History

Why So Many Liberals Supported Invading Iraq

In some ways, the left’s hawks and the neocons were coming from a similar place.

Christopher Hitchens in June 2010.
Christopher Hitchens, writing in the Nation and then Slate, was one of the leading voices on the left supporting the war. Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

This article is adapted from “Fighting Words,” the fourth episode of Slow Burn’s new season.

When the George W. Bush administration made the case for war with Iraq, neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz provided the intellectual justification. They appealed to conservative ideas of patriotism and militarism. It’s not surprising that Republicans lined up behind that kind of thinking. But it’s less obvious why large segments of the American center-left also supported the invasion.

“I think it was possible to really hate George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and still support their war,” Frank Foer, who was then a young writer at the New Republic, said. “There was this post 9/11 ethos where it felt like something needed to be done.”

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The Democrats who supported the war became known as the “liberal hawks.”

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Not every liberal supported the war, by a long shot. But a lot of the foreign policy establishment did.

Kenneth Pollack, a former Clinton National Security staffer wrote an influential book making the case for war. Political theorist Michael Ignatieff argued that humanitarian intervention was necessary and right.

Many of these writers were deeply tied in to power and the establishment.

“I lean in favor of doing something in Iraq,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said in September 2002, “but only if we can do it right, because I do believe Saddam Hussein is a really bad guy who is doing really, has done really bad things and will continue to do them.”

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Bill Keller, who would go on to edit the New York Times, wrote a column declaring himself a member of the “I Can’t Believe I’m a Hawk Club.”

The editor-in-chief of the New Yorker, David Remnick, wrote a column that landed on the side of invasion. Michael Kelly, the editor in chief of the Atlantic, and Peter Beinart, the editor of the New Republic, also backed the war. So did the editor of Newsweek International and star talking head Fareed Zakaria. The Washington Post’s editorial page came out in favor of the war, too.

In 2002, Vanity Fair ran an Annie Leibovitz cover spread that had Bush and his cabinet posed like movie stars. It’s a big foldout group shot, something the magazine usually does only for its Hollywood issue. Bush is wearing a big cowboy belt buckle with the presidential seal on it, and Dick Cheney is kind of looking out at you with come-hither eyes. The headline was “War and Destiny.”

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Slate was part of this pro-war consensus, too. Jacob Weisberg was editing the magazine then.

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We got a lot of people, including a lot of liberal writers, who weren’t regular Slate contributors, kind of on the record about what they thought about the war,” he said. “And the sentiment was predominantly in favor of it with, you know, it kind of an infinite number of qualifications. But I think most of the people who wrote in that forum felt that getting rid of Saddam Hussein—regime change was desirable, even if they had real skepticism about Bush and the Bush administration carrying it out.”

Foer says the liberal hawks and the neocons were sort of coming from a similar place.

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At a place like the New Republic, which—not to put too fine a point on—had a lot of Jewish intellectuals like myself who, living in the shadow of the Holocaust, were really excited about the notion that the United States could use its power as a force for good to prevent genocides all around the world,” he said. “Critics would say, ‘oh, United States shouldn’t be the policemen of the world.’ And we were kind of like, ‘yeah, the United States should be the policeman of the world.’ ”

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The scope of this bipartisan consensus was limited. The liberal hawks didn’t necessarily share the neocons’ ambition to remake the Middle East. Or their belief that unilateral military force was the best way to spread democracy around the world.

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But they did agree on the need for intervention. To understand why, Foer said, you need to understand the psychology of some liberals after 9/11—in the long shadow of Vietnam.

You know beginning in the 1960s, there was a backlash against liberalism. And at the core of that backlash was the sense that liberals had been weak-kneed. And, you know, for electoral reasons, liberals kind of constantly tried to disprove that. But I think that there was also a psychological element to it as well, where the neocons accused the liberal intellectuals of being feeble. You know, there’s like a playground dynamic where the liberals then kind of want to prove that that’s not the case,” he said. “You say I’m weak-kneed? Well, hell, I’m willing to kind of parachute into the desert and invade this country.”

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There were some recent foreign policy lessons that also helped fuel the debate over Iraq. In the ’90s, the Clinton administration had intervened in the Balkans, to slow down the genocides there. It hadn’t intervened in Rwanda, where 800,000 people were killed. A lot of people wished the administration had done something.

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People who thought this way were known as humanitarian interventionists. If you saw the world the way they did, Iraq seemed like the next place to go in. The way Saddam Hussein treated the Iraqi people, and especially the Kurds, was impossible to stomach.

For many humanitarian interventionists, the face of the Iraqi cause was Kanan Makiya.

“I came here as a child and I have such fond memories of being here on holiday with my father. How things have changed. The horror is everywhere. It surrounds us,” Makiya said in a PBS documentary that aired in 1992. “Most people live in a twilight zone. They follow orders blindly. They don’t question. They choose not to know evil of this kind on this scale.”

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Makiya was an Iraqi exile who originally worked professionally as an architect, but he was best known as the author of a book about his home country called Republic of Fear. He wrote under a pseudonym to protect his family still in Iraq, and he worked with Ahmed Chalabi’s organization, the Iraqi National Congress. But while Chalabi appealed to the neocons, Makiya had a way of winning over liberals.

And where Chalabi was a proud political operator, Makiya was an intellectual. Like pro-invasion writer Christopher Hitchens, Makiya started out as a Trotskyist. But by the time he started writing about Iraq, he modeled his work on Hannah Arendt’s. He saw parallels between Saddam Hussein’s regime and German totalitarianism.

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Makiya told me that he thought regime change was possible because of how Iraqis responded to the American military during the 1991 Gulf War.

Iraqis rose up, even they were even up there on the rooftops of houses and buildings in Baghdad, clapping and cheering on allied planes as they bombed Iraq,” he said. “I mean this had never happened before. This was a solid totalitarian regime with unspeakable numbers of armed men and with the largest networks of informants and agents […] and nonetheless, the unthinkable happened. Once that happened, people like me were energized.”

People like Makiya argued that Iraq had the potential to become a democracy because of its well-developed infrastructure and educated middle class. That middle class, though, would be decimated by the Gulf War and the sanctions that followed. But Makiya still believed the United States could save his country.

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I had friends on the left who were saying, ‘Kanan, you can’t trust the United States. You simply can’t trust it. We always botch these things up whenever we get involved.’ And I was saying—my reply would always be, ‘You can’t botch it up. You can’t make it worse than it already is.’ ”

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Makiya wasn’t making the case that success was guaranteed. He was arguing that the U.S. had an obligation to try. And he famously predicted that American troops entering Baghdad in 2003 would be greeted with sweets and flowers.

Even if there was a less than 5 percent chance of success, I would be morally bound to fight for it and to argue for it,” he said. “No great transformation of a country and a transformation of Iraq from a totalitarian state to something that is a lot better than a totalitarian state—even if it’s not a fully fledged democracy—no such transformation can take place with a kind of knowledge beforehand that it is going to be successful.”

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But Makiya, like Chalabi, hadn’t lived in Iraq in a long time. He’d left in the late ’60s. This could create a blind spot. Call it “exile bias”: The only Iraqis that Americans were hearing from were the ones who had already left Iraq.

These exiles tended to be like Chalabi and Makiya: much wealthier, more Westernized, and more liberal than the average Iraqi. Often, they were secular. And, intentionally or not, the exiles gave the impression that everyone in Iraq wanted what they wanted.

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After 9/11, people who presented as Arab were increasingly attacked and harassed. Thanks to the Patriot Act, racial profiling was sanctioned by the U.S. government.

Khaled Beydoun is a law professor at Wayne State University and the author of American Islamophobia.

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We were coming into a new sort of political moment where people who looked like me and my family members were public enemy No. 1,” he said.

Just six days after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush said in a speech, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.” But in praising only some Muslims, he was drawing a line. Beydoun elaborated:

[Bush] was sort of constructing a new kind of Muslim binary, if you will, like kind of a good versus bad Muslim binary, that the kind of Muslims that he lauded in the kind of Muslims that he would characterize as peaceful are the individuals who would not engage in specific kinds of activity that was viewed with suspicion by the state. Individuals who were very patriotic, individuals who were not critical of U.S. foreign or domestic policy, individuals who weren’t dissidents, individuals who might temper their Muslim identities, their conspicuous Muslim identities for more, I guess, assimilated American identity.

Beydoun sees a connection to one of the neoconservatives’ biggest ideas, one that Christopher Hitchens also subscribed to: The notion that the West was headed into an increasingly violent clash with the Islamic world. By this logic, Muslims, like countries, are either with us or against us.

The liberal interventionists tried to distance themselves from rhetoric like that. They constructed complicated arguments about how supporting the war didn’t mean supporting Bush and Cheney. But ultimately, they became part of the with-us-or-against us crowd.

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