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Empty Nest: The Demise of a Species

Samantha Power

In the run-up to the war in Iraq, liberal hawks were so close to neoconservative hawks that only an expert political ornithologist could distinguish between the species. Kanan Makiya, the eloquent Iraqi dissident, played the same role on the left as Ahmad Chalabi played on the right, enumerating the evils associated with Saddam Hussein’s regime. Human rights activists such as Samantha Power and Michael Ignatieff, who had demanded an end to genocide and ethnic cleansing, included Saddam in their catalogue of evil, even if Power herself opposed the war. Kenneth Pollack’s The Threatening Storm, with its melodramatic Churchillian title and its solemn call to action, did more to build support for the war than the more obviously partisan pamphlets produced by the right. Even as difficulties mounted in the aftermath of the invasion, liberals generally stuck to their guns. As George Orwell had done in the face of totalitarianism in his day, liberals would resolutely stand with liberty, even if doing so seemed to have turned at least one of them, Christopher Hitchens, into a conservative.

Because neoconservatives identified themselves so much with George W. Bush and his war, his failures in Iraq became their Waterloo. The same was not true of the liberal interventionists, however. All too many of them, although critical of the president, took the position that it was not their ideas that failed but the way these ideas were implemented. Liberals were not given the war they were promised.

In March 2008, the online magazine Slate asked a number of prominent liberal hawks the same question that Bernard Lewis has asked of Islam: what went wrong? One of the mistakes, responded The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, was the realpolitik assumption that conservative Republicans—“by nature ruthless, unsentimental, efficient, and, most of all, preoccupied with winning”—were in the best position to carry out liberal objectives. The moral Goldberg drew from the failure in Iraq was as much about conservatives as about the war itself. They were surprisingly ineffectual when push came to shove: incapable of summoning up the ruthless efficiency to implement their grand designs in Iraq.

Since it was so overtaken by events, it is tempting to allow the case made by liberal hawks to loiter unnoticed in the historical dead letter office, especially since so many of them flew the pro-war coop in the year or so following the Slate symposium and did not bother to accompany their departure with analyses of why their god of war had failed. The war, while still not a success, does not appear to be quite the debacle that it did just a year or two ago, as a result of the surge. And finally, the man whose name will be forever associated with the war, George W. Bush, is gone, having been replaced by Barack Obama, a liberal critic of the war from the start. Proposals for a timetable to withdraw American troops from Iraq are no longer the stuff of charges of treason but have been endorsed by both General David Petraeus and Nouri al-Maliki.

So who cares about the mistakes the liberal hawks once made? The short answer is that we all should, since the case they made may prove to have a long half-life in crises yet to come. Obama may have promised a quick withdrawal from Iraq, but he has also committed to increased troops for Afghanistan and made hawkish noises about Pakistan. By offering the position of secretary of state to Hillary Clinton, he has brought a one-time liberal hawk into the most important foreign affairs position in Washington, while in New York a self-proclaimed humanitarian interventionist, Susan Rice, will speak for America at the United Nations. Neoconservatives will definitely be out in the Obama administration, but in one way or another, liberal hawks are likely to find themselves back in the aeries of policy.

Not that this is necessarily bad news. The liberal hawkish instinct of recent times has generally been a sound one. One need only recall Bosnia and Rwanda, or focus on the current concern with Darfur, to recall what a giant step forward it was for liberals and Democrats to move away from the moral quietude of the “lessons of Vietnam” and make the protection of human rights a universal moral imperative, worthy, if necessary, of being backed up by force. It would be a shame if that lesson were lost or forgotten because the intervention in Iraq has proved to be so morally murky.



A yearning for individual freedom and autonomy is essential to the liberal vision. But just as individuals, when given the chance, will wish to have a say in their own destinies, so will nations. We no longer live in a world that permits colonialism—in large part because the idea of national self-determination, so central to the Wilsonianism that marked liberalism’s triumph in the early twentieth century, has spread to all parts of the globe.

Alas for liberal hawkishness, safeguarding the individual against the evil designs of tyrants all too often comes into conflict with the desire of nations to manage their own future. One may argue that tyrants cannot possibly represent the will of their people because they do not allow their people to express their will. But this is not how most people in most societies around the world see the issue. For them, occupation is occupation, however benign it may appear to the occupiers. One lesson we ought to learn from Iraq, therefore, is that our anti-totalitarianism is their neo-colonialism. Removing a tyrant comes closer to being an expression of humanitarian ideals than extracting a resource, but the techniques used to achieve the former bear a striking resemblance to those that once made the latter ubiquitous throughout the underdeveloped world: troops speaking a different language who from time to time commit collateral damage against innocent by-standers; a blind eye to bribery and corruption; the imposition of one way of life upon another without regard to the niceties of Tocquevillean custom that the occupier otherwise values. Humanitarian intervention is such a compelling idea that we tend to forget that it comes with costs. Those who are liberated from tyranny, grateful though they may be, always remember because they always pay.

Suppose, as a counterfactual, that the American military intervention in Iraq had been a liberal success from the start. Rather than being ignored by an impatient Donald Rumsfeld, the State Department’s recognition of Iraq’s internal divisions had been carefully studied, and a plan had been put in place to limit de-Baathification, thereby avoiding one of the sparks that ignited the Sunni insurgency. Meanwhile, the American president, effectively using the promise of massive foreign aid to put the country on the right track, had encouraged a political as well as a military solution to Iraq’s constant squabbling, resulting in the creation of a coalition government. And this president, realizing that free market ideology may not necessarily be the best way to jump-start a devastated economy in a war zone, had instituted a planning process that resulted in a revitalized Iraqi energy sector, helping to defray the costs of reconstruction. The process might have proved awkward or fitful at times, but the eventual result might well have included, in addition to the removal of a brutal dictator, the extension of the first fruits of liberal democratic life to the Iraqi people. Had such a scenario prevailed, surely we would be right to conclude that the future envisioned by liberal hawks would have been embraced with enthusiasm by the Iraqi people.

Not necessarily. From the standpoint of national self-determination, a successful intervention is more problematic than a failed one. If you are a fierce Iraqi patriot, precisely the kind who detested Saddam’s tyranny, bumbling Americans are preferable to competent ones. A Shia sectarian finally in control of his country’s levers of power is unlikely to be happy with a foreign power forcing him to compromise with a Sunni insurgent he considers a deadly enemy. Those who see an opportunity to snatch bribes out of the clumsy machinery of foreign aid prefer a failed economy to an efficient one, no matter how much it may improve the lives of ordinary people. The longer reconstruction fails, the better able are politicians to blame the occupier instead of assuming responsibility themselves. It is largely because it has accomplished so little that the occupation of Iraq has been tolerated so long.

Because a liberal intervention in Iraq would have been more likely to achieve its objectives, it would have aroused far more cries of unwanted interference. To be sure, people’s homes might have had electricity sooner and more reliably, a daily trip to work may not have been a near-death experience, and Iraqis surely would have had the best professionals rather than incompetent political hacks advising them on how to build schools and create an electrical grid. Yet no doubt many Iraqis would have hated us all the more, for not only would we be occupying their country, we would be demonstrating on a day-to-day basis how superior our way of life is to theirs. The very act of liberating a people reminds them that they were unable to free themselves.

Revisiting the key texts of the liberal hawks, one sees insufficient recognition of this occupier’s dilemma. Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism, a passionate plea urging liberals to take seriously the threat posed by Muslim tyrants, was written at too high a level of philosophical abstraction to ponder the consequences of actual policies. George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate contains one of the best accounts of the occupation’s problems, but it was written after the fact and after the author’s withdrawal of support for the war. To his credit, Kenneth Pollack did acknowledge that Iraqis just might not “pour out into the streets to welcome us.” Still, Pollack believed that once we proved our resolve by showing up at the gates of Baghdad, we stood a good chance of winning their confidence. No liberal advocate for war against Saddam went as far as the neoconservatives who cheerled for the invasion. But they shared the same myopia. It was as if Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, with its devastating portrayal of a homicidal American innocence, had never been written.

By bungling the war in Iraq so badly, George W. Bush let liberal hawks off the hook of reconsidering the obstacles that an occupation throws up in the path of good intentions. But without such reflection, liberals will find themselves back in an uncomfortable position the next time we must deal with a tyrant whose interests are deeply inimical to our own and whose oppression of his own people has become a matter of international concern. Either the American people, convinced that the boy has cried wolf once too often, will not respond to the call and the tyrant will be left in place. Or there will be an intervention deposing him without adequate preparation for the occupation that will inevitably follow. Liberals believe—I believe—that we are under a moral obligation to help people who are oppressed. If we are to do so effectively, we have to recognize that humanitarian intervention is a first and always a messy step, not a solution.



Kanan Makiya’s major contribution to the worldview of the liberal hawks lay in his insistence that Saddam’s ruthless dictatorship was a cousin of the totalitarian regimes whose brutal genocides had set the standard for evil in the modern world. Paul Berman took Makiya’s insight into Saddam and applied it to every form radical Islam has taken in the world today. “The Muslim totalitarianism of the 1980s and 90s,” he wrote, “turned out to have been fully as horrible as the fascism and Stalinism of Europe—fully as murderous, as destructive of societies and moralities, as threatening to civilization.” Running throughout Terror and Liberalism is an urgent critique of appeasement, particularly in its left-wing form. Liberals should not make excuses for brutal Third World dictators just because they happen to be anti-American, Berman insists. Nor should they bow to forces of political correctness by refusing to call evil by its right name. Radical Islam is fascism pure and simple, and if Iraq becomes the place to defeat it, then Iraq is the place where we have to intervene.

Berman took his argument a step further, saying it was axiomatic that a regime that practiced evil at home would engage in evil abroad. Other liberal hawks also attacked Saddam not only as a brutal dictator but a brutal expansionist as well. In The Gathering Storm, for instance, Kenneth Pollack acknowledged that Saddam was not a threat to the United States, but, after comparing Saddam to Nebuchadnezzar, Saladin, and al-Mansur (the caliph who waged war against the Christian West), he went on to argue that, like these tyrants of the past, Saddam must have global ambitions. Pollack was even sure what they were: transforming Iraq into a world power, dominating the Muslim world, and liberating Jerusalem from the Israelis, all of which would “be disastrous for the United States.” Knowing full well that we would never allow him to realize his goals only added “to his determination to confront the United States again at some future point.”

In making this argument, Pollack ignored Saddam’s relatively paltry capabilities and focused instead on his intentions. Obviously, Saddam in no way possessed the military means available to Hitler, but he did “share some of Hitler’s more dangerous traits, and one of them is his propensity to take colossal risks.” It followed that if Saddam was not quite the threat that Hitler was in 1938, he would have become one in a few years if we allowed his capabilities to match his intentions. We were, if this analysis is correct, back to Munich seventy years after the fact: stop him now or regret it later.

That is the kind of mistake you make if you are convinced that all tyrants are no different from the worst of tyrants. We can measure capabilities—this is why we have intelligence services—but we are generally in the dark about intentions. What made Pollack so sure of Saddam’s grandiosity? He relied on the work of a psychoanalyst, Jerrold Post, who, it need hardly be said, had never listened to Saddam speak of his childhood from a couch. Post is well known in anti-terrorism circles but not always well regarded; in the case at hand, just about everything he said about Saddam proved to be wrong. Far from being “politically out of touch with reality,” as Post suggested, Saddam was rational enough not to restart his biological and chemical weapons programs; he responded to incentives the way most political leaders did, and even though he had given some jihadis safe haven, was apparently as worried about the dangers of Islamic-inspired terrorism as we were.

Because they reflexively believe that the overthrow of tyrants puts foreign policy on a moral footing and sends a message to dictators around the world, liberal hawks drip with sarcasm when they consider the aims and ambitions of foreign policy realism. As it happens, a bit of foreign policy realism might have led to a more humanitarian outcome in the Middle East. In the case of Iran, for instance, there is little doubt that the mullahs there are bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. If one holds that possession of such weapons would allow the leaders of Iran both to intimidate their own citizens and to threaten innocent lives in Israel and perhaps even the United States, humanitarian goals would be well served by supporting those operating as a check on Iranian aims. One person who fit that bill, of course, was Saddam Hussein. For fear of being guilty of appeasement, we removed the evil he represented. In doing so, we enlarged the domain of evil of a different sort.



Of all the ideas advanced by liberal hawks in the decade or so before the invasion of Iraq, one of the most compelling was the notion that we should no longer be bound by Westphalian rules. We had learned something of vital importance at Nuremberg: no leader can claim that considerations of national sovereignty trump international norms of civilized conduct. When horrendous things happen to people living within nation-states, the world must respect those people, not the nation-states themselves. In a recent issue of World Affairs, Todd Gitlin expressed this view cogently: “State sovereignty is not the highest of all principles—neither the sovereignty that harbors mass murderers nor the sovereign right of the United States to wage war with ease.”

But our failure in Iraq points to a third lesson that we ignore at our peril: state sovereignty is not the worst of all principles, either. While focusing on the universality of the human desire for freedom, we cannot ignore the paradox that sovereign states, which so often repress the desire for freedom, also make freedom possible. Freedom cannot exist in the absence of some kind of order, and states are still the most appropriate mechanisms for achieving it. As the Bulgarian-French writer Tzvetan Todorov reminds us, there is one danger in the world greater than state sovereignty and that is anarchy.

American policy in Iraq was not directed against state sovereignty itself; our goal was to replace one sovereign with another. But in the process we created a political vacuum that allowed the development of a situation as close to a Hobbesian state of nature as the modern world has recently provided. When the state was unable to monopolize violence, violence multiplied. The first six years of America’s efforts in Iraq were devoted to replacing what the first few months of those efforts had destroyed. Nation-building, the very thing conservatives such as George W. Bush had once denounced, now became their desperate quest.

Liberal hawks believe that they have a home court advantage when it comes to nation-building. They have no principled objections to government and can therefore do a better job of managing public works and social reconstruction programs than conservatives wedded to laissez-faire orthodoxy. In theory, the liberal interventionists are right: the Bush administration’s hostility to government, as pronounced inside the Green Zone as it was within the Beltway, prevented it from making a smooth transition from a Baathist state to a more inclusive one. But on questions of state building, liberals have a problem of their own: suspicious of the notion of state sovereignty, they are unsure what kind of state to build.

Consider the views of the diplomat and writer Peter Galbraith. Horrified by Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds, Galbraith came to distrust not just a Saddamist state but any kind of centralized authority in Iraq. Like other liberals such as Leslie Gelb and Vice President Joseph Biden, he advocated a federalist solution in which sovereignty would be divided among Kurds, Sunnis, and the Shia. No one knows whether giving each side in a civil war its own governmental turf would have reduced violence or caused more of it, possibly turning a war within one state into wars within three. One thing, however, was clear: for Galbraith, as for many other liberal anti-Saddamists, the nation had to take priority over the state.

This preference is a legacy of the horror that moved liberals in a more hawkish direction in the first place: the troubles of former Yugoslavia. In that conflict, liberals sought to protect the Albanians of Kosovo and the Muslims of Bosnia against Serbian aggression. The risks of such a preference, however, are all too apparent: even the most powerless of nations can fan their own flames of ethnic prejudice and hostility; yesterday’s victims all too easily become today’s victimizers. National differences often collaborate with religious ones; in supporting national autonomy, liberals routinely find themselves taking sides in ethno-sectarian disputes—between Kurd and Arab, Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Muslim—in which they have little or nothing at stake.

Nevertheless, liberal hawks share with neoconservatives the desire to build democratic states; they also look down on those who insist that many Third World countries, including those in the Muslim world, may not be ready for democracy. But it is too easy to strike a posture of scorn for those who claim that Islam is hostile to liberalism per se or that there is something in the Arab mind that prefers autocracy to self-governance. It is quite another matter to grapple honestly with the religious and ethnic rivalries in the Middle East that have made successful democratic models few and far between. Lebanon is perhaps the most egregious example of a disintegrating democracy in that part of the world, and even in Israel questions have been raised about whether the country can keep its Jewish character and its democratic nature.

If democracy faces such difficult prospects where nationalist and religious sentiments are so strong, should liberals then support more authoritarian states so long as they keep the peace among internal ethnic rivalries and do not threaten their neighbors? If we are talking about an authoritarian leader as ruthless as Saddam, the answer must be no. Yet the leaders we can find capable of imposing security in such countries, even if they tend to be less ruthless than Saddam, will be ruthless nonetheless; in Iraq, any political settlement, even one that included Sunnis, would still give the balance of power to a Shia majority intent on getting away with whatever it can at the expense of its ancient sectarian rival. At its best, state building is a perilous process and rarely humane.

Liberal hawks have to recognize that once we intervene to help people abroad, we run the risk of either establishing a state too fractured and fragile in its authority to bring about order, or one so determined to keep order that it violates the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. This is a dilemma that can perhaps be managed, but it first requires recognition that it is a dilemma. We may still decide that stopping genocide is a more important objective than avoiding anarchy, but we cannot pretend that stopping genocide is a moral imperative so clear-cut that it must always and at all times govern our actions without condition and regardless of consequence.

All of this suggests that liberal hawks may have to shift their philosophical grounds. Todd Gitlin’s criticism of state sovereignty wherever it raises its head has an admirable Kantian flavor, seeing the rightness or wrongness of actions as based on principle rather than outcome. In the case of Iraq and other future Middle East hot spots, however, the alternative to Kant may not be Hobbes, as Robert Kagan once maintained, but Jeremy Bentham. Our actions in dealing with such states must inevitably be utilitarian, based on which of many unpleasant choices will bring the greatest benefits at the lowest cost. Sometimes that will mean leaving dictators in place and recognizing that the same sovereign structures that make it possible for tyrants to oppress their own people also make it possible for them to begin to make incremental improvement in the lives of their countrymen.



The liberal hawks are a diverse bunch, and it is not surprising that since they first urged a more ambitious foreign policy with respect to Iraq, they have moved in different directions. Some of them, like Power, have become critics not only of the war in Iraq but also the war against terror more generally, one reason Obama relied on her as an advisor during his 2008 campaign and has appointed her to help with the transition at the State Department. Others, including Peter Beinart, have written with refreshing honesty about the mistakes they made in their rush to war. But for most of them, the notion that American military power can still be used to accomplish good in the world is too powerful an idea to abandon. The question is not whether we will hear from them during the Obama presidency, but when.

My own position is that we need the liberal hawks. Long a critic of the Chomsky-Zinn left, I found myself inspired by the emergence of a serious-minded commitment on the part of liberals to respond forcibly to the many examples of genocide and ethnic cleansing that came to the world’s attention in the 1980s and 1990s. Like them, I felt that September 11 required us to respond aggressively with the military forces at our disposal. I do not claim any particular wisdom in not joining my fellow liberals in calling for war against Saddam; I was at that time too much on the fence, too torn between my new sympathy for aggressive U.S. action and my mistrust of missionary zeal to have anything coherent to say. I now believe that I was right, but it does not make me feel particularly happy or virtuous to have stood apart.

The question for liberal hawks now is how far the reaction against Iraq should go. Will they be so shaken by the unexpected horrors encountered in that country that they abandon the “duty to protect” that emerged in the 1990s in reaction to Rwanda and Bosnia? Was Obama a bit too cavalier when he promised to send troops from Iraq to Afghanistan? Will liberal interventionism wilt in the face of the worst humanitarian disaster taking place in the world today, the mass killing, reaching into the millions, occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? If the next gathering storm takes shape in Iran and is nuclear in form, will these hawks be immobilized by the example of Iraq? Whoever was responsible for the conflict in Georgia, what will the liberal position be when Russia maneuvers aggressively within its sphere of influence? In the aftermath of the events in Mumbai, should Obama continue the war on terror declared by Bush?

Answers to questions such as these are particularly urgent because it can almost be guaranteed that during the Obama presidency there will be a foreign policy crisis in a country most Americans have never heard of. Some foreign leaders, having heard Obama criticize the American rush to war in Iraq, may decide that the new administration intends to concentrate on soft power and challenge the United States with neatly calibrated aggressions designed to wipe out a rival ethnic group, or round up domestic dissidents, as tests to see if they dare go ahead and invade a neighbor. When such situations arise, we will have to avoid the twin dangers of burying our heads in the sand, on the one hand, or announcing that we have just discovered the next Hitler or Stalin, on the other.

The option of military intervention will always be there. And we will surely exercise this option, if not in the next administration, in one after that. Iraq, like Vietnam before it, will leave many lessons behind, and some will be over-learned. But this much at least is evident: we ought be as careful as possible in replacing one regime with another, taking care to ensure that someone is still in charge, and that the people who are the presumed beneficiaries of this change do not become its victims. We did none of these things well in Iraq, and we paid for it. The next time around—and there will be a next time—the price had better be right.

Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His recent books include Does American Democracy Still Work? and Return to Greatness.

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