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What do you say to those who support the war with Iraq on the grounds that it will bring democracy and human rights to the Iraqi people? And what's the difference between the liberal version of this justification and the neoconservative version in Washington, of spreading democracy, remaking the Middle East? Do both entail a kind of "liberal imperialism"?

 
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-  Timothy Garton Ash
A fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford, he is the author of several books on Central and Eastern Europe in the late-20th century, including History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s (2000), The Magic Lantern: The Revolutions of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (1990).

 
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If this had been an argument for humanitarian intervention following soon after the massacre at Halabja and the killing of the Kurds, or indeed, soon after the first Gulf War and the repression against the Kurds and the Shiite Arabs, I would have been absolutely for it. But it's 10 years later, and the case for war is advanced by politicians in Washington who have not been great fans of humanitarian intervention, to put it mildly. I mean, actually, Bush came into office criticizing the kind of humanitarian interventions that the Clinton administration had implemented. So there was a real problem about motives and intentions here. ...

Now, having said that, I think there is something that liberals in Europe just don't get, and that is what I call "conservative Wilsonianism," what you get from someone like [Richard] Perle or [Paul] Wolfowitz, which is a strange combination of a very hard-nosed realpolitik of American power, plus a genuine interest in democratization and self-determination. And that's a very odd mixture which we don't often have in Europe. ...

I think what we in Europe should be doing about it is saying, "Yeah, we take very seriously what you say about democratization in the greater Middle East, and this is what you need to do to make that real: one, support the opposition in Iran; two, get serious about democratizing Saudi Arabia; three, get serious about Israel and Palestine." In other words, as it were, to take the Perles and Wolfowitzes at their word.

A phrase that's been used on both sides of the Atlantic is "liberal imperialism." How do you define that? Isn't there a type of U.N.-sponsored, multilateral liberal imperialism, and a unilateral American type?

There are, and I think they're very different things. I mean, imperialism is obviously a problematic word, because it carries so much baggage with it. ... And clearly, the United States, whether it likes it or not, is an imperial power. But that doesn't mean that it's an imperialist power, going around creating colonies.

Now, I am in favor of that kind of, if you like, liberal imperialism which we are practicing in Bosnia or Kosovo, where the international community intervenes to prevent attempted genocide, and then tries to put these countries on their feet again. I think it gets very worrying when you only have one or two countries -- that is to say, the United States and Britain -- going into Iraq and proposing, at least from what one gathers on the Washington side, to have a sort of American colony.

 
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- Paul Berman
A political and cultural critic whose writings appear in The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications, he is the author of Terror and Liberalism (2003) and A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 (1996).

 
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I admire the neocons in one regard: their political ideas are very ambitious. I think the neocons are correct in supposing that something fundamental has gone wrong in the political culture of the Middle East, and that radical measures are required to set the wrong aright. They are correct to speak about liberal democracy, too. Liberal democracy is the only plausible and constructive alternative to the totalitarian impulses that have swept across so much of the region.

The neocon instinct is heavily tainted with an oldfashioned sense of realpolitik, though -- a love of unprincipled power, a reliance on force instead of persuasion, sometimes a romance of the ruthless. The neocons were in charge of a good amount of U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s, and, in Latin America, their record on democratic liberty was not good. ... In many places, their actions only served to further the reign of fascist-like right-wing despotisms, instead of overthrowing or reforming those forces. I worry that, in the name of liberal democratic ideals, they will end up doing something similar in the Middle East. ...

I would like to see a left alternative to the neocon vision become prominent -- a left-wing passion for democratic and liberal internationalism, a left-wing passion for anti-fascism and anti-totalitarianism, a passion to try as much as possible to square the means with the revolutionary liberal and humanitarian ends.

You ask if either the neocon idea or my own idea have anything to do with "liberal imperialism." I think imperialism is an unfortunate word. I don't think the neocons especially want to get hold of Middle Eastern plunder (though I know very well that some of the American corporations, who have influence at the White House, would like to do so, and may well end up doing do, because of the neocon cult of the "realistic" and of power). I myself reject the term and concept of imperialism altogether. Imperialism means domination. I don't want the United States to dominate the region. I want the region to change. A healthy, self-governing, liberal Middle East, freed of paranoid and apocalyptic doctrines, tolerant of minorities and of other religions -- that is my idea. That is not imperialism. I oppose imperialism, and I think it is a mistake to try to find a positive meaning for the term.

 
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- David Rieff
An American writer and foreign-policy analyst currently at the American Academy in Berlin, he is the author most recently of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (2002) and Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (1995).

 
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Let me say a couple of things. First, I think that the human rights movement and the Bush administration both subscribe to the logic of intervention. Now, intervention, to be sure, in different causes. But once you say that sovereignty is not the principle absolute, that the criteria are not that a state is sovereign, but rather what crimes it commits (that will be the human rights view) or what threat it poses (that would be kind of the Rumsfeld view) and that those threats and/or crimes, if you like, trump sovereignty, I think you've entered the logic of intervention. So I'm hardly surprised that the liberal West is of two minds.

It's my impression that, particularly in the discourse of Tony Blair, there's a kind of interventionist discourse of the "war of values, not interests." That was Blair's famous phrase. They were fighting a war of values, not interests, over Kosovo. I took his remark at the time to mean, if possible we'll fight future wars in the name of values.

You've written, it was in the recent essay in Foreign Affairs adapted from your new book, "Given the choice between liberal imperialism and barbarism, the former may well be the best that the people of Sierra Leone or perhaps even Bosnia can hope for at the moment." You weren't bringing Iraq into the conversation there. But what about Iraq?

It is a serious argument, this liberal imperial argument. And it is an argument that objectively can't be denied. For example, there's no question that if the only choices are to be ruled by a U.N. protectorate in Kosovo or by the Serbs, you'll take the U.N. protectorate. I once wrote an essay about how if people are really serious about failed states, what they would do is they'd probably set up another mandatory system, only this time it wouldn't be just an excuse for adding to European empires.

But, you know, if we did that, that would really require multilateralism. ... There was a great cartoon in The Guardian the other day which had the U.N. flag with a Centcom logo in the middle. I think it's very possible that the destiny of the U.N. is to be the colonial office for the American empire, if there is an American empire. I think it's perfectly possible that will happen.

I mean, one of the things that I find most striking about the U.N.'s conduct recently is that having denounced the Americans for behaving unilaterally, now the U.N. wants to be given the task of administering the Iraq that the Americans leave. Well, you know, if that isn't the colonial authority of an empire, I don't know what is. And Kofi Annan says things like, "Well, we must accept the world as we find it."

Is that liberal imperialism?

It probably is. But again, for me at least the places I was talking about were places that were anarchic. In other words, I think that argument is much more powerful when you're talking about countries that really have lost the ability to govern themselves. I didn't mean simply any regime we think of as dictatorial. People in Iraq were fed and clothed. ... What I meant were these places that nobody cares about. If the world were a just place, we would all look out for these people, and look after them. And probably the only way we can is this kind of liberal imperial form, but there's really no interest in the United States taking over Somalia or Sierra Leone or Liberia. When you think of Liberia, for which we actually bear some literal responsibility historically, nobody is saying, "It's imperative that the United States re-colonize Liberia." ...

And what's the difference between the left-wing hawkish position and the neoconservative position?

The two are not so far away: "The American model is the model for the world. We can remake the world in a democratic image." I'm skeptical of that. I think the Greeks had a word for it: hubris.

When I read neoconservative writers like Bob Kagan or Max Boot or others -- and I have a lot of respect for them -- I think that somehow their faith in America is such that they're really not capable of thinking as historians. In other words, the United States, for them, American exceptionalism goes up to and including the notion that you can pursue imperial ventures without being corrupted yourself. That you can go to war without being brutalized by war. You can be the hegemonic power without abusing that power. In other words, that all the lessons about power and hegemony that history teaches us from ancient China through the British Empire -- somehow the United States is not subject to those things. The United States is such an exceptional country that none of those rules apply.

Now, if I believed that, I'd be with them. The reason I can't be with them is I do think Lord Acton was right, that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And it seems to me their vision of the American empire would offer us a textbook example of Acton's axiom. I think the United States would itself be corrupted by such power.

I don't understand how these incredibly smart guys are so confident in almost the immutable goodness and virtue of the United States, which is how I read the subtext of their arguments. That seems to me very strange. And to think about any polity, even the United States -- about which a great deal of good in my view can be said -- you know, it's one thing to say lots of good things about the United States as I try to do, and believe in doing, and it's quite another thing to present the United States as a sort of inherently good and, again, more importantly, immutably good place.

 

 

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posted april 3, 2003

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