Via Matt Yglesias, a discussion about Paul Berman’s claims that he opposed the war in Iraq. (Rather similar to Michael Ledeen and Michael Ignatieff claiming the same thing.) I agree with the sneering at Berman’s claims of opposition, but there’s a very precise point to be made about them.
Down in the comments on the Yglesias post, there’s a more detailed series of quotes from Berman’s 2003-2004 writings about Iraq that makes it clear that he did in fact regard the Bush Administration as precisely the wrong set of people to be fighting the war. But it also makes clear that not only did he believe the war to be necessary, but that it was necessary even if the wrong people were fighting it for the wrong reasons.
This is the first bad mistake that Berman and others like him simply can’t seem to understand or admit to. A discretionary “liberal” war undertaken by the wrong leadership is a war you must not fight, it’s not just an unnecessary war but one that does worse damage to the desire to reproduce or spread liberty than no war at all. You simply can’t say, “I’m in favor of this war, but against the way these people are going about it”, because if you’re against how they’re going about it, you’re against this war. This wasn’t a disagreement about a specific plan of battle within an overall war effort, as if we were squabbling about the Gallipolli campaign. What was wrong, and Berman said as much in 2003-2004, was that a profoundly illiberal leadership was claiming to be fighting on behalf of liberalism. Since Berman knew that even then, all of his talk about necessary war at that time and ever since was in many ways an even worse folly than the people who identified with and supported the Administration through and through.
The second bad mistake is a deeper one, and I don’t know that I even expect Berman, Ignatieff, Ledeen or others like them to get it ever, namely, that liberalism isn’t achieved through military occupation in a discretionary war. It’s one thing to use military power defensively, protectively, or even to go after bases or resources of terrorists and insurgents. It’s another thing to think that those kinds of operations can create liberal societies. They can’t. Berman was clear that engaging terrorism was a mostly non-military process that involved connection, dialogue, and most of all the vigorous commitment to living in an open society and demonstrating its strengths to the world. He just doesn’t seem to see that all the promiscuous talk about invasion and occupation that accompanied that clarity cancels it out utterly.
Mostly I’m not wild about the expansiveness of Susan Faludi’s recent arguments about post-9/11 American society, but there really is a kind of dark masculinist underpinning to the folly of Berman and others on Iraq in specific. In his prewar writing, Berman was concerned with his perception that liberalism and secularism was weak, soft, and “cold”, unable to resist the combined power of religious fundamentalism and totalitarianism. Broadly speaking, I think there’s something to be said about the global crisis of the secular state since the 1970s. It’s not quite a god that failed, more like a weak parent who overpromised an ability to make everything better in the face of harsh realities. But that’s just it: adult children both resent and love a failed parent, and find it hard to see that parent laid out naked, its weaknesses exposed. They dream of what it would be like if only daddy or mommy was more masterful and commanding. So there’s an issue there, but the answer to the crisis of secular modernity isn’t to make it obdurate, powerful, strong through the use of military force. The fact that Berman and others thought so (and still do think so) is either an intellectual error of the first order – – or maybe just a more banal kind of male folly.