The “I can’t believe I’m a hawk!” club

They're liberals who opposed Iraq from the start -- but they're on-board with Libya

Topics: Libya, War Room,

The "I can't believe I'm a hawk!" clubA Libyan rebel walks on the front line outside of Bin Jawaad, 150 km east of Sirte, central Libya, Tuesday, March 29, 2011. Rockets and tank fire sent Libya's rebel volunteers in a panicked scramble away from the front lines Tuesday, suggesting that the opposition is still no match for the superior firepower and organization of Gadhafi's forces, despite an international campaign of deadly airstrikes. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)(Credit: Anja Niedringhaus)

(updated)

History might not repeat itself, but it often performs impressive reenactments. So it’s tempting to see the liberal debate over the Libyan war as a mere replay of the argument over the Iraq War in 2003.

Once again, the liberal hawks — Democrats who support the frequent use of American military force abroad — favor intervention. They include Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy and planning at the State Department; Bill Clinton; the editors of the New Republic; and the folks at the Progressive Policy Institute. And once again, the anti-imperialists at the Nation, realists like Stephen Walt and David Rieff, and humanitarian-minded liberals like Dissent editor Michael Walzer are hoisting antiwar flags. 

But the similarities between the two debates are mainly superficial. The cast of characters has changed, for one thing, and many seem to have reconsidered their philosophies in the interceding years.

Some who supported the Iraq war dissent from the Obama’s administration maneuvers into Libya. The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum, Time’s Joe Klein, the young group of bloggers known as the “Juicebox Mafia,” and the counterinsurgency fetishists at the Center for a New American Security have all been skeptical or outright hostile to American participation in Libya. Whether because of concerns of imperial overstretch, fears of another long-term occupation, or simple post-Iraq humility, these one-time liberal hawks have traded in their wings.

What’s more surprising, though, is that the ranks of liberals who favor the Libyan intervention contain some of the earliest and most vocal critics of the Iraq War.

One important anti-Iraq liberal who backs Obama’s policy, TNR’s John Judis, is dismayed by how quickly many of his fellow liberals lined up against the operation. “I’ve been surprised and disappointed in how uniform the disagreement among the left is,” he says.

Judis isn’t quite as lonely as he thinks. A number of prominent individuals with stalwart left-wing credentials have found themselves supporting what is the third active American-led war in a Muslim country. Their arguments suggest a possible new direction for American foreign policy as it adjusts to a post-revolutionary era in the Middle East.

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Judis has been clearest in outlining why Libya is a matter of U.S. national interest. If the cost of oil continues to rise (as it has since the beginning of the Libyan uprising), he contends, instability may inhibit the world’s economic recovery. “[I]f the recovery stalls globally, that could have enormous geopolitical implications — think of the 1930s,” he’s written. Judis identifies as something of a realist, one influenced by journalist Walter Lippmann’s idea that the U.S. foreign policy should primarily act as the “shield of the republic,” the protector of American security.

His realist-minded assessment of Libya is seconded by Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political scientist who has popularized the idea that suicide terrorism primarily results from foreign occupation. Both Judis and Pape opposed the Iraq War, primarily because they recognized it was detrimental to American national security interests.

Still, most on the left in favor of the Libyan war are more concerned with humanitarian motives than with ideas about America’s national interest. Human rights organizations have led the way in this regard. The International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch both called for United Nations-led action in Libya; by contrast, both had opposed war with Iraq in 2003 on the grounds that it didn’t meet the criteria for humanitarian intervention. As early as Feb. 22, the newly formed Genocide Intervention Network/Save Darfur Coalition was calling for the imposition of a no-fly zone. The Enough Project, an arm of the Center for American Progress, cheered that “[c]onfusion and inaction in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and a host of other lesser-known failures of international will have laid the groundwork, finally, for a spine-stiffening catalytic moment in Libya.” In the view of these NGOs, outside powers needed to insert themselves into the conflict simply to avoid a massacre.

Another faction sporting “I can’t believe I’m a hawk” buttons are the regional specialists. Middle East experts Juan Cole, Marc Lynch and Shadi Hamid have all been supportive of the military action in Libya. This is in stark contrast to Iraq, where a few right-wing scholars like Bernard Lewis were the only scholars of the region supporting the venture.

“Regional specialists pay a lot of attention to Arab public opinion, and we take it seriously,” says Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. Of primary importance for Hamid was the fact that Arabs were asking America to support the Libyan rebels. “They weren’t asking us to stand aside, they wanted us to intervene, and listening to them is a principle I take seriously.” Cole, a University of Michigan historian and author of the widely read blog Informed Comment, has penned an open letter to the left in defense of the war and debated the conflict with editors of the Nation. Though plenty of Middle East experts oppose the war, regional specialists like Cole have tremendous credibility on the left, given their uniquely deep knowledge of the region and prescient track record. Hamid has been warning for years that U.S. support for autocrats like Hosni Mubarak needed to be reversed, for instance. He sees intervention in Libya as an opportunity for America to reverse its decades-long record of backing dictators in the Middle East.

At their grandest, those supporting Obama in his Libyan venture believe the president is pointing the way toward a post-Iraq liberal foreign policy approach. Obama’s speech this past Monday was a large step toward the “development of a post-Cold War foreign policy — something that two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall still remains murky,” Judis wrote. Hamid believes liberals are too haunted by the ghosts of Iraq to begin the hard work of developing stable alternatives to neoconservatism. “Until a few years ago, liberal foreign policy was about promoting human rights and supporting democracy,” he says. The right usurped and corrupted those ideas, and liberals must reclaim them. “Supporting U.S. values is in the broader American national interest, and watching as thousands get slaughtered when we have the ability to prevent that is an untenable situation,” Hamid says.

Pro-intervention liberals say they are fully aware of the risks posed by U.S. action in Libya. “It could fail,” Judis bluntly admits. America could get stuck there, the mission could be expanded, the coalition could fall apart, or the rebels could simply lose their fight to Gadhafi loyalists. Hamid says he never takes military action lightly, and that Libya is indeed a “risky endeavor.” Judis says that while he is not blind to arguments warning against the intervention, “Given the choices we had, I think this was the best option.” The future direction of liberal foreign policy thought may well depend on the success of the campaign already underway in the skies of Libya.

Update: At the Center for a New American Security’s website, Andrew Exum has taken issue with the statement that “the counterinsurgency fetishists at [CNAS]have all been skeptical or outright hostile to American participation in Libya” after supporting the Iraq war. Exum notes that CNAS wasn’t founded until 2007, four years after the invasion of Iraq.

While voices at CNAS did advocate George W. Bush’s “surge” in Iraq in 2007, it is indeed true that the group’s leading voices were not active or prominent in the 2002-2003 debate over whether to go to war. Exum also emphasizes that CNAS – as an institution — doesn’t take policy positions. While we believe the language in this piece was sufficiently clear on that point, we are happy to reinforce it here.

Jordan Michael Smith writes about U.S. foreign policy for Salon. He has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post.

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