Progressives Are Internalizing Hawkish 'War on Terror' Claims

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They no longer emphasize blowback, have stopped adequately valuing checks and balances, and assume that perpetual war is the only option.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates observes that the U.S. has "set as our goal the destruction of Al Qaeda and its affiliates, and the safe-guarding of every single American life against murder at their hands." Is that a reasonable enterprise "that any state acting in its interests might undertake"? That's his claim, though he proceeds to hedge it in characteristically thoughtful ways, asking, "Do we really have it in our power to guarantee that no group of young men ever again organize themselves under the banner of Islamism and set the destruction of America as their goal?"

Practically speaking, we do not possess that power, partly because terrorism is a tactic that can always threaten a free society, but also because fighting terrorism in certain ways can exacerbate the threat. Even some people within the Obama Administration worry that the drone war Bush began and that Obama escalated may create a greater terrorist threat in the future than the one it is trying to vanquish today. Notice that the risk of blowback, core to the progressive critique of George W. Bush, is increasingly absent from discussions of the merits of Team Obama's drone war. 

Shifts like that are alarming because, based on nothing more than a trusting affinity for the person waging the war, many progressives are starting to accept deeply contested hawkish notions about how the War on Terror works, though there's still every reason to think the hawks get a lot wrong. These arguments should be decided on the merits. Instead, perverse incentives cause presidents from both parties to be power hungry and short-sighted, and reflexive support from their ideological supporters leaves no faction agitating about flaws in their thinking.

What specific hawkish notions have too many progressives begun to internalize?

  1. That blowback needn't enter our strategic calculus in any real way when we talk drone strikes -- the only issue up for discussion is whether there may be an Al Qaeda member a Hellfire missile could reach.
  2. That neither process nor meaningful checks on the executive branch matter enough to prioritize them. In fact, protecting the rule of law and the Constitution isn't just as important as protecting American lives, they're essential to protecting the life and liberty of Americans in the long run.  
  3. That perpetual war is inevitable. Read Coates's smart thoughts on the subject. I'd just add that a common Obamaphile defense of drone strikes is that they're better than nuking, carpet bombing, or invading Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Does anyone else find it momentous that so many progressives can't even conceive of an option that doesn't involve war in multiple countries? Being tactically smarter at carrying out a perpetual war strategy is now their aim.

Some progressives remain among the most dedicated and principled critics of the War on Terrorism as it is being waged. Progressivism's record on this subject is certainly better than conservatism's. But the many progressives who've internalized these hawkish notions have done so in part because they attributed Bush-era policies they didn't like to what they regarded as an anomalously malign team inhabiting the White House. Hatred of Bush helped them to perceive his flaws, but blinded them to the actual institutional factors and incentives that produced them. 


Their ideology leaves them strangely unequipped to grapple with power abuses by a man whose personality they like and whose political philosophy they largely embrace.

This shouldn't surprise anyone who has observed uncritical progressive hero worship for Woodrow Wilson and FDR*. Progressives and neoconservatives share a proclivity for romanticizing the ability of powerful presidents to heroically and unilaterally push through the energetic policies they favor. If you want to understand why Glenn Greenwald so often clashes with his fellow progressives, it is partly because he believes much more than they do that concentrated power is always dangerous -- that process and formal limits on power are always important. You'd think that the sorry civil-liberties records of bygone progressive politicians would make today's progressives more attuned to their ideology's most dangerous proclivities.

Maybe Obama is their Bush and their Tea Party will come in 2016 or so. Says Coates, "Can any of us imagine a time when we are not firing weapons into foreign countries; when we are not stripping down to our socks for travel; when we are not sending agents into mosques to foment plots; when we are not spying on Muslim students?" A lot of paleo-conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians can imagine that future, and are working hard to make it a reality.
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Do read the related thoughts in this Bob Wright farewell post -- scroll down to the list with numbered points 1, 2, and 3.

*Enough writers I trust have objected to the Wilson claim to make me think that the affinity for Wilson I've come across in arguments with personal friends and acquaintances is unrepresentative of how he's generally viewed by progressives -- I didn't realize I was extrapolating, let alone from an unrepresentative sample, but should have! Apologies for the mischaracterization.



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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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