Sunday, October 30, 2005

Restating the moral case for the Iraq war - Thomas Cushman, ed., A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE

Here are two useful reviews of an important book edited by Thomas Cushman, A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for the War in Iraq (University of California Press, 2005). To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure that this title fully captures the substance of the book. The main title is a bit unspecific, and it seems to me that the subtitle is incomplete in a potentially misleading way, since the arguments collected in this book don't approach the 2003 Iraq war exclusively as a "humanitarian" intervention. They range over a somewhat wider field than that, with many of them also including significant pro-democratic, anti-fascist, and left- or liberal-internationalist elements, as well as appeals to prudential concerns and political realism (as distinct the narrower, and at times dubiously realistic, perspective associated with so-called foreign-policy "realism"), in various combinations.

However, those are quibbles. The essays collected in this book, taken together, capture one crucial dimension of the case for the 2003 Iraq war that has tended to get obscured or simplistically dismissed in many recent discussions. This is an important and valuable collection, and I strongly recommend reading it. Whether or not you agree in the end with the arguments it presents, they need to be confronted and taken seriously.

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Leaving aside Cushman's book for a moment, was there a serious moral case against the Iraq war? I am not quite ready to answer with a flat no, but as I have argued in the past, I am inclined to doubt it. During the debates of 2002-2003, the most serious, solid, and persuasive arguments against military action were essentially conservative ones that cautioned against war on prudential or "realist" grounds (even if the people making these arguments claimed to be, or believed themselves to be, speaking from a "progressive" or left-wing perspective). Of course, such arguments can also have a moral dimension--explicit or implicit--but in practice they generally tended to be distinguished from "humanitarian" arguments, and usually from strictly legalistic arguments as well. A number of these conservative-prudential arguments raised genuinely difficult and important issues .... which I am not going to try to revisit here.

However, in my possibly fallible opinion, (a) most of the anti-war arguments that explicitly described themselves as "moral" or "humanitarian"--as opposed to self-described "realist" or conservative-prudential arguments--were unconvincing and fallacious at best, and dishonest at worst, and (b) many the arguments that were presented in self-consciously legalistic and/or "realist" terms failed to face up to the key moral and political dilemmas involved. (For those curious to know some of my reasons for believing this, see for example here and here and here and here ... and for a more extensive overview, here.)

Nowadays, as James Traub points out in his New York Times review of Cushman's book, everyone wants to be seen as a "realist" rather than an "idealist"--with the result that the moral evasions have become even more unembarrassed than before, and I am reminded more than ever of C. Wright Mills's point that many allegedly "realist" arguments are more accurately described as "crackpot realism."

DLC | Blueprint Magazine | October 21, 2005

War of Conscience

Book Review
By Peter Ross Range

A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq
edited by Thomas Cushman
University of California Press, 372 pp., $21.95

Even as the Iraq war debate focuses increasingly on a potential U.S. troop withdrawal, the underlying question of whether the United States should have gone to war still divides and embitters opinions in the Democratic Party -- especially on its left wing. Liberal leaders and writers, and particularly in the world of academe, tend to speak as one voice against the war, making an antiwar position practically a litmus of liberalism. A lead pipe orthodoxy has formed on the left that excludes the possibility of pro-war arguments from a humanitarian point of view. This overlooks the fact that in the run-up to the Iraq war, a considerable body of liberal opinion supported regime change and the use of force against Saddam Hussein, though these opinions were scattered here and there on the op-ed landscape.

Now comes a book that brings together 24 journalists, scholars, writers, and politicians on the left. Collected under the editorship of Wellesley College sociologist Thomas Cushman, the book offers what he calls the "voices of a Third Force of liberal internationalism." They reject a status quo that allows tyrannies free rein, while grounding their support for intervention in human rights -- in idealism, not realism. The book provides intellectual ammunition for those on the left who still believe that toppling Saddam Hussein -- and staying the course for the democratization of Iraq despite the absence of weapons of mass destruction -- was and is the right thing to do. It will buttress embattled war supporters on the left who find themselves isolated and outshouted by the anti-warriors.

Some of the book's authors are well known to U.S. readers -- Christopher Hitchens, Ian Buruma, Paul Berman, and Tony Blair. Others, like British Member of Parliament and human rights activist Ann Clwyd, and French journalist Michel Taubman, are not as well known. Academics such as Jeffrey Herf, Norman Geras, and Mehdi Mozaffari are contributors, as are activist-writers like Poland's Adam Michnik and East Timor's José Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

What these thinkers have in common is a long background in left-wing politics; they also share an abiding conviction that pacifism and a misplaced deference to national sovereignty and international institutions has paralyzed the left, rendering it unable to act on its historic humanitarian impulses. They decry the conformist rejectionism by their friends on the left who not only take a different view of the war but are inclined to stifle the debate with dogmatic, emotional, even irrational responses.

While criticizing the Bush administration's poor handling of the post-war occupation, the writers nonetheless take on the issues that most often separate the anti-war left from the interventionist center. These include abandoning liberals' historic solidarity with the oppressed; the left's drift to a position of conservative realism on international affairs; the question of a just war versus an unjust peace; and the famously absent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Cushman, in his lucid introduction, attacks the failure of liberal European societies to uphold the liberal principles of the U.N. Charter -- and their simultaneous slavish deference to international law as a pretext for leaving Saddam alone. Ethical principles must sometimes trump unjust laws, he writes -- just as in the American civil rights movement.

Quite apart from the WMD issue, most of these writers argue from a liberal- humanitarian point of view that a tyranny as homicidal as Saddam's -- with 300,000 murdered over 30 years -- should not be tolerated by the international community. Leaving Saddam in place in the name of preserving peace over war, writes Dissent magazine editor Mitchell Cohen, is to endorse an "unjust peace" -- the precise flip side of a just war -- that would only have led, in any case, to war at a later date. Likewise, Danish journalist Anders Jerichow notes that "the so-called peace in Iraq ... has rested on the toleration of a brutal dictatorship and bloody suppression ... peace, that is, for governments but certainly not for people."

Cushman confesses that liberal hawks occupy a fairly lonely place in the leftist firmament these days. "I've had to come all the way to Poland to find liberals who support the war," he quips at the beginning of his telling interview with Michnik, the former Solidarity hero and editor. As one who suffered under totalitarianism, Michnik -- like many Poles -- is more inclined to support removal of a dictator than his fellow intellectuals in Western Europe. Michnik and others in the book address the issue that animates so many on the left -- how one can support a war run by a politician they hate, George W. Bush? It's perfectly possible, Michnik argues, that a "bad government [the Bush administration] ... can enter into a just war." The fact that the war was to be prosecuted by a "reactionary president," says British writer Jonathan Rée, "did not make it wrong."

One of the key recurring themes in these diverse essays -- many of which had already been published elsewhere but never been gathered into a single, accessible volume -- is the complaint that the anti-war argument rarely includes the Iraqis themselves. Ann Clywd, the Labor MP with a decadelong record of human rights activism in Iraq, notes how little the uproar over war in Britain "has to do with conditions within Iraq or the views of Iraqis." What is noticeable "is the absence of Iraqi voices," she writes.

British journalist and playwright Johann Hari devotes his entire essay to examining public opinion in Iraq in the months before and right after the invasion. The verdict was clear: Iraqis, while deathly afraid of war, nonetheless overwhelmingly wanted the invasion to proceed. "It is now beyond dispute that, on the day of the huge anti-war rallies around the world in February 2003, a majority of the Iraqis would have been marching in precisely the opposite direction if they had been free to do so." Hari was struck by "how marginal actual Iraqi people seemed to many people participating in the anti-war protests."

Which leads one to the inescapable observation that anti-war-ism is primarily about us, not them. Many war opponents, often still traumatized by Vietnam, are preoccupied with what invading Iraq says about America rather than what it does for the Iraqis. This might be called the Michael Moore wing of the left. "Moore's prism is that of the ethnocentric part of the American left," writes Cohen. For decades "tyrant bashing" was one of the left's "prouder reasons for existence," writes Financial Times editor John Lloyd. But now America-bashing is the left-wing litmus. "The U.S. ... is seen as The Problem -- and Iraq as its problem, not ours." This sort of thinking leads to a moral paralysis of the left, writes Ian Buruma, known to readers of The New York Review of Books as a liberal thinker. Slipped from their moral moorings, activists on the left seem to be "much keener to denounce the United States than to find ways to liberate Iraqis and others from their murderous Führers," he writes.

Moral relativism in the left-intellectual community is the subject of several essays. The most penetrating is by Richard Just, online editor of The New Republic. Just notes that he's 25 and appalled by the non-progressive tendencies of his generation of liberals, who have let an uncritical embrace of the principle of tolerance dominate their politics -- trumping the principle of justice. Tolerance of diversity, as hammered into young people over the past three decades, has its strengths, of course. But, at the political level, it has led "my fellow young liberals [to] a distinct discomfort with the idea of democracy as a universal value." In foreign policy, argues Just, reflexive tolerance "translates far too neatly into realism and yields a decidedly nonprogressive result." Realism is the politics of accommodation with existing power constellations -- in other words, the politics of doing nothing -- and leaving the Saddam Husseins in peace. This is the opposite of idealism. Just believes that "the fundamental obligations of idealism ... ought to be inseparable from the fundamental obligations of liberalism." He worries that his generational cohorts are becoming "Scowcroft Democrats."

Throughout the book, the essayists decry the conformist rejectionism of their liberal friends, caught up as they are in what Cushman calls "the current tide of intellectual orthodoxy on the left in relation to the Iraq war." He adds: "What has been so striking from a sociological point of view is the resistance to even hearing the humanitarian case for the war." At least one of the writers, Dutch professor Mient Jan Faber, lost his post with the Interchurch Peace Council of the Netherlands because of his views.

One contributor -- University of Maryland professor Jeffrey Herf -- changes his view in midstream. Herf, a Holocaust expert, reminds us that Churchill called World War II "an unnecessary war" -- not because it didn't need to be fought, but because it could have been avoided with decisive action against Hitler in the 1930s. The same, Herf argues, applies to Saddam. Herf also attacks the German left's misinterpretation of the West's triumph over communism as a purely diplomatic success, rather than the result of an armed-to-the-teeth Cold War in which, luckily, a shot never had to be fired. Then, at the last minute, apparently, Herf adds a postscript to announce that, had he known in 2003 that Saddam possessed no WMD, he would not have supported the war, which has now cost the United States worldwide credibility.

Herf is, of course, not the only liberal hawk who has had second thoughts. And yet there remains a large universe of those who supported the war at the outset and still believe, like Australian journalist Pamela Bone, that "we need to commit ourselves to the Iraqi people." Still, its views are often muffled by the din of criticism on the left. Cushman has done a great service by bringing these articulate and passionate voices between two covers. It is a reminder that there is an astute and humanitarian case for force, and that devout liberals can make it.

Peter Ross Range is editor of BLUEPRINT.

New York Times Book Review
Sunday, October 30, 2005
(Iraq: Special Section, pp. 7-8)

'The Right War?' and 'A Matter of Principle': Everybody Is a Realist Now

ON the whole, it has been a very satisfying postwar period for opponents of the American engagement in Iraq. I have agreed to pay off a bet with a friend who had rather gleefully predicted a steady flow of body bags from the battlefield. She's been vindicated as well on the W.M.D. front, for, like quite a few people with no apparent access to intelligence data, she "always knew" that Saddam Hussein no longer had his weapons of mass destruction, just as she always knew the whole venture would miscarry. Well, I tip my hat to her foresight; the news from Iraq has in fact been so hellish that many doubtful supporters of the war - the 55-45ers, as I like to call us - have been forced to rethink their calculus.

But the bloodshed and the chaos, and the Bush administration's hubris and sometimes unfathomable nonchalance, have obscured the powerful case for war that existed as of March 2003, when hostilities began, and that still survives, if barely, today. And though the stunning failure to find any evidence that Hussein had reconstituted his weapons programs is taken as a trump by the war's opponents, the case for war did not actually depend on the threat of imminent attack - even if the White House said otherwise. Virtually all of the essays collected in "The Right War? The Conservative Debate on Iraq," edited by Gary Rosen, the managing editor of Commentary, and in "A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq," edited by Thomas Cushman, the editor in chief of The Journal of Human Rights, were written after October 2003, when the weapons inspector David Kay put the kibosh on President Bush's prewar claims. And while several of the authors closest to the administration try to fudge the facts, and others have in fact changed their minds, most argue that Hussein's reckless expansionism, and his peerless brutality, justified the war even without vats of anthrax.

"Saddam's regime itself was the problem," as William Kristol and Robert Kagan write in a 2004 essay reprinted in "The Right War?," "above and beyond his weapons capabilities." They note that the policy of regime change began with the Clinton administration, and they quote Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, as asserting that Hussein was not only a menace to the region but "a source of inspiration for those who equate violence with power and compromise with surrender." The terrorist attacks of 9/11 increased the urgency to act, they say, not because Hussein was in any sense their author but because the bolt from the blue forced policy makers to focus on "the possible nexus between terrorism and Iraq's weapons program."

Could we afford to guess wrong, given the evidence of Hussein's intentions and capacities? Jeffrey Herf, a historian whose essay appears in "A Matter of Principle," a collection of articles making the "liberal internationalist" case for war, observes that a pre-emptive war against Germany in 1938 might have prevented World War II and the Holocaust, though it would have been roundly criticized since Hitler had not yet shown his hand.

Herf's argument is indistinguishable from many that appear in the conservative collection "The Right War?" In general, one thinks of the conservative rationale for war as Hobbesian - a matter of self-preservation in a chaotic world - and the liberal one as Kantian, an acceptance of moral obligations to others. And it's true that the authors represented in "The Right War?" put more stock in "good for us," while those in "A Matter of Principle" ground their claims more in "good for them." But it's mostly a matter of emphasis. Kristol and Kagan, for example, accept the humanitarian argument for war in Iraq, while Christopher Hitchens, a polemical warrior of the left, at least until very recently, argues that the "Islamofascism" embodied in Saddam Hussein's Baath regime represents an existential threat the West must be prepared to confront and destroy.

A decade ago, the question of humanitarian intervention, above all in Bosnia, split both left and right into antiwar "realists" and prowar moralists, or "Wilsonians." What is clear from these two volumes is that 9/11 fused the two arguments into one, for enemies embodying a totalitarian and obscurantist culture had reached out to deal us a terrible blow. This Islamofascist culture was as dangerous to us as to its domestic victims. President Bush, who entered office as a realist vowing to put "interests" ahead of "values," became the chief exponent of a revived Wilsonianism. "We support . . . democracy in the Middle East," he said, "because it is a founding principle, and because it is in our interest."

Debate on the war is now, in effect, organized around this view - whether it is valid, whether it can be applied to Iraq, whether the Bush administration has hopelessly botched the execution. "Democracy promotion" has cleaved opinion on both sides, as humanitarian intervention did before. On the right, the "paleos" dismiss the project as a dangerous pipe dream - a form of "democratic imperialism," in Patrick Buchanan's phrase.

Buchanan has largely lost his purchase on respectable conservative opinion, but the skepticism about human prospects upon which traditional conservatism is founded makes many figures on the right doubt that the democratization project will work in the Arab world. Germany and Japan, our great nation-building successes, had been modern, if not liberal-democratic, states in the past; Iraq, of course, was not. And as Francis Fukuyama observes, neoconservatives made their name by warning "about the dangers of ambitious social engineering," and about the difficulty of transforming a pathological culture. The old-line realists fear that the neocons have lost themselves in fantasies of transformation traditionally confined to the left.

Indeed, on the evidence of "The Right War?," the neocons do seem trapped in their own ironclad premises. If the war was both supremely just and supremely necessary - if the alternative really was Munich - then there can be no reckoning with bad consequences, no weighing in a balance. The horrors we commit cannot be horrible. Norman Podhoretz, the editor at large of Commentary, is - for reasons I won't bother to speculate about - granted more than a quarter of the acreage in "The Right War?" in order to broil familiar enemies in his familiar auto-da-fé. He concedes that "the aftermath of major military operations" was "rougher than the Pentagon seems to have expected." But then he immediately observes that more Americans died on D-Day.

By the same token, real achievements must be raised to world-historical proportions. The neoconservative essayist Reuel Marc Gerecht offers the following "analytical bet of high probability and enormous returns. . . . The Jan. 30 elections will do for the people of Iraq, and after them, in all likelihood, the rest of the Arab world, what the end of the European imperial period did not: show the way to sovereignty without tyranny." This way to the parimutuel window, Mr. Gerecht.

The debate being played out inside "The Right War?" is not so much the familiar one between unsentimental realists and Wilsonian idealists as between doctrinal absolutists and empiricists. "Foreign policy is not theology," writes Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International. "A policy that might have been wise crumbles if the costs become prohibitive." Zakaria initially supported the war and still believes that democracy can flourish in the Arab world. The problem, he writes, "is that the Bush administration's inept version of nation-building failed." The problem, more deeply, is that the theologically inclined will not accept the fact that others, including intended beneficiaries, do not see us as we see ourselves, or react as we wish them to react.

The debate inside the left is of course a very different one, but also involves an absolutism that will not take account of individual cases. The absolutism, in this case, is an abhorrence of American power - an abhorrence greatly magnified by hatred for George W. Bush and all his works. The journalist Ian Buruma, though not a supporter of the war, has accused the fashionable left of practicing a form of moral racism, in which the brutalities of the West provoke outrage but the far greater crimes of third-world monsters like Saddam Hussein are passed over in silence. A magisterial nonchalance marches under the banner of moral superiority. Apropos the novelist Julian Barnes's comment that the war wasn't worth the loss of a single life, Norman Geras, a British political theorist, mordantly observes, "Not one, eh? So much for the victims of the rape rooms and the industrial shredders." But of course to admit otherwise would be to credit the Americans, and even the Bush administration, with moral insight and the capacity for good. How much more satisfying to revel in the administration's richly deserved comeuppance!

"A Matter of Principle" will be sobering reading to many American liberals, especially those who took comfort in the near-universal European opposition to the war. Among the most powerful essays in the volume are those by French or German scholars taking their own countrymen to task. With the threat of the cold war over, writes Richard Herzinger, an editor of Die Zeit, the old cry of "Never again!" had lost its meaning of never again submission in favor of never again war - as if force itself were the great peril, and thus America, the most forceful nation, the chief enemy of peace. This is what Robert Kagan means when he describes the Kantian paradise Europeans have sought to take refuge in. They, no less than the Americans, and perhaps more, fit 9/11 into the world as they already understood it, and as they wished it to be.

Do we truly know what is required in order to defend democratic principles in the face of attack from those who consider themselves divinely inspired? (I am referring, of course, to Islamic fundamentalists, not the Bush administration.) "A Matter of Principle" includes a backbone-stiffening contribution from Adam Michnik, a political philosopher, a founder of Solidarity in Poland and an authentic hero of the democratic left. Asked whether it isn't "paradoxical" to advocate violence as a means to advance human rights, Michnik snaps, "I can't remember any text of mine where I said one should fight Hitler without violence; I'm not an idiot. . . . In the state of Saddam, the opposition could find a place only in cemeteries."

James Traub is writing a book on the United Nations in the era of Kofi Annan.