The Liberals Answer Tony JudtÕs ÒUseful IdiotsÓ Charge

Bruce Ackerman and Todd Gitlin (A-G) have replied to Tony Judt’s “Bush’s Useful Idiots…The Strange Death of Liberal America” (London Review of Books, September 21, 2006) (1), in a piece entitled “We Answer to the Name of Liberals” (American Prospect, Web Exclusive, October 18, 2006) (2). Many liberal signatories have added their names to this reply (3).

What in particular elicited this reply was Judt’s statement that liberals have “acquiesced in President Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy,” which A-G say is as nonsensical as the rightwing claim that liberals are “stooges for Osama bin Laden.” Contrary to Judt, claim A-G, “most” liberals have “stayed the course…[and] consistently and publicly repudiated the ruinous policies of the Bush administration,” adhering firmly to the “liberal principles” Bush has repudiated. This short comment examines that claim.

First, A-G say that “We have all opposed the Iraq war as illegal, unwise and destructive of America’s moral standing. This war fueled, and continues to fuel, jihadis whose commitment to horrific, unjustifiable violence was amply demonstrated by the September 11 attacks…” It should be noted that the “all” who have signed on here (through October 23rd) as opposing the war does not include a large number of prominent liberals, including Paul Berman, David Corn, George Packer, Jean Beth Elshtain, Michael Walzer, Marc Cooper, Peter Beinart, Leon Wieseltier, David Remnick, Jacob Weisberg., and Michael Berube, among others.

There is also the question of the form and intensity of opposition to the war. Quite a few liberals, including Todd Gitlin, distanced themselves from the antiwar protests that took place before the war on the grounds of their improper leadership (ANSWER), and spent a great deal of time on, and got excellent mainstream media coverage of, their criticisms of the protests. In an article on “The Liberal Quandry Over Iraq,” in the New York Times Magazine of December 8, 2002, George Packer stressed the “serious liability” of the ongoing antiwar protest “that will just about guarantee its impotence.” It is controlled by “the farthest reaches of the American Left,” people who don’t feel it necessary to explain how “to keep this mass murderer [Packer means Saddam, not Bush] and his weapons in check..” Packer concludes that “This is not a constructive liberal antiwar movement.” His liberal interviewees were also in a quandary and agreed with Packer on the sorry state of the organized war opposition. Their opposition to the war, in short, was compromised at best.

Note also that A-G don’t assert that the Iraq war itself represented “horrific, unjustifiable violence;” that language is confined to the jihadis; the U.S. war is merely “unwise.” A-G’s stress is on the feedback effects of the war on “Americans and our allies,” not on the Iraqi victims of aggression (a word A-G carefully avoids). Wouldn’t liberal principles demand that violence flowing from an aggression in violation of the UN Charter get a more forceful condemnation, a willingness to use a clearly applicable word, and explicit mention of the gross violation of international law?

Second, as regards the Middle East, A-G state that “We believe that the state of Israel has the fundamental right to exist, free of military assault, within secure borders close to those of 1967,” and that the U.S. government has a special responsibility to achieve peace. “Fundamental right to exist” as a Jewish state with racist laws, or to be free from aggression? Tony Judt has been accused of supporting opponents of Israel’s “right to exist” in his questioning the racist base of Israeli society and policy. The ambiguous use of this language by A-G feeds into this criticism of Judt by the defenders of racist principles. The notion that Israel faces any threat to its existence otherwise is not compelling, although the threats of the militarized Israeli state to Palestinian national existence and to the existence of a fragile state like Lebanon are very real.

Israel has been ethnically cleansing Palestinians, assaulting them with their vastly superior military power, building a racist society, and violating international law and International Court decisions for decades, yet instead of focusing on the primary victims A-G express concern only for the oppressors. There is not a word about any Palestinian rights to be free of military assault, land and water theft, and racist discrimination. This reflects the deep bias built into the U.S. political system and culture, but it is in fundamental conflict with liberal principles of equality and humanity and hostility to racism.

Note also that A-G criticize only the Bush policies toward Israel and Palestine, not that of the Clinton and earlier U.S. administrations, which have all been supportive of Israeli ethnic cleansing and racism, and via their unstinting military and diplomatic support of Israel have been co-responsible for the many-decades-long failure to implement an international consensus on the solution. Despite this collusion, A-G say that the United States “has a special responsibility toward achieving a lasting Middle East peace.” Is it consistent with liberal principles to pretend that the United States is not part of the problem, and to avoid explicit mention of the fact that the solution will require a turnabout in U.S. thinking that does not, as this liberal statement does, focus first on Israeli interests, and that is willing to confront interest group power shaping U.S. policy?

Third, the “liberal answer” stresses that although “war must be a last resort,” the use of force is sometimes justified, as in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, wars that the signers explicitly approve. However, the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan were carried out in straightforward violation of the UN Charter (see Article 2, Chapter I, Charter of the United Nations, June, 1945) (4), so that insofar as liberal principles call for adherence to law, A-G and their associates have supported the violation of those principles in these cases. Furthermore, both of these wars helped establish an assumed right on the part of U.S. leaders to resort to violence at their own discretion, and liberal support for these illegal wars was therefore an important feature of the breakdown of a traditional barrier to violence. Contrary to A-G’s claims, this support of the use of force and illegality contributed to making Bush’s “ruinous policies” acceptable.

The A-G notion that in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan wars were “a last resort” rests on a deep misunderstanding of recent history. In Bosnia, the United States sabotaged the important Lisbon agreement of 1992 that would have ended the Bosnian war early, it never sought any settlement in Kosovo and used the Rambouillet Conference solely to firm up arrangements for war as the Serbs “needed a little bombing,” and its attack on Afghanistan was vengeance-driven, illegal, and was hardly designed to capture bin Laden. The notion that any of these three wars was either a “last resort” or “humanitarian intervention” rests on plain ignorance and a will to believe (for compelling evidence, see Bosnian war negotiator Lord David Owen’s Balkan Odyssey [Harcourt Brace: 1995], and Canadian law professor Michael Mandel’s How America Gets Away With Murder [Pluto press: 2004]).

The “liberal answer” claims next that Bush’s “emphatic reliance on military intervention is illegitimate and counterproductive,” it “degrades the national defense,” and ignores the “imperative necessity of building an international order that peacefully addresses the aspirations of rising power in Asia and Latin America.” But A-G do not challenge the immense military budget of the United States, although opposition to the “tyranny of armaments” is featured in L.T. Hobhouse’s classic Liberalism (1911)(5), and the threat of militarism to liberal principles should be obvious. A-G fail to recognize that military interventions flow from a gigantic military establishment, and they would surely never quote Madeleine Albright’s question to Colin Powell: “What’s the point of having this superb military… if we can’t use it?” But the U.S. political economy is now built on an immense military establishment, with U.S. military expenditures running at about half of the global war-making total, and with both the Democrats and Republicans supporting it, so A-G and their colleagues take it as a given also, in violation of basic liberal principles.

One of the signers of the A-G statement, Michael Tomasky, executive editor of The American Prospect, has explained that the Democrats need to prove themselves on national security by vigorously supporting “democracy promotion” as a national objective (in his chapter in George Packer, The Fight Is For Democracy [Harper Perennial: 2003]). Presumably in the hands of the Democrats there will be no “misapplications” in the use of force, and the Albright statement suggestive of a ready willingness to use force can be ignored. This will help justify the built-in vast military budget, and will provide a cover for an imperial projection of power under proper auspices (Bush is keen on democracy promotion also, but tends to misapplications). So the power structure dictates an interventionary foreign policy and the problem for the liberals is to construct their own distinctive rationale for interventionism that is presumably compatible with liberal values and will not be “a prescription for empire.” (See my “George Packer and the Struggle to Support Imperialism,” ZNet Commentary, Jan. 28, 2005)(6)

A-G say that “The misapplication of military power also imperils American freedom at home.” Presumably its approved application—approved by A-G—poses no threat to American freedom. But the “good guys” (the Democrats) are not always in power, and they are always under pressure to show that they are not weak on “security,” so that, contrary to A-G and Tomasky, they can “misapply” military power as often as the Republicans (a Democrat escalated the Vietnam War in 1962 and a successor Democrat got us into that war on a full scale in 1965).

In short, an imperial and militarized state will use its military power relentlessly, and the feedback effects of this chronic warfare are inevitably going to entail encroachments on domestic freedom. But A-G can’t confront this deeper relationship and challenge militarism and the imperial state. They adapt to it, and in the process “liberal principles” are compromised and thrust aside, and the liberals do in fact serve as the imperial state’s “useful idiots.”


(1) http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n18/judt01_.html

(2) http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewWeb&articleId=12124

(3) http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=ViewWeb&articleId=12123

(4) http://www.un.org/aboutun/charter/chapter1.htm

(5) http://socserv2.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/hobhouse/liberalism.pdf

(6) http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2005-01/28herman.cfm

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