President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.” In fact, after the first Gulf war it seemed Democrats in Congress were a step away from having to be physically restrained from going after Saddam Hussein themselves, war or no war. Nonetheless, the Post account isn’t wrong, merely incomplete. The rest of the post-Iraq political landscape makes it easier to understand how liberal interventionists lost the Democratic Party’s intramural contest so thoroughly.

To be fair, kernels of the complete picture are sprinkled throughout the piece. One comes in the middle of the story and describes the reaction Keller received when broaching the topic of intervention:

The few prominent liberal hawks have taken their case to high-profile platforms. Bill Keller, a former editor of the New York Times, recently acknowledged his wariness but added that “in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.” He was immediately attacked with echoes of the “Bush’s Useful Idiots” critique.

Those who follow the second link will get a reminder of just how intellectually unmoored the left came during the Iraq war. Readers are shown a 2006 London Review of Books essay by the late Tony Judt, and his description of the term and its applicability is worth quoting in full:

It is particularly ironic that the ‘Clinton generation’ of American liberal intellectuals take special pride in their ‘tough-mindedness’, in their success in casting aside the illusions and myths of the old left, for these same ‘tough’ new liberals reproduce some of that old left’s worst characteristics. They may see themselves as having migrated to the opposite shore; but they display precisely the same mixture of dogmatic faith and cultural provincialism, not to mention the exuberant enthusiasm for violent political transformation at other people’s expense, that marked their fellow-travelling predecessors across the Cold War ideological divide. The use value of such persons to ambitious, radical regimes is an old story. Indeed, intellectual camp followers of this kind were first identified by Lenin himself, who coined the term that still describes them best. Today, America’s liberal armchair warriors are the ‘useful idiots’ of the War on Terror.

The moral equivalence between American interventionists and those who conspired against their own country for the sake of foreign despots is revolting. Or at least it should be, but it wasn’t during the Bush administration, and that itself is a scandal. And it makes it much more difficult for anyone on the left to speak up in favor of intervention. If Bill Keller is going to be compared to apologists for the father of 20th-century mass murder and totalitarian terror simply for saying inaction in Syria was making him uncomfortable, then what on earth will the suffocating ideologues of the left permit liberals to say? Not much, and the rank and file have mostly complied, hence the Post story on their quiet contemplation.

Another telling detail from the Post story is an early description of the dominant line of thinking in the Obama White House: “In their absence, the military-intervention-will-only-make-things-worse school of foreign policy subscribed to by key national security figures in the West Wing continues to hold sway.” It is one thing to believe that intervention sometimes helps and sometimes hurts, depending on how it is carried out and the conditions on the ground. That there is a “school of foreign policy” known as “military-intervention-will-only-make-things-worse” is troubling enough, because another word for that attitude is “isolationism,” and still another is “defeatism.” It is troubling as well that such a school would “hold sway” in a White House that prides itself on being more thoughtful than dogmatic.

Perhaps the Post is being careless with its terminology; it should be noted that the administration is considering a no-fly zone in Syria, which would qualify as intervention and would certainly not be consistent with isolationism. (Elsewhere the Post describes the attitude not as isolationism but as “realism,” which is absolutely and inexcusably incorrect. It may be the nonsense that has become neorealism, but if self-identified realists consider this to be consistent with their perspective, then there is no longer such a thing as realism.)

Because liberal advocates of intervention seem so outnumbered, the Post wonders “whether having [human rights advisor Samantha] Power in the administration is as useful as having her as a clear voice outside it.” But that seems misguided. If advocates of intervention are being ignored, then Power would be ignored too. As it is, having a liberal interventionist advising the National Security Council hardly seems less valuable than one more likeminded voice in academia.

And there is another angle that doesn’t get the treatment it deserves by the Post story: Libya. The Obama administration wanted to “lead from behind” in Libya, which meant intervention with a light footprint. It was, by any and every yardstick, a colossal failure. Indeed, those who think the Iraq intervention produced a result unworthy of its cost must be horrified by the situation in Libya, in which we facilitated the state’s transition into violent anarchy, which has spread beyond Libya’s borders like a virus.

And as much as President Obama must be thinking about his legacy, he must also be thinking about karma. Obama’s presidential run was built on demagoguing matters of war and peace to a shameful degree. His famous 2002 speech on the war, which demonstrated just how unimpressive Obama could be when he spoke on foreign affairs, accused Karl Rove of engineering the war to distract the country from troubles at home. It was truly a humiliating moment for American liberalism when the left embraced such conspiracy mongering instead of rejecting it out of hand.

Whether Obama regrets his earlier behavior or not, he must surely be haunted by his own ghost when it comes to military intervention. No one is more responsible for the Benghazi tragedy than Obama’s handpicked successor, Hillary Clinton, and few did more to engineer the dangerous anarchy that preceded the attack than Obama, with his predilection to lead from behind. If Obama were running for president in 2016, he knows how he would exploit Libya. Perhaps he is wondering if he is due to be on the ballot next time the way he insisted Bush was in 2008. He would surely resent it, but hopefully he could at least appreciate the irony.

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