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May 27, 2005

Getting serious about “getting serious”
Posted by Patrick at 11:53 AM *

Atrios discusses self-identified “liberal hawks”:

The primary conceit of the “liberal hawks” has been and is that only they are “serious” about the security of the nation. Support for the Iraq war demonstrated that seriousness, no matter how misguided it was. The truth is concern for our national security was a very real reason to oppose the Iraq war, and the primary reason for lots of its opponents.
He’s right. The reason so many in the Democratic “base” are infuriated over being lectured by the likes of Peter Beinart and Joe Biden about the need to “get serious about national security” is that the people delivering the lectures are precisely those who were wrong about one of the most important national security questions of our time. As a result we’ve spent $172 billion and 1600 American lives, damaged our military immeasurably, trashed America’s global reputation for justice and fair play, and given the bin Ladens of the world a gift that will keep on giving for generations to come. The entire enterprise has made us profoundly less secure. Meanwhile, I live three blocks from New York Harbor, and port security is still, by all reports, a complete joke.

The fact of the matter is that the supposed distance between self-identified “national security Democrats” and the allegedly dovish party “base” is based on a self-serving slur promulgated by people with something to hide. The NSDs want to impute that run-of-the-mill Democrats and liberals have a deficit of temperament, a persistent inability to understand that sometimes America has got to go out and kill people. In the wake of being spectacularly wrong about Iraq, the NSDs are even more eager to promote this.

It is, of course, a bum rap. Liberal Democrats like Atrios, or me, aren’t remotely opposed to “national security.” We’re strongly in favor of it. Getting killed because I’m an American, at home or overseas: bad. Spending money and resources to protect me from getting killed: good. Maintaining a strong military, at least until planetary utopia breaks out and there are free Jill Johnston posters for everyone: really good. Making all of that far harder, and increasing my likelihood of getting killed, because some politicians and pundits needed to “look tough”: really, really bad. Likelihood that I’m going to take my cues on “national security” from those politicians and pundits: low.

At times it all seems like some sort of Bizarro World faith-versus-works argument. Liberals wind up being the ones pointing out, endlessly, that national security is provided by actual practices, not just by holding your face right. Meanwhile popinjays like Joe Biden desperately file their chins to razor-sharpness in the probably vain hope that the electorate, having sometimes demonstrated a preference for strutting phonies, will mistake them for one. And of course the fact remains, as the Poor Man never ceases to remind us: Michael Moore is fat.

Comments on Getting serious about "getting serious":
#2 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2005, 12:43 PM:

Oh, and G. W. Bush is the Bizarro President.

#3 ::: Jim Henley ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2005, 12:47 PM:

These are HAPPY tears!

#4 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2005, 01:06 PM:

It used to be we had lots of liberal hawks. Remember World War II? It was the liberal hawks who won it. Then they got us into Vietnam. Because the Left led the opposition to the war, the Right used that to tar the liberal hawkish center as weak and unmilitary. The coup de grace was the Iranian hostage crisis.

The problem with our current liberal hawks is that they feel the need to distance themselves from their fellow liberals. Sort of like the guys who advertise themselves in the personals as straight-acting gays. They didn't create the oppression, they just bought into it.

#5 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2005, 01:36 PM:


I agree. Seriously.

My brother Joshua Stuart Post was on a destroyer in the Persian Gulf as part of Jimmy Carter's botched rescue mission of Americans from the "students" of Iran. Liberal Hawks approved of the try. Its failure, plus an open attempt to dismantle the Constitution by Ollie North & Poindexter et al., put The Wrong Guy into power.

The mission failed for reasons I shall not go into here, but could. My brother complained to me, after our Dad's funeral, that he resented not getting the generic medal for being in combat, ostensibly as it was an unofficial covert military mission. And Korea was not an official War.

Carter failed reelection, in part, because he was painted as too much a Dove. The genuine Liberal Hawk is always attacked by bedfellow Liberal Doves on the left, and Conservative Hawks on the Right. Atrios caught some of that in the blog.

Port security seems a joke... but I'm waiting with some fear for the punchline. As I did when I was downwind of the sub base in Bremerton, or of Wall Street when I lived in Brooklyn Heights. Interesting things emerge when you see who is getting the poltically wired lucrative contracts for Port Security, or, indeed, most of the $30 Billion annually for "R&D" from Homeland Security.

#6 ::: aphrael ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2005, 01:40 PM:

To be fair to the liberal hawks, they didn't create the image of the allegedly dovish party base with a deficit of temperament and an inability to understand the realities of international politics. That caricature has been a standard-issue conservative strawman for decades now. The liberal hawks are just using the script someone else wrote for them.

I've often assumed that what the "national security democrats" are saying is that the existence of this script, and the fact that the script has played well in peoria, means that the Democrats have - as a matter of self preservation - to be more hawkish than the hawks; that anything else will simply give the appearance of validating the democrats-as-weak-on-defense myth, and that the last thing the Democrats need is to have that myth validated.

The problem that I've been having with that assumption in recent years is that the liberal hawks seem to be trying to distance themselves from the Democratic party *by means of validating that image*; by joining in the rhetorical condemnation of the allegedly pacifist left, they improve their political standing among those who have already bought into the myth, at the expense of the rest of the party.

This leaves me somewhat confused, however. I know full well that there is a pacifist wing of liberalism because I used to be part of it; throughout the 1980s I held tight to a position that war, any war, was wrong, and I find myself running across people who still believe that all of the time. So when the national-security-democrats denounce everyone else on the issue, it has a bit of resonance for me (Barbara Boxer may not, for example, believe that war is always wrong, but a lot of the activists who support her fundraising machine do). Yet I can't see through the fog of rhetoric to tell what people really believe without reading the congressional record and then trying to disambiguate the self-serving rhetoric from the honest positions; and I can't help but feel that the national-security-democrats are, to an extent, traitors to the party and to liberalism in general, willing to beat up on the party and those who stand for liberal beliefs in order to buy a short-term improvement in their political position.

#7 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2005, 04:15 PM:

>we were told that the real reason we lost the
>election was because the Move On crowd were
>insufficiently enthusiastic about blowing shit up


#8 ::: Grant D. ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2005, 04:34 PM:

There's a fantastic article by Noah Feldman in - of all places - The New Republic that relates to this theme (it's behind a sub wall or I'd link to it). The article's primarily about the fallout from the torture memos, but Feldman's conclusions apply to the broader hawkish stance on foreign policy.

The hawks believe - or portend to believe - that their positions on the use of force are realistic, as opposed to the fanciful moralistic perspective of the left. But Feldman argues it is the hawks' willingness to sacrifice principle for expediency that is flighty.

The liberal perspective on the world is not just a matter of morality (although he doesn't dismiss it as unimportant). It also involves the principle of reciprocity, which is a practical matter of self interest:

"The rule of law, understood from this perspective of reciprocal interest in keeping to the rules, is not only a good in itself. It is also a tool for promoting a habit of rule-following that serves the interests of stability...

"If enough people follow the rules, the custom of doing so may harden into a social norm. But if everyone is potentially what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called a 'bad man,' constantly weighing the risks of breaking the law against what he can gain from breaking it, the rule of law is unlikely to find much traction, and the costs of enforcing compliance will rise drastically. To make any legal system work, most people most of the time need to follow the law without giving it much thought. Moreover, the most salient actor in the system--the state, typically--will always be the most effective promoter of it. If it breaks the law, then it signals that anything goes. If it follows the law, the habit of obedience is encouraged."

Feldman also shoots down the notion that the left's propensity for criticism of US policies and history is about reflexive anti-Americanism:

"We Americans are alarmingly quick to forgive ourselves our prior bad acts when we have begun to turn the moral corner, but it must be remembered that our track record with respect to democracy in most of the Middle East is nothing short of disastrous. Having declared a policy of democratization, we begin far, far behind the line of scrimmage, penalized by the broadly shared and largely accurate perception that our policy has long favored the stability of dictatorship (and the steady oil flow that comes with it) over the uncertainties of democratic self-governance.

"Many in the Arab world long ago reached the conclusion that our rhetoric never matches our actual practice when it comes to them. That left hopeful Arab moderates, in Iraq and elsewhere, seeking to reassure the skeptics that this time we meant it. Our duty was to give them evidence to show that they were right."

#9 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2005, 04:42 PM:

saw a pretty good program on TV the other night. it was talking about our support of the Shaw of Iran back in the day. According to this show, our interest in Iran was because it gave us listening posts on Russia's doorstep, not oil. Who'd of thunk it...

#10 ::: aphrael ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2005, 05:48 PM:

Greg - wasn't that fundamentally one of the reasons for British interest in Persia during the period of the Great Game?

#11 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2005, 06:07 PM:

Greg London:

"...our interest in Iran was because it gave us listening posts on Russia's doorstep, not oil...."

Absolutely true. ELINT: Electronic Intelligence. All over northern Iran. Pointing up into the soft underbelly of the USSR. And, as Kirk or Spock would order Uhuru: "in every frequency."

#12 ::: Anarch ::: (view all by) ::: May 27, 2005, 11:28 PM:

As a result we’ve spent $172 billion...

I could be wrong but I'm fairly sure that once the emergency and supplemental expenditures are factored in we've spent (or at least appropriated) close to $300 billion.

#13 ::: Michael Turyn ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2005, 01:05 AM:

There's an interesting parallel here to a common, and not-completely baseless, conservative snipe at liberals: we (note that I am not the Wicked Son i'the proverb) support programmes that make us feel good for supporting them regardless of their actual benefit or harm.

I've thought much the same of Republican "security" efforts and "defence" adventures: they mistake swagger for toughness, cruelty for effectiveness, and let's-play-soldier for let's-protect-ourselves. But I can see that this version of the vice isn't just Republican, just as assessing domestic programmes by how much better they make the proposers feel isn't just a Democratic vice.

#14 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2005, 04:13 AM:

It Would Be Wrong of me to mock you for a typo, Greg, but the idea of GBShaw as the head of Iran just sends little alternate history thrills down my spine....

#15 ::: Scott M Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2005, 04:19 AM:


You said about us liberals that:

" programmes that make us feel good for supporting them regardless of their actual benefit or harm."

I was wondering if you could show some examples of this. Off the top of my head I can't think of any programs that I support that I don't genuinely think are beneficial.

#16 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2005, 07:23 AM:

Um, Michael Turyn called the assertion "a conservative snipe against liberals" and remarked that it was "not entirely baseless". That's quite a bit removed from wholeheartedly asserting it as an obvious fact.

#17 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2005, 08:14 AM:

The Great Game, and Persia...

The core of the Great Game was a threat, partly real, partly realistic caution, partly fear, of Russia grabbing the wealth of India.

For most of the Nineteenth Century, Russia was taking control of Central Asia, south of Siberia, west of China, and north-west of India. And much of the Great Game was controlled by the British in India, not by the government in London.

And the geography put Persia on the sidelines. Maybe a buffer against Turkey, but Turkey was an ally against Russia. And, besides, armies just do not cross the desert south of Afghanistan. Not since Alexander (and he was leaving India at the time).

No, the historical invasion route was through Afghanistan, hence the long history of British entanglement with Afghan politics, with all the usual military mix of triumph and disaster.

As for the British interest in Persia, blame Kaiser Bill. Russia and Turkey swapped roles, and Germany was doing a lot of business with Turkey. How much of a sinister plan was behind the railways, and other projects. you might argue about. But Turkey, on Germany's side, was a threat to Russia, and a threat to the new technology of oil.

And the Great Game. slightly modified, continued in Persia and the Caucasus. John Buchan, writing Greenmantle, knew more than he could say.

And once your fleet depends on Persian oil, you pay attention to what's happening.

#18 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2005, 11:07 AM:

"Kim" by Kipling, as perhaps the best novel about this.

"Greenmantle" by John Buchan, sort of a sequel for "The 39 Steps" but astonishingly contemporary in its treatment of the Clash of Cultures and what we today call "the Middle-Eastern Street."

We were certainly not in Persia/Iran to learn the secrets of Astronomy, Poetry, and the Quadratic Equation from the heirs to Omar Khayyam. Nor are we in Babylon/Iraq for the Garden of Eden. We paved paradise and put up a parking lot, for Hummers.

#19 ::: Nell ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2005, 11:32 AM:

Grant D, thanks so much for the excerpts from that Noah Feldman article. Bracingly cool day in hell, that has me looking for a copy of the New Republic.

#20 ::: Steve Snyder ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2005, 12:44 PM:

As a result we’ve ... trashed America’s global reputation for justice and fair play."

Well, Clinton wasn't so perfect about that, either. Perhaps he was better than Bush, but, if we're really going to try to put ourselves into that position, the difference between Clinton and the last several Republican preseidents has been the difference between getting nuked by the A-bomb and the H-bomb.

Oh, sure, Clinton signed a lot of treaties. But, he never had the principles to present even one of the iffy ones to the Senate, even if it were bound to be rejected. Allowed him to be a pretty good poseur. And let's not forget things like that Taliban visit to Texas in 1998, Clinton DoD plans to take over Iraq "if needed," etc.

#21 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2005, 01:32 PM:

I think it's the difference between bluster and competence. Unfortunately, many voters seem to prefer bluster, hence Bush and Schwarzzenneger. Y'know, maybe the blowhards like Biden are right; to win elections we have to bluster.

#22 ::: CaliforniaDrySherry ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2005, 02:19 PM:

The number of American dead in Iraq, 1600, includes only those Killed In Action (KIA). Body counts from the Vietnam war included a second category that has been successfully hidden/ignored by the DoD: Dead of Wounds (DOW). Put simplistically, the DOW category includes all those who die "at a higher echelon of care" - which means, pretty much, anyplace other than where they first fell, whether it be on the stretcher in the vehicle evacuating them or in the Iraq equivalent of a MASH unit.

My sources for this are (which also supplies the "fine print" that allows the DoD to fiddle these numbers) as well as Soldiers for the Truth (SFTT) at links below. Check it out.

Read more:
Global Security Iraq Casualty Notes

SFFT: How Many?

#23 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2005, 02:43 PM:

I did not vote for Governor Schwarzenegger. I couldn't bring myself to vote for the Staus Quo Hispanic Incumbent Lieutenant Governor, nor the Nominally Green But Really Red Candidate. I was torn between Gary Coleman and the porn star. Ultimately, I voted for the one with best web site, who had an idea of Techie stuff. Still, I find the characterization of Governor Schwarzenegger, as a blustering blowhard, to be lacking in nuance.

He is, in fact, right about half the time, as I see it, which is far above average for a politician. He has some good people on his team, as well as the usual frightening bizarros. He has dared to force an abysmal legislature to accept certain realities. I sense that he has discovered that this is much less fun, and much harder work, than he had expected. I do not expect him to run for reelection. But California was so utterly screwed by previous governors (Jerry Brown being the last one I liked), and so astonishingly bankrupt (with a bigger deficit than all the other states combined) that something, ANYTHING, needed to be done.

I could go on, but would be trying to explain a self-contradictory but powerfully disciplined man with a foot-in-mouth comic capability, who is kybernetes to the 7th largest economy in the world, a state-nation that Hollywood itself could never have invented. It is a story far, far stranger than the Terminator saga.

If only Heinlein had succeeded in getting elected to the State Assembly when he ran. He'd have made it to State Senate, then Congress, and we'd have the Moon Base and human Mars expedition by now. And nudism would be legal. And some alternative marriage structures. And we'd kick ass in the wars forced on us, without any of these wars we need not be in. As a stand-in, I'd happily vote for Benford, on a Republican-Libertarian ticket.

#24 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2005, 03:28 PM:

Ahnold is a corporate stooge. He has failed to fix the deficit, because he is opposed even to the modest and reasonable tax increases that are required. With his popularity, he could have saved the state, but he chose to go with borrowing from the future, cuts in the very programs that need to be expanded in a recession, and accounting gimmicks that go far beyond the ones blamed on Gray Davis. Now he is campaigning against the insidious "special interests:" nurses, teachers, and cops, that are getting in his way. There is nothing good about this. I sure hope that Ahnold can get back to Hollywood and make movies again, soon.

#25 ::: Michael Turyn ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2005, 03:50 PM:

I originally included a few examples, but cut them for brevity and because I was afraid that arguing specifics would generate off-topic flame-wars; my apologies if I wasn't clear enough that this was a charge against us, the liberals, which honest reflexion made me think was not entirely baseless. As I go on to (roundaboutedly) say, I think that this is not a liberal vice but an human vice (as are affected archaicisms).

Note as well that the charge is not one of (in effect) hypocrisy---"liberals support schemes that make them feel good for so doing though they know those schemes don't work"---but rather one of intellectual complacency, "liberals feel so good about backing these improving schemes that they don't bother to see how well and/or badly those programmes actually work".

That being said, the most usual subjects of the accusation I've seen have been: Urban Renewal, A.F.D.C., minimum wage laws, the Wars on Some Drugs, and affirmative action.

Addressing these as a partisan, I'd say that "Urban Renewal" was not well-thought-out and replace decaying horrible places to live with places to live that promptly decayed horribly. A.F.D.C. probably did create incentives that in the end were bad for the poor, but probably kept some young people from incurring the sort of hunger-based brain damage that doesn't heal well, as well as minutely improving the bargaining position of the employed. In both these cases, it's hard to tell how much blame to assign to neglect (financial or of attention) on the part of the subsequent Nixon administration; though Nixon was well to the left of the current President Scudder, his political base was intentionally one almost defined as consisting of people who didn't want a dime going to those with not enough money and too much melanin.

You can ask ten economists to tell you whether the minimum wage is bad for the poor or not and get at least thirty answers, one for each arm. (I think more would agree that it's good for the lower middle class.) The walking schande that is the Drug War did have a strong Progressive pedigree, and F.D.R. certainly had no problem signing the Marihuana Tax Act, but for every one of those supporters there were ten non-liberals ranting about bullet-proof blacks, seductive Heathen Chinee, and murderous Mexicans. Alcohol prohibition, like eugenics, did have a lot of Progressive supporters and a few conservative critics, but they also had a conservative supporters and liberal critics.

Finally, as for affirmative action, all appearances aside, I _really_ don't want to start a flame-war on a thread I'm now sorry I may have diverted.

#26 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: May 28, 2005, 04:46 PM:

JVP - I did not vote for Governor Schwarzenegger. I couldn't bring myself to vote for the Staus Quo Hispanic Incumbent Lieutenant Governor, nor the Nominally Green But Really Red Candidate. I was torn between Gary Coleman and the porn star. Ultimately, I voted for the one with best web site, who had an idea of Techie stuff. Still, I find the characterization of Governor Schwarzenegger, as a blustering blowhard, to be lacking in nuance.

One of the things that people (especially the media) forget is that the Governator did not win in any sort of landslide. He got, IIRC, something in the high 30%s to low 40%s in an election so poorly designed as to be laughable. The day after, the SF Chron (now a Hearst paper, and looking more like a Hearst paper every day) did declare a landslide, as did pretty much the rest of the media.

FWIW, I voted NO and did vote for the status-quo Lt. Gov because I hated the idea of the recall. Davis's failure was truly deserving his first name, despite being a vicious parliamentarian a la Willie Brown.

As far as the "getting tough" crowd goes, the best word to describe them is chickenhawks, regardless of their party.

#27 ::: Scott M Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2005, 03:06 AM:


I wasn't trying to start a flame war. It was an honest question. I think that people (myself included) sometimes have trouble recognizing their own hypocrisy and I was wondering if I was missing something. I wasn't intending to sound hostile, just inquisitive.


Thanks for the explanation. I see better what you were saying. I wasn't thinking in terms of intellecutal complacency but in terms of hypocrisy. I think you do have a point. Every program-however well intentioned-needs to be monitored to make sure it is has a postive effect.

#28 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2005, 08:15 PM:

Fair enough, Scott.

Michael does have a point, that quite a few things that many of us are now against got their start as liberal or progressive initiatives. "Urban renewal" is a good example, as is the War On Some Drugs.

#29 ::: Michael Turyn ::: (view all by) ::: May 29, 2005, 08:36 PM:

Back to the more general topic, both for foreign and domestic purposes, appearance is not totally irrelevant. As far as I understand these things, in a prison yard or in the society of pimps and illegal pharmacists, any successful attack against you must be met with an attack against someone else---even the actual guilty party will do in a pinch, but that's less important than showing you can still fschk people up.

Currently, we are ruled by people who believe that international relations will always be at the prison-yard level, and by their actions are helping to make sure they will be. (Maybe they have a point; we can no more expect nations to behave reasonably and peaceably with each other than we could expect France and Germany to get along without a war every twenty years, because governments never, ever, do anything right.)

Similarly, Graves' Claudius gilded the pillars of the Coliseum when the treasury was near-busted, and many a man has avoided paying his grocer by paying attention to the state of his clothes.

As someone terrible at social signalling (I thought my last five unsuccessful job interviews went pretty well), this seems very alien to me, but it works. It becomes dangerous, though, when it becomes a replacement for substantive effort, or works at cross-purposes to it....

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