The War Party Unhinged

Washington’s hawks are in a dither over the Iraqi constitution, as Eli Lake reports in the New York Sun, and the divisions illustrate the character and motives of the War Party, separating the everyday scoundrels from the truly villainous. Gauging the various reactions among today’s neoconservatives to the prospect of an “Islamic Republic of Iraq” saddled with sharia law is rather like cataloguing the various responses of prominent left-wingers of the 1930s to the Hitler-Stalin Pact.

Some followed the party line, some quit the movement and spent the whole of their lives recanting: others withdrew from politics altogether, and went on to sell real estate. While we are unfortunately not about to see Christopher Hitchens give up writing pro-war polemics and take up a second career – say, as a bartender – there is turmoil aplenty in the pro-war camp, particularly on the left side of the spectrum. And it is precisely this self-conscious dedication to the old-line left-wing values of internationalism and universalism by these theoreticians of “regime change” that echoes the ideological tumult of the past, specifically the period leading up to U.S. entry into World War II.

After positioning themselves as the only alternative to Nazism, the Communists of that era turned on a dime and justified Stalin’s deal with the Nazi devils on pragmatic grounds. So today the War Party, after pointing to “militant Islam” as the equivalent of Hitler’s legions during World War II, is now seeking to rationalize the installation of sharia law under the terms of the Iraqi “constitution” – a document that delivers the nation we “liberated” over to the tender mercies of Shi’ite Muslim fundamentalist clerics. But not everyone is a happy camper…

First up to bat is the voluble Nina Shea, a big honcho over at Freedom House, the self-appointed arbiters of global “democracy” and “freedom,” who scarf up millions in U.S. taxpayer dollars via direct and indirect subsidies from Washington. These international do-gooders apparently don’t know which side their bread is buttered on, and Ms. Shea is royally PO’d:

“I keep saying that the American people are not going to support a regime where rape victims are either stoned for adultery or forced to marry their rapists, where political dissidents are imprisoned for blasphemy, and where the court testimony of religious minorities is worth half of a Muslim male. The American public is not going to sacrifice for such a regime, nor will it do justice for the promises and vision articulated eloquently by President Bush that Iraq be a new democratic model for the region.”

The Iraqis, in short, must be forced to give up sharia law – they must ditch their customs, their religion, their right to self-determination, in the face of Ms. Shea’s militant modernism, which trumps, by the way, a formal commitment to “democracy.” In any conflict between the precepts of “democratic” governance and the cultural imperatives of feminist theory, the latter is bound to win out, at least in left-liberal war-hawk circles. No big surprise there. What’s interesting, however, is that Ms. Shea and her left-interventionist cohorts have allies in their dissent among our own fundamentalists of the Christian variety, notably the Family Research Council. The fundies are concerned – appalled, really – that the Bushies are allowing a Shi’ite takeover. The Sun reports:

“‘It appears that the final draft will make Islam the ‘main source’ of law, and state that no law can contradict the ‘fixed’ principles of Islam,’ the group said in an email addressed to its members. ‘Who will determine which Islamic principles are fixed? Who will determine whether legislation would violate those principles?'”

These people really believed that it was possible to integrate Iraq into the American Commonwealth in all but the formal sense, and transform it – by force of arms – into an outpost of Empire no more alien than Puerto Rico or Guam. They are shocked – shocked! – that, after decades of repression by Saddam Hussein, the 60 percent Shi’ite Muslim majority is now asserting itself. How dare the Iraqis take seriously our trumpeting of the Iraqi elections as a “watershed” fated to transform the region: rather than violate their own sense of how Iraq ought to be governed, Freedom House and the fundies would rather nullify that much-vaunted exercise in the export of “democracy” – by force, presumably, since that is what such a radical reversal would require.

There has to be a special name for this sort of hypocrisy, which combines a childlike naïveté with the worst sort of brazen cynicism, so let’s coin one: in the ranks of the War Party, Shea-ism is on the rise as the chief opposition to militant Shi’ism, and you have to admit that she has a point. She’s right, for example, that the American people are not going to put up with their soldiers fighting and dying for an Islamist regime in Iraq, no matter how many speeches the president makes and how earnestly his supporters defend America’s war aims. My question is: why didn’t she think of that before the invasion, when it was apparent to war critics – and not just on this site – that the triumph of the mullahs would follow the fall of Saddam as inevitably as night follows the day? Why didn’t the Family Research Council do a little research and discover that, alas and alack, the only organized prewar opposition to Saddam on the ground in Iraq was centered in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Da’wa party – the two pro-Iranian parties that, not coincidentally, came out on top in the elections?

On the other hand, we have the hardheaded “realists” – for lack of a better word – such as neocon guru and Iran-Contra dealmaker Michael Ledeen:

“‘I think it’s a revolutionary document in the Middle East. It is imperfect like every other document. But the constitution does not say what some critics say it says. It explicitly protects minority rights, proclaims gender equality, and defends not only freedom of religion but freedom of conscience.’ Mr. Ledeen added that the charter ‘vests authority in the Iraqi people, not in the Koran, not in Allah. That’s one revolutionary step.'”

Clifford May, of the fanatically pro-war Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, concurs, and tries to convince us that, as theocracies go, Iraq under the Shi’ite mullahs isn’t going to be so bad:

“If it says Islam is a source rather than the source of law I am very encouraged. That is a huge and important distinction. I do not expect it to be substantially that different from the constitution in Afghanistan, which we all applauded. … I am cautiously optimistic because I am pretty confident that America’s close allies, the Kurds, will reject anything that smacks of radical Islamism or gross inequality for women and minorities.”

Ledeen and May are the equivalent of the old Stalinists who didn’t flinch, beyond the twitch of an eyebrow or two, when the Hitler-Stalin Pact was announced, and swallowed Moscow’s alignment with Berlin just as readily as a devout Catholic takes Communion. Back in the 1930s, the rationale for the Soviet alliance with Hitler was geopolitical: any measure, the Commies averred, was justified in defending the “workers’ fatherland.” The same sort of geopolitical calculation is utilized by our present-day Ledeenists when they hail the creation of a Shi’ite theocracy in Iraq as “revolutionary.” What is being defended, here, is America’s forward base for further military operations in the region. Ledeen has long called for the extension of the American “liberation” to Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and beyond: “Faster, please,” he routinely implores the administration, and there surely isn’t time to stop and haggle over irrelevant details like how Iraq is going to be governed. We have things to do, places to go, people to “liberate.” The aim is not to create “democracy” but to break down the existing Arab states: “Creative destruction” is the announced Ledeenist principle, and this is certainly an entirely realistic goal given the present trajectory of postwar Iraq.

Via David Brooks, we get concurrence with this favorable view of the Iraqi constitution from the Ledeenist “realists,” such as Reuel Marc Gerecht, one of the few neocon Bright Young Things who hail from the CIA. Gerecht now hangs his hat at the American Enterprise Institute, but we are all supposed to pay respectful attention while he applies the principles of doublethink to this latest Orwellian rhetorical and strategic turnabout:

“It’s crazy, he says, to think that you could have an Iraqi constitution in which clerical authorities are not assigned a significant role. Voters supported clerical parties because they are, right now, the natural leaders of society and serve important social functions. But this doesn’t mean we have to start screaming about a 13th-century theocratic state. Understanding the clerics, Gerecht has argued, means understanding two things. First, the Shi’ite clerical establishment has made a substantial intellectual leap. It now firmly believes in one person one vote, and rejects the Iranian model. On the other hand, these folks don’t think like us.”

This analysis disappears the real history of how Iraq came to have elections in the first place. It wasn’t the Iraqis who made the “intellectual leap” of one-man one-vote, it was the Americans who were forced to do so by the Grand Ayatollah Sistani. It was Sistani, you’ll remember, who effectively vetoed the initial American plan to implement a “caucus” system that would have given Washington’s favored sock puppets a controlling influence in the makeup of the Iraqi government. The ayatollah insisted on direct elections, and after calling his followers out into the streets he got what he wanted.

Gerecht’s argument essentially boils down to this: 1,800 American soldiers fought and died so that clerical fascism might replace Ba’athist fascism in occupied Iraq – and if you don’t like it, then you can lump it. We have bigger problems to deal with than the complete intellectual dishonesty of the pro-war cause, says Gerecht, and David Frum agrees with him:

“I don’t know at this point that we have a lot of room to have Iraqis write the best constitution they can write. Here we have a security problem that we are in danger of misinterpreting as a political problem. If we could put our hands on the finite number of insurgents and if we could break the will of the insurgent leaders, a lot of these other problems would work themselves out in a more or less acceptable way. But we are making a big mistake if we think a better constitution will help what is a security problem.”

Translation: We need to kill an awful lot more people before we can begin to get picky about our allies. We need to break the Iraqis, and then we can talk about how to re-form them in our own image. This is the cold, hard voice of neoconservative “realism” in all its chillingly amoral – and immoral – arrogance.

Of particular interest is the case of Christopher Hitchens, the archetypal neocon – he went from Trotskyism to Bushophilia without making too many stops in between – whose gyrations on this most recent development threaten to result in what I fully expect to be a simultaneous mental and physical breakdown. The imposition of Islamofascism in the land he so strenuously urged Americans to “liberate” should probably cause his head to explode. It is, after all, definitely an understatement to say Hitchens hates religion: it often seems that, for him, his militant atheism is on the verge of becoming one of those tiresome monomanias that often afflict brilliant-albeit-eccentric intellectuals, like Reich’s “orgone” boxes and the talented novelist Ayn Rand’s apparent belief that she was the world’s foremost philosopher since Aristotle. There is a kind of cosmic justice in the supreme irony that the war Hitchens argued so passionately in favor of has handed Iraq over to the mullahs, and no amount of alcohol is going to deaden the pain this must cause “the Hitch.” The Sun reports his reaction:

“A columnist for Slate and Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens, yesterday said that reports of the draft constitution raised concerns for proponents of the war, himself included. ‘There is a war within the war. Some of our allies are fundamentalists,’ he said. ‘It should not appear that the secularists and the Kurds are our clients and puppets. But at the same time, they should not have to wonder which side the United States is eventually on.’ Mr. Hitchens noted that the Afghan constitution also included a phrase that technically makes it an Islamic republic: ‘I did not like it there either. Civilization begins when democracy and religion are separated.'”

As a case history of the intellectual possessed by a demonic belief that he can and must mold the world to fit some ideological paradigm – by force, if need be – Hitchens is a textbook example of how and why this sort of sociopathic behavior represents a deadly dangerous error. Precisely because he is intelligent and seeks to uphold a consistent worldview based on the idea of American hegemony as the instrument of Progress, Hitchens cannot continue to defend the war and disdain its results. By proclaiming “a war within the war,” this latter-day Max Shachtman with a highfalutin’ British accent is merely announcing his own impotence: after all, how many divisions does General Hitch command? Far fewer than any Pope…

The agony of the liberal hawks is an occasion for unabashed schadenfreude on my part, and I’m not making any bones about it. In the New York Observer, we read about the exquisite forms this agony takes, and who among us in the antiwar camp can suppress a quiet smile?

“‘Someone wrote that you knew who the surgeon would be, so you knew what the operation would look like. And there’s some truth to that. I was not as aware as I should have been of just how mendacious and incompetent the surgeon was going to be,’ said Mr. Packer by telephone from his office at The New Yorker on a recent afternoon. ‘At the time, in March 2003, you had to make a choice: Are you going to say yes or no to this thing? Of course, it didn’t matter – it was going to happen no matter what you said – but in an existential sense, you wanted to be counted.'”

Liberal New York intellectuals would much rather the surgeon was, say, John Kerry or Hillary Clinton: perhaps then they might be equal to the task of simply overlooking the large-scale mendacity that got us into this war in the first place. But criminal “incompetence” – wasn’t that the main charge directed at Stalin by Trotsky? The Revolution has been betrayed, these intellectual progenitors of our war of “liberation” lament: this narrative allows the complainant to claim that his ideas weren’t defeated, because they weren’t ever really tried in the first place. If only we’d put in more troops, if only we’d poured in more money, if only we’d gotten the French and the Russians to go along, if only we’d given the inspections a little more time and then struck later on – these dissidents have no shortage of explanations for how and why the war they insisted on having has proved so disastrous.

What they will never acknowledge, however, is that it wasn’t the implementation, but the principle itself that led to the bloody mess we are now witnessing. Such harsh assessments, however, are only for those of us in the “reality-based community.” Hitchens, however, is having none of it:

“It’s a matter of solidarity with the Iraqi and Kurdish opposition to Saddam, and trying to turn American policy in their favor. I’m on their side, win or lose…. I could never publish an article saying, ‘Come to think of it, we never should have done this,’ because I could never look them in the face…. So, no, I don’t have any second thoughts.”

Who cares about American interests, when our first duty is to the Kurds? The key role of Hitchens and his fellow “internationalists” is to utilize the American Gulliver in the interests of various Lilliputians around the globe, whether it be an independent Kurdistan, the al-Qaeda-allied Muslim separatists of the former Yugoslavia, or the Israeli Sparta. It is one of the chief hazards of becoming a global hegemon: the Imperial court in Washington is the scene of so many intrigues on the part of foreigners vying for favor and influence that overseas policies are largely determined by foreign lobbyists. We have become the prisoners of our own satraps and “allies.”

As the consequences of this ill-conceived war begin to be felt, both here and in Iraq, and the costs escalate, the War Party sure has a lot of ‘splaining to do – and so far they aren’t doing a very good job of it. If I weren’t enjoying the spectacle so much, I’d be embarrassed by Paul Berman’s response to the New York Observer‘s inquiries on any second thoughts he might have about the war:

“It has been a painful few months indeed for the self-described liberal interventionists, who were anointed in the months leading up to the Iraq invasion as bold new forward-thinkers for their carefully parsed positions.

“‘I have to go now,’ said the writer Paul Berman, half-jokingly, when faced with the question of his present view of the conflict in Iraq. ‘It’s a painful topic.’ Mr. Berman said he saw a ‘wild inconsistency’ among intellectuals who were in favor of promoting human rights but who were not doing more for the dissidents in Iraq. ‘You have to remember that the intellectuals are usually wrong,’ Mr. Berman said.”

Presumably Berman – whose thesis that radical Islam represents a threat on a par with German fascism and Soviet Communism has been influential among liberal-leftish hawks – means to include himself.

Yes, it sure is “painful” to see what the War Party has wrought in Iraq – especially for the families of the fallen, both American and Iraqi. For Cindy Sheehan and her Iraqi equivalents, who grieve and ask “why” and get no answer either from Bush or from Berman and his brigade of babbling armchair generals, the pain just keeps on keeping on. Not that the neocons care one whit about the human tragedy caused by their folly: as the Stalinists used to say, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and that’s a small price to pay when you take into account the glorious utopia we’re building.

Isn’t it?

As Americans begin to understand that this is really the question posed by George W. Bush’s foreign policy – a strategic doctrine fully supported, at least in principle, by his Democratic opponents – their answer is becoming clearer by the day: No, no, a thousand times no.

Let the pro-war “liberal hawks” write all the fancy polemics they want, and, as the full tragedy of our involvement in Iraq unfolds, it won’t affect public opinion one iota. What’s more, they know it, and this knowledge of their own ineffectiveness – the suspicion that the louder they shout, the more they can be certain no one is listening – has unhinged some of them. Certainly this is true of Hitchens, whose public meltdown climaxed in his giving thanks to bin Laden for the horror of 9/11:

“I am one of those who believe, uncynically, that Osama bin Laden did us all a service (and holy war a great disservice) by his mad decision to assault the American homeland four years ago. Had he not made this world-historical mistake, we would have been able to add a Talibanized and nuclear-armed Pakistan to our list of the threats we failed to recognize in time. (This threat still exists, but it is no longer so casually overlooked.)”

The cautionary modifiers – “mad,” “world-historical mistake” – don’t quite do the trick of reining in the unmistakable glee with which Hitchens contemplates the worst terrorist attack in American history. Aside from the off-the-wall implication that Pervez Musharraf is about to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, one has to wonder if this is just the alcohol talking or if something a bit stronger than mere spirits is the source of such a Pat Robertson-esque ululation.

Hitchens is surely correct in describing the madness of bin Laden, whose own hubris is about on a par with that of our own War Party, but what he misses is his own slippage into the abyss of sheer nuttiness, out of which – like the Iraqi quagmire itself – there is little if any hope of extrication short of immediate and unconditional withdrawal. In Hitchens’ case, this means withdrawal from public life, a premature retirement on account of having made such a complete and utter ass of himself.

Hitchens’ implosion is symptomatic of a larger phenomenon: the impending breakup of the War Party, and, with it, the liberal interventionist consensus. This world-saving, world-shaping, dangerously meddlesome doctrine, which formed during the Clinton era and solidified in support of a Democratic administration’s incursions into Haiti and the Balkans, led to the passage of the Iraq “Liberation” Act in 1998, which legalized the war – insofar as such an enormous crime can be legitimized by legislative fiat. 9/11, for which The Hitch is perversely thankful, gave it the impetus to become a kind of holy war.

The creation of the Islamic Republic of Iraq under U.S. auspices is by no means the last act in what promises to be a long, drawn-out drama: it is only a matter of time before we are told that our own creature, midwifed by ourselves, is itself a great danger, or perhaps a manifestation of an even greater danger headquartered in Tehran.

Then the party line will change, once again, as we fight a monster of our own making – and that, in a nutshell, is the whole story of this endless “war on terrorism”: it is a self-renewing monster that can, in theory, never die. We slay it and it keeps reappearing – and how convenient is that?

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].