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February 23, 2007

The Limits of American Idealism
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Peter Beinart, unlike so many others, seems to have learned precisely the right lessons from supporting the wrong war. Where Peter started off as an avid, full-blown supporter of the war, he has found himself today in a very different place. His latest piece is a fascinating accounting of how we come to make the wrong decisions only with the best of intentions. My own situation is, in many ways, quite different but I suppose I, too, am on my way to coming to terms with Beinart's somewhat dispiriting but necessary realizations about power and idealism.

I was adamantly opposed to the war from the beginning. I didn't waver (at least not until much later). For me, there was no gray area. I really had trouble understanding how anyone who called themselves a “liberal” could lend their support to such a destructive project. However, my views became a bit more ambiguous by early 2005 when I saw the promise of what could have been and, what I believed then, was still possible. I was living in Jordan at the time. I remember seeing the pictures of Iraqis braving terrorist threats to cast their votes for the first time in their lives. For me, it was one of those rare moments which seemed to hold within it the hopes and dreams of a people. For me, it was a beautiful moment, moving, emotional. It was a formative experience. We lived in a different world then and readers of DA will know how much hope I had for the now-aborted "Arab spring." I remember telling one of my friends in Jordan then (and, trust me, I hated saying it): in 10 or 15 years, we will look back and we might have to admit to ourselves that the Bush administration was the best thing that happened to the Middle East. Well, as the following two years would bear out, I was totally wrong. The opposite of what I “predicted” is now true: the Bush administration is the worst thing that has happened to the Middle East.

Peter says he was seduced by the notion that American could be what it had not yet become: a “revolutionary democratic power.” I began to believe this as well. This is, really, what I longed for, and, like so many others, we were seduced by the idealism of revolution. Beinart’s conclusion is sobering: “We can't be the country those Iraqis wanted us to be.” With that in mind, he goes on to make what I think is the fundamental distinction between liberal interventionists and neo-cons:

Being a liberal, as opposed to a neoconservative, means recognizing that the United State has no monopoly on insight or righteousness. Some Iraqis might have been desperate enough to trust the United States with unconstrained power. But we shouldn't have trusted ourselves.  


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Shadi, you once again fail to demonstrate any depth or analytical insight into this issue. Beinart gets it wrong in his latest column just like he's gotten it wrong for years.

The problem is not with America, or with any lack of insight or righteousness, or even those suspicious of freelancing interventionism. Rather, the problem is with the very idea that democracy can be implemented from the outside by force. Plain and simple. Democracy by force has in the past been a byproduct of defending national security or that of our allies (see: Japan, e.g., or Germany, which already had a recent history of representative democracy and stable civil society pre-WWII), but it's not a viable comprehensive strategy.

Instead of saying "we weren't up to the task" or some other dodge blaming the incompetence of the implementation, Beinart needs to realize that the principle of waging all-out war to create a functional, representative civil society and democracy is a profoundly stupid one.

As for you, after being opposed to the war, you somehow were persuaded in the midst of the country falling apart (2005? really??) that people going to the polls represented something "beautiful, moving, emotional" rather than the distraction and illusion that it actually was. If you thought voting meant democracy (failing to take seriously enough the issues of governance, structure, and security), you either have a profound lack of historical understanding or zero perspective on what functional civil society entails. To be fooled by that -- again, in 2005 no less -- is pretty pathetic, even beyond your usual infatuation with rhetoric and imagery.

Exasperated, I don't necessarily see where we disagree. I, too, am against the notion of promoting democracy/ending tyranny by force or through military intervention of any kind, and I have never advocated "democracy at gunpoint." Which, again, was why I never did support the Iraq war. I am a strong proponent of democracy promotion, but only through peaceful means.

I wasn't "fooled" in 2005. Yes, I am fully aware that the situation in Iraq, then, was still pretty bad, but that doesn't change the fact that January 30, 2005 was "beautiful, moving, and emotional." It was. Moreover, there was sense that the political process was moving forward and that progress was being made. The problem is that it simply didn't last, for a variety of reasons that I won't go into now.


Your post and Beinert's TRB are useful insofar as they provide some insight into the groupthink that is the curse of American foreign policy, even on the left. I do hear you when you say you opposed the war from the beginning. But I am astonished that anyone who knew enough to mistrust the Bushists with this kind of enterprise from the start would ever be seduced into trusting them after the disaster was in full swing. I can only attribute it to the same sort of blindness to fundamental American corruption and incompetence in the age of Bush, perhaps based on a naive faith in the fundamental incorruptibility of the American "cause" no matter who holds the reins of power.

I am still waiting for a member of America's political and media elite to get a true insight into the evils their groupthink has caused in the world so that they will expose it for what it is and maybe fewer of their class will be lured into serving it. Maybe then I will feel a genuine desire to be grateful for their confessions and accepting of their apolgies.

(And to be clear, it's Beinert I have a hard time forgiving. At least you saw Iraq for what it was before the war and never believed in a military solution to the country's democracy problem.)

Reading your diary and response one thought occurred to me above all else: I often give you a rough time as you waver back and forth, disturbed by the crushing onrush of events as we all are at times, and you exhibiting the uncertainty of youth, but most of us don't bare our souls as you do in public. You are entirely, entirely without pretense and I love you for that. THAT is American idealism and there are no limits. You have it. All issues pale in the light of honesty and truth. Hang in there, bud, you are appreciated, and let's meet again on the battleground of ideas.

I too appreciate your sincerity and willingness to change your views- we all make mistakes, but only some learn from them.


Don and J.S.,

thank you so much for the kind notes. I always enjoy reading your comments. But, more importantly, i always learn from them. That's really what I like so much about engaging with the readers of this blog.

The thing that Beinart and all of the other idealistic "liberal hawks" need to keep in mind is that the system we call "democratic capitalism" is far more capitalist than democratic. Whenever these two value systems come into conflict, as they often do, it is democracy that gives way.

Capitalism is paradoxical in that it is destabilizing and dynamic without being "revolutionary" in any coherent way. Maybe "corrosive" is the best term to describe its effects. At the same time, when it comes to preserving the privileges of the capitalists, it is profoundly conservative, which is why the USA cannot remotely be a "revolutionary democracy".

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