Hawkish clothes itch doves

Posted: Jun 23, 2004 12:00 AM

"Were We Wrong?"

That's the question the June 28 issue of The New Republic dedicates itself to. It sports a Who's Who of liberal hawks and interventionists, including Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Kenneth Pollack, Paul Berman and Sen. Joe Biden.

I feel a bit sorry for The New Republic, an esteemed liberal magazine that a.) supported the war but b.) loathes George W. Bush. To remain pro-war must feel to its writers like grabbing hold of a painfully jagged rock even as the current is trying to pull you to more comfortable waters where all your friends are frolicking.

The magazine offers an excellent post-mortem (for want of a better word) of the war, with a few unapologetic liberal hawks standing by their support and more offering qualified support. But taken as a whole, the issue is a thoughtful distillation of what is going on in the increasingly wobbly pro-war liberal circles these days. It's a veritable Wobble-palooza.

The upshot seems to be that since the postwar reconstruction is going so badly, liberals should have no responsibility for their decision. "I still have great difficulty fathoming why the administration chose not to fight the war the right way," declares Kenneth Pollack, the former Clinton administration NSA staffer who wrote the definitive book in favor of war, "The Threatening Storm."

By the way: The right way, according to Pollack, was his way.

Now, I should say that in hindsight I, too, think it would have been nice if things went his way. It would have been nice if the intelligence on WMDs had been better; if France hadn't actively sought to undermine us; if the Turks had let us send troops across their border; if human rights groups hadn't in effect rallied around a mass-murderer; if President Bush were more articulate, and so forth.

But as we all learned the first time we got socks for our birthday, you don't always get what you want. You don't even get what you expect.

People forget now that most opponents of the war were insisting all sorts of terrible things would happen that didn't. For example, they insisted there would be a massive humanitarian crisis with untold millions of refugees pouring over the borders. Didn't happen.

Lots of other stuff didn't happen either, of course, including lots of Iraqis greeting American troops with flowers and candy.

Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic (and a friend of mine), has been complaining for a very long time that conservatives haven't shown the sort of introspection liberals have in the wake of the White House's missteps. After all, conservatives historically have looked skeptically on pie-in-the-sky Wilsonian adventures abroad - and especially on the notion that the Pentagon has some sort of Easy Bake Oven nation-building set that can whip up democratic societies overnight. Now it is the liberals and leftists who sound like Kissingerian foreign policy realists, making allowances for barbaric regimes and ridiculing conservatives who needlessly demonized Saddam.

But Saddam was a demon. Since we've been in Iraq, we've confirmed that he killed more than 300,000 Shiites after 1991 alone. We've found up to 30,000 in a single grave. Forty thousand "marsh Arabs" were murdered and their lands drained. We didn't need to confirm what happened to the Kurds.

It's also worth recalling the reason we were in a de facto state of war with Saddam long before the actual war: It was to keep Saddam from doing these sorts of things to Kurds and Shiites again (never mind the Kuwaitis). The no-fly zones, the laughably and tragically inept sanctions regime - which was making Saddam stronger and French and UN bureaucrats richer - the various cruise missile attacks: These were all acts of war necessary to "keep Saddam in his box." And that whole system was falling apart. Bush faced a choice: Let Saddam out of his box or get rid of him. The former would make Saddam a hero, lower the price for defying America and further solidify the law of the jackboot in the Arab world. After 9/11 Bush felt he had no choice at all. We had to force changes in the Arab world before the Arab world forced worse things on us.

Removing Saddam has had unforeseeable bad consequences, as well as some foreseeable ones. But it seems to me that liberals who now think we shouldn't have done it, solely because we didn't do it "just right," are falling prey to their own historic pie-in-the-skyism. There is no "just right" way to do things like this. If there were, we would have toppled Saddam with nerf bats.

Beinart is right that conservatives should do some hard thinking about our experience in Iraq. But no matter how cathartic it may be for liberals to sooth their consciences by saying this isn't the war they signed up for, this is the war we've got. And the shoulda-coulda-wouldas can wait until we win.