Two books by left-wing pundits grapple with why they supported the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq.
“The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq”
by George Packer. (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)
“Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer and its Aftermath”
by Paul Berman. (Soft Skull Press)
By Harvey Blume
The inescapable question for liberal hawks — the group of pundits that includes Paul Berman and George Packer — is what were they thinking (not to mention smoking, drinking) when they threw their weight behind the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. Did they dream that they would be running the show, with, say, Tom Friedman heading up the rebuilding of Baghdad, and Christopher Hitchens arguing the American case on Al Jazeera in his unflappable Oxbridge tones?
Or did liberal hawks somehow convince themselves that an administration they detested for its domestic policies would demonstrate reserves of idealism, honesty, and humanitarianism when it came to war?
Of course, no liberals — hawks or doves — could have stopped the invasion. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice et al — the conservative hawks, the paleo-raptors, as it were — would hardly have allowed liberals of any feather to slow the mad rush to Baghdad. But had the liberals stayed truer to themselves they would have discharged an essential moral function. And had they not gone morally AWOL, they might now have the credentials to inject sanity and perspective into an anti-war movement prone to hysteria and simplistic views of what can now be done.
Liberal hawkism has plenty of precedent in this country. Not all that long ago, Cold War liberals refused to consider that the mounting war in Southeast Asia wasn’t a good fight and couldn’t result in a good outcome. The War in Vietnam was anti-Communist, wasn’t it? That’s all that mattered to them — just as, for liberal hawks, the fact that the current war was, if nothing else, anti-Saddam, trumped all other considerations. The paralysis of Cold War liberals left my generation — that of the ’60s — with a dearth of elders we could look to for guidance about the War in Vietnam. But time, so far as politics goes, seems to have sped up since the glacial decades of Cold War. The War in Iraq unravels about as fast as it can be fought. The mistakes made by the paleo-raptors don’t take forever to undercut them.
With similar rapidity, the liberal hawks publish their second thoughts. They don’t come clean exactly, and it’s troubling that it seems so hard for them to say that they were just plain wrong to pin great hopes on Bush. But they do provide us with a deeper understanding of why they thought the way they did. That’s a virtue of Paul Berman’s “Power and the Idealists,” which shows how his kind of thinking evolved in the European context. Berman looks at how ’60s radicals like France’s Danny Cohn-Bendit (“Danny the Red,” back in the day), and Joschka Fischer, a leader of Germany’s Green Party, and for a spell, Germany’s Foreign Minister, moved from strident anti-Americanism to the idea that American intervention in Kosovo was to be celebrated as an example of humanitarian internationalism.
George Packer’s book has a different focus, recounting in spellbinding and often demoralizing detail, how badly conceived and executed the Iraq War was. Those of us who opposed the intervention to start with did so because we could or would not separate the war from the quality of the war makers. Packer notes that he was put off by all the Bush-bashing he ran into while writing his book, but it’s hard to see why. His book makes the strongest possible case that there was no way to be too suspicious of the Bush team. Packer himself accuses it of “criminal negligence” with regard to human life; he damns its members for being “swaddled in abstract ideas, convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism [and] indifferent to accountability.”
We also learn from Packer what at least two liberal hawks were drinking in that heady lead-up to the war: Packer and Berman regularly downed red wine in Berman’s favorite Brooklyn bistro, where they continued to meet on Packer’s return trips from Iraq. At one of these get-togethers, a chastened Packer worries that by the time we took Baghdad, Saddam and his Baath party were “visibly in decay,” having lost the power to “move masses of people to frenzies of hatred and violence.” And he lets himself wonder out loud why we invaded Iraq when the goal was to fight Al Qaeda.
Berman is unmoved by such piddling questions. Saddam and Al Qaeda are two faces of the same thing, he announces. The Baath party and Islamism are both “Muslim totalitarianisms,” and as such innately hostile to the Western world. Readers of Berman’s previous book, “Terror and Liberalism” (2003), will be familiar with this argument. In that volume, Berman theorized that totalitarianism wasn’t banished with the defeat of Hitler and the demise of Communism. Like a vampire, totalitarianism simply migrated to a new body — Islam — which gave it the means to once again threaten what the West holds dear.
Packer chafes at the fact that Berman’s generalities about Iraq are unaffected by painful facts on the ground, as he witnesses and reports them. Packer learns, for example, that America has too few men in Iraq to guarantee the rudiments of safety to Iraqis who were initially glad to see our troops, and that in the power vacuum Islamism has the opportunity to take hold in a “particularly virulent form.” But when Packer reports this kind of thing to Berman, he finds his friend incapable of assimilating it. According to Packer, Berman “kept comparing the situation in post totalitarian Baghdad to Prague in 1989” — no matter that, as Packer complained, Iraq was “far more violent.”
Berman’s book is a mostly engaging and informative narrative about how members of his generation — and mine — in Europe have managed to salvage what they could of their idealism, albeit in drastically altered form. Still, Berman’s prose has taken on increasingly schoolmarmish tones. He lets himself become too besotted with the ironies of left history that he savors. It’s Packer’s book that tells us where idealism can lead when fully armored against reality. Packer’s book is the one to read for unbearable and essential news about where all the hawks have led us