Commentary Magazine

Liberal Hawks, RIP

The inauguration of a new president in January 2009 seemed to mark the close of an era for American foreign and security policy. Among the chief aims of President Barack Obama was an end to the war in Iraq. That conflict had become synonymous with the presidency of George W. Bush, whose supporters were widely blamed by liberals for what they viewed as a hopeless quagmire.

“The effort to bring about democracy in Iraq brought about instead a collapse in global public support for the United States.” So writes Michael Signer in his new book, Demagogue. Signer, a liberal Democrat now running for lieutenant governor of Virginia, writes of George W. Bush’s stated desire to end tyranny in this century, “It was a Platonic ambition for a decidedly non-Platonic time.” Signer is unlikely to make any pro-war speeches in his bid for lieutenant governor. But among pro-democracy liberals it was not ever thus. Only a few years ago, people like Signer were less “decidedly” sure of the Iraq War’s inadvisability. Indeed, Signer himself sounded an “emphatic yes” to the mission of ending Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq by force.

Today it is all but forgotten that the case for deposing Hussein in March 2003 was an organically liberal one. This is not to say that it was widely subscribed to, let alone defended, by most American liberals with a public presence, but to recall that it was, at least, a point of serious consideration. As the title of a December 8, 2002, New York Times magazine article by George Packer demonstrated, in the run-up to the war, there was something worth calling “The Liberal Quandary Over Iraq.”

In the early years of the Iraq War, American liberalism remade itself as a movement united in opposition to the American prosecution of the conflict. Online liberal dens, such as, that were birthed in an effort to deny, or excuse, President Bill Clinton’s infractions, and then used as virtual grief counseling centers in the wake of the 2000 presidential election, found new life as the collective mainstay of a “progressive” anti-war campaign.

Its factions grew in number, ambition, ferocity, and influence, so that more established liberal media and Democratic politicians could not but pay heed. In 2004, Markos Moulitsas, founder of the DailyKos web-log, wrote in his own electronic pages of four American employees of Blackwater USA who were killed and mutilated by insurgents in Fallujah: “I feel nothing over the death of mercenaries [sic]. They aren’t in Iraq because of orders, or because they are there trying to help the people make Iraq a better place. They are there to wage war for profit. Screw them.”

These remarks were roundly condemned at the time, so much so that there was a question whether any legitimate American politician could associate himself with the man who had made them and survive the association. But by 2006, then Democratic leader of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, was posting on Moulitsas’s site, describing the “passion and insight” of the blog’s members as “the foundation of our strong Democratic Party.” By 2007, Moulitsas could be found on Meet the Press debating congressmen on the future of the Democratic Party.


If the political climate surrounding the Iraq War had evolved so that members of Congress and producers of highly regarded Sunday morning talk shows had become comfortable in the company of so intemperate a spokesman as Moulitsas, what might that have portended for a small “hawkish” contingent of the liberal commentariat already in a “quandary” over the war?

To answer this question, one needs to look at the nature of the quandary. On ideological grounds, the liberal hawks—the essayist Paul Berman, Joe Klein of Time, Peter Beinart of the New Republic, the journalist George Packer, and Jacob Weisberg of Slate—were implying, if not outright declaring, that the case for using the U.S. military to overthrow Saddam Hussein had justice on its side.

The success of America’s largely humanitarian operation in Bosnia in the mid-1990s had left them, as George Packer wrote in his New York Times magazine article, “wanting to use American military power to serve goals like human rights and democracy—especially when it was clear that nobody else would do it.” In the wake of Bosnia, Berman wrote, “We who used to be the party of anti-intervention (because we were anti-imperialists) should now become, in the case of various dictators and genocidal situations, the party of intervention (because we are democrats).”

And it was a Democrat of the capital-D variety, President Bill Clinton, who not only oversaw the Bosnia operation but who signed the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 into law. Section 3 of the Act stated, “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.” It cited Saddam’s multiple use of weapons of mass destruction; his “pattern of deception and concealment” regarding WMD; his campaign against the Kurds, which left up to 180,000 dead; and his attempted assassination of President George H.W. Bush in 1993.

Four years later, in late 2002, Packer and the group of liberals with whom he identified believed that “American power can be turned to good ends as well as bad,” and did not “see human rights and democracy as idealistic delusions.” While today a common critique of the handling of Iraq holds that an elite cabal of ideologues carelessly put lives on the line in service of an unrealistic philosophy, the concern at the war’s inception was nearly the opposite—that its launching was insufficiently ideological.

“The one level on which [President Bush] hasn’t even tried to make a case is the level of ideas,” Packer wrote. Moreover liberals of his particular sub category saw a role for themselves in what later became characterized as a bait-and-switch scheme to connect the attacks of September 11 to Iraq. “These liberal hawks,” Packer wrote,

could give a voice to [President Bush’s] war aims, which he has largely kept to himself. They could make the case for war to suspicious Europeans and to wavering fellow Americans. They might even be able to explain the connection between Iraq and the war on terrorism.

The possibility of a liberal intellectual case for the Iraq War was a cause for celebration among the conservatives inside the administration and out. They were delighted at the prospect of the discussion of the war transcending ideological boundaries, just as the congressional vote in October 2002 to authorize the war had achieved broad bipartisan support.

So why were liberals in a “quandary”? They were being welcomed into the fight they seemed to wish to wage. But, as Packer wrote, it was precisely the possibility of such a partnership that discomfited them:

What makes the agony over Iraq particularly intense is the new role of conservatives. Members of the Bush administration who had nothing but contempt for human rights talk until the day before yesterday have grabbed the banner of democracy and are waving it on behalf of the long-suffering Iraqi people. For liberal hawks, this is painful to watch.

In retrospect, one could not ask for a more candid exposition. While Packer and his fellow travelers believed in the cause and in America’s legitimate claim to intervention, they were held back by the “painful,” “particularly intense agony” caused by their disdain for the administration of George W. Bush. Peter Beinart, another liberal interventionist, seconded Packer’s cautiousness two months later in the New Republic:

The ‘90s created a historic opening in the liberal psyche. And the Bush administration has exploited it. Its suggestion that war might not only free the people of Iraq but also set off a democratic chain reaction throughout the Middle East is tailor-made to appeal to liberals newly hopeful about American power. The national security argument for this war may be based on pessimism about the inevitable spread of weapons of mass destruction, but the political argument is based on post-1989 optimism about America’s ability to bring liberal government to every corner of the globe.

It is just this kind of liberal optimism that historically precedes liberal betrayal. Liberals support this war because they hope it will bring certain political results, but they have limited influence over whether it will be prosecuted with those results in mind.1

So, too, with Kenneth Pollack, a liberal hawk and former Clinton National Security Council staffer who had published a 528-page book in 2002 entitled The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Only weeks before the war, he felt the need to blur his alignment with President Bush’s plans, writing that, “given how far down the road the Bush Administration has taken us, I think that we have no realistic choice but to go to war this year.”

It was as if a law of physics had kicked in that compelled the liberal hawks to override any liberal agreement with Bush, no matter how logical. Packer summed up the ambivalence prophetically: “At the heart of the matter is a battle between wish and fear. Fear generally proves stronger than wish, but it leaves a taste of disappointment on the tongue.”


Thus, on the eve of the Iraq invasion, the liberal hawks were: loath to be associated with the president; on record as believing they would have “limited influence” over future events; and registering their strongest reservations not in terms of strategy, tactics, or costs but in the impressionistic language of wishes and fears. What chance did this emotionally exercised, pro-war contingent have of sticking out the nightmarish vicissitudes endemic to wars lasting more than a few months?

As it turned out, very little. Only months after the Iraqi insurgency became a scattershot menace to coalition forces, the mea culpas, pronouncements of disaster, and scapegoating began.2 In January 2004, Jacob Weisberg wrote,

I no longer think I was correct to support Bush’s invasion of Iraq last March. That’s hard for me to say, since as I noted at the outset, I’ve itched to depose Saddam Hussein by violent means, since 1991. But Bush was the wrong president to do it, and last year was the wrong moment—based on problems I didn’t perceive clearly enough because of my impatience to see our unfinished business in Iraq finally completed.

A few months later, Paul Berman wrote of the war in the New York Times, “The whole thing was done in an odd mood of hysteria and parsimony, a bad combination. It is tempting to conclude that, all in all, we would have been better off staying out of Iraq altogether—and maybe this will turn out to be the case.” Pollack wrote:

I think the war put to rest the fantasies of the neocons that we could simply arm [Iraqi exile and U.S. Intelligence source] Ahmad Chalabi and a few thousand followers (followers he still has not actually produced), give them air cover, and send them in to spark a rolling revolution.

Pollack’s criticism was curious because it bore no relation to the way the war was fought or how the Bush administration behaved in its aftermath; any notion that Chalabi’s exile movement could take over the country had been dashed almost immediately, and by the time Pollack wrote these words, Chalabi was at daggers drawn with Paul Bremer, then the American pro-consul in Baghdad.

For their part, Beinart and Packer would both go on to lay blame for their support of the war on Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi exile whose book, Republic of Fear, they claim led them astray. But if faith in Iraqi exiles had indeed been a problem in the lead-up to the war, in no way did that let liberal hawks off the hook. Pollack himself had worked closely with the exiles when he had been the Clinton National Security Council official responsible for the Persian Gulf.

Pollack’s comment is most notable because it marks the rough beginning of the earnest demonization of “the neocons.” As we have seen, the pre-war concern among the liberal hawks was not that the war would be prosecuted by a group of pro-democracy intellectuals, but rather that it was in the hands of a perceived anti-intellectual administration with a disdain for democracy promotion. Now the flaw was the ideological proclivity of democracy-promotion supporters on the right who had supposedly been guilty of wearing romantic blinders.

The attempt to distance themselves from the war they had basically supported did not go smoothly. Liberals and leftists who had opposed the war were hot on their trails and hungry to excommunicate. In an article in the Nation published in September 2004, the foreign-policy analyst Anatol Lieven wrote,

In the place of Baathist Iraq the Bush Administration and its supporters have created a brutal anarchy that is the ideal breeding ground for terrorists who really do pose a dreadful threat to the United States. . . . At present, the liberal hawks’ legs are still sticking out of the neoconservatives’ collective mouth, kicking faintly, but in a few years, at this rate, only a pathetic, muffled squeaking will remain, protesting that if only they had been in charge, all the disasters of the coming years would not have happened.

Two months later, after George W. Bush was elected to office for his second term, Beinart fought back in the pages of the New Republic. He wrote a lengthy essay condemning the liberal “softs” for keeping the Democratic party from reclaiming its tough cold war stance (and the White House). While Beinart’s target was the anti-anti-totalitarian faction that held sway with the Left, he also had harsh words for George W. Bush and the Iraq War:

For all the Bush administration’s talk about promoting freedom in the Muslim world, its efforts have been crippled by the Republican Party’s deep-seated opposition to foreign aid and nation-building, illustrated most disastrously in Iraq.

The essay earned Beinart a book deal, reportedly for $600,000, to expand his argument into a lengthy treatise. Alas for Beinart, it takes time to write a book, just as it takes time to fight a war. And over the course of the 18 months Beinart needed to convert his 6,000-word thesis into a 200-page volume called The Good Fight, the situation in Iraq had gone from problematic to severe. The February 2006 bombing of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra marked the devastating high point of a frighteningly chaotic situation. By the end of 2006, the UN was not alone in labeling Iraq a “civil war-like situation”—and Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democratic Party on Capitol Hill, was finding “passion and insight” in the world of Markos Moulitsas, where the crowd was openly rooting for an American defeat.

The publication of The Good Fight revealed that Beinart had turned tail. “I was wrong,” Beinart stated flatly about his support for the war. The critique of soft liberals that had been the originating source for the book became a secondary argument in yet another work offering a standard-issue critique of George W. Bush. And, whereas Beinart’s essay had made no mention of neoconservatism, the category makes for the second longest list of references in the book’s index.

Beinart’s point was that conservatives, neo and otherwise, would remain a foreign-policy danger because their patriotic conception of the United States, their support for American exceptionalism, “means that we do not need” to be constrained in our international actions. “In the liberal vision,” Beinart writes, “it is precisely our recognition that we are not angels that makes us exceptional.” He criticizes the Bush administration’s rejection of international institutions, and writes that it was a mistake not to make better use of UN nation-building experts in Iraq.

Of course, Bill Clinton presided over both the war and the peace in Bosnia without UN consultation—the very fight that allegedly changed the minds of the liberal hawks about the validity and utility of American military intervention. However, in an empirical sense, Beinart’s case for reversing his Iraq position does not even merit a rebuttal, because it was based on a presumption about conditions in Iraq that no longer have a correlate in reality. In January 2007, President Bush announced that the U.S. would be sending an additional 20,000 soldiers and Marines to Iraq. One month later, Gen. David Petraeus took charge. Those two changes, in combination with the “Awakening” of Iraq’s Sunni tribes to the threat of al Qaeda and Shiite militias, turned the war around. Violence has been reduced to pre-war levels; virtually all the 18 benchmarks of progress established by the U.S. Congress have been met; militias have been subdued; and election results and coalition negotiations have put power in the hands of more moderate elements.

As a result of this transformation, the books produced by Beinart and other liberal hawks now seem profoundly dated in their funereal gloom about Iraq’s future and the failure of the United States (George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate foremost among them). The latest of these is Signer’s Demagogue, which, sadly for Signer, opens with the not-so-urgent question of how to deal with Muqtada al Sadr, the renegade Iraqi Shi’ite cleric. Once again, in the time between the completion of Signer’s book and its publication, there fell the shadow. Sadr is a figure of great moment in Signer’s book; but in Iraq today, Sadr has become a neutered figure, struggling to find a place for himself by offering social services to his fellow Shi’ites.

Beinart, Signer, and their fellow liberal hawks found themselves unable to commit fully to the war effort they supported because of their distaste for Bush. They nonetheless found themselves far out on a limb with their friends and allies when the war went bad. Finally, by the time they had composed their recantations, the war was being won.

Beinart made an attempt to address the changing reality in an afterword for the 2008 edition of The Good Fight, a baldly sophistic document that makes the original hardcover look like a monument of logical argument. Beinart writes:

Democrats must not abandon George W. Bush’s effort to promote freedom around the world; they must rescue it. Bush is not wrong that the spread of democracy can make America safer. But he is wrong in acting as if once dictators go, democracy has triumphed.

This is a blatant inversion of reality. For it was, of course, Bush who fought with his every political fiber to keep Americans in Iraq to help that country stay secure and construct democratic institutions. It was his critics who have been consistently trying to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq until this very day.

What Beinart and the liberal hawks have achieved, in the end, is a surpassing incoherence that is entirely the result of their own intellectual inconsistency. And inconstancy. Had their turn toward despair been mirrored by the administration—the administration whose predilections so displeased them that they could not ally fully with it in pursuit of an aim they believed was just and necessary—the United States would have lost the war from which the liberal hawks found it so convenient to separate themselves when the going got tough. That loss would have ended even the mere consideration of American humanitarian intervention for a generation or longer.

Thus, the president the liberal hawks described with disdain before the war, viewed with discomfort when the war was not instantly won, treated with contempt when they decided to jump ship, and about whom they remained silent when he turned defeat into victory has nonetheless saved their intellectual project from destruction. Its survival is due in no way to the gyrations of the liberal hawks, whose conduct over the past seven years has provided us with a peerless contemporary portrait of ideological cowardice.


1Not all liberal hawks turned on the war. Some, such as Christopher Hitchens and Martin Peretz, continued to support the war while criticizing aspects of its prosecution.

2Packer and Beinart’s apparent concern over Bush’s indifference to human rights is rendered suspect in light of the historical record. Packer wrote that Bush had “contempt for human rights talk until the day before yesterday.” But nearly a year before those words were written, Bush delivered a State of the Union address in which he talked about “defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere.” And the president vowed that “America will take the side of brave men and women who advocate these values around the world—including the Islamic world— because we have a greater objective than eliminating threats and containing resentment.” These themes were hammered home in various speeches and press conferences throughout 2002 and early 2003. This also undoes the later argument made by repentant liberal hawk Jacob Weisberg that Bush’s policy of “Freedom Everywhere” first entered the picture nearly two years after the invasion of Iraq.

About the Author

Abe Greenwald is the senior editor of COMMENTARY and writes regularly for our blog.

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