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Memory Lane With Bill Keller And The Liberal Hawks

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On today’s program I will interview Fred Kagan –one of the architechts of the surge–about his recent trip to Iraq. As show prep I went back to one of my favorite op-eds of all time. In February of 2003, Bill Keller wasn’t yet the editor of the New York Times, only a columnist for it. On February 8, 2003 Bill Keller wrote “The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-A-Hawk Club” which included three fine passages.

First, Mr. Keller reviewed the unlikely coalition supporting the war and laid out the three competing rationales for invading Iraq:

For starters, three men who have little in common with President Bush have articulated the case for war better than the administration itself — at least up until its recent crescendo of case-making. Tony Blair, who so resembles the American predecessor Mr. Bush despises, has been an eloquent and indispensable ally in the face of grave political risk. Hans Blix, the Swedish diplomat who embodies the patient, lawyerly internationalism some Bush partisans cannot abide, has managed without endorsing war to demonstrate Iraq’s refusal to be contained. Kenneth Pollack, the Clinton National Security Council expert whose argument for invading Iraq is surely the most influential book of this season, has provided intellectual cover for every liberal who finds himself inclining toward war but uneasy about Mr. Bush.

The president will take us to war with support — often, I admit, equivocal and patronizing in tone — from quite a few members of the East Coast liberal media cabal. The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club includes op-ed regulars at this newspaper and The Washington Post, the editors of The New Yorker, The New Republic and Slate, columnists in Time and Newsweek. Many of these wary warmongers are baby-boom liberals whose aversion to the deployment of American power was formed by Vietnam but who had a kind of epiphany along the way — for most of us, in the vicinity of Bosnia.

The president also has enough prominent Democrats with him — some from conviction, some from the opposite — to make this endeavor credibly bipartisan. Four of the six declared Democratic presidential hopefuls support war, with reservations. (Senator John Kerry seemed to come down from the fence last week after Colin Powell’s skillful parsing of the evidence.)

We reluctant hawks may disagree among ourselves about the most compelling logic for war — protecting America, relieving oppressed Iraqis or reforming the Middle East — but we generally agree that the logic for standing pat does not hold. Much as we might wish the administration had orchestrated events so the inspectors had a year instead of three months, much as we deplore the arrogance and binary moralism, much as we worry about all the things that could go wrong, we are hard pressed to see an alternative that is not built on wishful thinking. (emphasis added.)

Next, Mr. Keller quotes our favorite Democratic presidential candidate and current chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

”Some of these guys don’t go for nation-building,” says Senator Joseph Biden, the senior Foreign Relations Committee Democrat who has ended up supporting war as the least bad option. ”They think it’s cheaper to just go back and empty the swamp again if you have to.”

And finally, there is this stirring close on the need to build a consensus on behalf of building democracy:

So the war in Iraq does not settle the question of American power, but raises it to a new urgency. I think there is a consensus to be built. It is not the ultrahawk view of an America radiating indifference to everyone who gets in its way, keeping aspiring powers in their place, shunning the clumsy implements of international law and leading with its air force. Nor is it the Vietnam-syndrome reticence about American power that still holds portions of both parties in sway.

Ronald Asmus, a Clinton Europe hand who came to the idea of regime change by way of Slobodan Milosevic, imagines a consensus somewhat like the honorable coalition that grew up during Bosnia and Kosovo. The desire to save the Balkans united humanitarian Democrats who are not squeamish about force with idealistic Republicans who define American interest more broadly than self-defense. For a time, Paul Wolfowitz and Joseph Biden sang from the same hymnal. (The French foreign minister hummed along!)

”The question is, is this about American power, or is it about democracy?” Mr. Asmus asks. ”If it’s about democracy, we’ll have a broader base of support at home and more friends abroad. The great presidents of the last century — F.D.R., Wilson, Truman — all tried to articulate America’s purpose in a way that other parts of the world could buy into. Bush hasn’t done that yet.” Before long, we’ll find out if he cares to.

Fred Kagan will relay his observations on the effect of the surge and the prospects for building a stable democracy while avoiding a genocidal slaughter. It is a shame that the key opinion leaders who once believed in the same agenda have decided either that the effort is just too much trouble or that placing a friend in the White House is a goal superior to that of stability in the Middle East.


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