Home/Daniel Larison/The Confusion of Iraq War Hawks

The Confusion of Iraq War Hawks

Dan McCarthy makes an interesting suggestion in his new post on Vietnam, Iraq, and the culture war:

I suspect that part of the shared passion for the Iraq War felt in the breasts of such seemingly different figures as Christopher Hichens and Richard John Neuhaus arose from the hope of overcoming the divides of the 1960s: the New Left and New Right—or at least their intellectual avatars—could be together a last, as if 1968 had never happened. Hitchens could be on the side of the flag without betraying his ’60s leftist ideals because this time the war would be fought for those ideals, against not a socialist state but an “Islamo-fascist” one. And Neuhaus could fulfill his Vietnam-era radicalism without abandoning his new conservative idiom.

Radicals who persisted in opposing American military action were really not radicals at all but fellow travelers with fascists [bold mine-DL], and conservative critics of the war were “unpatriotic.” Real ’60s radicals and real anti-’60s conservatives supported the war, which was how everyone knew it was right—until it proved to be wrong.

Looking back on the last ten or eleven years, I am still amazed at how convinced so many intellectuals and pundits seemed to be that “we” (the U.S. and/or “the West”) were engaged in a struggle against a new form of fascism. No other ideology or movement has been dead for so long while looming so large in the thinking of people generations later. The comparison with fighting against fascism flattered the people making it, since it included them among the ideological heroes of their own story, and it grossly exaggerated the dangers from contemporary foreign threats. It also crucially misidentified those threats and treated them as different expressions of the same phenomenon (whether it was called “Islamofascism” or not), which did nothing but confuse groups and regimes that often had little or nothing to do with another.

On the left, Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman were among the most vocal exponents of the idea that the Iraq war was an anti-fascist one. That allowed Hitchens to imagine that he was playing the role of another Orwell, and it gave Berman an excuse to obsess over “Islamic fascism” and, as Corey Robin reminds us today, to pretend that the Iraq war was the Spanish Civil War of our time. On the right, the nostalgia for re-fighting the conflicts of the 1930s and 1940s was probably even greater. Neoconservatives have long been ready to perceive any foreign conflict or crisis as if it were still 1938 and “appeasement” was the only possible mistake a government could make, and many movement conservatives seemed only too happy to imagine that the U.S. was fighting another world war with Bush and Blair as their leaders.

Dan mentions Neuhaus’ support for the war, but I have to admit that I still don’t know what to make of that. Neuhaus’ view of the Iraq war has never made sense to me. It seemed to me to be a case of someone convincing himself to support an unjustified war because it was being carried out by his “side” and because he was expected to support it. In the weeks before the invasion, he gave an interview to ZENIT in which he made the following assertions:

Frequent reference to preventive or pre-emptive use of military force, and even to “wars of choice,” have only confused the present discussion.

War, if it is just, is not an option chosen but a duty imposed. In the present circumstance, military action against Iraq by a coalition of the willing is in response to Iraq’s aggression; first against Kuwait, then in defiance of the terms of surrender demanding its disarmament, then in support of, if not direct participation in, acts of terrorism.

As we can see from the quote, Neuhaus completely evaded the moral problem of waging unnecessary, preventive war by claiming that speaking in these terms confused the discussion. In other words, describing the proposed invasion more or less accurately represented unwelcome confusion, but parroting the government’s line that its planned attack on Iraq was a “response” to “aggression” was an example of clear thinking. This example was far from the worst pro-war argument in 2003, but it shows just how confused the reasoning of war supporters usually was.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment