Alan Wolfe on Liberal Hawks


Alan Wolfe has an interesting essay on liberal hawks (via Jon Chait) that I think winds up going a bit awry by running together humanitarian arguments about the desirability of military intervention in particular (whether or not the arguer wanted to invade Iraq), with national security arguments about the desirability of invading Iraq that were offered by liberals (whether or not the arguer was making any distinctively “liberal” appeals). Thus you get a strange effort to simultaneously treat Samantha Power, who didn’t want to invade Iraq, and Kenneth Pollack, who wasn’t saying anything particularly liberal about Iraq. The fact that Wolfe doesn’t have anything particularly interesting to say about the narrow national security issues would further argue for just leaving it aside.

What I think’s missing from Wolfe’s account of the “humanitarian” case is the extent to which it was an idiosyncratic case. Because the proponents of this argument were influential in the media, lots of people in the media are very aware of it and talk about it a lot. But it’s not as if the world’s major human rights organizations were clamoring for this invasion. Nor is it the case that governments known for their commitment to international humanitarian causes (Norway, say) were pushing for war. You didn’t see international civil society mobilizing for the liberation of Iraq the way you saw people all around the world standing in solidarity with the people of South Africa. And you certainly didn’t see the Arab public sphere praising George W. Bush’s bold intervention on behalf of Iraqi well-being. What you saw was a handful of writers plus Bernard Kouchner making this case. You also saw a lot of people who believed they had independent security-based reasons for favoring war offering up humanitarian rationales as a kind of “gravy” and/or noting the alleged “irony” that liberals who claim to support humanitarian causes were against launching an unprovoked war.

I think that if you look at history, you’ll find that wars of aggression are essentially always cloaked in high ideals. Certainly the classic imperialism of nineteenth century Europe was associated with an enormous amount of idealistic rhetoric about civilizing missions and improving the well-being of the to-be-conquered population. It’s difficult to say, in retrospect, how much of that was sincere and how much merely cynical. But surely it wasn’t all cynical. But sincerity ultimately does you little good—aggressive warfare combines lawlessness, violence, and coercion and that’s not a very good recipe for humanitarianism. It’s one thing to go to war in self-defense or to see another group fighting a war of self-defense and come to their assistance, and another thing entirely to launch a war allegedly on behalf of another population.