August 10, 2000

Joe Lieberman and the Gangsta State

"Determined to transform a potential liability into a defining asset, Vice President Al Gore today formally introduced Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut as his Democratic running mate and portrayed his selection of Mr. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, as a measure of his devotion to tolerance and his willingness to break barriers" – thus the New York Times's (8/9/00) entirely predictable attempt to bully people into voting for Al Gore. If you are for "tolerance" and a "willingness to break barriers" you have to be for Gore. If you are not for Gore, then you are obviously against "tolerance" and a "willingness to break barriers." Just in case, we did not quite get the message, there is the inevitable clincher: "Mr. Gore compared his selection of Mr. Lieberman to his party's choice of John F. Kennedy as the first Roman Catholic presidential nominee 40 years ago."

Gore now basks in the glow of having made a supposedly brave decision. "Mr. Gore… selected him despite his religion and any possible anti-Semitic backlash," the Times intones piously. Leave aside for the moment the absurd idea that provoking "racists" and "anti-Semites" to do their damnedest is a perilous enterprise. The truth is, putting Lieberman on the ticket is about as non-controversial you can get. You cannot get more mainstream than Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. He is chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. And he has never come across a United States military intervention that he was not willing to fund to the hilt or to pop on the Newshour with Lim Lehrer to defend with his usual sanctimony. This is why the Wall Street Journal cannot get enough of him despite his liberal voting record in the Senate. Lieberman has been a fervent advocate of expanding NATO. He urged military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. He supported every bombing mission flown over Iraq over the last 10 years. Lieberman voted against limiting NATO expansion to only Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. He voted against limiting the President's powers to impose sanctions on other states. He voted in favor of giving the IMF every dollar it asks for. He voted in favor of strengthening the trade embargo against Cuba.

George Dubya, Dick Cheney, Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman are all reading from the same script. All four are ardent advocates of the American Empire. One wonders what on earth Cheney and Lieberman will argue about in their Vice Presidential debate. Who will be the first to organize an invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein? Who will be the first to recognize the independence of Montenegro? Who will be the first to organize a military expedition to Belgrade to seize Slobodan Milosevic and ship him off to The Hague? Who will be the first to invite the Baltic states and Ukraine to join NATO? Who will be the first to secure funding to build the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline? Who will be the first to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? Who will tighten the screws on the "rogue states" – sorry, "states of concern" – the hardest? Lieberman is without doubt far more of an interventionist than Cheney Where Cheney might on occasion follow traditional Republican caution about getting involved in fights in far off places peripheral to US interests, to the self-righteous Lieberman any US hesitation at all is evidence of moral turpitude. Gore-Lieberman 2000 is the demented world-view of the New Republic and Weekly Standard brigade incarnate.

Lieberman's claim to be the conscience of the Democratic Party, perhaps of the US Congress, perhaps even of the American people stems from his speech denouncing President Clinton's transgressions in the Oval Office. "[T]he President apparently had extramarital relations with an employee half his age," he declared sonorously, "and did so in the workplace, in the vicinity of the Oval Office. Such behavior is not just inappropriate. It is immoral. And it is harmful, for it sends a message of what is acceptable behavior to the larger American family, particularly to our children, which is as influential as the negative messages communicated by the entertainment culture." Terrific stuff. But that was not really the issue and Lieberman knew it. Clinton had been accused of perjury – a rather more serious matter. "I believe that the harm the President's actions have caused extend beyond the political arena," he went on, "I am afraid that the misconduct the president has admitted may be reinforcing one of the worst messages being delivered by our popular culture, which is that values are fungible. And I am concerned that his misconduct may help to blur some of the most important bright lines of right and wrong in our society." Yet one instance of misconduct that Lieberman did not address himself to, either in his speech or, to the best of my knowledge, ever since, was Clinton's bombing caper over Sudan launched just two days after his public admission of lying about Monica Lewinsky. During that infamous bombing run – undertaken to distract an appalled nation – Clinton destroyed a pharmaceutical factory within a poor African nation. This, however, did not fill Lieberman with anguish. He has never offered an apology or expressed his condolences or regrets to the Sudanese.

As he concluded his speech, Lieberman urged Congress not to do anything rash. He also went out of his way to make sure everyone knew that he did not wish the President to resign. "It seems to me that talk of impeachment and resignation at this time is unjust and unwise. For that reason, while the legal process moves forward, I believe it is important that we provide the President with the time and space and support he needs to carry out his most important duties and protect our national interest and security." In December 1998, the day before the impeachment vote was to take place in the US House of Representatives, Bill Clinton decided that, in order to "protect our national interest and security" he had to bomb Iraq. The ostensible reason was Saddam Hussein's refusal to allow United Nations inspectors to continue checking for alleged weapons of mass destruction. Lieberman – predictably enough – was on the Newshour that night vigorously applauding Clinton's action. The President "remains our commander-in-chief," he intoned, "and I think it should be clear to everyone looking at this that he had a pressing responsibility to do exactly what he did tonight as our commander-in-chief. Honestly, if he did not, I think that he would have been derelict in his duties." Clinton's attack accomplished nothing whatsoever. 20 months later and Saddam still refuses entry to the UN inspectors. Will Jim Lehrer have the courage to ask the morally upright Senator whether, perhaps in retrospect, he now has doubts as to the usefulness of a bombing mission he had once so stoutly defended?

The answer almost certainly is no. We are living at a time when it is the bombers who are deemed reasonable, mature, bipartisan, and thoughtful. And it is the skeptics who are dismissed as extremists. Lieberman once described Kosovo as the "heart of Europe." It is nothing of the sort. It is the backwater of Europe. But thanks to hysterics like him, the United States now has troops stationed in parts of the world that are of marginal significance at best. Here is how Lieberman once justified dispatching US forces to Bosnia: "When the Senate debated whether to ratify the President's decision to send 20,000 American soldiers to Bosnia, I proposed that we had to view our vote to send Americans into harm's way both as an expression of our continuing interest in European peace as well as an integral part of our mutual responsibility with the NATO nations. With Bosnia, our allies were calling on us to help them come together and act with force to stop aggression in Europe." Behind the vacuous pieties is the standard US inversion of the truth. The Europeans had put forward a number of peace plans for Bosnia, each one of which the United States deliberately sabotaged. The Clinton Administration was itching to bomb the Serbs; the Europeans were desperately trying to prevent this. Eventually, Albright, Holbrooke and Lieberman got their way.

Back in October 1998, Lieberman was already urging military intervention in Kosovo. Appearing on the Newshour with his usual sidekick Senator John Warner – widely believed to be the stupidest man to enter the Senate in a generation – and fielding the customary toothless questions from Jim Lehrer, Lieberman trotted out standard boilerplate about "the credibility of the United States and NATO." Asked to justify US bombing of a small country that had never done us any harm, Liberman rambled on (making all the classic "neo-conservative" pit stops along the way): "We have been involved in two world wars in this century, actually three, if you consider the cold war. Because we didn't get involved early enough to stifle conflict….So it's a question of acting early to stop a broader war in the Balkans, but also it's a question of acting out of our humanitarian values to prevent the kind of starvation of women and children and freezing to death of women and children and older people that will occur if this aggression by Serbia doesn't stop." That the Balkans were going up in smoke in large part due to US meddling is a factor that never seems to enter the Lieberman moral equation.

Text-only printable version of this article

George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for appears every Wednesday.

Go to George Szamuely's latest column from the New York Press.

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In a memorable exchange on NBC's Meet the Press on April 25, 1999, at the height of NATO's onslaught on Yugoslavia, Pat Buchanan suggested to Lieberman: "We have failed in our strategic objectives, and it is now becoming basically no longer a war for Kosovo but a war to save NATO's credibility and NATO's face. And that does not justify sending an army of 100,000 American ground troops into the Balkans." Lieberman responded with the usual bromides about Munich and appeasement: Buchanan "reveals a lack of learning the lessons of World War II and, indeed, of the Cold War….America is more than a piece of real estate. America is a series of moral principles that begin with the right to life and liberty that the Declaration says our creator gave us….Also, the Second World War taught us that if you don't stop a smaller conflict in Europe early it's going to spread and we're going to get into a world war." Buchanan responded by tartly asking if NATO action had brought peace in the Balkans any nearer: "We have widened the war. We have estranged the Russians. We have destabilized Macedonia and Montenegro and we have ignited, not caused, but ignited, the greatest human rights catastrophe in the history of the Kosovar Albanians. How can you defend the policy of Balkan Bay of Pigs?"

Lieberman had no answer other than to urge US escalation: "I hope the air campaign, even if it does not convince Milosevic to order his troops out of Kosovo, will so devastate his economy, which it's doing now, so ruin the lives of his people, that they will rise up and throw him out. But there is no substitute for victory here. If it takes ground troops, we must use them." So here was this supposedly highly moral man, this non-partisan figure, this passionate pontificator on "values" demanding that the United States commit war crimes. Terrorizing civilians, destroying their economy, ruining their lives so as to get them to change their government is without question a flagrant and outrageous violation of the laws of war. Lieberman worries about gangsta rap. But the United States as a gangsta state is more than OK by him.

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