James Atlas – the writer who originally suggested there was a cabal within the Bush administration of devotees of the work of Leo Strauss – further exercises his fertile imagination with a brief survey in The New York Times of leftist writers who either supported the liberation of Iraq or at least were sympathetic to it (link via Norman Geras, who also links to a thoughtful critique by Josh Chemiss). Atlas concludes with the leading question:
[H]owever much [these writers'] attitudes toward the war in Iraq differ from those of such contemporary neoconservatives as William Kristol and Robert Kagan, they are heirs of the same intellectual tradition. Given this, can they still be classified as liberals? Or could it be that they've become ... neoconservatives?
It's a strained analogy that won't go away, largely because journalists who wouldn't normally recognise a political idea if it walked up and introduced itself like to think they can identify covert influences in the affairs of state. In reality neoconservatism is, like the Snark, ceaselessly hunted but never truly identified. Moreover, Atlas's adoption of what has now become a cliche does some violence to the sophistication of the authors he deals with: Michael Ignatieff, Michael Walzer, Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman.
Walzer is the exception among this quartet in that he opposed the war, but – unlike any other critic of the war – he did so with an intellectually and morally respectable case, which happened to be entirely impracticable. He argued his case in The New York Review of Books in February by distinguishing between the right way and the wrong way to oppose the war. The wrong way was:
... to deny that the Iraqi regime is particularly ugly, that it lies somewhere outside the range of ordinary states, or to argue that, however ugly it is, it doesn't pose any significant threat to its neighbors or to world peace. Perhaps, despite Saddam's denials, his government is in fact seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. But other governments are doing the same thing, and if or when Iraq succeeds in developing such weapons - so the argument continues - we can deal with that through conventional deterrence, in exactly the same way that the US and the Soviet Union dealt with each other in the cold war years.You can see where Walzer's distinctiveness among critics of the war lies. The argument he summarises and dismisses is precisely the view of the Stop the War Coalition in the UK. The right way to oppose the war was, according to Walzer:
Defending the embargo, the American overflights, and the UN inspections: this is the right way to oppose, and to avoid, a war. But it invites the counter-argument that a short war, which made it possible to end the embargo, and the weekly bombings, and the inspection regime, would be morally and politically preferable to this "avoidance." A short war, a new regime, a demilitarized Iraq, food and medicine pouring into Iraqi ports: wouldn't that be better than a permanent system of coercion and control? Well, maybe. But who can guarantee that the war would be short and that the consequences in the region and elsewhere will be limited?
Of course nobody could guarantee these things. To require that degree of certainty before invading Iraq was a standard Walzer has never, to my knowledge, insisted on elsewhere. On the contrary, in his celebrated book Just and Unjust Wars, written a quarter of a century ago, he anticipated precisely what would have happened if the US and UK had followed his advice on Iraq:
Unless they create a 'better state of peace', [cease-fires] may simply fix the conditions under which the fighting will be resumed, at a later time and with a new intensity. Or they may confirm a loss of values the avoidance of which was worth a war.
What those of us who supported war could and did say beforehand was that containment had failed and there was no chance of repairing that system. The Russians and the French had blunted the inspections years earlier and assented to the tough new Security Council Resolution 1441 only when the United States, supported by the UK, demonstrated seriousness in pursuing the disarmament of Saddam Hussein, by force if necessary. Our side did not start the war, for Saddam had failed to adhere to the undertakings he had given (the requirements of him were formally expressed in UN Security Council Resolution 687 in March 1991) in the cease-fire agreement terminating hostilities in the first Gulf War. 'Containment' allowed him to persist in those serial violations of UN Resolutions and that bogus cease-fire.
Now, after the war and with conditions in Iraq immeasurably better than under Saddam's tyranny, Walzer has the intellectual honesty to acknowledge that the arguments have moved on. According to Atlas's article:
"The issues that were in dispute last March have been superseded by new issues," [Walzer] said. "Many of us who opposed the war are not prepared to call for the withdrawal of American troops. It's hard to work out a political position opposed to that of the administration. The issues now are not the kinds of issues around which you can have a political mobilization: issues like not enough troops, no unilateralism, no domestic security."
Also cited in the article are a characteristic blast of common sense from Christopher Hitchens, and an equivalent eschewal of moral equivocation - unfortunately expressed in chaotic grammar - by Michael Ignatieff:
"Anybody who wants the people who are shooting American soldiers in the backs at night to win ought to have their heads examined," Mr. Ignatieff said, referring to a recent Gallup poll showing that two-thirds of Baghdad residents believe that the removal of the Iraqi dictator has been worth the hardships. "Do I think I was wrong? No."
Only Paul Berman, though astute on the war itself, proves unequal to the task of reconsidering his political instincts:
Mr. Berman said he supported the American occupation but not the Bush administration. "Before the war I took the position that it was important to overthrow Saddam and that I couldn't stand Bush - the worst president the U.S. has ever had," he said. "My prediction was that we were going to pay for this, and we are paying for it."
Well, I support the American occupation and I am a leftist sympathetic to President Bush. But even if I were a staunch opponent of Bush, and however bitter my hostility was, I still wouldn't entertain so ridiculous a notion as Berman's. Bush is the worst President ever? Worse than Andrew Johnson, who in 1866 vetoed Congress's attempts to protect the rights of former slaves? Worse than Millard Fillimore, who ruthlessly implemented the Fugitive Slave Law requiring Northeners to assist in returning escaped slaves to their Southern masters? How depressing that in attempting to prove his leftist credentials, Berman should resort to foolish, even vicious, partisanship.
The problem, I believe - and it's one that has partially unhinged Berman's judgement - is the increasing popularity of 'neoconservatism' as a catch-all category for those whose political views defy neat categorisation. Atlas exemplifies this intellectual idleness by spraying the term on almost everyone, most prominently Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol. Kristol certainly does identify himself as a neoconservative, and I believe Glazer does as well, but I'm not aware that the same is true of Bell (a brilliant social critic). Bell was unusual among his circle in supporting George McGovern's disastrous Democratic candidature in the 1972 presidential election and is more sympathetic to the Israeli peace movement than most neoconservatives. (Incidentally, Atlas shows his unfamiliarity with Bell's work in claiming Bell was still an identifying socialist in the early stages of his alleged shift to neoconservatism. Atlas is alluding to a much more subtle assertion by Bell, in his 1976 book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, that he was 'a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics and a conservative in culture'. I used to like citing this as a description of my own position, but eventually concluded that I lacked the sense of humour necessary to continue claiming to be a socialist in economics.)
Characteristically, the New Statesmen has been most eager in the UK to indulge fashionable cliche by identifying as neoconservatives six British political writers who have little in common with each other apart from support for the Iraq war. Stephen Pollard, one of those thus fingered and who does regard himself as a neoconservative, wrote about this baffling piece of detective work here. I believe many of the things Stephen believes, but I don't count myself a neoconservative. I support - among other positions that are not widespread among genuine neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol - gay marriage and liberal abortion legislation, and decline to accept that 'supply-side economics' was a testament to the far-sightedness of the Reagan administration.
I have thus resolved to adopt my own term for the position of those of us on the Left who support the policies of President Bush and Tony Blair in defending western civilisation and liberal values. In the Federal Republic of Germany after the war, Left (and this was when the Social Democrats were still a Marxist party) and Right collaborated in building a new political culture that became known as 'militant democracy'. The term denoted the uncompromising determination of the democratic wings of politics to exorcise the spirit of a conservatism that had been xenophobic and nationalistic, and also combat the threat of Communist totalitarianism from the East. In the same spirit, I believe the proper term for the fight against an ostensibly new (but in reality highly traditional) variant of totalitarianism in both its Islamist and Baathist forms ought to be 'militant liberalism', and so I shall describe it.