One of the central legacies of the Iraq War, particularly for American liberals, is the fact that practically the entire U.S. elite supported what turned out to be a disastrous invasion. Nearly 60 percent of the Democrats in the Senate voted for it, and President George W. Bush stampeded the media into support with contemptuous ease. Even having the top-rated show on MSNBC, as Phil Donohue did, was no protection for being too anti-war.
Then there's the fact that hardly anyone in the media paid a professional price for being wrong about the most important political decision of the last generation. Liberal hawks often tried to justify their position with a lot of "no one could have predicted," but in retrospect Bush's subterfuges and the madness of the invasion were pretty obvious for those who cared to look. The point isn't that the pro-war faction was composed of idiots (on the contrary, many in that group are highly intelligent). The point is that America's elite political culture is vulnerable to a kind of groupthink that is, above all, dismissive of anti-war leftists.
The lessons of the Iraq War have been running through my head over the last few weeks, as liberal hawks have been repeating many of the same behaviors that created the pro-war consensus on Iraq. There is the false pose of Seriousness, the outright embrace of neoconservatives, and a ridiculous obsession with dog-piling the powerless far left.
The spark this time is Russia's annexation of Crimea. While no one is calling for military action this time around, more hawkish types have wasted no time using the occasion to bash their leftist brethren. Here are three recent examples: the Washington Post editorial board chastising President Obama for being insufficiently aggressive; Jonathan Chait at New York going after Stephen Cohen and the sad-sack journos at RT; and Mark Kleiman accusing The Nation of backing Vladimir Putin.
Let's take them in turn. The Post editorial displays a trademark combination of tough-minded seriousness and completely muddled thinking. Obama's foreign policy is based on "fantasy," the editorial board says. Okay, but what specifically should he doing differently? No details are mentioned, save maybe staying in Afghanistan for some reason. (That'll show Putin!)
Chait ticks all the Iraq War boxes: respectful citation of an avowed neocon warmonger, Jamie Kirchick; self-important savaging of a hapless, despised media outlet; and barely concealed disgust with American leftists.
Kleiman's post, finally, is preposterously unreasonable. An editorial calling for diplomatic relations — which criticizes both Putin for violating international law and U.S. elites for stoking the conflict — becomes The Nation backing and "fawning" over Putin, who is explicitly compared to Hitler and Stalin. "If it doesn't make you spew," Kleiman writes, "your stomach is stronger than mine."
Sure, the editorial could have been harder on Putin. Annexing Crimea is an international crime that previous U.S. violations do not excuse.
But the thing that I find most alarming is this tone of sneering contempt. Hatred of anti-war leftists was a major factor by which center-left elites duped themselves into supporting the Bush doctrine. None other than Matt Yglesias (another war supporter, mind, but one who seemed to learn from his mistake) outlined the dangers of this dynamic in his book Heads in the Sand:
Driving the ineffectual liberal response was the continuing near-pathological obsession with the far left, the sentiment that in a moment of national crisis the most important task facing liberalism was not to combat the errors of in-power conservatism but those of the hopelessly marginal left, who became the primary target of their rhetoric. In some cases, it seems reasonably clear that simple loathing of left-wing antiwar activists pushed liberal intellectuals into support of the Iraq War. [Heads in the Sand]
Are leftists occasionally a bit overheated in their condemnation of American imperialism? Sure. But anyone with a scrap of sensitivity might wonder just why leftists could feel so alienated from U.S. political culture that they would work for the state-owned Russian media. Could it be, in part at least, the whole pointless bloody war of aggression that many "serious" liberals supported?
If I were a center-left pundit, I'd treat the leftists with a little more respect. To be sure, they don't have a perfect track record. Kleiman points this out by quoting Susan Sontag on the blindness of many 20th-century leftists to Soviet abuses: when it came to the USSR, would people have been better informed reading The Nation or Reader's Digest?
Fair enough. But turn the question on its head: in 2002-03, would you have been better informed on U.S. foreign policy reading the Washington Post and The New Republic, or The Nation and Dissent? The answer is obvious. And the D.F.H.'s have been right far more often than center-left liberals are willing to admit. They were right about Vietnam. They were right about the long-term consequences of attempting to overthrow various democratically elected governments around the globe. And they were right about Iraq.
It's true that anti-war movements of the last couple generations have not had much influence on mainstream discourse. Some of that, surely, is to be chalked up to poor organization and tactics on the part of leftists. But an equal or greater share lies at the feet of center-left liberals, who have repeatedly allowed cultural resentment of leftists to push them into joining conservatives in making disastrous strategic errors. I'd have thought the gruesome, humiliating failure of Iraq would have made that pitfall apparent. But I'm less and less sure.