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
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.