The Book Club

Defending My Honor


Obviously, I feel the need to defend my honor here; at the same time I’m tugged by an urge not to drag Slate readers by the knees through the urine that might flow from an all-out pissing match, so I will strive to be both brief and civil.

Peter, I don’t think you can seriously dispute that your position was the following: You supported the Iraq war; you argued at the same time that liberals needed to learn to be tough on terrorism; you invoked Harry Truman and “the ‘48ers” in support of both positions (something with which you apparently take some issue, but in my view you did so, and, as I recall from a Hudson Institute Forum at which you and I spoke, you did so rather directly); and finally, you argued, in the New Republic generally and to Howard Kurtz specifically in the Washington Post on Feb. 24, 2003, that those who thought otherwise were guilty of “abject pacifism.” With respect to this quote, which Kurtz had the temerity to truncate, you were apparently speaking in the first instance of Gail Collins and her colleagues at the New York Times editorial page, and in the second instance of “the liberal war critics” generally.

These were your views, and I do not believe I misrepresented them. The partial quote, your strongest criticism of me, made a syllogistic leap, perhaps. But to the extent (which I think was considerable) that you implied in your writings from 2002, 2003, and 2004 that the kind of liberals who formed Americans for Democratic Action would have known a totalitarian menace in Iraq when they saw one and supported that war—like the candidate, Joe Lieberman, behind whom you put the weight of your magazine’s presidential endorsement—I don’t think it was much of a leap at all. You drew, I believe, a direct line from the A of the ‘48ers recognizing the need to fight Stalin to the B of the imperative of liberals in our time supporting the Iraq War. Some readers would agree with me, some with you; but by definition that indeed makes it a matter of interpretation. (Another matter of interpretation: If you truly aren’t aware that the widespread reaction to your TNR essay among war opponents was that you “all but advocated” a purge of the party, then you need a mole in MoveOn.)

The heart of our disagreement is this. What infuriated me in the run-up to the war was the complete misreading of the history of the ‘48ers by many writers and intellectuals, you, I must say, included. There is nothing in their history to suggest that they would have supported this war or initiated one like it. As you know—better than I, since you’ve recently immersed yourself in the history of the period—Truman was under pressure at the tail end of the Korean War either to a) invade or b) bomb, atomically, China. Which is to say: The option of preventive war was placed directly before him. He refrained. (It’s also worth remembering, apropos that war, that North Korea invaded South Korea, so we acted only in response to an attack, and even then under United Nations aegis.) And, as you know again, he fought proponents of “rollback” and overthrow with regard to other flashpoints like Greece, Turkey, Iran, and Guatemala. The idea that Truman and Dean Acheson could be hauled out as exhibits for preventive war in Iraq against “abject pacifists” such as myself made me feel that I was living in Oceania, and the Ministry of Peace had rewritten the textbooks to prove that the legacy of a president who rejected preventive war in fact constituted the best justification for it!

I really don’t want to argue every point you made. You say, in essence, that you now agree with me about Iraq. That’s good. I thought—again, a matter of interpretation—that you could have made the implications of your rethinking for the future much, much clearer in The Good Fight. Let’s say the situation had been reversed: that Iraq had gone swimmingly, that we’d found weapons of mass destruction, that it was today an irenic democracy … in sum, that President Bush (and you) had been entirely vindicated. I’d like to think I’d have had the courage—or, dare I impute it to myself, the intellectual honesty—to address my error at considerable (and painful) length, particularly if I were writing a book advising other liberals how to think about foreign policy after having gotten the most important foreign-policy question of recent history so wrong.

At any rate, the future. As you know, we agree on a great deal. We agree that the ‘48ers are a model for contemporary liberalism. I agree also, although as you note I questioned its political viability, that liberal intellectuals and Democratic politicians should argue that “American virtue must be proved, not asserted,” as you nicely put it. But this means, or needs to mean, specific things. Take foreign aid. Again, you and I agree that our foreign aid budget is an embarrassment. It should be at least 15 times what it is. How do we get there—that is, how can a Democratic president (and no one else could do it) persuade 51 percent of Americans that such an increase is part of our responsibility and in fact will benefit us? On another matter: I do not oppose humanitarian intervention, of course, and I’ll even go it one further and say something that may surprise you. I do not a priori rule out possible preventive war in the future, provided certain conditions are unambiguously met (the national-security imperative is real, the mission is not built on a mansion of lies, the American people are more or less honestly prepared for the price that may have to be paid, etc.). In other words, proving our virtue requires specific acts, which require money, which requires enormous reserves of political will.

Is that will there now in either Democratic leadership or the American people? It is not. And the fact that it isn’t is not the fault of the “abject pacifists.” It’s the fault of the warriors. It’s because of Iraq. The war in Iraq is why we “missed” Darfur, a moral error that your magazine (under new editorship) recently lamented. And the war in Iraq looms over our national future. I fear that it renders the grand visions for liberal internationalism that you and I share useless nullities, for a generation, maybe more. That is the tragedy of Iraq; that’s why I dwelt, and dwell, on it. And I tremble with fear—not for “my” side, but for the country and the world—that, should a Bush administration and an Iraq come around again, we will have forgotten everything I just said.