Liberal Hawks

As the civil war in Syria has gone from bad to worse, commentators are remarking on the silence of a group that was outspoken before and during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. “Liberal hawk” is the term given to those who support military intervention on altruistic, humanitarian grounds, rather than intervention purely to protect self-interest, as the neoconservatives want, or no intervention at all, which is the opinion of traditional liberals.

The idea of liberal interventionism or internationalism is older than the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Michael Ignatieff argued that intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia in the 1990s was on humanitarian grounds, and he initially supported the 2003 Iraq war for similar reasons. Michael Walzer has supported intervention generally, making him more hawkish than some, but he never supported the Iraq war. Others, including Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens, offered reasons similar to Ignatieff's for ousting Saddam Hussein. (Hitchens's support of the Iraq war was the reason the traditional left accused him of abandoning them, and Hitchens himself gave the same reason for his abandonment. His arguments for intervention, however, still put him in the liberal camp.)

According to the hawks, Hussein's genocidal history and support of terrorist groups in Palestine and elsewhere justified intervention, and Afghanistan's role in abetting terrorists such as Osama bin Laden gave similar justification. More moderate options, such as no-fly zones or sanctions, had been tried in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq, but hadn't prevented genocide. Sanctions in Afghanistan were unlikely to limit terrorism or help catch bin Laden.

It's tempting to say, especially regarding Iraq, that the hawks had it wrong. As I've read through the arguments they gave for the Iraq war in particular, which turned into the biggest—let's not mince words here—clusterfuck in recent American history, it's interesting both what they got right and wrong.

To treat the latter first, none of them anticipated just how badly George Bush's administration was going to do in Iraq. Some now think they should have known better, but others, including Hitchens before his death and Berman still, think their reasons held up. Most of them never thought Bush's arguments justified intervention, in particular whether or not Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Most people didn't know just how mendacious Bush was being at the time about his reasons (and his evidence). Under another leader quicker success might have been possible (although that's doubtful, as are claims that regional peace is still within reach.)

The hawks are correct that there can be justified times to intervene, and it doesn't seem to me that they were clearly wrong to support the Iraq intervention. Here's an excellent exchange on Slate from 2004 in which some of them reflect on their arguments one year into the war. The biggest debate between the ones who still thought the war justified in 2004 and those who had become opponents was over what other options were available. On that point I have no idea who's correct.

Hawkish arguments were made regarding Libya, but there has been little support for intervention in Syria. (Which isn't to say none. Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins University is a proponent.) The reason being that Syria resembles Iraq too much. Walzer has argued that there is simply no good option worth pursuing right now, so it's best to wait and see.

In contrast, Ignatieff thinks non-military action is worthwhile. Writing on the lessons learned from Iraq, he says that “It is one thing to take futility and perversity to heart, another to conclude that doing the least you can is the only safe option.” He goes on:

Actively helping the exhausted municipal councils in the free zones of Syria to keep the lights on, feed their people, repair infrastructure and get economic activity moving again are all actions that would speed the desired end. Since there is a NATO ally on Syria’s border, delivering aid to the insurgents’ hinterland is feasible. Telling Assad that if he uses Scuds, helicopter gunships, and jets to bomb his own people, they will be shot down by the Patriot batteries is a risk-filled step and will be opposed by the Russians, but are no risks ever to be taken? Should the U.S. stand by until the regime and the opposition are fighting it out house-to-house in Damascus? What exactly does the U.S. gain by standing by as the Syrian people are pulverized from the air?

Walzer is correct that there's no clear replacement to Assad right now, and so attempting to support one militia with the hopes of encouraging the democratic process is mistaken, But Ignatieff rightly criticizes the do-nothing approach of the West. Ignatieff's passage quoted above finishes as follows: “For all the talk about futility and perversity in interventions, it is well to remember that not all of them have failed. No one is dying in Bosnia.”

So the hawks aren't gone, nor are they defeated. They have refined their approach in light of experience, and their arguments are necessary now more than ever.