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A Response to Michael Kazin

Sometimes Michael Kazin’s reasonableness disguises an apologetic lack of argument. His little reflection on my piece is a small anthology of the president’s foreign policy shibboleths.

Let us begin with Iran. “They hail the democratic insurgents in Iran but do not propose an intervention that would destroy their movement and many of their lives.” Who, precisely, is proposing such an intervention? Certainly not I. But it is the axiom of Obama’s outrageously diffident policy toward the Iranian resistance that a disastrous intervention on behalf of Iranian democracy is the only intervention imaginable. The White House would like us to think that the alternatives before us are just a sermon or a war. Like Obama and many other liberals, Kazin has fallen for the Bush-Cheney idea of democratization, according to which it takes place at the barrel of a gun. It suits Obama’s reluctance to challenge Muslim societies in any seriously critical way, his multicultural preference for celebrating their otherness and addressing them religiously, his realism costumed as idealism, to have the policy of democratization represented in the American mind by the Iraq war. And so Kazin obliges the president when he writes that whereas “it is a fine and necessary thing to speak out for ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ [Kazin should be ashamed of those scare quotes]”, we must attend also to “the sad, often outrageous tales of policymakers whose convictions blinded them to the baleful consequences of their actions”—read: who invaded Iraq. When did it become admirable for liberals to sound like Brent Scowcroft? Worst of all, the Iranian dissidents themselves are angered by Obama’s refusal to take up their cause. Their feeling of abandonment by the administration—the same is true of Egyptian democrats—has been amply documented. Is their authority about their own needs and desires less than Obama’s? (Kazin reminds me here of certain anti-Cold War liberals who turned away from the politically and ideologically disturbing testimony of Eastern European and Soviet dissidents.) It is absurd to warn that the United States might “destroy their movement and many of their lives.” That is Khameini’s and Ahmadinejad’s objective. It is the role of the United States, or so I believe, to try and stop them.

Next, Afghanistan. “They have augmented the military commitment in Afghanistan but realize a stable peace is more likely to occur through humbling and co-opting the Taliban than by exterminating them.” Exterminating them: sounds evil, doesn’t it? In fact it is the Taliban who are the exterminators. But does Kazin read the news?  If he does, he will have noted that the Taliban is not being at all humbled. Their history and their worldview, moreover, make it very likely that “co-optation” would mean for them simply an important milestone in their long march back to Kabul. What does Kazin know about Afghanistan than makes him so serenely confident in a “stable peace,” which is of course a very lovely notion? The “co-optation” of the Afghan Taliban will certainly have almost no impact upon the threat to American security that emanates from the jihadist peaks of western Pakistan. Kazin’s empty approval of the “augment[ation of] the military commitment in Afghanistan” elides the incoherence—the “dumb promise”, if you will—of Obama’s strategy there. Is it really impossible—I know I am being insolent here – that this new hope of co-opting the Taliban is owed mainly to Obama’s desire to get out of Afghanistan according to his timetable, and that his timetable is not so much strategic as political?

Then, Iraq. I will make two remarks in the vain hope that both of them will be remembered. The first is that George W. Bush took this country into a major war on false pretenses, and this was a historical scandal. The second is that this war has had the incontrovertible consequence of destroying an uncommonly vicious dictator and laying the groundwork for an open society in an Muslim state in the Middle East. One’s feeling about the origins of the Iraq war must have no bearing upon one’s perception of what is actually happening there. I do not regard the freedom of the Iraqi people as anything to lament, or their two national elections as reasons for regret. The emancipation of Iraq’s Kurds was genuinely an affair of justice. I like justice. I want to see more of it. I especially want to see it where it has never been seen before. I am pleased that Kazin learned something from my essay on liberalism and messianism, but I do not see how the war in Iraq can in any way be regarded as messianic. Kazin believes, against everything we know about Hitler (he brought it up!), that “an earlier alliance with the Soviet dictator might have prevented what became the most terrible war in history.” I wallow in a different counter-factual. I wish that the United States had entered the war against Hitler earlier, because our delay at such hours—and may our diplomats take care that they are few!—demeans us.

Now, about change. I made it perfectly clear in what I wrote that I was not championing dogmatism. Kazin nonetheless berates me that “the wisest policy is seldom merely to stand up for one’s beliefs, regardless of the exigencies of time.” I concede that I have a soft spot for standing up for one’s beliefs. I have also observed in my short life, and a good deal recently, that there are people who stand up for the exigencies of time regardless of their beliefs. Does Kazin really wish to deny that many liberals who were ardent enthusiasts for democracy and human rights, whether or not they supported the Iraq war, suddenly lost their appetite for those aims and ideals in the winter of 2008-2009? Obviously people change their minds about events. I have myself done so. What interests me is when they change their minds about first principles, and why. Which events deserve to retire, or transform, which principles? This is a complicated question. I do not see that opposition to the war in Iraq need amount to opposition to the modern tradition of American interventionism in toto. (The same should have been true, incidentally, about opposition to the war in Vietnam. It was not all you needed to know about the United States in the world.) Even if the war in Iraq was a mistake, I still believe in the power, and the obligation, of the United States to advance the cause of freedom in the world. I prefer that we not perform this role by military means, but in the face of ethnic cleansing and genocide and terrorists with biological or chemical weapons I prefer also not to wait for the arrival of troops from China. My quarrel is with the widespread assumption, which Kazin seems to share, that the Iraq war must now be the primal scene of American foreign policymaking, and so the primary goal of our foreign policy must be to avoid its repetition. I am not prepared to surrender the tradition of liberal internationalism to the loathing of Bush. The repudiation of that tradition—and make no mistake, Obama is repudiating it in many of its aspects—is leaving the world safer for many atrocities.

Since I believe in philosophy, I respect conversions. But genuinely philosophical conversions are rare, and many non-philosophical conversions like to present themselves as philosophical ones. At some point in one’s life as an intellectual in politics, one must find oneself out of place and out of time, far from the White House, useless to any gang, in the desert. Serial synchonicities are a bad sign. The sweet irony here is that such excessive flexibility is precisely what my friend Kazin is not guilty of. As far as I know, Michael has been remarkably consistent in his opinions over the decades. And that is precisely what I was praising. There have been times when I have wished he would practice what he now preaches, and change his eternally progressive mind. But in the light of his own history, it strikes me that what he is really defending in his reply to me is not the beauty of adopting new beliefs, but the beauty of adopting his beliefs.

Click here to read Michael Kazin's item.