what went wrong

The Bush Doctrine of militarized democratization in the Middle East is very powerful because it ties nationalism and imperialism to a kind of liberal progressivism normally thought of as “Wilsonian,” which is to say, internationalist and pro-democracy, if belligerent. The result is to make the critic seem like a critic of freedom. The critic is often trying to point out that we should untangle these aspects of our policies, supporting genuinely pluralistic movements abroad without resorting to unnecessary and counterproductive wars. Here, however, the negativity of critique collides with certain facts on the ground. The pro-Bush partisan can always say: “Look. We’re in the Middle East already. Surely you don’t want to be on the side of the Baathists? Surely you want to support democracy and freedom?” And then the critic is going to say: “Right, I support freedom; I support the troops, really I do!” But once that is said the real argument is over, for now we have already committed ourselves to a directly imperialistic position in the region, even if it is “liberal.” Here, however, the terms “democracy” and “freedom” have been deftly assumed by the other side.

I think it is safe to say that between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War many liberal intellectuals collapsed when confronted with this logic. Some liberals did not have the resources or the mental armor to resist this logic, while others willingly and enthusiastically submitted to it. As Lieven argues, they not only missed the malignant nationalism at the core of the administration but also positively embraced the messianism and utopianism implicit in the rhetoric of the war.

more from Steven Levine at Radical Society here.