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
You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)