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October 04, 2007

Liberal Hawks and The Last Kiss.

A few years ago, you could have imagined any number of movies for the liberal hawks to watch. "The Battle of Algiers." "Dr. Strangelove." "Hearts and Minds." It wouldn't have occurred to many to add in the slightly dark, slightly goofy, Zach Braff vehicle, "The Last Kiss." But, increasingly, that movie's message appears most relevant. In particular, the liberal hawks should pay attention to a scolding Tom Wilkinson gives to the solipsistic Zach Braff. "What you feel only matters to you," he spits. "It's what you do, to the people around you, that matters. That's all that matters."

This shouldn't be necessary to say, but increasingly, it seems like the only point worth making to the commentariat. American politics isn't about you. It's not about your ideas, or your personal vision of the world, or your purity. Contemporary politics is not a landscape awaiting your morality plays and exhibitions of ethical decisiveness. It is not yours.

It is the impact of your ideas, and your commentary, that matters. That's all that matters. Yet years after their sustained dance of personal regard and self involvement helped blind the liberal hawks to the reality of George W. Bush's war, one of them, Roger Cohen, is retreading the same ground, wondering why his continued advocacy for war, (or at least continual attacks on its opponents) is folded into the critiques of the neocons.

Here's why: Roger Cohen is not president. George W. Bush is. And until Roger Cohen's foreign policy vision integrates itself with an understanding of American power, and how ideas interact with the current administration, he is, effectively, a neoconservative, or, worse, an enabler of the neoconservatives who's able to advocate for their policy agenda without needing to answer for their failures.

Cohen may not, personally, think like Bill Kristol. But he certainly writes like him. "Neocon, for many, has become shorthand for neocon-Zionist conspiracy," he says, naming no names, and instead offering a simple, generalized accusation of anti-semitism against all those who question the neoconservatives. "Baghdad is closer to Sarajevo than the left has allowed," he writes, obliterating the difference between a bombing campaign undertaken to end an ongoing genocide and a ground invasion undertaken to unearth weapons that didn't exist, overturn a regime we couldn't replace, and forcibly impose a system of governance that lacked foundations. "MoveOn.org is the Petraeus-insulting face of never-set-foot-in-a-war-zone liberalism," he scoffs, having never, himself, fought in a war, but nevertheless adopting the authority of those who have.

These are not arguments. They are smears. They are attacks aimed at degrading the credibility, rather than the beliefs, of the coalition that opposes the Iraq War. And in intent and effect, they are indistinguishable from Bill Kristol's worst columns, save for the possibility that they are more effective, because they ostensibly come from within the Left, rather than outside of it.

Cohen would no doubt respond that he is not a neoconservative, but a liberal interventionist. "Distinction matters," he protests. "The neocon taste for American empire is not the liberal hawk’s belief in the bond between American power and freedom’s progress." But this war, and any that occur until January 2009, will not be conducted by Roger Cohen. They will be conducted by neoconservatives animated by a taste for American empire. And so the distinction does not matter, because any hawkish actions will be undertaken and overseen by those on the wrong side of it. Roger Cohen may feel like he is a liberal hawk, and thus distinct. But what Roger Cohen feels does not matter, because Roger Cohen does not control any branch of the American military. Who he empowers, and which actors in American politics find their ideas legitimized by his columns, is all that matters. And in that, he is worse than a neoconservative. He's a liberal hawk who knows better, but whose interest in writing about his own virtue overwhelms his judgments concerning the actual actions of those who wield power. He is not a neoconservative. He is a narcissist.

October 4, 2007 | Permalink


Not sure about the Last Kiss lead in, but very good post.

Posted by: Christopher Colaninno | Oct 4, 2007 3:42:45 PM

Don't hold back. Tell us how you really feel.

Excellent post.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Oct 4, 2007 3:46:22 PM

anybody who terms a centrist like Yglesias a leftist is simply deluded. Matt's a fine writer, and an intersting thinker, but Yglesias: Left :: Cheez Whiz: cheese .

Posted by: mrs. ibrahim al-jafaari | Oct 4, 2007 3:47:42 PM

Exactly what I've been thinking for a while, in that many 'liberal hawks' seemed to think that their fantasies of how great things would turn out in Iraq would in and of themselves weigh more heavily than the realities which would be handled by mere mortals.

They were not then morally responsible for how and what actually happened in Iraq, but only morally responsible for what they intended, or wished, to have happened.

Posted by: El_Cid | Oct 4, 2007 3:47:47 PM

I see your point, but I have trouble with the notion that we shouldn't ever express our personal beliefs about the way policy should be conducted because something we say might be twisted and taken out of context. If you believe saying anything except the party line is bad, because you are afraid that a moderate hawkish or interventionist view might possibly be an enabler of radicals on the other side, well, you are basically kissing goodbye any hope of ever having an honest dialogue with the opposition. You may be that cynical, but going about life assuming bad faith on the part of everyone else doesn't, in the long term, get you that far.

Posted by: HFS | Oct 4, 2007 3:53:08 PM

Excellently said.

Posted by: Pooh | Oct 4, 2007 3:56:27 PM

"But this war, and any that occur until January 2009, will not be conducted by Roger Cohen.
I hope you're not suggesting that any wars after 2009 might be fought by Roger Cohen. Save us.
Also, Roger Cohen's name is too similar to Richard Cohen's. Please fix this problem.

Posted by: SP | Oct 4, 2007 4:00:38 PM

An honest dialogue with the opposition? You mean the opposition that controls the US government, manipulates the intelligence, makes searches without warrants, suspends habeus corpus, and builds secret prisons to hold the 'disappeared'?

Well, good luck with that one.

Remember, we're not 'assuming' bad faith- we're finding it wherever we look.

Enabling the radicals of the the other side is exactly what Cohen is doing. A real liberal could find a thousand other subjects to write about- there is no shortage of problems that could use a little liberal medicine.

Cohen knows exactly what he is doing. That's why you'll frequently find him enabling the radicals of "the other side" but you'll never find him enabling the radicals of the side he claims to be on.

Posted by: serial catowner | Oct 4, 2007 4:11:05 PM

HFS, outside of the general case, taking this specific issue right here, what evidence do you have that any constructive "dialog with the other side" could have been held with the Bush administration with respect to Iraq? And wouldn't you agree that enabling the radicals on that side was a rather dangerous thing to do?

Posted by: Tyro | Oct 4, 2007 4:18:43 PM

If you want to watch a better movie with the same message, rent Batman Begins. "It's not who you are inside, but what you do that defines you."

Posted by: PapaJijo | Oct 4, 2007 4:25:10 PM

Wow! This is a longer and completly coherent version of what Atrios says about every 3 days. Nice work. And it's true -- these guys care nothing for the disaster they've enabled, or the harm they have assisted, it's only their reputations they care about.

Posted by: David in NY | Oct 4, 2007 4:36:36 PM

Good post

In The Last Kiss I thought Tom Wilkinson's performance and his character in general we're far better than the rest of the movie.

Posted by: Eric K | Oct 4, 2007 4:44:50 PM

A great post, and further evidence that wisdom does not correlate with age (compare Ezra Klein and Henry Kissinger).

Posted by: Henderstock | Oct 4, 2007 4:49:05 PM

A great post, and further evidence that wisdom does not correlate with age (compare Ezra Klein and Henry Kissinger).

Posted by: Henderstock | Oct 4, 2007 4:49:14 PM

say maybe that's why little Tommy Friedman who thought democratic "dominos" in the Mid East was a "neat" idea was unhappy (finally after 9 F.U.'s) with the fact that Bush and Rumsfeld were running the war and not General Tommy Friedman. It's always fun however to hear Tom, the diplomat, excoriate the participants in the MidEast when they don't do what Plenipotentiary and Special Envoy, Tommy Friedman, wishes.

Posted by: della Rovere | Oct 4, 2007 4:49:23 PM

Wow, WB Reeves stole my thought from before I clicked on comments:

Don't hold back. Tell us how you really feel.

And then tell us some more.

Action item: go down to the WaPo bldg, drag Roger to the street gutter, piss on him while your friends video the action, and post it as a YouTube with the long title "This is what happens to liberal interventionists who mimic the neo-con attack smears and enable a worthless, lying, insane GOP administration bent on global domination."

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Oct 4, 2007 4:54:30 PM

Nice one Ezra.

Posted by: S Brennan | Oct 4, 2007 4:56:30 PM

HFS: If you'll look back, you'll see that the liberal hawks didn't just advocate for an invasion; and they didn't just ignore an effort to empirically and skeptically examine the real world likely outcomes of the invasion (given our actual leaders and actual situation); they also made it a point to insult and demean anyone who opposed the invasion or who noted the likely disastrous results as Saddam's boot lickers, as pro-tyrant, as hating 'America', and in general as morally inferior to themselves.

There's a difference.

But then, it's more difficult to drum a population into a controversial and dangerous war if you ever admit the nobility of your opponents or if you admit that the results may be disastrous and painful.

Better to slur your opponents and concentrate instead on long-winded essays of the glorious world which will arrive after the comic book war fantasy turns out successfully.

Posted by: El_Cid | Oct 4, 2007 5:01:58 PM

Hear fucking hear!

Posted by: Antid Oto | Oct 4, 2007 5:26:03 PM

A great post, and further evidence that wisdom does not correlate with age (compare Ezra Klein and Henry Kissinger).

Posted by: Henderstock | Oct 4, 2007 5:42:10 PM

Things I like:
1) Batman Begins
2) Ezra when he's justifiably angry.

Posted by: SDM | Oct 4, 2007 5:50:09 PM

i found the comparison to sarajevo most interesting, because the lesson i got from "love thy neighbor: a story of war" by peter maas was that a large part of why that genocide occured to the extent it did was because the US and UN did the following:

a) sat on their hands, ignoring well-founded accusations of genocide
b) went in with a woefully inadequate force, leading to Srebrenica

yes, we finally went in, blah blah blah, but because we ignored it, failed to investigate and then take action, we allowed a greater atrocity to happen than would have occured otherwise.

kinda like darfur, i guess, except we havent actually done anything about that one yet either.

Posted by: rigel | Oct 4, 2007 7:12:42 PM

rigel, well, part of it was that the west refused to get involved in stopping the war in Bosnia because stopping it would have resulted in "the wrong outcome"-- namely, the Bosnian Serbs effectively "winning." So we tried a bunch of things, like arming the Bosnian Muslims in the Bihac enclave, encouraging them to go on the offensive and watching them fail. Then setting up the "safe havens" in the hopes that they'd be useful enclaves to link back up with Muslim-held Bosnia later, and so on. There was no focus on "ending the war" because it had to be ended with an outcome that the USA wanted to see. Meanwhile, many were content to wait while more people kept dying until conditions were such that we could take action-- ironically only when those greater atrocities occurred.

it's similar to our refusal to leave Iraq-- we can't just "leave", we can only leave if the circumstances leave cause for a large parade to occur, V-J-day-style. If more people have to die for us to get to that point, well, plenty of people are willing to let that happen.

Posted by: Tyro | Oct 4, 2007 7:31:27 PM

Just to echo everyone else, this is really a beautiful post. I think it gets to the anger so many of us feel but don't know how to express about the utter lack of self-awarness - combined with the utter self-regard - that characterizes so much of contemporary American high profile punditry.

Posted by: bobbo | Oct 4, 2007 7:52:55 PM

I wish I would've began the day (instead of ending it) with a reading of this post.

Posted by: sangfroid826 | Oct 4, 2007 8:03:14 PM

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