Let's Get Serious

"Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so," said John Kenneth Galbraith, "almost everyone gets busy on the proof."

Today's liberal hawks are engaged in a slightly subtler game. The Iraq war is an acknowledged catastrophe. The same group-think and bandwagon effects that once pushed them so irresistibly towards embracing the invasion is now similarly forceful in pulling them to abandon it. The question, for many, is how to finesse that flip without losing one's reputation for unparalleled foreign policy seriousness. The answer is Iran.

The new approach is not to refight the battle over the Iraq war, but to argue that those who got it right, or who got it wrong but eventually came to the right answer, are now in danger of overlearning the lessons of the war -- and missing the danger posed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. An elegant entry into this burgeoning genre comes from Ken Baer in the latest issue of Democracy. "[A] president's past mistakes," writes Baer, "can so preoccupy political leaders that they lose sight of the dangers ahead or the principles they hold dear." In the conclusion of his piece, he warns that progressives must "not use anger at one war as an excuse to blink when confronting a future threat head on."

The liberal hawks' exculpatory proof for their support of the Iraq war is based on what Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias termed "The Incompetence Dodge": a focus on the war's mismanagement and poor administration rather than on the question of whether it could have ever succeeded in the first place. The dodge enables opposition to the war's continuation without a conceptual reevaluation of the war's worth, which means there's no conceptual reevaluation of preventative wars in the Middle East more generally. Now, in order to avoid turning the Iran question into just such a first-order conversation but instead use it for another round of more-serious-than-thou point-scoring, many liberal hawks are relying on a different tactic altogether: sheer vagueness.

The remarkable thing about the growing liberal hawk literature on Iran is its evasiveness -- the unwillingness to speak in concrete terms of both the threat and proposed remedies. The liberal hawks realize they were too eager in counseling war last time, and their explicit statements in support of invasion have caused them no end of trouble since. This time, they will advocate no such thing. But nor will they eschew it. They will simply criticize those who do take a position.

Iran raises several complicated questions, but also a simple one: Do you think military force is called for in preventing Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons? Some, like me, say no. Some also, like me, do not believe the evidence supports the contention that Iran is a fully totalitarian society under the rule of a crazed and suicidal Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, and in fact think that such portrayals should be resisted and identified as part of a larger, pro-war narrative. This is how I ended up in Baer's article as a convenient straw liberal who "excuse[s] the Iran regime, all the better to deny the very existence of a threat."

Oddly, Baer did not take the opportunity to argue against my position. "Israel is again staring down a possible existential threat," he wrote, "and the United States is once more facing a serious challenge to its interests in the region." So the threat is to Israel, as well as to unspecified American interests in the region that face a "serious challenge." Does that mean Baer thinks we should use force to prevent Iran's pursuit of nuclear weaponry? Who knows? Baer retreats here to platitudes, saying that "it is incumbent upon us to provide a coherent foreign-policy alternative to Bush's neoconservative vision, one that is true to the progressive legacy of internationalism -- liberal democracy, rule of law, and equal opportunity." But what about those nukes? What does that sentence suggest that we do?

Baer's dodge is not rare. A while back, The New Republic demanded that "the West finally get ruthlessly serious about Iran." Unless "ruthlessly serious" describes some subset of containment theory that I'm unfamiliar with, this seems like mercilessly frivolous advice. But such is the sorry state of discourse on Iran: lots of hyperventilating, but relatively little in the way of actual diagnosis or prescription.

The question of force is not an academic exercise. Much reporting has focused on the split within the administration that pits Condoleezza Rice's mostly-diplomatic vision against Dick Cheney's desire to confront Tehran militarily. Where progressives come down on this fight is probably the most salient foreign policy question of the day. Lord knows the Republicans have been clear enough. Norman Podhoretz has written an article entitled "Bomb Iran Now." Bill Kristol has been admirably forthright in preferring military confrontation to a nuclear Iran. (He even advocated a U.S. military strike against Iran as a response to Hezbollah's capture of Israeli soldiers in Lebanon.) And in the last Republican presidential debate, the pertinent question wasn't whether the candidates would bomb Iran to keep it from developing nuclear weapons, but whether they'd engage in a nuclear first-strike to get the job done.

It is possible that some self-described progressives agree with them. If so, they should speak up, and we can have an argument. The mantra of "seriousness," however, is disingenuous. Progressive intellectuals are not diplomats or politicians, actively in search of better positioning or a negotiating posture . Insofar as Iran is a serious foreign policy issue -- and it is! -- those who pride themselves on their seriousness in such matters should be honest in offering their answers. The "dovish" view is that a military campaign against Iran would be a seriously bad idea. It is a view shared by many generals, most foreign policy experts, and, according to some reports, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Liberal hawks seem to dispute that conclusion, but won't quite say why. The danger of Iraq, it turns out, is not that too many liberals overlearned its lessons, but that too many liberals didn't learn them at all -- and instead have merely become more circumspect in their saber-rattling.

For those who object to that characterization, and whose public hawkishness is more of an affectation than a real substantive agenda, this is not a time for self-righteous posturing or rhetorical toughness; it is a time for those who do want to prevent war with Iran to, well, oppose war with Iran. That doesn't mean supporting their nuclear ambitions, or developing a misplaced affection for an ugly regime. But it does mean speaking forthrightly about what a catastrophe a military attack would prove to be. Liberals, after all, do not control the government. George W. Bush is still the Commander in Chief. The best liberals can hope for, then, is to influence the discourse and shift the spectrum of opinion deemed "acceptable." But they will be unable to do even that if they refuse to speak clearly.