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September 19, 2006

Tony Judt on "the Strange Death of Liberal America"
Posted by Shadi Hamid

If you need (more) proof of the divisions within liberal ranks on questions of national security, I suggest you read this piece by Tony Judt on the “Strange Death of Liberal America.” Judt, of course, is British, but his views in this piece are, one suspects, shared by many American liberals.

The basic gist is that Judt believes the liberal intelligentsia of the United States has abdicated its responsibility and, instead of principled opposition, has chosen to cheerlead the Bush administration’s recent misadventures, if not in intent then in effect. It is the same criticism often launched at “liberal interventionists” – that there is, ultimately, little to distinguish us from neo-conservatives and, more generally, foreign policy hawks:

For what distinguishes the worldview of Bush’s liberal supporters from that of his neo-conservative allies is that they don’t look on the ‘War on Terror’, or the war in Iraq, or the war in Lebanon and eventually Iran, as mere serial exercises in the re-establishment of American martial dominance. They see them as skirmishes in a new global confrontation: a Good Fight, reassuringly comparable to their grandparents’ war against Fascism and their Cold War liberal parents’ stance against international Communism. Once again, they assert, things are clear. The world is ideologically divided; and – as before – we must take our stand on the issue of the age.

It is sometimes unclear whether or not Judt has read carefully the work of “liberal interventionists" (whom he disingenuously calls "Bush's liberal supporters"). He seems to exude a particular dislike for Peter Beinart and his recent book The Good Fight. Judt castigates liberal intellectuals for criticizing the conduct of the Iraq war but not necessarily criticizing the fact that we went to war in the first place. However, Beinart is one of the few “hawks” who has clearly stated, in an admirably self-critical paragraph early on in The Good Fight, that it was a mistake to go to war. He, unlike others, admits he was wrong. Judt also complains that liberals are scared of the “dreaded L-world.” But Beinart, again, is one of the few who favors using “liberal” instead of “progressive” in order to begin to resuscitate the word’s damaged reputation.

Apparently, Judt longs for the good old days – also known as 1988, just as Democrats were presenting a candidate for president who was at once unabashedly “liberal” and terribly uninspiring (Dukakis). On October 26, 1988:

The New York Times carried a full-page advertisement for liberalism. Headed ‘A Reaffirmation of Principle’, it openly rebuked Ronald Reagan for deriding ‘the dreaded L-word’ and treating ‘liberals’ and ‘liberalism’ as terms of opprobrium. Liberal principles, the text affirmed, are ‘timeless. Extremists of the right and of the left have long attacked liberalism as their greatest enemy. In our own time liberal democracies have been crushed by such extremists. Against any encouragement of this tendency in our own country, intentional or not, we feel obliged to speak out.’

Is it just me or does the Times advertisement sound like it could have come straight out of the Euston Manifesto, a text that has been supported by "liberal hawks," many of whom one presumes Judt would find fault with?

At the same time, Judt does make some worthwhile points. It is true that a good number of liberals have been slow to realize the full extent of the Bush administration’s blunders. Sometimes we do fall under the spell of the kind of moralistic language which, while in my view appropriate and necessary, can run the risk of oversimplifying a very complicated conflict. And it is also true that Paul Berman, while an excellent and perceptive writer, sometimes appears out of his depth when discussing the intellectual lineage of political Islam.

In any case, it is unclear what exactly Judt would like us to do. The last paragraph in particular is a bit harsh.

The alacrity with which many of America’s most prominent liberals have censored themselves in the name of the War on Terror, the enthusiasm with which they have invented ideological and moral cover for war and war crimes and proffered that cover to their political enemies: all this is a bad sign. Liberal intellectuals used to be distinguished precisely by their efforts to think for themselves, rather than in the service of others. Intellectuals should not be smugly theorising endless war, much less confidently promoting and excusing it. They should be engaged in disturbing the peace – their own above all.

Here, Judt seems to miss the fact that the last few months have given us a number of bold, distinctly liberal contributions to the discussion on the future of progressive foreign policy, including articles and essays by Madeleine Albright, Michael Signer, Robert Wright, among others.


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There are no "liberal" politicians. We have the right and the centrists. There may be some Dems who still have liberal ideas on social programs, but not in foreign policy.

There are a few liberals in some of the smaller opinion mags (like the Nation) and there seem to be a few in the blogosphere.

The idea that there may be an alternative to a militaristic US in not open for discussion.

The only people who are comfortable with the term, "The Good Fight," are those who have never been in one.


See this is the thin. As Matt Y explains in his latest column, your prescription is that the US is going to play the role it did in Eastern Europe in the post1945 period. I think this is certainly Bush's, and I don't see a lot of intellectual distance between your position and his - except that yours is ineffectual in that you are squemish about what military power does. It blows shit up.

But the historical relationship between the US and the Middle East and the US and Eastern Europe are completely different. The US has historically opposed every indigenous non-western controlled political movement in the region while supporting every regime that is viewed as a vestige and/or imposition by ex-western colonial powers. The gulf monarchies, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The only exception is Egypt. Likewise, since 9/11, the US has attacked one anti-western power (Iraq - OK, the Baath's claim to being progressive in 2003 were ridiculous - but nevertheless, why attack Iraq, and not, say Saudi Arabia where most of the terrorists come from?) while supporting Israel more firmly than it ever has

As such, the US has no credibility to talk about reform to the people of the Middle East. And it won't for a generation at least. Right now, Ahmnejad and Hezbollah are mainstream voices in the region because of a lot of the above.

And the contradictions your worldview presents as a result. The US can have democratization and real self-determinanization in the region. But it would also have to abandon a lot of its other interests in the region to do so - or at least greatly compromise Israel's position and its ability to control the oil spigot, have basing rights, etc..

Shadi, you need to be more honest with yourself about all of the above.


"If you need (more) proof of the divisions within liberal ranks on questions of national security"

I see this trotted out all the time. And in a sense its true. But what it really is a division between the ossified beltway think tank class and the vast majority of Democratic and Democratic leaning voters. If I had to guess, right now 95% of Democratic voters this fall will oppose the war in Iraq.

Democratic voters are generally realist/isolationists - especially amongst the working class voters - or peacenik liberal internationalists.

It is no wonder the liberals in America are confused.

They say they support equality for women and gay rights - and at the same time they support Islam.

Islam is a homophobic, xenophobic, female-hostile and anti-semitic religion/doctrine.

How can a decent liberal support that?

"It is no wonder the liberals in America are confused.

They say they support equality for women and gay rights - and at the same time they support Islam.

Islam is a homophobic, xenophobic, female-hostile and anti-semitic religion/doctrine.

How can a decent liberal support that?
That's asinine. You imply a that there is no middle ground between liberal support of those principles, on one hand, and presumably, a belligerent approach to change in the Middle East. Such a view is amounts to a simplistic false dilemma.

Firstly, you have seem to have a total failure of imagination as to why someone may oppose something strongly as a matter of principle, yet not share your sense of the appropriate action to solve it. In particular, you seem to not understand the distinction between the tendency liberals have against blanket intolerance and a false view of homogeneous evil, and cultural or moral relativism. I can understand how there are mixed signals out there, but it seems like you're conflating the two together. I don't know any 'liberals' who are support's Iran's right to execute homosexuals or oppress women, for instance.

On the implied necessity of belligerence, which I think you’re getting at, you fail to distinguish between what a desirable state of affairs might be, and what one actually ought to do right now. Actions have reactions, repercussions, precedent value and other unforseen consequence. That is why liberals tend to view actions which can't be universalised and legitimated, like invading countries unilaterally on exaggerated and false intelligence, for example, as completely illegitimate, even when getting rid of the existing regime is good on the surface.

You see there is a fundamental difference between wanting things like a reformed and effective Human Rights Council, a well funded and resourced UN-based rapid reaction force, a mandatory reporting regime for the Genocide Convention, and regime change authorised under Chapter VII, for example, with their unilateral counterparts - like demagogic rhetorical criticism, ad hoc military coalitions acting when it’s convenient, determination and action on Genocide only when its politically expedient, and plain unilateral intervention. Each of these corresponding approaches can be used to ostensible defend liberalism, but only the former set are really harmonised with its ongoing agenda.

Anne Marie Slaughter said it better than me, when asked about Iraq:

"Is the cause of freeing a people and pushing for progressive political and economic change in the most dangerous region in the world worth fighting and dying for? Undoubtedly. But has this war--with its disdain for allies and institutions, its willful blindness to any scenario other than easy victory and immediate democracy, and its planners' irresponsibility so deep as to be immoral in failing to protect the heritage, infrastructure and lives of a people who never asked for war--been worth it? Squandering lives and vast sums of money through a combination of arrogance and negligence can never be worth it. And if the Administration had been willing to make"

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