Liberal Hawks: Where are they now?

The tenth Anniversary of the invasion of Iraq has prompted a number of politicians and pundits, particularly on the left, to look back at the war and their changing attitude towards it. In a recent column for the Times, the Labour MP Dave Anderson declared that he was wrong to oppose the war at the time, averring that it was right to topple Saddam. To state the obvious, Anderson went against the grain of Iraq mea culpas, which usually involve the recanting of previous support for the war. Such was the case when the American online magazine Slate held a symposium of “liberal hawks” (or pro-war lefties) to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion in 2008. Of the illustrious participants addressing the question “Why did we get it wrong?”, only Christopher Hitchens responded, bluntly, “I didn’t”. This year The New Republic, for a long time American print journalism’s primary organ for liberal hawkishness, held a similar symposium; and though several of its participants – Michael Ignatieff, Leon Wieseltier, David Greenberg – were careful to defend the principle of military interventionism, only Paul Berman was prepared to say the Iraq war was not a mistake, damning the “isolationist alternative” as “fantastical nonsense”.Among the American liberal commentariat, the idea that the Iraq war was a failure, a disaster even, is almost universally acknowledged. This acknowledgement has in many cases made the people concerned much more circumspect about the use of American military force, and has turned many hawks into doves, viz. Peter Beinart and Andrew Sullivan. But what of their counterparts in the British liberal commentariat? We had our own liberal hawks – the most prominent examples were Nick Cohen, John Lloyd, David Aaronovitch, and Johann Hari, and there were many others too – who played a crucial role in bolstering support for the war among a skeptical British public. Have they undergone an evolution similar to their American comrades in arms?

The story is mixed.

On an October evening in 2004 a Mayfair private members’ club called Annabel’s hosted an evening with Paul Wolfowitz, the then US Deputy Secretary of Defence and the man seen by many as the chief architect of the Iraq War. Among the journalists invited to the champagne reception were two left-wing commentators, Nick Cohen and John Lloyd, whom along with the rest Wolfowitz hoped to convince of the merits of invading Iraq. Wolfowitz caught both men at different inflection points in journeys away from the left, and Cohen at least has said that he left impressed.

Cohen began the last decade as a fiery polemicist concentrating his energies on the standard enemies of the radical left. “Attacking Tony Blair was what I liked doing,” he later explained, “what got me out of bed in the morning”. And once out of bed he was not averse to lobbing a few proverbial bombs at America too, as he did in a trenchant 2002 piece for the New Statesman entitled ‘Why it is right to be anti American’. Predictable policy positions flowed from this stance: he was initially against the Afghan war, and during most of 2002 was equivocal about invading Iraq, but between then and meeting Wolfowitz at Annabel’s, he underwent a sea change.

Cohen claims that this was prompted by reading Terror and Liberalism, a book written by the aforementioned Iraq holdout Paul Berman arguing that Islamism is an offshoot of European fascism, and should be similarly opposed. “I didn’t see a blinding light or hear a thunderclap or cry ‘Eureka!’”, Cohen recounted. “If I was going to cry anything it would have been ‘Oh bloody hell!’ He convinced me I’d wasted a great deal of time looking through the wrong end of the telescope. I was going to have to turn it around and see the world afresh. The labour would involve reconsidering everything I’d written since 11 September, arguing with people I took to be friends and finding myself on the same side as people I took to be enemies. All because of Berman.”

There were signs of a change in Cohen’s thinking, however, before the publication of Terror and Liberalism in April 2003. In January and February 2003 pieces for the Telegraph and Observer respectively, Cohen lambasted left wing organisations such as the Stop the War Coalition and the Socialist Workers’ Party and left wing intellectuals and activists such as Harold Pinter and Edward Said for their stance on the war. Cohen thought Pinter et al were betraying an old and important principle of the left: solidarity. Iraqi liberals, socialists and democrats – the people with whom the left should be making common cause, as they had done in the past – wanted the overthrow of Saddam, and so Cohen argued it was incumbent on the left to stand in solidarity with them, which meant backing the war. This, alongside the oft repeated and undoubtedly true fact that Saddam was a monster, was to become Cohen’s main rationale for supporting the war.

As time went by, Cohen grew steadily more disenchanted by the left’s failure to take this stand of solidarity, this disenchantment curdled to an outright hostility with the publication of his book What’s left in 2007. Presented as a history, it argued that with the collapse of socialism as a viable idea, a degraded left had embraced a reflexive anti-Americanism that often saw it making common cause with totalitarian movements in the third world, such as the Iraqi “resistance”. Rather than stranding in solidarity with, say, women in Afghanistan or with liberals and democrats living under Saddam, the left had at best turned a blind eye, and at worst sided with the enemy. As a man steeped in the traditions of the left, Cohen saw this as a terrible betrayal. His fiery fury was now directed at the left.

For a while it really looked like Cohen was going to follow in the footsteps of people like Paul Johnson, Norman Podhoretz and David Horowitz, marching ever rightwards, looking back only to take swipes at his former comrades. In the mid to late 00’s he penned pieces in favour of grammar schools, against positive discrimination, and asserting that the welfare state as it operated at the time “assured the perpetuation of poverty”. He assiduously catalogued the faults of “the left” (usually defined rather vaguely said his critics), not the least of which, he claimed with some justification, was an anti-Zionism that shaded into anti-semitism.

Fortunately for those of us on the left who continue to admire his writing, Cohen seems to have somewhat regained his equanimity, avoiding the clichéd path trod by the likes of Podhoretz. As the 2008 financial crisis subsumed all other political debate, edging out the War on Terror as the main topic of conservation, it was a relief to see Cohen take a fairly traditional left-wing view of the crisis, aiming his polemical arsenal resolutely at “the banks” and Gordon Brown’s failure to properly regulate them. Accordingly, the denunciations of “the left” have generally been toned down, notwithstanding his righteous anger at Hacked Off for the damage they might do to free speech.

But on the Iraq war he appears not have wavered. Or at least not to have wavered much. A recent Observer column implied that the case for overthrowing Saddam remained “valid”, and questioned why many on “the left” were loath to celebrate his demise. Whether “valid” means the invasion was overall a good idea is not exactly spelled out, but perhaps as with Christopher Hitchens, he just could not bring himself to say that he would prefer Saddam to have remained in power. Apparently unwilling to engage in a substantive cost-benefit analysis, his support for the war remains, in a sense, instinctive, as does nowadays, sadly, his distrust of the left.

The same can also be said for his fellow Champagne quaffer that night at Annabel’s, John Lloyd. Perhaps because he is a little older than Cohen, Lloyd came from a more extreme section of the left: in his own words he was a “member of the Communist Party of Great Britain between 1971 and 1973”, though he was, he says, “largely inactive”. He spent the proceeding decades moving rightward, and was more than ready to sign on to the New Labour project by the time Blair arrived, especially Blair’s interventionist foreign policy.

As with Christopher Hitchens and The Nation in the US, Lloyd quit the New Statesman, where he had been the its resident Blairite, in 2003 over the magazine’s and the left’s stance over Iraq. Like many other liberal hawks, he was influenced by seeing the success of intervention in Bosnia and seeing the disastrous consequences of not intervening in Rwanda. Though he certainly believed Iraq was a security threat, and a very dangerous one at that, and he allowed for the possibility of collusion between Iraq and Al Qaeda, his support for intervention was, like Cohen’s, based primarily on the humanitarian case for overthrowing Saddam. Moreover, he was outraged at the false equivalences peddled by certain left wing commentators, such as Madeleine Bunting calling Bush and Osama Bin Laden ”two erratic, angry men, both of whom control quantities of lethal weapons and both of whom are making a mockery of the UN and any concept of international law”.

Like Cohen, Lloyd is now a bit more sanguine about the war. He recently returned to the New Statesman to write a piece entitled “Iraq: why Blair was right”, but the forthrightness of this title is not matched by the essay beneath. He admits to having been overly optimistic about regime change, and he concedes that the official rationale for the war – that Iraq had WMD – was spurious; though he adds the important caveats that the British and American governments were not actively deceptive, but were relying on faulty intelligence; and that Saddam was at least trying to acquire WMD. He never really states whether he still believes the invasion was a good idea, though the implication is there, preferring to defend the principal of responsibility to protect in general. And his anger at the left for failing to stand up for this principle has not abated. No mea culpas here.

Nor has there been from David Aaronovitch, another former Communist turned war supporter, in spite of his infamous asseveration in 2003, “those weapons had better be there”. To be fair to Aaronovitch, he has been raked over the coals for saying this, and he plainly states in the same Guardian article that he, like the others, supported the war to get rid of Saddam.

He remains steadfastly supportive of the war. In a piece for the Times earlier this year, he conceded the huge cost of the war both in terms of money and human lives, but asked his readers to consider what life in Iraq would have been like had Saddam remained in power. Saddam was, Aaronovitch reminds us, a maniac who killed 50,000-100,0000 of his own people, using chemical and biological weapons. He asks: How would a guy like that have responded to the Arab Spring if it had reached Iraq? It would have been like the situation in Syria but worse, he answers. Counterfactual histories like this are controversial, especially when there has been so much suffering that has actually happened in Iraq, but as Rwanda and possibly now Syria have shown, not intervening can have severe costs too.

The only major liberal hawk in the UK to have run the full gamut from ardent support of the war to lacerating opposition is Johann Hari, who saves much of the lacerating for himself. Hari was always one of the more equivocal liberal hawks: he was sceptical of the notion that Saddam Hussein presented a threat to our national security, presciently dismissing the claim that Iraq had WMDs. He was always wary of American military power, noting that although it had sometimes been put to noble ends, as it was in the Balkans, it had also been used with disastrous consequences, as in Vietnam. He was more willing than most to highlight America’s long and shameful history of sponsoring or supporting tyrants like Pinochet and Mobutu when those tyrants served US interests. Moreover, he had few illusions about the Bush administration, whom he claimed not to trust, and whose other policies he was the first to criticise. But in spite of all of this, he supported the war on the familiar humanitarian grounds, believing that in this instance the goals of the US state were, perhaps inadvertently, aligned with interests of the Iraqi people, whom he was at pains to point out were in favour of invasion.

As the war unfolded, however, it became increasingly obvious to Hari that the war itself was a humanitarian disaster. At the height of the violence, in the spring of 2006, Hari admitted he was wrong, “terribly wrong”. The philosopher John Gray, a long-time opponent of the war, has observed that one of the tragic lessons of Iraq is that things can go from bad to worse; that anarchy can be worse than tyranny. It seems that Hari had begun to accept this lesson, thinking that as bad as Saddam was, what was happening in occupied Iraq – the bloodshed, the torture, the sectarian violence, the displacement of people, the fuelling of terrorism, the economic collapse – was worse.

A year later, in a critical episode in the recent history of British liberal hawks, Hari expanded on his newfound opposition in a long review-cum-essay of Nick Cohen’s book What’s Left? Hari explains that he, along with the rest of the pro-war left, had based their support for the Iraq war and the war on terror generally on four key misreadings: of Islamism, Ba’athism, the purpose of the left, and of neoconservatism. These misreadings, which I will not try to summarise, had led liberal hawks to embrace these wars, but once corrected, the basis for their support dissolved. Notwithstanding Hari’s current ignominy, I would still claim the essay stands as an eloquent model of clarity and self-criticism.

Hari has credited an email exchange with Noam Chomsky for persuading him that his support for the war was misguided. Since then hardly a piece he has written about Iraq has been without a feverish mea culpa. See, for instance, a January 2011 blog: “I’m ashamed of the arguments I made in the run-up to the war and for about a year after it, and those of us who behaved in that way shouldn’t be allowed to forget about it and carry on as if nothing happened. We should be reminded and forced to reflect on the disgraceful role we played, so we never make the same mistakes again.” Of the former liberal hawks in American media, only Andrew Sullivan matches Hari in this almost masochistic regret.

But Hari is an exception. The others have remained hawkish, even if in some cases their hawkishness has moderated slightly. This makes them different to their American counterparts. I imagine that this is largely due to the respective governments of each country. In the US, the Bush administration was so remarkably incompetent and extreme that all but the most hawkish liberal had to abandon their cause. Over here we had the emollience of Tony Blair to assuage our doubts. Even I, as someone who – showing my cards here! – believes that the war was almost definitely a mistake, find myself nodding along whenever I see him speak, thinking this guy just sounds so reasonable. Perhaps this is why in this country the answer to my question “Liberal Hawks: where are they now?” is, for the most part: still there.

One response to “Liberal Hawks: Where are they now?”

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