With all the enthusiasm of a teen-ager getting out of bed on a
school day, American liberals are beginning to line up for war against Iraq.
Secretary of State Colin Powell's masterful presentation to the Security
Council on Feb. 5 seemed to nudge a number of fence-sitters. "I'm
convinced," read the headline of Mary McGrory's column.
But reluctance is the order of the day. As recently as Jan. 24,
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said: "The American people don't want this war.
Our global allies don't want this war. So why is President Bush stampeding
down the warpath, and not working toward a real solution to disarm Saddam?"
The junior senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry, offered: "We
should never fight a war because we want to. We should only fight a war
because we have to." And two days before Powell's UN testimony, Sen. Carl
Levin, D-Mich., let it be known that he was still skeptical about the
administration's case. If, on the other hand, the Security Council should
authorize war, well then Levin would support it wholeheartedly.
Kerry's comment sounded like wisdom to the dovish crowd of
Democratic primary voters he was addressing, but it betrays a striking
weakness. Thank God America is not in the position of fighting "because we
have to." Nations in those circumstances are fighting for their existence.
We are in the comparatively luxurious position of being able to fight to
prevent a threat to our welfare from ever arising.
But Kerry was touching a chord that resonates with liberal
audiences -- liberals hate to see the United States acting in its own
interests. Dustin Hoffman "spoke out" against war with Iraq, urging that
"this war is about what most wars are about: hegemony, money, power and
oil." (Sigh. He was so wonderful in "Tootsie.") And 123 Democratic members
of Congress signed a letter stating, "We believe the U.S. should make every
attempt to achieve Iraq's disarmament through diplomatic means and with the
full support of our allies."
"With the full support of our allies." International cooperation
is a wonderful thing and should be pursued whenever possible (as the Bush
administration has done). But there lurks in liberal critiques the
only if the United States can persuade
the United Nations or "our allies" that force is required will the use of
force be legitimate.
And it isn't that liberals are all pacifists. Recall that many
liberals were beating the drums for war in Bosnia and Kosovo, and some even
advocated war in Haiti in the 1990s. Those were wars liberals could back
Why? The actions in Bosnia and Kosovo had NATO and U.N.
coloration (though nothing really got accomplished until the United States
got involved). Liberals love the idea of a cooperative, peacekeeping,
international body preventing nationalism from running amok. They love the
idea so much that they ignore the hard truth of reality (nations follow
their own interests at the United Nations, as elsewhere) and act as if the
flawed international bodies we have are the embodiment of these fond dreams.
But it is also the case that liberals particularly distrust and
in some cases even despise U.S. national assertion -- even, it appears, in
self-defense. The wars in Kosovo and Bosnia were utterly divorced from
America's national security. Accordingly, liberals declared them to be moral
and just. But the first Gulf War, though it too could have been viewed as
thwarting aggressive nationalism (Iraq's), was viewed more critically by
liberals because our national interests were more directly at stake.
Most liberals wanted the first Bush administration to "let the
sanctions work" just as they are today urging that we "let the inspections
work." When it came to the security of Kosovars or Bosnians, liberals
believed that war was the answer. But when it comes to the safety of
Americans, they scorn everything except diplomacy.
Modern liberalism was born during the Vietnam War, when antiwar
activists taught that America was an international bully, a supporter of
tyrants on the "wrong side of history" and a deeply immoral nation. The
sharpness of that indictment has blurred over the intervening years, but it
remains the picture that liberals carry around in their mental wallets.