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JONATHAN CHAIT

A liberal hawk strikes back

September 17, 2006|JONATHAN CHAIT

THE CIRCULAR firing squad is the signature practice of the Democratic Party. Think of 1968, or 1972, or everything that happened during the Clinton presidency except impeachment, or the Howard Dean campaign. Democrats are never truly happy unless they're at each others' throats.

It has been a while since the Democratic Party had a good, old-fashioned internal bloodbath. The Bush years have had a unifying effect. But as Bush begins to recede from the scene, the prospect of controlling Congress looms and the presidential primaries appear over the horizon, the cherished habits are bound to resume.

In fact, the infighting has started. The new Democratic civil war, which is already burbling up in liberal magazines, blogs and opinion columns, centers on whether the Bush administration screwed up Iraq or whether the project was doomed to failure regardless.

This may sound like a trivial subject for a vicious ideological bloodbath. (Leave it to Democrats to tear each other to shreds over a counter-factual historical argument.) But it's actually a crucial question. At stake is nothing less than who gets to direct the party's foreign policy.

The liberal wing of the party has long been aware that although Democratic voters are generally dovish, the party's foreign policy elite is fairly hawkish. Liberals, understandably, want to depose that hawkish elite and replace it with a dovish one. Flynt Leverett, a foreign policy advisor to John Kerry, complained that "Democrats have fallen into a 'soft neoconservatism' that has dulled the party's voice on foreign policy." John Tirman, in his book, "100 Ways America Is Screwing Up the World," writes, "When I see a liberal hawk, I smell a rat."

The Iraq debacle (which most liberal hawks supported) has given the doves new ammunition. In some ways it resembles the fallout from the Vietnam War, when liberals such as George McGovern -- who were skeptical of the Cold War -- unseated the Kennedy-era hawks who had led the country into a quagmire in Southeast Asia. One difference between Vietnam and Iraq is that the former was conducted mostly by Democratic administrations, while the latter has been conducted by a Republican one. Liberal hawks (like me) believe that this mostly absolves us; it wasn't us who conducted this debacle.

Doves, naturally, want to hang the war around our necks anyway. They say blaming Bush is a cop-out. Last year, Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Yglesias wrote an article in the American Prospect attacking those who fault the conduct of the Iraq war. "Administration bungling," they wrote, "is simply not the root source of America's failure in Iraq." Those hawks who believe otherwise, they wrote, are engaging in what they called the "incompetence dodge" -- a phrase that continues to circulate among liberal doves.

The argument that the Iraq war had no chance to succeed has an undeniable surface appeal. Things are going so badly there that it's hard to imagine how it could have turned out differently.

But the more we learn about the war's conduct, the more we learn that the administration didn't just make the normal sorts of mistakes that inevitably occur in wartime; it was almost criminally negligent. The Bush administration literally refused to do any planning for the occupation. They invaded before all the available troops were in place, staffed the Coalition Provisional Authority with underqualified hacks vetted solely on the basis of ideological loyalty and rashly disbanded the Iraqi army, which could have provided some early order.

One might counter that none of this was really decisive because Iraq is so deeply riven with sectarian feuds that brutal fighting between Sunnis and Shiites was inevitable. But this misunderstands a lot about human behavior. When the authority of government dissolves, people retreat to the safety of tribal solidarity, and under such conditions they can do savage things of which they never thought themselves capable. Once the expectation of chaos sets in, it can spiral out of control.

Many doves on the left and right looked at the savagery in Sarajevo in the 1990s and saw a never-ending tribal war, but in fact Serbs, Bosnians and Croats had peacefully coexisted in a multiethnic city for decades.

Even in the United States we have seen outbreaks of racial violence and looting in Bensonhurst, Crown Heights and elsewhere. This doesn't mean blacks and whites are doomed to fight a race war.

The funny thing is that, in other contexts, liberals don't dispute the notion that Bush administration incompetence caused otherwise preventable catastrophes. Almost no liberal believes otherwise when it comes to, say, the response to Hurricane Katrina. If Bush could have bungled Katrina this badly, isn't it just possible he could have done the same thing in Iraq?

jchait@latimescolumnists.com

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