Books May 2006

Blood for No Oil!

A new manifesto finds a model in the Truman era for returning liberals to political centrality in America. But the comparison is hopelessly inexact

Jimmy Carter was not Henry Wallace, but Beinart’s history of liberalism during the post-Vietnam years identifies the same mentality—of wishful thinking about the Evil Empire—that gave the Right its next big chance. In this narrative, the role of the ADA is superseded by the roles of Scoop Jackson and the now-forgotten Congressman Dave McCurdy, who sought a “third way” in the crisis over Central America. The eventual implosion of the Soviet system makes some of these debates appear to be further away from us than they really are. (The dispute between Paul Berman and Michael Moore, the former of whom wrote a Mother Jones piece critical of the Sandinistas that was censored by the latter, was, however, a harbinger.) Beinart understates the importance of Ronald Reagan’s abandonment of “mutual assured destruction,” or MAD, a long-standing, containment-based bipartisan commitment that was suddenly (and correctly) discovered to be unstable as well as immoral. Not only did this policy shift perform well in the world of “realism,” in that the decision to retool for strategic defense had a measurable influence upon Mikhail Gorbachev; it also had the effect of making liberal noises about a nuclear “freeze” seem tinny and irrelevant. The other great argument of the time—over the imposition of sanctions on South Africa—gave the Left the moral high ground for a year or two, but was eventually co-opted by Reagan and Margaret Thatcher as well.

If American liberalism had seriously wanted to regain its moral standing after the Cold War ended, the re-emergence of the one-party, one-leader aggressive state, in the forms of Greater Serbia and Greater Iraq, should have provided the ideal opportunity. But although the first President Bush secured United Nations support, and Syrian and Egyptian troops, for the recovery of Kuwait, he did so without any noticeable help from the left of center, who were too fastidious about the oil issue to soil their hands. (We can now say, with almost 100 percent certainty, that if Saddam Hussein had kept Kuwait, he would have acquired the bomb.) In Bosnia, where there was no oil but there was genocide, a “New Democrat” administration was finally persuaded to take action, again without the support of the large and consistent anti-war wing of American politics, whose members moaned ceaselessly about quagmire. Most of the traditional Right was silent or hostile on this occasion, too. Those who pressed for solidarity with Bosnia included some leftists like Susan Sontag, a great part of the American Jewish community, and a few traditional hawks—but perhaps most notably (and in a case that did not involve the state interest of Israel) the emerging neoconservatives. As one who took part in this argument, I can testify that many on the pro-Bosnian Left had more or less to assure themselves that their demand for intervention was kosher, precisely because it did not seem to be in the immediate national-security interest of the United States. Blood for no oil!

All of this was a dismal prelude to the crisis that struck the United States in the fall of 2001. One knew, before that terrible day was out, what would be said by the academic and journalistic and Hollywood Left. Much of the rhetoric of that time has been forgotten (though not by me), and now those who never wanted a fight in Afghanistan in the first place are free to complain that the war with al-Qaeda in Iraq is a distraction from the struggle they opposed. But in some untranslatable manner, this two-faced position has communicated itself to a large number of American voters. These people may be as uninformed as Beinart complains they are (look how many of them believe that Saddam Hussein was behind the World Trade Center attacks), but they are not so stupid as to believe that the president invaded Iraq to avenge his daddy, or to swell the coffers of Halliburton, or to please General Sharon. Nor are they so dumb and credulous as to believe that there would be no jihadists in Iraq if it were not for the Coalition presence. Fatuity of that kind—especially the last kind—is the preserve of the Democratic intelligentsia, not just of the types but also of figures like Harry Reid, Barbara Boxer, and Al Gore. I am not a tremendous admirer of Senator Joseph Lieberman, but his expressed opinions make him a smaller figure in Democratic circles than was Henry Wallace in 1948. How can a Truman emerge from this galère?

In other words, the whole comparison with the ADA is hopelessly inexact. The hard-liners in 1948 were principled enough to do the Democratic Party the favor of deserting it and running their own slate. They were also, one might concede, at least intelligible in their naiveté about the U.S.S.R. A thinking person could, then at least, be brought to believe that state socialism was an improvement on monopoly capitalism, and that war was to be avoided at any price. In the present case, however, not only are the hard-liners the activist and fund-raising core of the party; they also express ambivalence about a foe that does not even pretend to share the values of the Enlightenment, and that is furthermore immune to the cruder rationality of MAD. The Soviet leadership had every reason to avoid suicide, while the Islamist fanatics dream of nothing else. In this context, Beinart’s wishful and halfhearted belief that Saddam Hussein could have been contained is the one position that nobody can seriously hold. He gives himself away when he argues that a continuation of the cruel and indiscriminate sanctions could have led the Baathist regime to self-destruct. Has he even tried to imagine what Iraq would have looked like on the day that that self-destruction occurred? Let us just assume that it would not have been a Velvet Revolution. It would have more closely resembled a Rwanda or a Congo on the Gulf. Bad as things are now, they would certainly have been worse.

Thus, however ineptly it may have been phrased and implemented, the Bush administration’s improvised adoption of political change in the region may bear some comparison with Reagan’s repudiation of Cold War stasis. And I see no sign that the American Left and the liberals understand what it means to have become once again the party of the status quo. In his wishful and overconfident subtitle, where he asserts that only liberals can win this war, Beinart vainly tries to split a difference. In the first place, it is a war against a version of apocalyptic fascism, of which terrorism is only the expression. In the second place, the bulk of the liberal consensus has already demonstrated a want of spine and sinew, and ceded much ground to the freshly converted and clumsy anti-isolationist Right. Retrospect may grant us time to pass a verdict on which of these two blunders was the decisive one. Meanwhile, the rough retranslation of Beinart’s title is Hillary in 2008—a prospect some distance short of a liberal dream.

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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