Chiding Liberals on Iraq?

04/09/2007 12:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A strain of blogospheric thought has cropped up recently whose basic thrust is: "Liberals who were right about Iraq weren't actually that right, so they shouldn't be so smug now that Iraq is a disaster. Even though - and I admit it - it is conservatives who were spectacularly wrong in this particular case."

I don't mean to sound smug, here. (Indeed, I was pro-war myself for a while -- or at least, not anti-war.) But when boiled down, this seems to be the thrust of Tish Durkin's otherwise interesting and passionately argued post on Iraq here last week. Durkin details the complexity on the ground in Iraq in the months after the war, recalling shifting public attitudes toward America, the invasion and the occupation. She writes that many Iraqis welcomed America, even if they did not sprinkle rose petals in our path, and they held out hopes, subsequently dashed, for a post-Saddam society. We in America never truly appreciated this, in part because it was lost in the din of things blowing up, and because liberals were - correctly - dissing Dick Cheney's foolish "greeted as liberators" line:

Maybe it's just the contrarian in me, but it is these other things that I feel the need to stress, especially to those who are now reveling in their rightness about the war. Those who opposed the war seem to feel that they are the perfect opposite of those who sold the war - and of course, in the important sense of the invade-or-not-to-invade question, they are. But in their collective allergy to any fact that may complicate their position; their proud blindness to the color gray, and their fervent faith in their own infallibility, the two sides have always struck me as very much the same.

Megan McArdle made a similar (though more abstract) argument a few months ago:

This has not convinced me of the brilliance of the doves, because precisely none of the ones that I argued with predicted that things would go wrong in the way they did. If you get the right result, with the wrong mechanism, do you get credit for being right, or being lucky?

This is a peculiar view. Durkin and McArdle are spoiling for a fight with people who, really, they don't need to be fighting with. Let me explain.

Durkin's post makes a fundamental point that every foreign correspondent learns: things are always more nuanced and complex in a conflict zone (or any other country, whether at war or in peace) than they appear in Washington, and in the American media. Let's face it: the political establishment, the mainstream and right-wing media - and large swaths of blogosphere - are all, to varying degrees, stupid. They are composed of interests (political, economic, cultural) and driven by ideologies that make them incapable of truly rendering/appreciating the complexities of societies on the other side of the world. That doesn't mean there are not good insights available - just that politicians and the public will never have a good grasp of what is actually going on in Iraqi society. Unless we are literally there, we will all to some degree be blind.

That is what makes Durkin's post so interesting. She explores the complexities that the U.S. debate habitually glosses over or leaves out completely. Today especially, in the post-Cold War world, any foreign conflict is going to make a hash of U.S. political ideologies - on both sides.

One of the things that originally made me sympathetic to the Iraq war hawks was the time I spent as a journalist in Central America from 1989 to 1992. Before that time, the conventional liberal wisdom was that Reagan's interventionism was reckless and dumb. That seemed true enough covering the contras in Nicaragua, who by that time, post-Iran-contra, were without money, political support, or a clue. It seemed less true, though, in the invasion of Panama. If Noam Chomsky were in Panama right after the invasion, his head would have exploded. The Panamanians were uniformly thrilled to have their sovereignty violated by U.S. troops. I had a surreal experience on Christmas day, 1989, wandering through a neighborhood that had taken the brunt of the invasion. Block after block of homes had been burned to the ground. People were picking through their charred belongings. Yet the mood was giddy and festive. Everyone I spoke with told me they welcomed the invasion. U.S. soldiers stationed on street corners were handing out tiny American flags.

But of course, it didn't last. When I returned months later, the mood had soured. Panamanians were angry with the weakness, incompetence and corruption of the government the U.S. had installed. The economy was shaky, crime on the rise. In some ways the invasion had only cultivated a longstanding historical pattern of over-reliance on the United States - or some foreign power - and a resistance to taking responsibility.

So: in 1989, the Panamians' euphoria proved the conventional liberal view wrong. But then, arguably, the post-invasion malaise showed there was something to the liberal view after all. When the United States unilaterally invades a country, in many ways - psychologically, politically - it robs that nation of responsibility for its own destiny. If the occupied nation is to be a nation, its people must still struggle to assume and shoulder that responsibility. (And if, as in Iraq, they are not one people but three ... you know the rest.)

Panama, obviously, is nothing like Iraq. That was part of the problem going into Iraq - the war hawks, Dick Cheney included, had fond memories of the Panama invasion. And while I wouldn't describe myself as a war hawk, having seen Panama up close made me skeptical of the assumption that "invasion = wrong."

All of this is to say, Durkin is right that politicians and the American public (on the left and the right) are resistant to the complexities and the lessons to be taken away from our superpower adventuring. That's an elementary point. What I don't understand is why she thinks it's necessary to chide liberals on that point right now.

Where is the grand celebration of back-patting among liberals that so irks Durkin and McArdle? This is not a pleasant time for liberals or conservatives. Conservatives, as the authors of the Iraq problem, are likely to tear themselves apart with recriminations. And liberals who questioned the war had their patriotism routinely impugned and, powerless until recently, could only wring their hands as Iraq deteriorated and the United States went down a perilous road. Perhaps anti-Bush feelings have hardened and become more inflexible. But at this point, for liberals, what alternative is there?

It's true that Iraq and various other Bush administration disasters have had one strange effect: They have turned many liberal opinion makers into prophets. For example, I used to think Paul Krugman and Frank Rich were a bit over the top. Now I live in a world where it turns out that Paul Krugman and Frank Rich were, in fact, accurately describing reality! They assumed the worst about the Bush administration and its enablers in the Republican Congress - and they were right.

If you never liked Rich and Krugman (and/or other Bush critics), this state of affairs is certainly annoying. But they didn't create it - Bush did.

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