Collateral Damage

War is seldom good for liberalism. The liberal view of international relations tends to emphasize peace through international law, even though the reach of law is weakest across national frontiers, where no sovereignty exists. Liberals also recoil from the plain violence of war. And they often tend to read their own good intentions into the motives and actions of adversaries who have nothing but contempt for liberal norms and values.

More pointedly, war tends to undermine the domestic basis of liberal politics. It divides liberals -- from each other and from voters. It consumes resources liberals want to spend on domestic needs. It diverts attention. Liberalism prizes complexity and tolerance. War engenders jingoism and oversimplification, as well as censorship and a retreat from civil liberties. If there are few atheists in foxholes, there are few liberals there either. And, of course, victory vindicates warriors. World War I divided American progressives and short-circuited the era of progressive reform. The infamous Palmer Raids on dissenters were conducted by Woodrow Wilson's attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer. After the exertions of war left progressives divided and the nation restive and isolationist, a decade of Republican rule followed.

World War II was seemingly the exception. The war was in a sense the completion of both the Keynesian and the planning aspects of the New Deal. Nobody accused FDR of being soft on defense. But Republicans gained the Congress in 1946 anyway, and only by the fortuitous accident of the presidential election coming in 1948 rather than 1946 was President Truman able to run for re-election as an insurgent, painting the Republican "do-nothing 80th Congress" as the incumbent. The predictable postwar opposition takeover of the White House was delayed by one election, until 1952. The effect of Vietnam on the Great Society and on liberalism needs no belaboring.

* * *

The Persian Gulf war is true to the pattern, and seems doubly harmful to liberalism because of its timing. Democrats and liberals have spent better than forty years living down the right-wing charge of being soft on communism. Now they may have to live down the charge of being soft on pan-Arabism. More recently, they have spent the past decade having to rebut the image of being weak on defense, and recovering from the Great Schism of Vietnam which distanced good domestic progressives such as Hubert Humphrey and Henry "Scoop" Jackson from much of their natural constituency, and left liberalism splintered. Now there is a new schism, in which most of the congressional Democratic Party voted against an early shooting war, then scrambled to support their Commander in Chief once the shooting started. All over America, liberal armchair generals have marvelled at the accuracy of the high-tech weaponry that many had opposed funding. Ann Lewis, former political director of the Democratic National Committee, former adviser to Jesse Jackson, supported war. Her brother, Congressman Barney Frank, opposed it. The editorial board of this magazine was similarly divided.

* * *

As Paul Starr and I wrote a year ago in our inaugural issue, the end of the Cold War portended a resurgence of liberalism because it allowed domestic economic issues -- the natural liberal high ground -- to resurface, and because it at last opened the door to the collective security regime promised in 1945, which in turn could liberate American resources and American attention. The question of who was the fiercer anti-communist was finally beside the point. But now the elusive peace dividend has been overtaken by a new peacekeeping mission which will consume tens of billions of dollars. This, in turn, will compound the fiscal politics of permanent deficit, further squeeze domestic spending, and rekindle the military appetite for new exotic weapons fit for new missions in the Third World. Although the war was nominally being fought in the name of collective security, it was in fact a renewal of Pax Americana.

Even worse, while the war had the nominal support of the Soviet Union, in fact it coincided with the eclipse of glasnost and perestroika and it signalled a breach in the U.S.-Soviet entente. When in late 1990 democrats and radical economic reformers allied with Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze were beseeching the Bush administration for support before their window closed, all administration eyes and all spare funds were on the Middle East. Soviet liberalism collapsed soon afterward. The New York Times's William Safire, long skeptical of Gorbachev, wrote a column in mid-February proclaiming Cold War II, in case pan-Arabism was not sufficient cause to re-arm.

At this writing, the war has had predictable effects on domestic politics and on liberal values. Network producers wore yellow ribbons, and newscasters referred to Iraqi forces as "the enemy." CNN's Peter Arnett was attacked as a traitor. The Orwellian language of war, in which civilian deaths are called collateral damage, returned. The war swept the economy, and kindred domestic problems, off the front pages. Southern Democratic senators who voted against the January 14 authorization of war, such as Sam Nunn, Terry Sanford, and Ernest Hollings, are down as much as twenty points in their home state polls. Republican operatives are said to be salivating over the prospect of juxtaposing tape from the Senate war debate with footage of Saddam Hussein's ravings and America's combat victories. Saddam promises to be 1992's Willie Horton.

Christopher Lydon, formerly of The New York Times, now anchor of the local public TV news in Boston, constructs a fantasy meeting of the "War Party" in 1975, right after Vietnam, chaired by Henry Kissinger. Gentlemen, says Kissinger, we blew it. It will be fifteen years before the American people will even consider supporting another war. In the meantime, we must do several things. We must make sure that the next war is not fought in a jungle; that it is against an adversary Americans know next to nothing about, led by a true monster; that it involves a genuine threat to Israel, so that we can neutralize Jewish intellectual opposition; that it plays well on television, so that viewers can flip the channels from Top Gun" to Nintendo to the evening news with no sense of unease. We must make sure that next time the high-tech equipment really works. We want a volunteer army, so that the children of opinion leaders are not at risk. And we need a real affirmative action push, so that the military is seen as a benign career ladder by blacks. We might even have, Kissinger deadpans, a black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The parable is of course fanciful, but all too true.

* * *

And yet. And yet, if war is bad for liberals, it is even more reliably bad for incumbents. Most wars lead finally to messy, unanticipated outcomes, leaving weary voters more bent on change than on gratitude. In 1945, the British electorate even unhorsed Churchill in his very moment of triumph, just as it had unceremoniously dumped Lloyd George a quarter century before. And yet, wars, even victorious ones, often lead to an ambiguous peace. In a year's time, the Middle East situation may not be so good for the Bush incumbency.

The first reason is the economy. As the war winds down and the euphoria fades, the economy again becomes topic one. And this economy's woes will not be solved either by the stimulus of war or by the respite of peace, for the recession and America's deepening uncompetitiveness have little to do with the war. The second reason is the likelihood of a messier than usual aftermath. The Bush administration is placing its hopes on a post-conflict coalition of Arab moderates, anchored by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. It imagines a regional collective security system, backed by an implicit alliance with the United States, and sweetened by large amounts of aid for reconstruction and development of the region.

This sounds logical enough, but readily bringing it about presents an improbable politics. Any analogy to the postwar reconstruction of Europe, in which the U.S. enjoyed the role of benign and provident conquering hero, is misplaced. The Middle East is the world's most politically seismic region. Most of its inhabitants simply do not accept as legitimate either the region's arbitrary division of oil wealth or the national boundaries that were drawn by the British, who carved up the former Ottoman Empire after World War I, making alliances of convenience with petty sheikhs along the land and sea route to India. In what is now Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, British (and later American) surrogate monarchs were overthrown in the mid-twentieth century by radical nationalists and /or fundamentalists, who are authoritarian but who generally enjoy more legitimacy than their predecessors. The region's remaining "kings" are not leaders of venerable monarchies, but the sons or grandsons of local lords installed on makeshift national thrones by the British in this century.

* * *

The region's sole monarchy that dates back hundreds of years, ironically enough, is Kuwait -- and Kuwait now faces an internal power struggle. One way or another, the strategy of propping up pro-Western modernizers has backfired, as the diverse fates of the Shah of Iran, Anwar el-Sadat, the Emir of Kuwait, and King Hussein of Jordan attest. Converting such nations as Syria and Jordan -- to say nothing of Iran and Iraq -- into supportive status-quo powers will require a feat of prodigious and very costly diplomacy, if not occupation. It may simply not be possible to get from here to there, given the constraints of U.S., Israeli, Palestinian, and pan-Arab domestic politics.

Whether or not a regional settlement is explicitly part of an armistice with Iraq, it is essential for a durable peace. However, for Syria and Jordan to accept such a settlement would require real concessions by the Israelis, including a withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan Heights. And the Israelis, for their part, have good reason to wonder whether such a settlement, even with great power guarantees, would forever preclude future radical and hostile states on its borders and Scuds a few miles from home.

If there is any region in the world where history has not ended and is unlikely to end in any foreseeable future, it is the Middle East. Secretary of State James Baker has long sought to broker a land-for-peace deal. A victory in the Gulf War, with Israel for the first time having depended on U.S. combat forces to guarantee its security, gives the U.S. new leverage over the Israelis. But using that leverage is another story, given Israel's powerful friends on both sides of the aisle in the U.S. Congress, and its own determination to resist a diktat. The politics will get truly ugly if the administration begins applying serious pressure on Israel to give up the West Bank or the Golan Heights -- yet a settlement will be stillborn if the administration fails to do so. Even with such a settlement, there is a risk that Israel's anxious hawks will be proven right, and that America will be drawn into combat again to enforce the peace.

In short, the administration is at risk whatever it does. If Bush and Baker do pursue such a peace, it will present an arduous politics, as well as a huge bill -- for the easiest way to win support for it in both Israel and the Arab world is via a massive infusion of American aid. But if the administration fails to pursue a regional settlement, the Middle East will remain a cauldron. So the odds are that Election 1992 will bring not the sweet rewards of easy victory, but the messy and expensive aftermath of an inconclusive and unstable protectorate.

* * *

Still, all of this is small comfort to liberals in the spring of 1991. Militarily, America's victory was nothing short of spectacular. The battle plans all worked. U.S. casualties were exceptionally light. It was a made-for-T.V. war -- a heroic mini-series that ended its run before tedium and doubt had a chance to turn off the audience. The leading generals, men such as H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin L. Powell, Jr., are attractive figures, which must give pause to the Vietnam generation. Some have even proposed that the most effective Democratic strategy for 1992 would be to draft Powell -- just as the Democrats nearly recruited Dwight Eisenhower to run as their candidate in 1948.

The Gulf War was the rare victory of the simple over the complex. Saddam Hussein, whatever the extenuating circumstances, was simply an aggressor. Many of us, in the sitzkreig between August 2 and January 16, argued that as horrible a tyrant as Saddam was, his invasion of Kuwait was in part the legacy of a chain of U.S. policy errors: the disastrous signal in late July by Ambassador April Glaspie that America really didn't care about Kuwait; the tilting to Saddam as the non-fundamentalist in the Iran-Iraq war; the sale of weapons to him by several western nations; America's failure to have an energy policy; America's toleration of Israel's occupation of the West Bank, and our failure to build on Camp David; and on and on, right back to the cynical partition of the Ottoman Empire. But once Iraq invaded Kuwait, all of this was mere prologue, just as the disastrous reparations formula of Versailles was a distant footnote once Hitler was on the march. History is not quite bunk, but it is not terribly relevant when the immediate imperative is to stop a raging tyrant. Most liberals who counseled an intensification of sanctions did so not in the name of pacifism but of a different conception of realpolitik, specifically a concern for the stability of the post-conflict Middle East. The most noble abstract cause involved here is the sanctity of status quo borders, not the defense of democracy. The borders, in this century, have shifted like the sands, with shifts in western colonial interests and local skirmishes. Today, our identified Arab friends in much of the region have mainly oil to recommend them. They are attractive only to the extent that Saddam is ugly.

Colonialism, like racism, has often been the embarrassing handmaiden of liberalism. In the nineteenth century, even British Liberals went along with empire, even empire said to be acquired "in a fit of absent-mindedness." In the twentieth-century Pax Americana, liberal cold warriors and internationalists found it convenient to ally the United States with a succession of illiberal foreign regimes, from Pretoria to Santiago, not a few of them in the Middle East. This disjuncture between the character of America's domestic regime and its foreign surrogates is why so many of the world's people unaccountably hate us. But few Americans want to hear that, least of all when the nation is at war, even less when the enemy is a genuine tyrant.

Nonetheless, I suspect that the situation on the ground in the Middle East, to say nothing of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, not to mention the economy at home, will be ambiguous at best in a year's time. We do not know just what the war's aftermath will bring, but it is likely to bring more entanglement and less stability. Liberals who urged a continuation of sanctions rather than war may not quite look like seers, but they will have nothing to be ashamed of. And George Bush and Jim Baker could look like far less than the miracle men of Operation Desert Storm.

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