Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

The Trouble With Liberal Hawks
June 1996 - June 2006.
Jan. 12 2004 1:11 PM

Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

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I can't wish the fall of Saddam's regime undone. Before going to Iraq I knew abstractly that it was one of the worst in modern history—and there's been plenty of stiff competition. After five weeks there, my appreciation of its terribleness is more concrete and emotional. I know that's hardly the best or only basis for foreign policy decisions, but in this case it's decisive for me: The slaughter and misery of Iraqis (and their neighbors) justified the war; it would have justified it going back to 1991, or 1988, and I never understood why there's a statute of limitations on genocide. I admired Jacob Weisberg's lucid reckoning of costs and benefits—I've been thinking very much along the same lines, with the same question mark at the end—but I honestly don't know how to weigh such things: Bush's manipulations versus no more torture, the damage to international institutions versus the end of a regional threat. What is the point system?

Rationally, Jacob has posed a very hard question—maybe impossible. But every time I try to calculate the tally, I can't make myself want another outcome.

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Ken Pollack should be congratulated: How many leading voices on this issue have subjected themselves to such honest criticism? What he got wrong he got wrong because the intelligence was mistaken. What the administration got wrong it got wrong because it didn't care about the intelligence. Like certain French intellectuals, it knew the truth apart from the facts and found its own facts to fit the truth. Anyone who doubts this should read the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's new report on weapons and the Iraq War. The United Nations comes off as a fairly effective institution; the administration version loses on every count, and it would be good to know why the president didn't know what he claimed to know. It's amazing to me that there's no national debate, no commission of inquiry, no serious congressional hearings about the way the country was systematically manipulated into war. Tonkin Gulf, by itself, was a minor deception by comparison (with major consequences, of course). Like Tom Friedman, I was always suspicious of the weapons arguments. The administration protested too much. But this doesn't mean that the weapons arguments can be bracketed or put aside—first, because the way they were made did some fairly serious damage to American democracy, and second, because they go to the heart of the debate over the Bush national security strategy, pre-emption, and international institutions. It turns out that the cobwebby world of inspectors, containment, and alliances isn't as disposable as some people thought.

I'm much less certain about the other half of Tom's argument—changing the political culture of the Arab world by breaking things—than I am about the human rights imperative. Changing the political culture of one Arab country is going to be hard enough. Before the war, no one could know what kind of political psychology we would find once the seal of Saddam's tyranny was broken. It turns out that Iraqis are a lot less grateful, a lot more suspicious and even conspiratorial, than the advocates of liberation predicted. The moral self-congratulation we saw in this country in early 2003 went a long way toward damaging the prospects of a decent postwar. Totalitarianism didn't make Iraqis better people or readier to govern themselves democratically—exactly the opposite. The margin for error was almost zero: The American occupation had about two weeks to get things right after the fall of Baghdad in order to set in motion a process that had any near-term chance of success, and it got everything wrong. The best efforts of the best Americans in Iraq are constantly undermined by the terrible decisions of policymakers in Washington. Now we're just flailing—people in both Washington and Baghdad admit privately that there is no workable plan and little faith in the competence of self-rule. I think we should stop talking about vast change in the Arab world and focus on doing what we can—even as our influence wanes by the day—to get Iraq right. Sept. 11 made us think about big ideas, global conflicts—inevitably, and rightly. But Iraq should make us think about practical knowledge and nuanced judgment. One problem with liberal hawks is that great moral dramas are always more attractive to us than difficult long-term tasks.

George Packer

Paul Berman is the author ofTerror and Liberalismand The Passion of Joschka Fischer. Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times and most recently the author ofLongitudes and Attitudes. Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a regular contributor to Slate. Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slate and is the author ofThe 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, ofIn an Uncertain World. Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International and the author ofThe Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.

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