NEW YORK — Try the following experiment: Leaf through a stack of recent newspapers or flip the dial on your TV and try to find a liberal making the case for war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Apart from a few references to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the results will be shamefully meager. As we draw ever closer to the coming battle, the American left has steadfastly — and irresponsibly — refused to admit the need to oust the dictator, end Iraqi suffering and (one hopes) stabilize the region.
Not that it’s been entirely silent. The radical left, at least, has condemned President Bush and rejected military means for resolving the crisis of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
Move toward the center, however, and all you’ll find are a few wonks, the reliably bellicose New Republic and some queasy columnists at the New York Times making the case for war. Most progressives, meanwhile, have kept mum. Two notable exceptions are Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens. But the first is a novelist, the second a professional contrarian. Both are British. What’s wrong with their American colleagues?
Part of the answer can be found in American history. At least since the 1960s, liberals have been reluctant to advocate armed intervention abroad, even in support of causes like democracy and human rights. This is understandable, given the debacle of Vietnam and Washington’s shameful history of claiming to endorse upright values while lending muscle to right-wing (but pro-American) tyrants.
Progressives’ discomfort with interventionism began to lift during the 1990s, when a few Democrats, notably then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, became increasingly bellicose in support of human rights for Bosnians, Kosovars and Timorese — although not, regrettably, for Rwandans. But left-wing skepticism toward U.S. intervention overseas has lingered.
The second part of the explanation lies in politics. Much of this is the fault of the current administration. Bush has shown little regard for diplomacy, needlessly snubbing friends and foreign allies. His much-debated strategy of preemption has made analysts at home and abroad uneasy. Do we, they wonder, really want to set a precedent giving countries the right to go to war whenever they feel provoked?
The conspicuous silence of American liberals, however, has just as much to do with electoral gamesmanship as it does with policy debates.
Democrats worry they will get no leverage by supporting a cause (war) closely associated with a popular Republican president. As a result, they have either avoided talking about it entirely (a disastrous strategy partly responsible for the Republican sweep in the November elections), made vague statements from both sides of their mouths (think Sen. John F. Kerry) or come on like hawks and, consequently, virtually vanished beneath the president’s coattails (Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt).
Only a few Democrats — former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, most prominently — have articulated a clear case against going to war in Iraq, or highlighted the real problems in the Bush administration’s approach: its clumsy unilateralism, its needlessly bellicose talk about preemption and its uncertain commitment to postwar democratic reconstruction.
The unfortunate effect of this silence on the left is that American liberals have virtually ceded the case for war, and thus the moral high ground, to the administration. This retreat has left progressives sounding like pacifists, hand-wringers or, worst of all, Europeans.
The irony is that there’s a rigorous case to be made for the liberation of Iraq that fully squares with traditional progressive concerns. The best reasons for toppling Hussein — to ensure the freedom of the Iraqi people, the safety of Americans and Middle Easterners, and the stability of the international system — are all goals that liberals should enthusiastically endorse.
Rather than equivocating or remaining mute, therefore, Democrats should start explaining to fellow liberals why they must back this war. This doesn’t mean they should give Bush carte blanche, as Congress has already done, or abstain from criticizing him. Far from it. The administration’s attempts to link Baghdad with Al Qaeda, for example, have been patently unconvincing and only hurt its argument. The worst thing about the pro-war case today is its spokesmen in government.
But if they were truly interested in principle, liberals would overlook Washington’s rhetorical overkill. Americans on the left should recognize that even a war fought for the wrong reasons can still wind up contributing to democracy and reducing suffering. If it does, then whatever the real motivation for it, it’s worth supporting.
To stay silent instead is irresponsible — to the progressive cause, to Americans and, above all, to the Iraqi people. American liberals and the Democratic Party will pay the price for such an ignominious abdication.