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."


* Beinart wrote:

Today, three years after September 11 brought the United States face-to-face with a new totalitarian threat, liberalism has still not "been fundamentally reshaped" by the experience. On the right, a "historical re-education" has indeed occurred—replacing the isolationism of the Gingrich Congress with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney's near-theological faith in the transformative capacity of U.S. military might. But American liberalism, as defined by its activist organizations, remains largely what it was in the 1990s—a collection of domestic interests and concerns. On health care, gay rights, and the environment, there is a positive vision, articulated with passion. But there is little liberal passion to win the struggle against Al Qaeda—even though totalitarian Islam has killed thousands of Americans and aims to kill millions; and even though, if it gained power, its efforts to force every aspect of life into conformity with a barbaric interpretation of Islam would reign terror upon women, religious minorities, and anyone in the Muslim world with a thirst for modernity or freedom.

When liberals talk about America's new era, the discussion is largely negative—against the Iraq war, against restrictions on civil liberties, against America's worsening reputation in the world. In sharp contrast to the first years of the cold war, post-September 11 liberalism has produced leaders and institutions—most notably Michael Moore and MoveOn—that do not put the struggle against America's new totalitarian foe at the center of their hopes for a better world. As a result, the Democratic Party boasts a fairly hawkish foreign policy establishment and a cadre of politicians and strategists eager to look tough. But, below this small elite sits a Wallacite grassroots that views America's new struggle as a distraction, if not a mirage. Two elections, and two defeats, into the September 11 era, American liberalism still has not had its meeting at the Willard Hotel. And the hour is getting late.

**One of the most striking passages in Fallows's article:

In circumstances of all-out war the United States could mount an invasion of Iran if it had to. If sufficiently provoked—by evidence that Iran was involved in a terrorist incident, for example, or that it was fomenting violence in Iraq—the United States could probably be effective with a punitive bomb-and-missile attack on Revolutionary Guard units. But for the purposes most likely to interest the next American President—that is, as a tool to slow or stop Iran's progress toward nuclear weaponry—the available military options are likely to fail in the long term. A full-scale "regime change" operation has both obvious and hidden risks. The obvious ones are that the United States lacks enough manpower and equipment to take on Iran while still tied down in Iraq, and that domestic and international objections would be enormous. The most important hidden problem, exposed in the war-game discussions, was that a full assault would require such drawn-out preparations that the Iranian government would know months in advance what was coming. Its leaders would have every incentive to strike pre-emptively in their own defense. Unlike Saddam Hussein's Iraq, a threatened Iran would have many ways to harm America and its interests. Apart from cross-border disruptions in Iraq, it might form an outright alliance with al-Qaeda to support major new attacks within the United States. It could work with other oil producers to punish America economically. It could, as Hammes warned, apply the logic of "asymmetric," or "fourth-generation," warfare, in which a superficially weak adversary avoids a direct challenge to U.S. military power and instead strikes the most vulnerable points in American civilian society, as al-Qaeda did on 9/11. If it thought that the U.S. goal was to install a wholly new regime rather than to change the current regime's behavior, it would have no incentive for restraint.

What about a pre-emptive strike of our own, like the Osirak raid? The problem is that Iran's nuclear program is now much more advanced than Iraq's was at the time of the raid. Already the U.S. government has no way of knowing exactly how many sites Iran has, or how many it would be able to destroy, or how much time it would buy in doing so. Worse, it would have no way of predicting the long-term strategic impact of such a strike. A strike might delay by three years Iran's attainment of its goal—but at the cost of further embittering the regime and its people. Iran's intentions when it did get the bomb would be all the more hostile.

Here the United States faces what the military refers to as a "branches and sequels" decision—that is, an assessment of best and second-best outcomes. It would prefer that Iran never obtain nuclear weapons. But if Iran does, America would like Iran to see itself more or less as India does—as a regional power whose nuclear status symbolizes its strength relative to regional rivals, but whose very attainment of this position makes it more committed to defending the status quo. The United States would prefer, of course, that Iran not reach a new level of power with a vendetta against America. One of our panelists thought that a strike would help the United States, simply by buying time. The rest disagreed. Iran would rebuild after a strike, and from that point on it would be much more reluctant to be talked or bargained out of pursuing its goals—and it would have far more reason, once armed, to use nuclear weapons to America's detriment.

Most of our panelists felt that the case against a U.S. strike was all the more powerful against an Israeli strike. With its much smaller air force and much more limited freedom to use airspace, Israel would probably do even less "helpful" damage to Iranian sites. The hostile reaction—against both Israel and the United States—would be potentially more lethal to both Israel and its strongest backer.