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Liberal Hubris

Former New Republic editor Peter Beinart on how he came to regret his pro-war stance.

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Leading up to the invasion, why did you endorse going to war?
I was very influenced by the military, economic, and ideological successes in the 1990s, and I think that was typical of a lot of liberals in Washington of my ­generation. Periods of success breed hubris. The military successes starting with Panama and running through Kosovo, the ideological success of the spread of democracy, and the overcoming of the Reagan-era budget deficit—it was that success which created the hubris that I and others fell prey to on the eve of the Iraq War.

How did the Clinton-era military successes convince liberal hawks that Iraq was worth it?
The Clinton administration had ­become more hawkish over time. It started out very tentatively in its response to Bosnia. It did nothing about Rwanda, which was the source of regret and shame for a lot of liberals. And then for many people its crowning glory was its aggressive intervention in Kosovo in 1999, which, it’s important to remember, did not have U.N. approval. The combination of greater optimism about the spread of democracy and greater inclination to use force for humanitarian purposes was something that I think liberals were very sensitive to. One of the things that influenced me and a lot of liberal hawks was the feeling that Saddam Hussein was worse than Slobodan Milosevic, and that if one had set a precedent in Kosovo of being willing to act without U.N. support, then it was hard to explain why you would not act in Iraq.

At that point, did one’s place in the ­foreign-policy elite depend on supporting the war?
I don’t think journalists felt that they had to. Politicians who wanted to run for president or run in a competitive swing state may well have felt like they needed to. And the truth is a lot of people in the Democratic foreign-policy Establishment didn’t come out clearly one way or another, which is the safest of all positions.

A couple of weeks before the invasion, you wrote that if the war were to go ­badly, “most liberals hawks will retreat to a deep skepticism of American power.” Has that happened?
There is certainly greater skepticism about American military force than on the eve of the Iraq War, which is a good thing, but there remains a kind of liberal humanitarian instinct that still expresses itself when you’re talking about military intervention when the costs aren’t overwhelmingly high—say, in Libya, where liberal hawks of a sort were able to get the United States to support military action. So I don’t think the skepticism is so overwhelming that it’s produced anywhere near pacifism. For me, the Iraq War and also the war in Afghanistan are very powerful, bitter lessons in humility that Americans need to have about our ability to orchestrate change through the very, very blunt instrument of military force. In retrospect, even the war in Afghanistan, which was an entirely bipartisan enterprise supported by virtually everybody, was an exercise in overconfidence and hubris. A decade earlier, invading Afghanistan would have been considered something that was completely beyond America’s capacity. I think that just shows how much the foreign-policy elites’ overconfidence had swelled.

Had there been more humility among the liberal hawks leading up to the Iraq War, do you think it could have affected the war planning or outcome?
It was not decisive in terms of what America was going to do. Remember, George W. Bush was a Republican president far more influenced by a Republican foreign-policy elite. And Democratic politicians—a lot of those people were just being influenced by their sense of where the politics were post-9/11. But that’s not to say that one should not hold oneself to account. I made a very conscious decision once it became clear that the war was a disaster that I was not going to intellectually walk away from the scene of the disaster. I felt that I could not be a useful writer and contributor on foreign policy if I didn’t go back and reexamine my basic assumptions’ having been wrong. I realized that I was either going to re­examine in a pretty significant way how I had come to this position and how I could go forward in the future, or I was basically going to have to stop writing about this.


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