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.

James Fallows authored one worthy attempt after observing experts conduct a war game.** He is hardly alone in believing that the consequences of war would be dire, and that "the benefits of normalized relations would be so great that they must be given every chance to succeed." Every analysis of Iran war-game attempts is terrifying. "A classified war simulation held this month to assess the repercussions of an Israeli attack on Iran forecasts that the strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead," The New York Times reported after one such game. Other scenarios involve large-scale terrorist attacks perpetrated on American soil. 

Or take the Oxford Research Group's analysis:

Although U.S. or Israeli attacks would severely damage Iranian nuclear and missile programmes, Iran would have many methods of responding in the months and years that followed. These would include disruption of Gulf oil production and exports, in spite of U.S. attempts at preemption, systematic support for insurgents in Iraq, and encouragement to associates in Southern Lebanon to stage attacks on Israel. There would be considerable national unity in Iran in the face of military action by the United States or Israel, including a revitalised Revolutionary Guard.

One key response from Iran would be a determination to reconstruct a nuclear programme and develop it rapidly into a nuclear weapons capability, with this accompanied by withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This would require further attacks. A military operation against Iran would not, therefore, be a short-term matter but would set in motion a complex and long-lasting confrontation. It follows that military action should be firmly ruled out and alternative strategies developed.

Perhaps the masses will always use heuristics instead of factual analysis when judging war debates. If so, the right would be better served by leaning on different stereotypes of liberals: that they are too eager to intervene in complicated realms they can't fully understand (often without even realizing the incompleteness of their knowledge); insufficiently worried about unintended consequences; inadequately tragic in their world view; and prone to interventionism that doesn't serve U.S. interests. No ideological heuristic is going to be completely fair. Those flaws at least more closely accord with the actual failures of the American left when its hawkish faction has bungled foreign-policy judgments, though they could as easily be read as a description of Bush-era "conservatives." 

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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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