November 15, 2002

LIBERAL IMPERIALISM
War and the soul of American liberalism

During the cold war, foreign policy issues rarely cut across Right-Left lines: the Left was anti-interventionist, the Right was for "rolling back" the Soviets and the matter was pretty clear-cut. Oh, there were a few libertarians (such as Murray N. Rothbard) who harkened back to the Old Right "isolationists" of the pre-Pearl Harbor era, and were opposed to America's policy of global intervention on the grounds that it enormously increased the power of the State. But they were then too numerically insignificant to make much of a dent on the popular stereotypes of the long-haired hippie leftist with his Che Guevara T-shirt and the buttoned-down conservative with the crewcut and the "America, Love it or leave it!" bumpersticker. The former wanted us Out Now, the latter yearned to Nuke 'Em Now, and never the twain did meet – until the end of the cold war, that is.

When the Soviet bugaboo suddenly vanished, seemingly without warning, many on the Right did an about-face. The first Gulf war evoked opposition from Pat Buchanan and a core group of "paleoconservative" writers and publicists, grouped around Chronicles magazine, as well as Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, the columnist Charlie Reese, and others. The Kosovo war expanded the ranks of the conservative anti-interventionists, until even the House Republicans were balking at supporting Bill Clinton's "humanitarian interventionism." The Old Right was back, and Buchanan expressed its essential spirit well:

"Most of us 'neo-isolationists,' a disparate, contentious lot, are really not 'neo' anything. We are old church and old right, anti-imperialist and anti-interventionist, disbelievers in Pax Americana. We love the old republic, and when we hear phrases like 'New World Order,' we release the safety catches on our revolvers."

On the Left, the opposite reaction set in. Former opponents of the Vietnam war began to reevaluate their old beliefs now that they had attained power. With the election of President Clinton, the old Wilsonian Left was revived, and suddenly the Democrats were the interventionist party, as their leader sent more troops into more trouble spots than any Republican had ever dared propose. The Kosovo war, sold as armed "humanitarianism," was the apotheosis of the new war-liberalism.

I'll never forget confronting Rep. Nancy Pelosi, today elected House majority leader, over the Balkan issue back in 1996, when I had the dubious pleasure of being her Republican opponent. Dubious, because Republicans are down to 12.5 percent of the vote in San Francisco congressional elections, and a pleasure because Pelosi was outspoken in her support for our Balkan misadventure.

There, too, we attacked a nation that had never attacked us, and covered up our own crimes with a smokescreen of hysterical propaganda. When I asked her how and why the national interest of the United States could possibly involve the dismantling of Yugoslavia and the unleashing of a criminal gang of drug-dealing ultra-nationalists, she whinged on about "genocide" and cited a figure of 50,000 supposedly slaughtered by Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. (That turned out to be a lie, not that she'd ever acknowledge it.) Pelosi then denounced Milosevic, a minor thug, in much the same terms as are now reserved for Saddam Hussein: he was, she said, "another Hitler." Today, as the Republicans call for "regime change" in a Middle Eastern venue, she is singing a different tune, but others remember the old Clintonian songs, and their voices are being heard in the present debate.

Aside from The New Republic which is sui generis, since it has vociferously and pretty consistently supported every major war since its first issue in 1914, and was pretty much founded for that purpose – liberal voices in support of invading Iraq have been few, faint, and somewhat ambivalent. Among Democratic politicians, Senator Joe Lieberman and Rep. Richard Gephardt signed on to the President's war resolution, but the former House leader is in eclipse and Lieberman hasn't stuck his neck out all that far, as yet, confining himself to a single joint appearance with Gephardt and the President.

Unless you count Christopher Hitchens and I would contend that renegade Trotskyists are a category unto themselves – no prominent and respected liberal writer or activist has joined the neoconservative war-birds in calling for the "liberation" of the Middle Eastern peoples from themselves, and their forced inculcation of the virtues of Jeffersonian democracy and the spirit of the Enlightenment. At least not until Richard Just's recent clarion call, entitled "Moral Imperative: Any self-respecting liberal ought to support an invasion of Iraq," in The American Prospect.

TAP is the theoretical journal of an eclectic amalgam of Hillary Clintonites and right-wing Social Democrats, aspiring American Blairites who hope to duplicate the success of the British example here in America. In its very title which Just, as online editor of TAP, had some hand in writing – the piece revives the Wilsonian hectoring that had been the leitmotif of the Clintonian foreign policy, and this note of preening righteousness is maintained throughout.

Just points out that the Democrats in the 2000 election campaigned on a program of hard-line interventionism, and that "both Gore and his running mate, Joe Lieberman, had enthusiastically supported every American military action since the end of the Cold War." He also astutely notes what no Republicans now care to remember: that year, the Republicans were playing at "isolationism," and although Just doesn't cite George W. Bush's plea for a more "humble" foreign policy, he sees the guiding light of the Bush camp to have been Colin Powell's "virtual isolationism."

Just overstates the case, unless "virtual" means "not really." Bush not only supported the Kosovo war, once in office he kept our troops there, continuing the Clintonian policy of intervention on behalf of the Osama bin Laden-supported Kosovo "Liberation" Army. But what's interesting is that he also makes the key link between war and the achievement of liberal domestic goals:

"To Bush and Republican congressmen of the late 1990s, Bill Clinton's repeated deployment of American troops and American airpower in faraway places stunk of overambitious moralism in the same way that his health-care program stunk of overambitious concern for the disadvantaged."

Or, as the early 20th century classical liberal Randolph Bourne put it, "war is the health of the State." But for Just a modern liberal, i.e., a kind of anti-libertarian this is a good thing. State-worship is the secularized religion of modern liberalism, and it's only natural that the evangelical zeal of armed social workers bearing health-care programs and declaring their concern for the disadvantaged should seek to expand their good works well beyond our borders. Implicit in Just's argument is the promise of gaining some political advantage: support the war, and liberals will be rewarded with some victories on the home front.

In an odd twist, Just couples Bush and Green party candidate Ralph Nader as right and left versions of the same essentially "isolationist" (i.e. pro-peace) position, a juxtaposition that seems chiefly rhetorical. In any case, the author goes on to make the point that 9/11 marked a radical reversal of political polarities, as the Left went "isolationist" and the Right took on the colors of the War Party:

"Neoconservatives seized their chance to wrench the soul of Republican foreign policy away from the Powell realists, and liberals dutifully re-cloaked themselves in the awkward discomfort with American power that they had worn almost without interruption (and not always without justification) from the beginning of the Cold War through Clinton's deployment of troops to Haiti in 1994."

The process he describes is largely a function of partisan politics: the party out of power must be seen to forge an alternative policy, it is in opposition by definition, and the implication is clear: the liberal Democratic reaction was an unthinking reflex, and one that needs to be reconsidered. He writes:

"I do not know if this reversal is a bad thing for America. (There is, to be sure, inherent democratic value in genuine ideological opposition, even when that opposition is wrong.) But it is almost certainly a bad thing for liberalism. We now find ourselves about to go to war with Iraq, and most liberals have lined up against such an invasion. Their main argument rests on the thesis that Saddam Hussein can be deterred. This argument is bad for liberalism for three reasons: because its veracity is highly suspect, because it is woefully inadequate as a statement of policy and because it is not, in fact, a 'liberal' argument at all."

In their essence, these three arguments boil down to the following:

1) Saddam tried to assassinate George Herbert Walker Bush when he was President, and, since this would have meant war if successful, amounts to an act of war punishable, presumably, by invasion and indefinite occupation.

In that case, Cuba should have declared war on us at least three times over, because I don't know exactly how many attempts our intelligence agencies have made on Fidel Castro's life over the years, but surely by now the case for a Cuban preemptive strike is clearly established at least if we use the moral yardstick employed by Just and his Bushian confreres. How many foreign heads of state have we had a hand in assassinating, and how many times did we bungle the job? If even the mere act of planning such an act is grounds for retaliation, then there's no telling how many countries have the alleged "right" to occupy Washington and put our leaders on trial. Or is Just's brand of liberal moralism only aimed outwardly, at other nations?

2) Once Saddam gets nuclear weapons, he, unlike Stalin, or the North Koreans, or the Indians, or the Pakistanis, (or the Israelis, for that matter) cannot be deterred, because well, you see, he's "a madman." But even if he could be deterred, Just gets around that by enunciating the third leg of his pro-war trifecta:

"There is nothing good – or 'progressive' – about a situation that prevents us from shielding ethnic minorities from their tormentors or shielding democracies from their foes."

Given that principle, there can be little or nothing bad about a military action that "liberates" the Iraqi people and implants "democracy" as one might undertake surgery on a sick patient and implant a new heart. The radicalism of such a project, far from deterring our modern liberals, merely emboldens them, and Just's war manifesto rings with passionate conviction:

"Anti-war liberals have derided the prospect of a liberated Iraq serving as a model for Arab democracy – and starting a domino effect that could liberate the Muslim world from the grips of petty despots and theocratic lunatics – as fanciful. But for all their talk about the 'root causes' of terrorism, my fellow liberals have spoken very little about how they plan to remedy the situation."

Liberals must always be there with their State-created and subsidized remedies for all of society's ills, not only here but abroad as well. This Wilsonian nosiness and self-righteousness recognizes no borders: its ambition is boundless. As Just puts it:

"There have never been any great liberal strains in American life that were fueled by a desire to just let things be. Think of the domestic causes championed by liberals at this magazine and elsewhere: public financing of campaigns, measures to conserve the environment, universal health care – they are all ambitious in the great progressive tradition."

God forbid we should ever leave anybody alone. Now surely that is the leitmotif of modern liberalism, a principle that they logically wish to extend into the realm of foreign affairs. And who am I to argue with them? Given their (entirely false) premises, they are right.

Here we are witnessing the birth of a new political paradigm: national greatness liberalism. The neoconservative variety has long been aborning in the McCainite camp and the Weekly Standard crowd. The keeper of the "national greatness" flame, Marshall Wittmann, was recently hired on as Senator McCain's new communications director, and clearly a coalition is forming around the virulently pro-war, ultra-interventionist blowhard from Arizona, who could move into a leaderless Democratic party vacuum and take the prize.

Aside from building great "monuments," libraries, and other accouterments of great wealth and even greater power, the one big activity that constituted proof of a nation's "greatness," according to the neocons, is war. Now the liberals step forward, and add their own wing to this House of National Greatness: a section devoted to national healthcare, and one for full employment, and, who knows, perhaps even a "War on Poverty" at home to complement the perpetual "War for Democracy" abroad just like in the good old days of the LBJ-Scoop Jackson Democrats!

Oh, happy days are here again!

Invoking Wilson, FDR, and the "liberating" power of the State, Just makes the case for the new war-liberalism by saying, essentially, let's get in on a little of this war fever and use it to achieve our own political goals. The Republicans are playing the war card, but two can play that game.

It's a seductive argument, because modern liberalism, as state-worship, has everything to gain and nothing to lose from the Bushian policy of perpetual war. In calling for the merger of the two main streams of American interventionism, Just implores liberals to throw in their lot with the empire-building neoconservatives, so as to ensure that all citizens of the Empire have state-subsidized health insurance, three squares a day, and the right to cast a ballot for the crook of their choice.

What gets Just's goat about liberal opponents of this war is their lack of the old crusading spirit: "It is not a policy of hope; it is a policy of little imagination and puny moral spirit." He is "disappointed," he says, in this puniness, and calls forth his liberal fellow warriors in a great crusade to yes, to make the world safe for democracy.

And where have we heard all this before? Like the liberal crusaders of yesterday, who went abroad to "liberate" Europe and created, instead, the conditions for the rise of Hitler and a new worldwide conflagration – Just and his cohorts are marching into the ever-darkening future, the bright banner of warrior liberalism unfurled. God save us from these liberal neo-imperialists, whose arrogance rises to the level of any neocon, and whose idea of "national greatness" is just as overblown and bloodthirsty.

Will liberals fall for it? We'll see, but I predict that the answer, in large part, will be yes, particularly if the United Nations can be forced into following the Bush administration into war. Then the "multilateralist" critique of Al Gore and even Todd Gitlin will be rendered irrelevant, and there would be little to prevent a general consensus of the "respectable" Left and the neoconservative Right around going to war with Iraq.

ANNOUNCEMENT – BERKELEY SPEECH

I'm speaking at UC Berkeley at a forum on Iraq sponsored by the Cal Libertarians, on November 20, at 7:00 pm, in Room 2050 of the Valley Life Sciences Building. My topic: "Iraq: First Stop on the Road to Empire."

– Justin Raimondo

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.