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Friday, June 02, 2006

# Posted 6:30 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A LIBERAL HAWK AND A NEO-CON? Bill Kristol answers that question in an editorial about the events at Haditha. First, Kristol divides the mainstream and hawkish liberals from the far left by mocking The Nation's editorial response to Haditha. According to the Nation, Haditha was an instance of
Willful, targeted brutality designed to send a message to Iraqis.
Kristol jests that the Marines must be very poor at sending messages to the people of Iraq if they tried to cover-up what happened at Haditha.

Next, he provides an extended quote from Peter Beinart's column [no link] about Haditha:
Americans can be as barbaric as anyone. What makes us an exceptional nation with the capacity to lead and inspire the world is our very recognition of that fact. We are capable of Hadithas and My Lais, so is everyone. But few societies are capable of acknowledging what happened, bringing the killers to justice, and instituting changes that make it less likely to happen again. That's how we show we are different from the jihadists. We don't just assert it. We prove it. That's the liberal version of American exceptionalism, and it's what we need right now in response to this horror.
When I first read that quote, I didn't see anything wrong with it. Part of what makes America exceptional is that it can acknowledge its war crimes and punish their perpetrators. Yet as Kristol points out, Beinart's language is too categorical:
Let's be clear: Crimes and cover-ups cannot be excused or tolerated. They must be investigated, and the individuals involved, and their commanders, must be held accountable and punished...But it is not true that "what makes us an exceptional nation with the capacity to lead and inspire the world" is that we recognize we can be barbaric and that we punish barbarism.

What makes us exceptional is that we stand for liberty, and that we are willing to fight for liberty. We don't need to "prove" we are different from the jihadists by bringing our own soldiers, if they have done something wrong, to justice. Of course we must and will do this. But our doing this "proves" nothing. Even if there were ten Hadithas, we would still not have to "prove" that we are "different from the jihadists."
Although the reference to "ten Hadithas" strikes me as a poor choice of words, I believe Kristol's overall point is correct. The essence of America and the essence of jihadist terrorism are so profoundly antagonistic that we have nothing to prove.

Now, one possible response to Kristol is that he is reading far to much into a single passage from Beinart. A single column should not be confused with a detailed philosophy. Yet Beinart's comments dovetail fully with the contents of a lecture I saw him give about his new book, The Good Fight.

In that lecture, Beinart unequivocally defined the difference between liberalism and conservatism as follows: Liberals believe that America's greatness rests on its ability to question its own conduct and ethos. Conservatives believe that the greatest threat to American pre-eminence is excessive questioning of its own conduct and ethos.

I won't comment further, since I haven't read Beinart's book yet even though it is sitting on my dinner table. But I think we may have reached an interesting point of convergence where both lib hawks and neo-con agree on what the essence of liberalism. If so, that is a point from which a vigorous debate can begin.
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Comments:
Beinart shifts rather strangely from a comparison between American society and other societies to a comparison between American society and "the jihadists". But this is surely an odd comparison. The jihadists, as such, are not a society; they are more like a scattered, violent global gang. There is lttle point in the comaprison then between the two groupings. I suspect few of even the most bitter skeptics about American society would hold that the entire society is in the same boat as a gang of killers. They might hold that the preponderance of American military influence abroad, as directed by its government, constitutes a kind of state terrorsism that merits comparison with jihadist terrorism. But they don't typically hold that each and every American is a terrorist.

What would be more interesting would be a comparison between American society, and its response to the crimes of its nationals committed abroad, and other societies and their own reactions to the crimes of their nationals committed abroad. This is an empirical issue which I won't address.

As for Kristol, I don't think David has quite latched on to his point. Kristol is voicing a standard neoconservative theme, going back to their first incarnation during the Cold War, and their obsession with the fallacy of "moral equivalence". Neocons have argued that what differentiates the United States morally from other nations is not the intrinsic character of the way it fights wars, at least not that primarilly, but what those wars are fought for.

If 10 US units commit 10 war crimes in Vietnam during a given span of time, and 10 Soviet units commit 10 intrinsically equivalent war crimes in Afghanistan during an equal span of time, then in neocon theory the US actions are not as bad morally as the Soviet cimes, because the Soviets are fighting to extend Communist evil, and the US is fighting to liberate people from Communist evil.

This view of the world is what has enabled neocons to actively support death squads in Central America, torture or torture-like treatment of detainees, collective punishment in the occupied territories and other ill deeds with fewer compunctions than liberals and classical conservatives. When liberals complained during the Cold War that our involvement in vile actions in Latin America meant that "we are no better than they (the Communists) are", certainly some knee-jerk American patriots responded with a simple and angry refusal to believe the bad news. But the neocon response was to accept, though quietly, the bad news and counter "we are better because we are on the right side, and to fail to recognize that fact is to commit the fallacy of moral equivalence"

Classical conservatives tend to have a more skeptical view of the potential of human beings to do good. They worry about the fraught relationship between selected means and intended ends, about the weakness of the human will and intellect, about the predictability and efficacy of the best-laid plans of human beings and about the complexity and variety of human ends and forms of life. They thus disparage revolutionary master plans, whether for control or liberation, and incline toward a "first, do no harm" attitude.

There are lots of varieties of thought that can with equal justice be called "liberal". But one style of that characterized a lot of contemporary or modern liberals is a tendency toward a non-consequentialist, deontological or rights-based view of morality and political justice, one that sees certain actions as inherently wrong and unjustifiable, without regard to ends. They also tend to see certain actions as both inherently evil, and as calling forth an absolute obligation to stop them, without regard to cost. They frequently deride "interest"-based approaches to policy (Kant's "inclinations") which they tend to view as "selfish" - and thus inherently bad.

Obviously, my simple little trichotomy is crude, and characterizes tendencies of thought in complicated people, but I think it helps a bit in understanding Kristol.

For a conservative, a good nation is one that generally tends to its own garden and doesn't muck things up too badly. For a liberal, a good nation is one that accumulates lots of good deeds and relatively few bad deeds. Thus its goodness is proven, and is subject to proof, on a daily basis. For the neoconservative, a good nation is one whose actions taken together, are a great work to bring about The Good, even if its path to that great end is no less filled with subsidiary evils than the path of its Enemy.

The neocons generally tend to view all the little wars that are going on as battles in the Great War that is going on. Before, it was the war against Communism. Now it is the War against Islamofascism. And even though there were no neocons back then, the Great War that preceded them both was the war against Fascism proper. All three of these are seen as species of Toatalitarianism - so maybe we should say that for the neocon there is only one war, a war that must be won at all costs.

What has often struck me as unique about the neocons is not that they are consequentialists - there are lots of different kinds of consequentialists, and some of them would surely more typically be thought of as "liberal" or "conservative" - but their leaning toward a rigidly teleological, heavily stratified and and grossly oversimplified view about the hierarchy of ends. In their world, there are not many competing goods and final ends, all equally worth pursuing in themselves, but not all capable of being pursued together, and only lossely commensurable. They always seem to believe there is one really big supreme, unified global end, and all other activities derive the bulk of their value, for good or evil, from the extent to which they contribute to that end, or frustrate its realization.
 
"Liberals believe that America's greatness rests on its ability to question its own conduct and ethos. Conservatives believe that the greatest threat to American pre-eminence is excessive questioning of its own conduct and ethos.

I won't comment further,"

I will! The greatest threat to American pre-eminence isn't excessive questioning. The statement runs the gambit of retarded and arrogant at the same time. Impressive.


dan: "obsession with the fallacy of "moral equivalence"." Are you joking?
 
Excellent comment, Dan. The problem with neo-conservatism is that it is Machiavellan at its heart. It holds that the United States is, by its nature, a force for Good. No matter what it does. In many ways the neo-conservatives are a modern incarnation of the British imperialists of the 19th century. The British could point to all sorts of progressive results of their reign. They came up with the nice 4 "C's": Commerce, Christianity, Civilization and Crown. Is that really different than the neo-con's modern benevolent American empire?

Liberal interventionists, or liberal hawks, hold that the means through which America acts are as important as the ends. When Kristol say, "America fights for liberty," he is just sloganizing. What Kristol cavalierly derides as "hand-wringing" is actually ongoing evidence that we are, in fact, fighting for liberty. The means through which we fight for liberty defines the essence of our liberty. Wars are ugly. But nations that cherish human liberty take seriously the problem of war crimes. Doing so is evidence that the nation never takes liberty for granted. Kristol, on the hand, just assumes that America is "fighting for liberty" without really offering an explanation of what that means. Andrew Sullivan has been much more lucid on this point than Kristol. Our moral worth is on the line every single day. It is never, and should never be assumed. Beinart's "hand-wringing" is the stuff of liberty, and is why we fight.
 
A posted the "anonymous" thread.

Elrod
 
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When, exactly, have any neocoservatives said that way we conduct wars is unimportant? Nor do I recall hearing neoconservatives arguing that soldiers who commit crimes should not be punished.

I read the conservative position as being that given the inability to perfect human nature barbarities will happen in war from time to time, and while the nation has a responsibility to bring the perpetrators to book, those acts by themselves do not define or invalidate the purpose for which the war is being fought.

To argue that the conduct of armed conflict must be without flaw is unrealistic, and ignores the messy nature of wars, even on the side of the good guys. It also gives disproportional weight to the bad acts of a very few service members, while ignoring the exemplary conduct of the vast majority. Do I need to point out that compared to most wars in history, the US has gone to great lengths to avoid killing innocent people in Iraq? Yet despite these efforts some die anyway. Does that mean the only morally acceptable course is inaction?
 
The problem I had with "The Nation" article and with all the MSM knowledge of this Haditha affair is encapsulated in one word in the second sentence from the linked Nation article:

quote - The killings MAY have been in retaliation for... - end quote -

MAY? Don't they know? They sure talk like they know.

The truth is they do not know what happened. They are taking the testimony of who knows who (might be terrorists for all we or they know), of what might have happened (conflicting stories) and how who did what when and where. Were the Marines under fire? Did terrorists kill those people? Is the doctor who examined the victims hateful of the U.S.?

The MSM has the Marines in question tried convicted and sentenced before the inquiry much less before the military court even opens.

The Marines in question know what happened but they can't talk yet until they are given the OK from their superiors.

I say let's give these young Marines the same rights that we give any U.S. citizen. "Innocent until proven guilty." Let's wait for more facts before allowing these young men who signed on the dotted line to protect our nation to be hung out to dry!

Semper Fi!
 
Do I need to point out that compared to most wars in history, the US has gone to great lengths to avoid killing innocent people in Iraq?

You've proven Peter's point. Our honor and values are always on the line. That's why we don't sink to the lowest depravities of war - despite the tempatations. And when we do, we make sure to investigate it and take it seriously.
 
Prying1.

I agree.

It easy to have a "balanced" conversation about this when you only have one side of the argument.
 
Excellent discussion and some very valid points.

I have a question that is realted to this topic:

Can a nation state's strategic interest ever be portayted as a battle between "good" an "evil"?

Surely subjective notions such as these cannot play a role in the "real politik" of foreign strategic affairs.
 
You've proven Peter's point. Our honor and values are always on the line. That's why we don't sink to the lowest depravities of war - despite the tempatations. And when we do, we make sure to investigate it and take it seriously.

Anonymous 11:28,
Only if you ignore everything else I wrote. I was just pointing out that the people running this war (who are not liberals) do care about how it is waged, so liberals are not the only ones who care about the means. Therefore, Beinart is incorrect.
 
I'll let Andrew Sullivan answer your point. Sullivan is no dove and no liberal. But he recognizes a) moral conduct in war is critical to being a liberal society, and b) the Bush Administration cares very little about the ethics of war except when it becomes embarrassing.
 
el rod,

(let's assume that the United States is a liberal society)

a) moral conduct in war is critical to being a liberal society, and

Which war was that exactly? I think the war in Iraq has been conducted far more humane than any war in U.S. history and is probably close to the most humane counter-insurgency in world history.
 
though i havent read his latest book, AFAICT Beinart and other liberal hawks are quite as certain that our democratic liberty is what makes us (and our fellow democracies) "different". I assume he sees the willingness to question ourselves as a natural extension of that democratic liberty.

AFAICT the differences between liberal hawks and Neocons are largely on domestic policy, and on foreign policy are largely a SLIGHTLY greater emphasis on international multilateral institution on the part of liberal hawks (by liberal hawk, i mean folks like the New Republic crowd who largely supported the war in Iraq, or opposed it on narrow grounds "lets wait till we're farther along in Afghanistan" and NOT those liberals who consider themselves hawks BECAUSE they supported the war in Afghanistan, and by neocons i mean sane folks like Kristol and Kagan, NOT the guys who write for National Review and the Washington Times)
 
Granted, Mike, you aren't going to find many counterinsurgencies that respect human rights. In fact, you aren't going to find many successful counterinsurgencies that don't involve wholesale crimes against humanity. But that's not really the point. So we don't round up all the Sunnis and put them in concentration camps. Great. But we do establish policies that encourage or discourage our soldiers and intel officers to interact with Iraqis in certain ways. The problem isn't that Abu Ghraib or Haditha happened. The problem is that they resulted from deliberate weakening of human rights statutes within the US government itself. For example, defining away "torture" sends a message to intel officers that anything is on the table.

In a war with global implications and a hypersensitive mass media, we must be especially sensitive to the propaganda value of things like Haditha and Abu Ghraib. It is for that reason, in addition to the stain it places on our national honor, that cavalier attitudes regarding torture are so troublesome in the war against Islamist terrorism.

It may be possible that humane methods of counterinsurgency, which the US generally follows (despite the weakening under the Bush Administration) just cannot win against the Iraqi insurgents. Then we need to have an open discussion about what follows. Do we start setting up concentration camps, empty the Sunni triangle, and impose an anti-militia strategy on the new Shi'ite run army? That might be effective in the short term. But we need to have that conversation. If the trademark of the American effort in Iraq is respect for human rights and democracy, then we need to make sure that we do everything possible to prevent human rights violations on our own side, from the leadership on down to the squad level. Simplistic comparisons to counterinsurgencies in the past won't help us in this case.
 
and now that ive given you the serious answer

the difference between a liberal hawk and a neocon is

1. A LH thinks you cant cut taxes in the middle of a war

2. A neocon is more uncomfortable sharing a party with Michael Moore, Cynthia Mckinney et al than they are sharing a party with Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell et al.

3. Neo cons love ballistic missile defense, LH's love nationbuilding.

and the biggest diff of all

Neocons like McCain, and LH's like Hillary.
 
"The problem is that they resulted from deliberate weakening of human rights statutes within the US government itself."

No they didn't. Seriously, name a single major conflict in U.S. history that has been carried out with as much attention to human rights and various other cultural constraints.

"For example, defining away "torture" sends a message to intel officers that anything is on the table."

One new definition would be letting a dog bark in a prisoners face. 90 Days hard labor. (it was abu graib, but you don't honestly think a barking dog is torture do you?)


Sorry about the cut and paste response, I am in a hurry.

Just for fun, why don't we just tell local sheiks etc... that if they don't respect human rights and stop people from planting roadside bombs, killing Iraqi soldiers and police, kidnapping people and chopping peoples heads off, we will drop really big bombs on them. Bombs with GPS that will land right on their fucking heads. Maybe that would work.
 
Ignatieff would seem to agree with Beinhart on this point (muscular liberals in agreement), who wrote in the NYTimes in 2004:

"Regulating a war on terror with ethical rules and democratic oversight is much harder than regulating traditional wars. In traditional wars, there are rules, codes of warriors' honor that are supposed to limit the barbarity of the conflict, to protect civilians from targeting, to keep the use of force proportional and to keep it confined to military objectives. The difference between us and terrorists is supposed to be that we play by these rules, even if they don't. No, I haven't forgotten Hiroshima and My Lai. The American way of war has often been brutal, but at least our warriors are supposed to fight with honor and can be punished if they don't. There is no warrior's honor among terrorists."
 
During the Cold War, the US buddied up with various bad actors who were, or claimed to be, fighting communism.

However, since the end of the Cold War, and in some cases before the end, those guys are gone. The conservatives held their noses, as did a great many people buddying up with Stalin during WWII.

The difference between liberals and conservatives is that the conservatives are not nostalgic for the old days and the bastards we had to support. Unlike liberals and Che, and Cuba, and Pol Pot (whose skinny ass is covered with liberal lipstick although the libs would just as soon you pretend otherwise), and RObert Mugabe who got a long break from judgment because he was a lefty back in the day.

I was in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and El Salvador in 1987 and, while there, and elsewhere, talking to our people, found there was a strong effort to modify the behavior of "our sons of bitches".
 
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