|Globe and Mail
May 3, 2003
Hawks in doves' clothing
The idea that human rights trumps sovereign rights has given rise to an
ugly new kind of 'liberal'
By John MacArthur
During the early phase of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, I came
across a scathing critique of the war in a surprising locale, written by
the unlikeliest (or so I thought) accuser of the Bush-Blair axis of
imperialism. The publication was Conrad Black's militantly right-wing,
pro-war British weekly, The Spectator, and the author was named Hitchens
-- not the putatively "leftist" one named Christopher -- but his
supposedly "reactionary" brother, Peter.
There was no confusing the brothers after the first paragraph. Operation
Iraqi Freedom, says P. Hitchens, was a "left-wing war," a destructive
enterprise providing "the excuse for censorship, organized lying,
regulation, and taxation." Remarkable, especially coming after my old
ally C. Hitchens's famous defection from the leftish, anti-U.S. peace
camp to the bipartisan war party. But a left-wing war? Dick Cheney,
Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, et al. in the same ideological basket
as Eugene Debs, William Sloane Coffin and Michael Moore?
At first glance, P. Hitchens's thesis was preposterous -- the
application of raw, unilateral military power (and the subsequent war
profiteering by big business) seems a rather authoritarian idea more in
keeping with the brutal dogma of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan than
with nice liberal notions of international co-operation, humanitarian
aid and peaceful disarmament.
But on closer examination, I realized that P. Hitchens was on to
something. Liberals have been lobbying since the early 1980s for more
aggressive "humanitarian" interventions that would override the niceties
of international law, the sovereignty of nations and even United Nations
peacekeeping efforts. To the extent that the Bush-Blair doctrine of
pre-emptive war encompasses human rights and the "right" to overthrow
tyrants, the Iraqi war was very much a "left-wing" war.
Of course, I don't buy George W. Bush's human-rights rationale for the
latest gulf war any more than I bought his father's epiphany in 1990
that Saddam Hussein was the new Hitler. Too many murderous American
clients, including Saddam, have gone in and out of favour since 1898
(the year we "liberated" Cuba from Spain) for me to take seriously the
altruistic prattle emanating from this White House.
But a surprising number of liberals did take Mr. Bush at his word
whenever he turned misty eyed about Baathist atrocities, as well as the
urgent need for "liberating" the Iraqi people. Behind their dovish
compassion lay a ferocious streak of Wilsonian hawkishness. It also
presented itself during the Bosnia crisis in the early 1990s, when
human-rights hawks adopted the principle of "liberal intervention" laid
down in the 1980s by Paris-based intellectuals such as the
physician-activist Bernard Kouchner. Mr. Kouchner's rhetorical
grandstanding -- "The day will come . . . when we are able to say . . .
'Mr. Dictator, we are going to stop you preventively from oppressing,
torturing and exterminating your ethnic minorities' " -- took hold. And
nice liberals started sounding like nasty, pre-emptive militarists.
I recall a hair-raising speech by George Soros, "currency speculator
turned human-rights promoter," in which he argued for creation of a UN
rapid deployment military force that could intervene anywhere in the
world on a moment's notice to prevent the powerful from killing the weak
(i.e. by killing the powerful). Around the same time, it became
fashionable in the neighbourhood inhabited by Susan Sontag and David
Reiff to denounce the UN peacekeepers in Bosnia for not being
sufficiently anti-Serb, the Serbs being ultranationalist "facists."
"Liberal" military interventions by the United States and its allies
followed in due course. George Bush Sr. played the human-rights card by
promoting the fake baby-incubator atrocity in Kuwait. Then came Somalia,
Haiti and Kosovo (which achieved reverse ethnic cleansing of Serbs on
behalf of the Kosovo Liberation Army).
Kosovo was the clearest assertion of the new doctrine of liberal
intervention, a legal and moral template for the overthrow of Saddam.
According to its critics, the NATO bombing campaign was a pre-emptive
war in clear violation of international law (Kosovo was legally part of
Serbia, which had attacked no other country). But liberals were happy
because the 78 days of aerial mayhem led to Slobodan Milosevic's
eventual removal from power.
"Leftists" now seek to expand the concept of liberal pre-emption by
claiming Abraham Lincoln as their patron saint. Lincoln, they say, was
bent on liberating the whole world, not just the southern states -- a
foolish exaggeration about a practical politician who nearly wrecked his
career by opposing America's imperialist invasion of undemocratic Mexico
in 1846. It's no coincidence that President Bush chose the USS Abraham
Lincoln for his welcome-home photo op on Thursday.
Where does all this leave the liberal constitutionalists like me, who
opposed all the aforementioned interventions? I certainly subscribe to
the principle of universal human rights, just as I support the corrupt
and imperfect United Nations.
But the problem with symbolic military gestures is that they kill
innocent bystanders as surely as do acts of naked aggression that are
devoid of good intentions. Total the many thousands of civilian dead in
the earlier gulf war, in Somalia, Kosovo/Serbia and the latest gulf war,
and you already have a pretty good argument against liberal intervention.
Moreover, war unleashes death in unpredictable ways; I think, for
example, that the NATO bombing led to the death of more Albanians than
would have died from non-intervention -- by sowing panic and granting
the Serbs a pretext for settling scores with the KLA.
As an American liberal, I wish that my fellow citizens believed that
charity begins at home. I wish the United States had taken in millions
of persecuted Jews before Hitler could liquidate them. And I wish that
we had listened to a liberal Swedish internationalist named Hans Blix,
instead of a right-wing Texas nationalist named Bush.
Liberal interventionism has given moral cover to the ugliest, most
undemocratic impulses seen in this country since Woodrow Wilson signed
the Espionage Act (which put Eugene Debs in jail for opposing the First
World War) and unleashed his attorney-general's infamous "Palmer raids"
against "subversives" (John Ashcroft must envy the "liberal" Wilson).
Worse still, it has defaced the American Constitution with the forged
signature of Lincoln, written in the blood of Arabs who will never
stroll on the Mall.
John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper's Magazine.