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The Hawks in Liberals’ Clothing
Who Needs Neocons When There’s American Prospect?
by Lee Sustar
March 10, 2005
First Published in Socialist Worker

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It’s a wonderfully concise statement of George W. Bush’s policy of pre-emptive war: “When facing a substantial, immediate, and provable threat, the United States has both the right and the obligation to strike preemptively and, if need be, unilaterally against terrorists or states that support them.”

This passage isn’t from a briefing penned by a Pentagon neoconservative, however. It’s the central argument of an article by the editors of the liberal American Prospect magazine -- Paul Starr, Michael Tomasky and Robert Kuttner.

The editors praise George W. Bush’s second inaugural address for “set[ting] out an attractive vision of the United States as a liberator of oppressed nations,” adding, “we anticipate that liberals in the future will have more occasion to quote Bush’s speech than conservatives will.”

So as Bush seizes on Syria’s occupation of Lebanon to distract attention from Iraq and repackage U.S. domination of the Middle East as “democratization,” here come Starr, Tomasky and Kuttner to offer him political cover for further invasions in the name of liberation -- particularly if the people the U.S. is bombing are Muslims, since “as liberals, we also believe that America faces a mortal threat from Islamist terrorists that will require every asset we can bring to bear, including military force.”

This article is the featured piece in American Prospect’s special “national security issue,” titled “Between Chomsky and Cheney.” Yet there’s no evidence that the editors have read Noam Chomsky on the crimes of U.S. imperialism -- which have always been advanced under the banner of democracy.

On the contrary, the article reads as if the authors had sat in on the post-9/11 meetings between Vice President Dick Cheney and Bernard Lewis, the old-school Orientalist whose discussions with Cheney helped the White House formulate what Bush called a U.S. “crusade” in Afghanistan -- the war against the Islamist Taliban government. According to Lewis, Islam has an inherent flaw -- an inability to embrace modern society and democracy.

Lewis’ Islamaphobia was discredited academically long ago. But the White House rehabilitated anti-Muslim politics to justify the conquest and occupation of Afghanistan--and, now, to justify the indefinite occupation of Iraq. With no weapons of mass destruction to be found, the U.S has shifted attention to what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls “Islamist fascists” in the resistance.

The American Prospect editors take the democracy-versus-Islam approach even further than Friedman. “We -- the United States, the advanced world generally, and liberals in particular, who value the rule of law, equality, open-mindedness, tolerance and secularism -- face a struggle with the jihadists that we have no alternative but to win,” they write. “The fanatical nature of Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorism it has spawned should be clear to all of us. Its goals for the world are so profoundly inimical to ours, and its methods so intolerable, that negotiation, of the sort the United States engaged in with its best-known ideological foe of the last century, is impossible.”

Kill ’em all and let Allah sort ’em out -- now that’s a “liberal ideal” that Donald Rumsfeld couldn’t get away with.

In fact, religious fundamentalists with the greatest ability to carry out violence around the world are to be found in the White House and among its hangers-on. Despite Starr’s and Kuttner’s voluminous academic credentials and Tomasky’s experience as an investigative reporter, the authors failed to note the growing influence of religious fundamentalism on U.S. foreign policy today -- from Bush’s belief that he’s on a mission from God, to the militaristic positions on foreign policy held by influential Christian Zionists, who support Israel on the basis that the Jews’ return to the Holy Land will usher in “end times.”

And of course, there’s Army Gen. William Boykin, the evangelist who claims that his Christian god is “bigger” than the Muslim one -- and who regularly spoke at religious events in full dress uniform.

Besides putting forward a frankly racist rendering of Islam as inherently reactionary and violent, the American Prospect editors make no effort to place the emergence of political Islam in its historical context -- as an alternative to the Washington-backed secular regimes that offered only poverty and dictatorship in the post-colonial era. Moreover, the U.S. and Israel fostered Islamist parties in the 1960s and 1970s as a counterweight to the anti-imperialist secular left.

The American Prospect editors do include a few disclaimers. Bush’s heavy-handed approach to multilateral institutions and disregard for international law is seen in much of the world as “a deceptive cover for American hegemony,” they note. They further question whether Bush’s Woodrow Wilson-style internationalism is more saber rattling than a commitment to democracy. And, they add, the U.S. should undertake the “forgotten agenda of protecting the global environment and alleviating the poverty and misery that are still the fate of hundreds of millions of the world’s people.”

But the billion people who live on a dollar a day shouldn’t get their hopes up just yet. “The first imperative of America’s defense and foreign to protect our security, and today, Islamist terrorists with global reach pose the greatest immediate threat to our lives and liberties,” write the American Prospect editors. They add: “Containment and negotiation will not suffice against terrorist networks; we are effectively in a state of war against them and must use every means available to bring about their defeat.”

“Every means available?” Like torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo? Committing war crimes in the flattening of Falluja? Doubling the number of the 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed as a result of the war and occupation? Supporting Israel’s repression of Palestinians? Dropping a nuclear bunker-busting bomb on Iran? After all, it’s an Islamist government often accused by the U.S. of sponsoring terrorism.

By calling on the U.S. to use “every means available” to fight “terrorism,” the American Prospect editors are prepared to justify even greater horrors than we’ve already seen in Iraq.

To justify their militarism, the American Prospect editors cite the Democratic administrations of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy as a “compelling alternative” to Bush and “weak and unserious” Democrats. “Mixing liberalism with realism in foreign policy, these [Democratic] leaders were not afraid to use power,” they write.

“Not afraid,” indeed. Truman decided to drop two atomic bombs on Japan--not to win a war against that already defeated country, but to pressure Russia; a war to partition Korea came next. For his part, Kennedy took the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation over the presence of Russian missiles in Cuba. For the authors, however, this history is proof that “America can and should be an assertive force for good in the world.”

Strangely missing from the authors’ summary of Democratic “realism” in foreign policy is a discussion of the Vietnam War, begun by Kennedy and massively escalated by Democrat Lyndon Johnson. That war also was justified by Washington as a struggle of democracy against totalitarian communism--until Vietnam’s national liberation movement fought U.S. forces to a standstill and swept away Washington’s puppet regime.

For the American Prospect editors, however, the problem with Vietnam isn’t that it exposed the imperialist character of U.S. foreign policy, but that it has inhibited the further use of that imperial power. “[J]ust as Vietnam led to an overly broad rejection of force,” they write, “so the misconceived invasion of Iraq now lends credence to a reflexive hostility to American power” by many in the U.S.

Now, the U.S. faces in Iraq the same dynamics it faced in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s: an increasingly unpopular war and occupation against a hostile populace and a tenacious armed resistance. But where the crisis in Vietnam and the antiwar movement drove a wedge deep into the Democratic Party, liberals today are following the U.S. political consensus to the right and lining up with the military-industrial-homeland security complex. The differences with Bush are more style than substance.

With liberals like Paul Starr, Michael Tomasky and Robert Kuttner, who needs neoconservatives?

Lee Sustar writes regularly for Socialist Worker, where this article first appeared. He can be contacted at: Thanks to Alan Maass.

Other Articles by Lee Sustar

* Social Security “Reform”: A Smokescreen for Benefit Cuts
* Social Security Con Job
* Why John Kerry Lost
* How the Democrats Moved to the Right to Cater to Business
* What’s Driving the Attack on Pensions?
* What the US Has in Store for Iraq
* The Roots of the Resistance
* What’s to Blame for Lost Jobs?
* Bush’s Right-Wing Allies in Spain Defeated after Madrid Bombing
* How Washington Set the Stage for Haiti’s Uprising