Liberal Hawks

"From Adbusters #59... still relevant as we go into 2021. All back issues of Adbusters are available for purchase online on the Culture Shop."

You’ve heard the terms. Liberal hawk. War dove. Academic circles may prefer ‘liberal interventionist.’ The term applies to left-wingers who are committed to using military force to preserve and promote human rights. Their support for the invasion of Iraq confused some people. Aren’t lefties supposed to oppose the war?

Many in the liberal hawk camp downplayed the relevance of the more dubious motives for attacking Iraq – supposed weapons of mass destruction and links to al Qaeda – in favor of a bigger point: removing Saddam Hussein from power would free millions of people from the torture and abuse of a brutal dictator. So it was a good thing. Well, not necessarily ‘good,’ but the lesser of two evils. That’s how liberal hawk posterboy Michael Ignatieff framed it. In The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, Ignatieff argued that in order to combat serious evil, “we may have to traffic in evils: indefinite detention of suspects, coercive interrogations, targeted assassinations, even pre-emptive war.” He wrote those words before the evils carried out in Abu Ghraib prison were revealed. The scandal forced him to reassess his stance and note that, “Everything I’ve said and believed since I was 18 is on the line over this war, and I could be seriously wrong.” But Ignatieff – who is no apologist for the Bush administration – remained confident that the January 30 Iraqi elections would make up for the transgressions of the US occupiers. In fact, he noted in The New York Times Magazine that “Establishing free institutions in Iraq was the best reason to support the war – now it is the only reason.”

The use of military interventions to make the world a better place is an idea bigger than Ignatieff or the Iraqi elections. It is as old as the primordial strongman who conquered neighboring tribes to establish peace in the region. Subsequent rulers and kings have consolidated power and disarmed their opponents all in the name of peace. European empires applied this mentality on a global scale, as epitomized by the UK’s Pax Brittanica. Their conquests were rooted in the Christian imperative to ‘save’ the world. Although the church had originally been pacifist, Christian leaders came to sanction violence as they took greater responsibility for public order. But to keep moral standards paramount, they developed a comprehensive just war theology that demands stringent criteria be met before resorting to violence. Some even refer to this as “innocent violence” because it is supposedly executed justly on behalf of the people. The use of force is an imperfect solution, but we live in an imperfect world.

Today, memories of the Nazi holocaust and the more recent Rwandan genocide play an enormous role in shaping liberal interventionist doctrine. Genocide expert Samantha Power – whose office is just down the hall from Ignatieff’s at Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy – has argued that we must go beyond the rhetoric of “Never again!” She has called on the US president to develop a military contingency plan to prevent future genocides not because of strategic considerations, but because “it’s the moral thing to do.”

But why is a military offensive the holy grail of options? In their rush to see the sheriff run Saddam out of town, many liberal hawks overlooked Bush’s refusal to heed international opinion and exhaust diplomatic channels. Some mimicked the president’s air of conceit. Prominent liberal hawk Christopher Hitchens even gave the impression that he took pleasure in taking shots at his leftist colleagues. It’s as if he’s so enamored by his move stateside that he needs to match the bully posturing of his hosts.

This starry-eyed love affair with the US may explain why Hitchens and others supported Bush’s rushed military timetable. And this is the crux of their failure. If they had devoted their power of persuasion to removing Saddam through diplomacy, 100,000 Iraqi lives could have been spared. The liberal hawks still claim the war was worth it. But what if the missiles had been directed at their loved ones?

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