On Being a Liberal Hawk

I came late to the party when it comes to those who support invading Iraq, and in so doing, staking out what is in essence the second act in the defanging of aggressive Islamism.

Because, in reality that’s what we’re doing.

And while I came late to the party, and remain consistently somewhere between annoyance and anxiety as I watch the current Administration’s actions, I’m a believer that the balloon should go up, and should do so soon.

I need to support two points here:

1) That invading Iraq is a good idea, and that the most likely consequences are good ones, and that the potential risks are themselves better than those which follow from taking no action;

2) That the current Administration hasn’t done a good job of ‘rallying the troops’ – even in light of the unassailable fact that many countries would be opposing action even if there were a ‘smoking gun’ in the form of airline tickets for the 9/11 hijackers bought with Saddam’s American Express card (does he have one, I wonder?).

First, let me offer my brief supporting argument for the case that invasion…and invasion now is a good idea.

My fundamental principle isn’t vengeance, it isn’t anger at Arabs in general or even Hussein in specific. It is that we need to unravel the knot presented by the interfaces between Islam and the West and do so quickly and aggressively.

I’m not going to recite Bernard Lewis or argue with Edward Said at length here (even if I were capable of it). It seems to me that there is an unassailable set of factual events that cluster around the following themes:

The Islamic world is growing in population and influence, financed in large part by the liquid wealth given the Arab Middle East by their national control of their oil resources (as opposed to private control by individuals within the countries). There are stated national objectives and ideologies that actively promote the aggressive expansion of Islam as a religion – which his a common trait to most religions – and as a national organizing principle. We have somehow seen a welding of Arab nationalism – Nasserite Nationalism – to the traditional Islamic imagery of spreading the word of the Q’uran.

This implies certain direct challenges to the stature and power of the West.

The trapped potential energy feeding this process is the huge pool of underemployed, alienated, disaffected people who are simultaneously physically supported and oppressed by their paternalistic governments, which governments encourage messianic expansionism as a way of deflecting the dissatisfaction and frustration of their own populations.

These governments are literally riding the tiger, with no way to dismount.
Both because powerful interests in the West are directly allied with those governments – to ensure the stability of energy supplies, and to participate in the recycling of the liquid wealth created by the exploitation of those energy supplies – we have turned a blind eye to the deep well of pan-nationalistic hatred that these governments have managed to keep just below a boil, by directing that hatred at Israel and the West.

I have a few friends who are Iraqi and Iranian immigrants; while they do not constitute a broad enough sample to talk with any statistical validity, and they are self-selected as people who chose to emigrate to the U.S., they consistently point out to me that I don’t understand the depth of anger – at the U.S. particularly – in the population. One friend described it as “the anger of a jilted boyfriend” because it is leavened with strong strains of attraction and desire, and cycles between a kind of hopeful desire and frustrated rage.

I know I sound kind of like Den Beste here.

I think that we, in the West…in London, and Paris, and Washington D.C. were active participants in creating this. Like Greek tragedies in which the cycles of error and consequence reappear generation after generation, the drama of Europe’s battles with the Arab world, invasion (by the Arabs), followed by counterinvasion, followed by counter invasion, followed by colonial rule, followed by thoughtless decolonialization, followed by neglect, followed by avaricious friendship as we sought to exploit the resources that were found there. This is just the latest act in an endless chain of wrongs and counter-wrongs that have come down through history.

So I think we have an obligation to sort it out.

But while many liberals, in the true spirit of Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, feel that our job is to simply sit and absorb their rage and then open our checkbooks, I think we’ve let things get more than a bit past the point where that might work.

The pattern of Arab terrorism, unlike Irish terrorism, or Tamil terrorism, has been expansionist and ambitious. Unlike the IRA, who at the height of the recent insurrection, struck at British power either through attacks on British soldiers in Ulster or through largely symbolic attacks on the British mainland, the Islamist battle against the West has escalated from aircraft hijackings to Olympic terror, to hijacking ocean liners, to the original attack on the WTC, to the Cole to 9/11.

And while in fact, the Clinton Administration was somewhat effective in following a ‘legalistic’ arrest and try strategy, it obviously hasn’t worked. I’ve always been annoyed at the righties who claimed that Clinton was snoozing at the switch and that the only U.S. response to terrorism was to lob a cruise missile into an aspirin plant.

The reality is that Clinton’s team was highly focussed on terrorism…but on terrorism as crime, as opposed to as an instrument of war. We focussed on identifying the actual perpetrators, and attempting to arrest them or cause their arrest.

This is pretty much the typical liberal response to 9/11. Send in SWAT, pull ‘em out in cuffs, and let’s sit back and watch the fun on Court TV.

I’ve been ambivalent about whether this is a good strategy conceptually, and looking at the history…in which we’re batting about .600 in arresting and trying Islamist terrorists…I have come to the realization that the fact is that it hasn’t worked. The level and intensity of terrorist actions increased, all the way through 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.

And a part of what I have realized is that as long as states – particularly wealthy states – are willing to explicitly house terrorists and their infrastructure, or implicitly turn a blind eye to their recruitment and funding, we can’t use the kind of ‘police’ tactics that worked against Baader-Meinhof or the Red Army Faction. The Soviet Union and it’s proxies offered limited support to these terrorist gangs, but they didn’t have a national population to recruit from and bases and infrastructure that only a state can provide.

So unless we shock the states supporting terrorism into stopping, the problem will get worse. Note that it will probably get somewhat worse if we do…but that’s weather, and I’m worried about climate.

What’s wrong with that? The reality is that even in a worst-case scenario such as I painted in Armed Liberal, our losses would be limited and readily survivable.

But I don’t think our reaction would be. I believe that a sufficiently aggressive terrorist action against the United States could well result in the simple end of the Islamic world as we know it. I believe that if nukes were detonated in San Pedro and Alameda and Red Hook that there’s a non-trivial chance that we would simply start vaporizing Arab cities until our rage was sated.

I’d rather that didn’t happen. I’d rather that San Pedro, Alameda, and Red Hook stayed whole and safe as well, and I believe the answer is to end the state support of terrorism and the state campaigns of hatred aimed at the U.S. I think that Iraq simply has drawn the lucky straw. They are weak, not liked, bluntly in violation of international law, and as our friends the French say, about to get hung pour l’ecourager les autres…to encourage the others.

Now this may seem like a week reed on which to base a war.

But it is stronger than it appears.

First, there is a legitimate case for regime change in Iraq, regardless. I’ll refer the reader back to Salon in 1998:

Until the Gulf War, I had always been on the pacifist side of the argument in all the conflicts of my lifetime. Vietnam, Panama, the Falklands — I protested them all. And then in 1988, on a searing summer day, I stepped off a plane in Baghdad and began my acquaintance with a regime of such unfathomable cruelty that it changed my views on the use of force.

I learned from Iraqi dissidents about mothers, under interrogation, tortured by the cries of their own starving infants whom they weren’t allowed to breast-feed; about thalium, the slow-acting rat poison Saddam Hussein used on his enemies; about Iraqi government employees whose official job description was “violator of women’s honor” — i.e., prison rapist.

One bright spring day during the Kurdish uprising, I followed Kurds into the security prison they’d just liberated in northern Iraq. It was dim in the underground cells, so my face was only inches from the wall before I was sure what I was looking at. Long, rusty nails had been driven into the plaster. Around them curled small pieces of human flesh. One withered curve of cartilage looked like part of an ear.

I’m home now in my own liberal, pacifist country, Australia. Within a couple of hours of the news of the latest Baghdad bombings, people in Sydney were in the streets, demonstrating against them. Friends were on the phone, upset: “Terrible, isn’t it? And at this time of the year! Whatever happened to peace on earth, goodwill to men?” Local pundits argued on the television, decrying American bully-boy tactics against a small and defanged Arab country. I agreed with almost everything they said: Yes, the slaughter and injury of Iraqi civilians is tragic. And yes, the timing of the bombing is the worst kind of political cynicism. And yes, it is questionable what effect this new onslaught will have on Iraq’s weapons capability. And yet I disagreed with their conclusion: that this bombing is therefore wrong.

The West’s great crimes in Iraq are not the latest bombings, but the years of inaction: ignoring the use of poison gas in the theaters of the Iran-Iraq war; ignoring it again in Halabja and other rebellious Iraqi cities; ignoring the vast human and environmental devastation since the Gulf War in the mostly Shiite regions of southern Iraq, where the ancient wetlands of Mesopotamia and the unique culture of the marsh Arabs have been wiped out by a series of dams and diversions designed to starve a minority into submission.

Opponents of the bombing say that dealing with Iraq should be left with the United Nations and its gentle leader, Kofi Annan. But Annan is a peacemaker, and a peacemaker isn’t necessarily what’s required in Iraq, any more than it was in Bosnia. Sarajevans will tell you of the agonies caused by the U.N.’s “evenhanded diplomacy” — the pressures to accept any kind of unjust peace the Serbs happened to offer. The history of the United Nations has shown that the organization is most useful in keeping peace between belligerents who have decided they no longer wish to fight. But recent experience has shown that the organization is both inept at, and degraded by, its insertion into conflicts where one or both parties have no wish for peace.

After I left the Middle East, I spent some time covering the United Nations at its headquarters in New York and in the field in Bosnia and Somalia. During that time, I learned that people who go to work for the United Nations often do so because they believe that war is the greatest evil and that force is never justified. In Somalia, one U.N. staffer broke into sobs in front of me because instead of keeping peace, her job had become the administration of a war.

It is impossible to imagine the bureaucrats of the United Nations accepting the kind of harsh conclusion that may be necessary in the case of Saddam Hussein: that the bombs should continue to fall until he does. Iraqis will die. But they are dying now, by the scores and the hundreds, in horrible pain, in the dark security prisons with the blood on the walls and the excrement on the floor.

I wish I still believed, as I used to, that the United Nations was always the world’s best chance to avert bloodshed. I wish I could join, as I once would have, the placard-waving peace protesters outside the U.S. Consulate here in Sydney.

I wish I’d never seen the piece of ear nailed to the wall.

I certainly don’t have much to add to that, except to go back to the 1960’s and one of the great liberal speeches of my childhood.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

I haven’t forgotten Kennedy’s follies…the Bay of Pigs and the stealthy tread of our advisers into Vietnam. But we’ve lived in the shadow of our withdrawal from that pledge now for forty years, and the result is a smoking hole in downtown Manhattan.

The war is here. We must know that part of the cause is on our house, and accept the guilt and determination to do better which that should bring with it. But we can have war now, on our terms, with the narrow possibility of a juster future built on it – or we can have war later, with consequences both here and abroad that I don’t want to have to think about.

So I’ve chosen war now. Not out of vengeance for our three thousand dead, because in the overall scales of injustice and pain in the 20th century, they represent less than our share. If I know it would end there, I believe that I would rage and grieve and work to find it in myself to turn another cheek.

But it won’t. And we can’t. Not only our lives depend on it, but the lives of all those who will be killed – by us – if the war becomes as terrible as it might.

So that’s why I support the war.

And, so supporting the war as I do, I believe it should be soon…before spring drags on too far, before our troops’ readiness declines, and before Hussein has opportunities to improve his defenses and further torment his people.

Sadly, it has little to do with the leadership provided by President Bush. Admittedly, he is being dealt a tough hand to play. But he could play it better.

Sometimes you have to eat your words.

I had a heated correspondence with a friend of Tenacious G’s about the 2000 election, and my willingness to support Nader – as a protest vote – over Gore. look back at our emails, I find a quite that is both prescient and at the same time incredibly wrong.

Look, every job has one core “action” – one thing that represents the irreducible essence of the job. In the case of the Presidency, the core action is to go on national TV and explain that we’ve bombed the shit out of someone or that we’re sending several hundred thousand of our sons and daughters off to some remote place to kill or be killed.

Tell me you can ever imagine Gore doing this? I can’t. I can imagine Bush doing it…worried, smirking…but still ‘selling’ it…and to me that offsets the limited policy preference I have for Gore and makes this whole thing a push. I’m indifferent as to who wins, and that’s a big part of the reason why.

Most wars have to be sold. Seldom is the perceived need for war strong enough overcome people’s reluctance to fight until the enemy is at the gates…at which point it is often too late. Much of Thucydides is about the efforts of various Greek leaders to rally the reluctant city-states to support the Persian war.

This is damn hard to do in the modern era, because the ways wars are seen…unfiltered, raw, live on television, tends to focus our attention intently on the costs of war. Blood, carnage, pain, suffering, grief. That’s good television. Good visual journalism shows the policeman executing the bound civilian-clad captive with a bullet to the head; it can’t give the backstory where the captive was a captured enemy assassin who was executed in the middle of a running battle. I’m far from sure that the backstory justifies the brutal act…but it frames it into an understandable human context, without which it is simple brutality.

And it is especially hard to do in the context of the modern philosophical crisis, in which we in the West seem to almost yearn for our own destruction.

But Bush has failed to sell this war in three arenas.

He has failed to sell it (as well as it should have been) to the U.S. people. The reality of 9/11 has sold this war, and our atavistic desire for revenge is the engine that drives the support that Bush actually has.

He has failed to sell it diplomatically. Not that he could have ever gotten the support of France or Germany; as noted above, even with an AmEx receipt for the 9/11 plane tickets signed by Saddam himself, France would find a reason to defer this war. But he should never have let them get the moral high ground, which they have somehow managed to claim.

He has failed to sell it to our enemies, who do not believe today that we are serious about achieving our stated goals. This is, to me the most serious one, because the perception that we are not deadly serious is a perception that we are weak; and we will have to fight harder, not because we are too strong, but because we will be perceived as too weak.

I’ll expand on these tomorrow.

6 thoughts on “On Being a Liberal Hawk”

  1. A post that demonstrates well why Joe invited you on the Winds. I agree about Bush’s first two failures but not the third and fourth.

    The third, a failure to sell our enemies is premature. The sales pitch has not even begun. Sensing and Den Beste may narrow the argument to 24 hour periods, but it now seems pretty certain that within the next 150 hours the real sales pitch will begin. I think the sale will be closed 100 hours later. That’s a pretty short sales cycle. A whole lot of small orders are also being taken from al-Queda at the same time.

    The fourth sale is to history. What you perceive as his failure to sell enemies will be seen as an attempt to sell it diplomatically to allies who were sending no buying signals. You are correct that it was unfortunate that he could not counter this, but sometimes the customer just doesn’t want to buy. When we know the rest of the story, history will be a less harsh judge.

    This was a product Bill Clinton, master salesman, could never move. Sure, he kept making calls and turning in expense reports, but he never asked for the signature, even when he had buying signals from the allies in 1998. Bush is not as good a salesman, but at least he asked for the signature. Sometimes the customer is just wrong.

  2. our atavistic desire for revenge is the engine that drives the support

    I don’t think I’ve yet seen anyone who supports this war cite a desire for “revenge” as a reason. (Fear of the enemy, yes. Various other motives that aren’t altruistic.) Even if you have, do you really think there’s any evidence at all that this is a major motivation, let alone the “engine that drives the support”?

    I know this is a popular anti-war assumption – I *have* read many arguments that ” we should set aside vengeance” and “atavistic impulses are no reason to fight a war”, etc. – but I don’t see support for it.

  3. “The trapped potential energy feeding this process is the huge pool of underemployed, alienated, disaffected people who are simultaneously physically supported and oppressed by their paternalistic governments, which governments encourage messianic expansionism as a way of deflecting the dissatisfaction and frustration of their own populations.”

    I agree – so how is attacking Saddam (secular, enemy of islamism) going to stop the processes you mention (processes encouraged by saudi and egypt, americas best middle-east allies).

    You appear to think that by attacking and villifying Arabs and supporting the actual dictatorships that support Islamism, you will somehow convert their thinking to something compatible with ours? You don’t think there is a chance they will become even more angry? US policy is already aimed at selling out the Iraqis. Bush tried to sell out the Kurds to get Turkish support, and it is highly likely he will sell out any chance of real deomcracy to keep the Saudis and Egyptians happy.

    If you think slaughtering thousands of Iraqis is miraculously going to make a difference then you are in cloud cookoo land. World War three is more likely as bush and his warmongers attack any country that takes their fancy over the next decade or two. And what happened to democracy in the rest of the world? how many nasty little (or big) dictators is Bush supporting in order to get his military basis and ‘fight terror’. Any two bit dictator with an internal problem that he can declare to be international islamist will get Bush’s unstinting support.

  4. dave –

    1) Many Arabs are already pretty angry with us, as residents of New York and Washington DC can attest. How much angrier do you think they can get?

    2) I think we need to ‘shock’ the Arab dictatorships that have gotten a free ride from us in the past – including Hussein. Deposing Hussein will, I believe have that effect. Will it be destabilizing? Yes, certainly. Will it be better than letting that engine run unchecked for another few years, building up hatred and passion? Yes, I think so as well.

    3) The reality is that we cannot attack Egypt and Saudi (oh, physically, we could, but that brings on the Bad Scenario I’m trying to avoid). But there needs to be some event that will offer some possibility of turning these countries from the path they are on.

    4) Thousands of lives will be lost, absolutely. But the problem is here; it’s not being created by the diagnosis. The conflict is here, is isn’t being imagined by some group of hysterics. It’s been brought to our doorstep, and it will continue to wash against our shores, unless we take some steps to solve it.

    5) Democracy is somewhat overrated as a solution. Pure democracy isn’t a very stable form of government, even when it’s present in relatively stable societies. We don’t live in a pure democracy, and I’m grateful for that.


  5. “in light of the unassailable fact that many countries would be opposing action even if there were a ‘smoking gun’ ”

    How can you even begin to call that a fact, much less an unassailable one? It’s a hypothetical situation you made up.

    There’s not much of a conclusion, anyway. “Many countries” could mean 4-6. I mean I don’t know, that’s not very specific.

    I mean, let’s face it, many countries opposed our action in Afganistan, like …. uh….. Afghanistan. And Iraq!

    And the first Iraq war! Lots of countries opposed that war, like ……. uh…….. Iraq!

    Other countries will always oppose us. That’s a real strong conclusion.

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