Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

Iraq's Crack Polish Division
Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 13 2004 3:50 PM

Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

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A word about Fred Kaplan's post. Fred explains that he supported the war, for a little while, because of Colin Powell's U.N. speech—which is to say, Fred never accepted the deeper reasons for the war, given that Powell never did explain them. But here is a problem. Someone who doesn't see the deeper reasons (at least, as I understand them) is not going to be able to identify the strategic goals.

The war was brought on, in my view, by the mass totalitarian movement of the Muslim world—the totalitarian movement that, in its radical Islamist and Baathist wings, had fostered a cult of indiscriminate killing and suicide. The true strategic goal of such a war can only be to discourage and defeat that movement. The goal is to cause people all over the Muslim world to abandon the cult of mass death and suicide. What would be a complete victory? The rise of liberal societies and liberal ideas. That is because the opposite of totalitarianism is liberalism. And so, our goal has had to be: to damage and discourage the Muslim totalitarians and to hearten and aid the Muslim liberals.

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Are these strategic goals so impossible to see? On Sept. 10, 2001, the totalitarian wave in the Muslim world appeared to be at high tide. Many millions of people did think so, at least, and therefore felt inclined to give the various tendencies of the larger movement their support. In quite a few countries, the most gruesome tyrannies were in power, in the name of sundry versions of the totalitarian ideology. There seemed to be no prospect, none whatsoever, of seeing those tyrannies overthrown.

And today? The larger totalitarian movement in the Muslim world has been dealt two very powerful blows. The Taliban no longer rules Afghanistan and has been reduced to a guerrilla insurgency. The Baath in Iraq has likewise been reduced to a guerrilla insurgency. Some 45 million Afghanis and Iraqis, who had previously been confined to the lowest ranks of hell, are now engaged in a very tough fight—a fight in which there is at least a plausible hope of achieving a better society, animated by liberal values in a suitably Muslim version.

On Sept. 10, 2001, liberal-minded people in those two countries had no reason to think that life would ever be better. Today the liberal-minded Afghanis and Iraqis have been given a somewhat shaky boost, but a boost, nonetheless, which can only encourage their fellow-thinkers in other parts of the Muslim world. Strategic goals? These are the strategic goals.

Why don't people understand these goals and accomplishments? (And, therefore, why don't they lend their support, which is desperately needed, if only to undo the American blunders that Fred correctly identifies?) The blame, a lot of it, does fall on Bush, who, in addition to his other errors, has given a very muddy picture of the reasons for war and its goals, sometimes making one argument, sometimes a contradictory argument. Really, the man has a lot to answer for. I don't see how Powell has helped (though it's good to have someone with personal charm speak for the country and not leave it to Rumsfeld to give the world the willies).

But some of the blame falls as well on the anti-Bush naifs who pretend not to hear when anyone speaks about the larger reasons and goals—the people who pretend that WMD and non-existent conspiracies were the only reasons for war and pretend that the only serious goals were the arrests of a couple of men, or the achieving of a magical utopia tomorrow, and pretend that if war has still not ended, we have gotten nowhere at all. It's all too true that better leaders could have made better plans, and the French and the Germans and the United Nations could help even now, if only they would. But it ought not to be so hard to see that, even so, the prospects of the totalitarian movement are looking a lot less healthy today than they did on Sept. 10, 2001 and the prospects of Muslim liberalism are looking up, somewhat.

Fred Kaplan writes, "Please, don't talk to me about the crack Polish division." I can't help myself—I've got to talk about it. To see Polish troops taking part in the overthrow of Baathist tyranny is, in my eyes, hugely inspiring. No country on Earth has fought harder over the decades against totalitarianism than Poland, and the Poles are fighting now. Poland is not a rich country, and every society contributes what it can (if it chooses to contribute at all). But the Poles are contributing. You have only to read some of the comments by the Polish commander in Iraq to see why the Poles are there. They are the enemies of totalitarianism. They, or at least their commander, seem to understand what so many people find difficult to understand: In Iraq as in Afghanistan, a liberal war is going on—liberal in the philosophical sense, meaning liberty.

Paul Berman is the author of Terror and Liberalism and The Passion of Joschka Fischer, which is forthcoming in the spring. Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times and most recently the author of Longitudes and Attitudes. Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a regular contributor toSlate. His most recent book is A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slateand is the author of The Wizards of Armageddon. George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where his article about the occupation recently appeared. He is working on a book about America in Iraq. Kenneth M. Pollack is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Jacob Weisberg is editor of Slate and co-author, with Robert E. Rubin, of In an Uncertain World. Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International and the author of The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.

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