The Most Dangerous Myth: That Liberals Are Peaceniks

That misconception helps explain some of America's worst foreign-policy decisions—and makes a catastrophic war with Iran more likely.

Some weeks ago, Andrew Sullivan published a lengthy collection of his blog posts dating back to the September 11 terrorist attacks. He sought to show the chain of reasoning that led him to support the Iraq War, a position that he later regretted. When the Twin Towers fell, I was living abroad in Seville, Spain. Every so often, I craved a connection to home and events here. The early blogosphere met that need. Every few days, I'd go to an Internet cafe and spend a couple hours catching up on America via The Daily Dish and Instapundit, along with the many other bloggers linked and excerpted on those sites. It's only in re-reading posts from those years that I fully see what's implicit in them.

Right-leaning bloggers of the era held certain prior assumptions about the American left and its willingness to use force. Many expressed relief that George W. Bush was president rather than Al Gore, as if the latter wouldn't be up for defending America. The prevailing heuristic was summed up most vividly in The Dish's most infamous post. "The middle part of the country—the great red zone that voted for Bush—is clearly ready for war," Sullivan wrote. "The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead—and may well mount a fifth column."

This narrative of an American left unwilling to defend itself against radical Islam, or foreign enemies generally, never made sense. Every Democratic president of the modern era would've responded to 9/11 with lethal force of some sort. The actual September 18, 2001 "Authorization to Use Military Force" against the perpetrators of the attack passed the Senate 98 to 0 and the House 420 to 1. Even in 2004, an anti-Iraq War candidate couldn't win a Democratic primary. 

But just as some liberals "know" that the American right is mostly composed of warmongers, selfish corporatists, and closet racists, the right-leaning blogosphere of the post-9/11 years was composed of commentators who "knew" that the U.S. left was composed of naive pacifists and America-hating postmodernists. As a result, the American right felt free to ignore all the critiques of an Iraq invasion emanating from academics, journalists, and State Department officials. Why take seriously warnings coming from anti-war bastions of liberal bias? Everybody knows liberals are just a bunch of reflexively anti-war hippies! Bush Administration officials, neoconservative ideologues, and partisan Republican bloggers at places like Power Line persuaded themselves that they were the hard-headed realists, dismissing critics to their left as peacenik ideologues who'd do anything, even side with the enemy, to stop Bush's common-sense foreign policy. The papier-mâché effigies at Bay Area anti-war protests proved it!

Inevitably, this right-wing critique, and its embrace by many Americans, influenced the left's behavior, causing Democratic legislators who were already instinctive interventionists to position themselves as enthusiastic Iraq hawks. Peter Beinart's "A Fighting Faith" was this faction's most famous encouragement.* 

As it turns out, America would have been better served by listening to anti-Iraq War activists: We'd have trillions more dollars and 5,000 fewer dead soldiers, al-Qaeda wouldn't have a foothold in Fallujah, and Afghanistan might have gone better. Even if Afghanistan and Iraq were going to be invaded, the Bush Administration and America would've been better served by hawks who took warnings from their left as earnest, sometimes prescient warnings about actual obstacles the campaigns would face, rather than negligently ignoring those warnings. Due in part to a cartoonish view of their critics, leading hawks were a parody of arrogant hubris.

Subsequent events ought to have discredited this behavior. Instead, history is repeating itself. Right now, there is a bipartisan legislative effort to kill a diplomatic deal to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The American right has not undertaken a rational analysis of Iran policy and concluded that sanctions and the increased possibility of war is the most prudent course. Rather, a small faction of neoconservative ideologues believes, against all evidence, that a strike on Iran is desirable, and they've managed to win allies not by winning arguments on the merits but by exploiting right-wing foreign-policy heuristics. Conservatives "know" that President Obama is an Israel-hating, Kenyan anti-colonialist dove, and that liberals are naive pacifists, so there is no need to engage the critiques of Iran hawkishness on the merits. If liberals are for diplomacy in this case, it cannot be that there is a strong rational case to support such efforts. It must be because naive liberals always want to talk things out with our enemies. And these conservatives "know" that talking with Iran will do no good, not because they've studied the subject, but because their heuristics tell them so.

Meanwhile, most though not all Democratic enablers of this nonsense (some Democrats just are hawks) see standing with the neoconservative ideologues as a political win, both because it aligns them with powerful AIPAC lobbyists and because it burnishes their credentials as "serious" foreign-policy thinkers, inoculating them against the caricature of naive, dovish liberals. (American politics is often about overcoming entrenched narrative disadvantages.) This anti-substantive approach to Iran is extremely reckless and potentially catastrophic. America's legislators and its movement conservatives would realize as much if they stopped making decisions based on heuristic shortcuts about Obama, liberals, and diplomacy, and started looking at hard-headed analysis that lays out likely consequences of war with Iran. There is, in fact, no shortage of it.

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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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