Victory, as John F. Kennedy observed, has a thousand fathers, while defeat is an orphan. Abandoning the orphan that is the Iraq War has clearly been a protracted, painful process for the liberal hawks, those intellectuals and pundits so celebrated back in 2003 for their courage in coming forward to smash liberal expectations and support the war. Long criticized by fellow liberals for failing, amid much hand-wringing and navel-gazing, to express clear regret over their original support for the war, these hawks have started to become a bit more vocal about their second thoughts.
The nature of their regret, however, is noteworthy -- and has tremendous significance for the debate over U.S. foreign policy after Iraq. Most liberal hawks are willing to admit only that they made a mistake in trusting the president and his team to administer the invasion and occupation competently. An August 29 New York Observer article featured a litany of semi-chastened hawks articulating this sentiment. “Someone wrote that you knew who the surgeon would be, so you knew what the operation would look like,” said George Packer, New Yorker writer and author of the new book The Assassin's Gate. “And there's some truth to that. I was not as aware as I should have been of just how mendacious and incompetent the surgeon was going to be.” The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier added, “I think that it is impossible, even for someone who supported the war, or especially for someone who did, not to feel very bitter about the way it has been conducted and the way it has been explained.”
The corollary of these complaints is that the invasion and occupation could have been successful had they been planned and administered by different people. This position may have its own internal logical coherence, but in the real world, it's wrong. Though defending the competence of the Bush administration is a fool's endeavor, administrative bungling is simply not the root source of America's failure in Iraq. The alternative scenarios liberal hawks retrospectively envision for a successful administration of the war reflect blithe assumptions -- about the capabilities of the U.S. military and the prospects for nation building in polities wracked by civil conflict -- that would be shattered by a few minutes of Googling.
The incompetence critique is, in short, a dodge -- a way for liberal hawks to acknowledge the obviously grim reality of the war without rethinking any of the premises that led them to support it in the first place. In part, the dodge helps protect its exponents from personal embarrassment. But it also serves a more important, and dangerous, function: Liberal hawks see themselves as defenders of the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention -- such as the Clinton-era military campaigns in Haiti and the Balkans -- and as advocates for the role of idealism and values in foreign policy. The dodgers believe that to reject the idea of the Iraq War is, necessarily, to embrace either isolationism or, even worse in their worldview, realism -- the notion, introduced to America by Hans Morgenthau and epitomized (not for the better) by the statecraft of Henry Kissinger, that U.S. foreign policy should concern itself exclusively with the national interest and exclude consideration of human rights and liberal values. Liberal hawk John Lloyd of the Financial Times has gone so far as to equate attacks on his support for the war with doing damage to “the idea, and ideal, of freedom itself.”
It sounds alluring. But it's backward: An honest reckoning with this war's failure does not threaten the future of liberal interventionism. Instead, it is liberal interventionism's only hope. By erecting a false dichotomy between support for the current bad war and a Kissingerian amoralism, the dodgers run the risk of merely driving ever-larger numbers of liberals into the realist camp. Left-of-center opinion neither will nor should follow a group of people who continue to insist that the march to Baghdad was, in principle, the height of moral policy thinking. If interventionism is to be saved, it must first be saved from the interventionists.
The swath of center-left politicians and thinkers who supported the Iraq intervention -- and who are now in a position to find the incompetence dodge a seductive escape route from honest reckoning -- is wide, indeed. It includes leading Democratic politicians -- Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry -- and former Clinton administration foreign-policy hands, as well as such varied writers and intellectuals as Packer, author Paul Berman, Harvard professor and New York Times Magazine contributor Michael Ignatieff, op-ed columnists Thomas L. Friedman and Richard Cohen, then-columnist and now New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, and a gaggle of writers associated with The New Republic. The bungled-invasion line is hardly the exclusive provenance of such war supporters. Indeed, some of the leading exponents of the narrative, such as former Coalition Provisional Authority adviser Larry Diamond and James Fallows of The Atlantic Monthly, opposed the war from the beginning, and, of course, the incompetence line is politically appealing for liberals. But the dodge's real significance pertains to the future of liberal interventionism after Iraq.
Before the invasion, many liberal hawks grounded their case for war primarily in national-security terms -- the need to scrub Iraq free of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. As that rationale collapsed, however, George W. Bush began to shift his emphasis to humanitarianism and democracy promotion, and liberal hawks reacted by doubling down on this point. “If our strategic rationale for war has collapsed,” wrote The New Republic's editors in a summer 2004 reassessment of the war, “our moral one has not.” Thus, for liberal hawks to be able to acknowledge the failure of the war while still casting it as a morally sound endeavor in keeping with the liberal interventions of the 1990s, the incompetence dodge is key.
So was the Iraq War a good idea, ruined by poor implementation? Perhaps the founding myth of the incompetence argument is that the postwar mess could have been avoided had the United States deployed more troops to Iraq. “Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki was ridiculed for suggesting that it would take several hundred thousand troops to secure Iraq,” wrote Senator Joe Biden in a June 2004 New Republic article. “He looks prescient today.”
Shinseki's ballpark numbers were based on past Army experience with postconflict reconstruction. A RAND Corporation effort to quantify more precisely that experience, frequently cited by dodgers, concluded that a ratio of 20 foreigners for every 1,000 natives would have been necessary to stabilize Iraq.
The flaw in the popular “more troops” argument is strikingly easy to locate. The 20-to-1,000 ratio implies the presence of about 500,000 soldiers in Iraq. That's far more than it would have been possible for the United States to deploy. Sustaining a given number of troops in a combat situation requires twice that number to be dedicated to the mission, so that soldiers can rotate in and out of theater. As there are only 1 million soldiers in the entire Army, a 500,000-troop deployment would imply that literally everyone -- from the National Guard units currently assisting with disaster relief on the Gulf Coast to those serving in Afghanistan, Korea, and Europe to the bureaucrats doing staff work in the Pentagon and elsewhere -- would be dedicated to the mission. This is plainly impossible. Indeed, as of this writing the Army has zero uncommitted active combat brigades, and there are serious questions as to how long the current deployment is sustainable. The Army is already facing persistent shortfalls in recruitment, and former General Barry McCaffrey and others have expressed the view that if current trends continue, the Guard and Reserve forces will “melt down” over the next three years.
Some dodgers, such as The New Republic's Jonathan Chait, when forced to confront these facts, express the theory that the very large troop deployment they retrospectively favor need not have been implemented on a sustainable basis. Instead, says Chait, citing Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point (which says nothing about Iraq), a large enough force would have quickly stabilized the situation, launching a virtuous circle and allowing for a rapid drawdown of forces. It is possible that this would have happened, but the view lacks empirical support. The same RAND study of necessary troop levels also notes that drawdowns have historically been viable only after several years have passed.
Besides, deliberately launching an unsustainable military operation based on a hunch that it would rapidly become unnecessary to sustain it is the height of irresponsible policy making. The only justification for taking such a course would be strict military necessity, not a war of choice.
The continued prominence of this line, despite its obvious flaws, years after the invasion suggests that the dodgers are engaged in excuse making, not serious analysis. Other frequent dodger complaints likewise fail to withstand scrutiny. Most notable among these is the view that the administration fatally erred by not following the counsel of the State Department's Future of Iraq Project. Instead, the administration ordered the disbanding of the Iraqi army and a program of far-reaching de-Baathification of the Iraqi government, moves that undermined Iraq's institutions and alienated the Sunni Arab population.
Here the dodger policy judgment seems plausible. Those measures truly have alienated Sunnis and made stability impossible. The critique, however, ignores the White House's good reason for acting the way it did: These moves were virtually demanded by Iraq's majority Shia and Kurdish communities. What's more, Bush did attempt to placate the Sunnis, albeit not immediately. Following the June 2004 transfer of sovereignty, the White House did its best to choose for Iraq a Shiite Arab leader likely to be acceptable to Sunnis. The choice was Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite ex-Baathist with deep ties to the CIA and the State Department. Allawi attempted to curtail the de-Baathification process, reach out personally to other former Baath Party members, and incorporate old-regime professionals into Iraq's new security services. The results were disappointing and, more importantly, rejected overwhelmingly at the polls in Iraq's first democratic election. The post-election government largely continued where Paul Bremer had left off, despite constant American pressure for a more conciliatory policy. In other words, despite the liberal hawks' belief that the United States might have done better in Iraq, the fierce internecine conflicts there always made it highly likely that the pacification process the hawks favored would have failed.
Why did the liberal hawks so resolutely refuse to consider these on-the-ground facts as they marshaled their pro-war arguments? There are probably as many reasons as there are hawks, but the consistent thread that one sensed in reading their arguments was an imperative to be on the right side of history; and the right side, to them, meant attaining separation from the woolly left, which meant advocating war. This may be a respectable intention, but it's hardly a responsible use of positions of influence.
Reckoning with fact, by contrast, might have led to some acknowledgement of the tragic worldview that is, however much our better angels may not prefer it, a necessary component of foreign policy making in a world characterized by far more “less bad” options than genuinely good ones. It is perhaps a seduction peculiar to liberalism, which wants to believe the best about human nature, to ignore the tragic character of much of the world -- and to reflexively interpret the failures of an ambitious social-engineering endeavor as evidence of bad technocratic management rather than mistaken premises. Recognizing the flaws of the incompetence argument when it comes to Iraq would necessarily lead liberal hawks to acknowledge that not all interventions are created equal.
The liberal hawks' view of interventionism -- and ours -- was formed by the experiences of the 1990s, when greater rather than lesser American engagement in the world and a frank recognition that American power could serve humanitarian ends seemed to be the basic moral imperatives of the age. As Max Boot put it in The Weekly Standard's 10th anniversary issue, “The Bosnia and Kosovo missions … showed how much good ‘humanitarian' interventions could do, while the slaughter in Rwanda laid bare America's shame for not intervening.” Kosovo, in particular, stood as a deeply flawed but undeniable benchmark -- a war waged centrally on humanitarian grounds, revealing the potential for armed intervention to halt atrocities and for international administrators to maintain a tentative peace through indefinite occupation. For liberal interventionists, the great inhibitor to fulfilling such moral imperatives was always, inevitably, the disingenuous notes of caution sounded by Kissingerian realists. “We don't have a dog in that fight,” then–Secretary of State James Baker famously said of the Bosnian mess. Liberal hawks were appalled at such sentiments, and properly so.
But the American experience in Iraq over the past two and a half years casts a retrospective light on the '90s interventions, bringing into relief an important lesson about U.S. limitations that had been too easily overlooked -- and that the dodgers refuse to face even now: Military power can force parties to the table, but it cannot secure an enduring peace or a social transformation. The U.S. military is good at exactly what one would expect an exemplary military to be good at: destroying enemy forces while keeping collateral damage to historic lows. Consequently, we have the ability to eject hostile forces from areas where they lack a strong base of popular support. This power allowed us to create the conditions for negotiation between the parties to the Bosnian war, and to keep the local Serb, Croat, and Muslim communities from killing one another in large numbers once the peace was signed. They also allowed us to eject Serbian forces from Kosovo and bring autonomy to that province, plus provided a large measure of security and autonomy for Kurdistan for more than a decade. These are no mean achievements, and they were accomplished largely from the air, at little risk to American soldiers. But in none of those places have we yet been able to achieve what we are likewise failing to accomplish in Iraq: the sudden transformation of a society.
Intervening requires us to take sides and to live with the empowerment of the side we took. Tensions between Kosovar and Serb, Muslim and Croat, Sunni and Shiite are not immutable hatreds, and it's hardly the case that such conflicts can never be resolved. But they cannot be resolved by us. Outside parties can succeed in smoothing the path for agreement, halting an ongoing genocide, or preventing an imminent one by securing autonomy for a given area. But only the actual parties to a conflict can bring it to an end. No simple application of more outside force can make conflicting parties agree in any meaningful way or conjure up social forces of liberalism, compromise, and tolerance where they don't exist or are too weak to prevail.
Humanitarian intervention has both uses and limits. Recognizing these limits in no way entails an embrace of an amoral foreign-policy realism. This false dichotomy is perhaps the most pernicious idea to emerge from the Iraq War. Liberalism has always been an idealistic doctrine, and should continue to be. But if high ideals become detached from basic questions of feasibility, they serve nothing but their exponents' self-regard -- the fragrance of which has surrounded the liberal hawks like cheap perfume since this exercise began.
Liberal hawks joined neoconservatives in taking advantage of the public's post–September 11 engagement with the world to unveil a comically promiscuous military agenda. The New Republic first argued that the Bush administration should have deployed more troops to Afghanistan, then proceeded to argue in favor of the war in Iraq, then criticized the administration for failing to send more of America's already overstretched forces to interventions in Liberia and Haiti, then urged action to halt genocide in Sudan, and now takes the view that the problem with Iraq is that hundreds of thousands of additional troops should have been sent there from the beginning. Though arguably imbued with loftier motives than its neoconservative variant (The Weekly Standard has variously argued for attacking Iran, Syria, and North Korea), TNR's stance is still knee-jerk hawkishness that is oblivious to the realities of the situation. It deserves to be tuned out in debates every bit as much as blanket pacifism does. Just as serious opponents of war must be prepared to countenance some wars under some circumstances, serious advocates of using force for humanitarian purposes must be willing to acknowledge some limits to what can and should be done.
We are not realists. Rather, we agree with Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, that coercive humanitarian intervention, while useful and important, “can be justified only in the face of ongoing or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life.” Avenging past slaughter, which certainly took place in Iraq years before the U.S. invasion, is not a good enough reason. Using force to build a pluralistic liberal democracy where none existed before could count as a moral justification for war if we had any sense of how to feasibly engage in such an endeavor, but the evidence from Iraq and elsewhere indicates that we do not. Liberal hawks convinced themselves that the war in their heads was a classic humanitarian intervention, but wishing doesn't make it so. Not merely in its execution, but on the plane of ideas as well, the humanitarian rationale for the war was, at best, neoconservatism with a human face. The confusion currently permeating the discourse only complicates efforts to construct a viable liberal foreign policy, and will continue to do so until it is checked.
Before Iraq, this had always been the liberal understanding. The view that the United States should invade entrenched dictatorships in order to occupy foreign countries and transform them into democracies is utterly novel. No president has ever undertaken a war on this theory. “In the wake of Iraq,” TNR's Peter Beinart bemoaned in December, “there has been a lot of loose liberal talk about the impossibility of imposing democracy by force.” That loose talk is probably right. The main examples of successful coercive democratization -- Germany and Japan during and after World War II -- involved military methods, notably the wholesale aerial destruction of civilian population centers, that would be condemned as barbaric today. Where invasion is undertaken for other reasons, as in Afghanistan and Kosovo, it is sensible to try to stand up the most decent successor regime we can manage. But to initiate a war in order to begin the occupation is daft.
Such understanding by no means requires rejecting the concept of democracy promotion. But whether in Eastern Europe in the 1990s or Ukraine, Georgia, and Lebanon in the 21st century, democracy promotion has not been accomplished primarily through warfare. Acknowledging the limits of armed intervention does, however, entail a recognition that injustice exists in the world that is beyond America's capacity to remedy. Refusal to see this -- which is part and parcel of the incompetence dodge -- may be the liberal hawks' most dangerous tic. And if a failure to internalize some trace of the tragic worldview is a common liberal danger, still further dangers abound for intellectuals and pundits: the seductions of cheap hindsight and second-guessing, the perennial inclination to sacrifice empirical grounding for lofty moralizing and aesthetic preening.
Precisely because commentators face the least degree of accountability for what they advocate, they have the greatest responsibility to face matters squarely and honestly. The future of a morally serious, reality-based liberalism depends on interventionists learning from the Iraq debacle lessons more profound than that George W. Bush is a bumbler.
Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias are Prospect staff writers.