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Bush's “Useful Idiots”: 9/11, the Liberal Hawks and the Cooption of the “War on Terror”

  • MARIA RYAN (a1)

This article examines the development of two distinct theories of American internationalism in the 1990s – the political humanitarianism of the liberal hawks and the unipolarism of the neoconservatives – and the fundamentally different and opposing grounds on which these two groups supported the 2003 Iraq War. The liberal hawks, however, failed almost completely to examine the motivations of the neoconservative architects of the “war on terror.” Instead, they imposed their own normative schema on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and campaigned for them as wars of liberation. Their almost total failure to engage with the intellectual origins of the war led them to accept uncritically the idealistic rhetoric of the President and to assume that the Bush administration and the neoconservatives were motivated by the same idealism and world view as they were themselves. This led them to dismiss critics of the war as opponents of liberal values. As the situation in Iraq worsened, they continued to view the war as a moral endeavour – just one that had gone wrong, as opposed to a war fought for strategic reasons in which nation building was never a priority.

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1 Tony Judt, “Bush's Useful Idiots,” London Review of Books, 21 Sept. 2006,, accessed 12 Aug. 2010).

2 See Michael Walzer, Arguing about War (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), 143–68. Todd Gitlin, “The War Movement and the Anti-war Movement, 18 Oct. 2005,, accesssed 12 Aug. 2010; idem, “Liberalism's Patriotic Vision,” New York Times, 5 Sept. 2002. David Rieff, At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2005).

3 Michael Walzer, “The Politics of Rescue,” Dissent (Winter 1995), 35–41. Idem, “Kosovo,” Dissent (Summer 1999), 5–7. Idem, “Can There Be a Decent Left?”, Dissent (Spring 2002), 19–23. Todd Gitlin, “Do Less Harm: The Lesser Evil of Non-intervention,” World Affairs (Summer 2008),–Summer/full-Gitlin.html, accessed 12 Aug. 2010. Rieff, David, “A New Age of Liberal Imperialism,” World Policy Journal, 16, 2 (Summer 1999), 110. Idem, “Lost Kosovo,” New Republic, 31 May 1999.

4 On these different groups of conservatives see Maria Ryan, Neoconservatism and the New American Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 25, 52–60.

5 Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2004), especially 22–102.

6 Christopher Hitchens, A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (New York: Plume, 2003). Michael Ignatieff, Empire Lite: Nation Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan (New York: Vintage, 2003). Idem, “Why Are We in Iraq? (And Liberia? And Afghanistan?)” New York Times (henceforth NYT), 7 Sept. 2003. Berman, Terror and Liberalism. Idem, Power and the Idealists (New York: Soft Skull Press, 2005). Thomas Cushman, ed., A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2005). See also Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman, eds., Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq and the Left (New York: New York University Press, 2008). George Packer, ed., The Fight Is for Democracy: Winning the War of Ideas in America and the World (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003).

7 Tony Smith, A Pact with the Devil: Washington's Bid for World Supremacy and the Betrayal of the American Promise (London and New York: Routledge, 2007). His brief discussion of the liberal hawks is confined to Berman and Cushman on 221–25.

8 Michael Bérubé, The Left at War (New York and London: New York University Press, 2009).

9 Michael Newman, Humanitarian Intervention: Confronting the Contradiction (London: Hurst & Company, 2009), 38.

10 Todd Gitlin, Letters to a Young Activist (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 139–58. “Trading Places: Ground Wars Make Strange Bedfellows' NYT, Week In Review, 30 May 1999.

11 Michael Walzer, “The Politics of Rescue,” Dissent (Winter 1995), 38, 41.

12 Paul Berman, “The Future of the American Left' Dissent (Winter 1993), 103–4.

13 Berman, “Future of the American Left,” 99–100, 102–3.

14 Mitchell Cohen, “The New World Flux' Dissent (Fall 1991), 452–53.

15 George Packer, “The Liberal Quandary over Iraq,” NYT, 8 Dec. 2002.

16 Berman, Power and the Idealists, 82.

17 “Liberals for War: Some of the Intellectual Left's Longtime Doves Taking on Role of Hawks,” NYT, 14 March 2003.

18 Michael Ignatieff, “Should Our Soldiers Die to Save Bosnia?' The Observer, 3 Jan. 1993.

19 Jamie Glazov, “An Interview with Christopher Hitchens, Part II: Anti-fascism, Reactionary Conservatism and the Post-September 11 World,” Frontpage, 10 Dec. 2003, reprinted in Cottee and Cushman, Christopher Hitchens and His Critics, 203.

20 Cited in Starobin, Paul, “The Liberal Hawk Soars,” National Journal, 31, 20 (15 May 1999), accessed online via Lexis Nexis, 16 September 2011.

21 David Rieff, Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995). Carlin Romano, “A Writer Who Feels Compelled to Bear Witness to Bosnia for the West, Says David Rieff, ‘The Defeat Is Total, the Disgrace Complete’” Philadelphia Enquirer, 13 June 1995.

22 Christopher Hitchens, “Why Bosnia Matters,” London Review of Books, 10 Sept. 1992, 7. Hitchens often used his regular column in The Nation to excoriate US policy towards Bosnia. See his (otherwise untitled) “Minority Report” columns of 7 June 1993; 22 Nov. 1993; 27 Feb. 1995; and 19 June 1995.

23 Michael Ignatieff, “Second thoughts of an interventionist' The Observer, 16 May 1993, 21.

24 “The dilemma is that only the Americans have the capability and resolve to act upon the outrage and concern,” Ignatieff wrote, but “the result is that these interventions have to coincide with American interests.” Michael Ignatieff, “The Fault Is with Us Not with the AMERICANS,” The Observer, 10 Jan. 1993.

25 Michael Ignatieff, “Human Rights: The Midlife Crisis,” New York Review of Books, 20 May 1999, 58. On why the US intervened in Kosovo see Hal Brands, From Berlin to Baghdad: America's Search for Purpose in the Post-Cold War World (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008), 204–16. Noam Chomsky, A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West (London: Verso, 2001), 94–147.

26 Michael Ignatieff, “The Next President's Duty to Intervene' NYT, 13 Feb. 2000.

27 Editorial, “Why Not Rwanda?”, New Republic, 16 May 1994, 7. David Rieff wrote a thought-provoking and critical essay on Rwanda and the nature of genocide, but did not directly suggest that the West should have intervened. See his “An Age of Genocide: The Far Reaching Lessons of Rwanda,” New Republic, 29 Jan. 1996, 27–36.

28 Rieff, David, “A New Age of Liberal Imperialism?”, World Policy Journal, 16, 2 (Summer 1999), repr. in David Rieff, At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2006), 35–36.

29 David Rieff, “Court of Dreams,” New Republic, 7 Sept. 1998, 16.

30 Peter Beinart, “War Fair,” New Republic, 31 May 1999, 6. Christopher Hitchens, “Port Huron Piffle,” The Nation, 27 May 1999,, accessed 1 Sept. 2010. Idem, “Belgrade Degraded,” 29 April 1999,, accessed 1 Sept. 2010. Idem, “Kosovo on Hold,” The Nation, 17 April 2000, 9. Walzer, “Kosovo,” 7.

31 Berman, Power and the Idealists, 90. Walzer, “Kosovo,” 6–7.

32 George Packer, “The Liberal Quandary Over Iraq,” NYT, 8 Dec. 2002.

33 Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs (Winter 1990–91), 23–33, emphases added. For a full explanation see Ryan, Neoconservatism and the New American Century, 2, 14–16.

34 For the most extensive excerpts see “Excerpts from Pentagon's Plan: ‘Prevent the Re-Emergence of a New Rival’,” NYT, 8 March 1992.

35 For more on the false premise of “unipolarity” see Ryan, 14–16.

36 Zalmay Khalilzad, From Containment to Global Leadership (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Project Air Force, 1995), viii and 21.

37 The disagreements amongst the neocons were based on how to intervene – whether to use ground troops, how much force to use, etc. – rather than on whether to intervene. The only neocon who did not support the Balkan interventions was Charles Krauthammer. He believed that there were no American interests at stake in the Balkans, that the wars did not constitute a serious challenge to the credibility of Nato and that intervention was therefore unnecessary. For a full discussion of these issues, see Ryan, 65–70.

38 Comments reported in Albert R. Hunt, “Politics and People: A Cold Warrior Keeps the Faith on Bosnia,” Wall Street Journal, 8 Dec. 1994. Writing in 2003, Kagan would also argue that “saving the alliance [Nato] had been a primary motive for America's … intervention in Bosnia”. See Robert Kagan Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (London: Atlantic Books, 2003), 49.

39 Paul Wolfowitz, “Clinton's First Year,” Foreign Affairs (Jan.–Feb. 1994), 31.

40 “All Necessary Force,” Editorial, Weekly Standard (henceforth WSt.), 3 May 1999, 9–10.

41 PNAC Memo, 1 April 1999,, accessed 31 Jan. 2009.

42 Richard Holbrooke, To End a War: From Sarajevo to Dayton (New York: Modern Library, 1998), 22, 43, 65, 103. Madeleine K. Albright, “U.S. and NATO Policy towards the Crisis in Kosovo,” Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 20 April 1999, U.S. Department of State Dispatch, 10, 4 (May 1999),, accessed 23 Aug. 2010. Comments by Secretary of Defense William Cohen and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger cited in Chomsky, A New Generation Draws the Line, 29. Bill Clinton's televised address of 24 March 1999,, accessed 23 Aug. 2010. Karin Von Hippel, Democracy by Force: US Military Interventions in the Post-Cold War World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000), 169–71.

43 Robert Kagan, “Saddam's Impending Victory,” WSt., 2 Feb. 1998, 25.

44 John Bolton, “The U.N. Rewards Saddam,” WSt., 15 Dec. 1997, 15.

45 Project for the New American Century, letter to President Clinton, 26 Jan. 1998,; Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf, letter to President Clinton, 19 Feb. 1998,, both accessed 31 Jan. 2009.

46 In the pre-9/11 years, the neocons rarely, if ever, mentioned the undemocratic nature of a regime as a rationale for changing it. Even after 9/11, they were prepared to tolerate undemocratic regimes that did not threaten US interests. For examples see Ryan, Maria, “‘Exporting Democracy’? Neoconservatism and the Limits of Military Intervention, 1989–2008,” Diplomacy and Statecraft, 21, 3 (Oct. 2010), 491515.

47 Layne, Christopher, “From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America's Future Grand Strategy,” International Security, 22, 1 (Summer 1997), 86124. Benjamin Schwarz and Layne, Christopher, “A New Grand Strategy,” Atlantic Monthly, 289, 1 (Jan. 2002), 3642. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), chapter 7.

48 A Report of the Project for the New American Century, Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century, Sept. 2000, 76,, accesssed 31 Jan. 2009.

49 PNAC letter to President Bush on the war on terrorism, 20 Sept. 2001,, accessed 31 Jan. 2010.

50 On the close relationship between these two groups of conservatives see Ryan, Neoconservatism and the New American Century, 25, 52–60.

51 “Plans for Iraq Attack Began on 9/11,” CBS News, 4 Sept. 2002,, accessed 6 Sept. 2010.

52 Cited in Nicholas Lemann, “The Next World Order,” New Yorker, 1 April 2002,, accessed 4 Feb. 2011.

53 Cited in Frances Fitzgerald, “George Bush & the World,” New York Review of Books, 26 Sept. 2002,, accessed 4 Feb. 2011.

54 Bob Woodward, Bush at War (London: Pocket Books, 2003), 49, 83–84, 137.

55 Lewis D. Solomon, Paul Wolfowitz: Visionary, Intellectual, Policymaker and Strategist (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers Inc., 2007), 80. Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), 5. James Fallows, “Blind into Baghdad,” The Atlantic (Jan./Feb. 2004), Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (New York: Atlantic Books, 2007), 15–7, 19–20. Woodward, 97–99.

56 Seymour Hersh, “Selective Intelligence,” New Yorker, 12 May 2003,, accessed 23 Aug. 2010.

57 Woodward's Bush at War was first published in November 2002 and contained details of the administration's decision to pursue two “rounds” of the war on terror – Hersh. Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Unknown,” New Yorker, 10 Feb. 2003,, accessed 4 Feb. 2011. The Bush administration's outlook and strategy was discussed in Lemann and in Fitzgerald.

58 For example, in the first Gore–Bush presidential debate on 3 October 2000, Bush stated that “the Vice President and I have a disagreement about the use of troops. He believes in nation building. I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders. I believe the role of the military is to fight and win war and therefore prevent war from happening in the first place.” See the debate transcript at–2000–transcript, accessed 4 Feb. 2011. In the second debate, on 11 October 2000, Bush stated that the 1993 intervention in Somalia went wrong when “it changed into a nation building mission … I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation building.” See the debate transcript at–2000–debate-transcript.

59 See, for example, Bush's 2005 State of the Union speech – two years after the invasion – in which he suggests that the United States is committed to the promotion of freedom in the Middle East. Transcript at, accessed 2 Sept. 2010. In his valediction to neoconservatism, Francis Fukuyama acknowledges that the “freedom agenda” was an “ex post facto” justification for Iraq. See his After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads (London: Profile Books, 2006), 46–47, 79.

60 Paul Berman “Terror and Liberalism,” American Prospect, 21 Oct. 2001,, accessed 23 Aug. 2010. Berman, Terror and Liberalism.

61 Berman “Terror and Liberalism.” Idem, Terror and Liberalism, 191.

62 Berman, Terror and Liberalism, 122, 133–34, 152–53.

63 Christopher Hitchens, “The Pursuit of Happiness Is at an End,” Evening Standard (London), 19 Sept. 2001.

64 Christopher Hitchens, “Terrorism: Notes toward a Definition,” 18 Nov. 2002, repr. in idem, A Long Short War, 25.

65 Christopher Hitchens, “Twenty-Twenty Foresight: Arguments for War,” in idem, A Long Short War, 10, original emphasis; see also 11 and 54.

66 Thomas Cushman, “Introduction: The Liberal-Humanitarian Case for War in Iraq,” in idem, A Matter of Principle, 22.

67 Christopher Hitchens, “Imperialism: Superpower Dominance, Malign and Benign,” Slate, 10 Dec. 2002,, accessed 23 Aug. 2010.

68 “Editor's Page,” Dissent (Winter 2002).

69 Michael Walzer, “Can There Be a Decent Left?' Dissent (Spring 2002), 21.

70 Cushman, A Matter of Principle. In Packer's collection, just one contributor out of ten – Michael Tomasky – recognised that the Bush Doctrine did not derive from liberal internationalism. Tomasky's perceptive essay pointed out the importance of the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance (though he did not mention the neoconservatives specifically). See Packer, The Fight Is for Democracy.

71 Cottee and Cushman, Christopher Hitchens and His Critics, 206–7.

72 Michael Ignatieff, Empire Lite, 17–19, 110.

73 Michael Ignatieff, “The Burden,” New York Times Magazine, 5 Jan. 2003,, accessed 23 Aug. 2010.

74 Berman, Terror and Liberalism, 202, 199.

75 Ibid., 199.

76 Ibid., 191.

77 Christopher Hitchens, “Machiavelli in Mesopotamia,” in idem, A Long Short War, 19 and 17, emphasis added.

78 Thomas Friedman, “The Third Bubble,” NYT, 20 April 2003, emphasis added.

79 Thomas Cushman, “Introduction,” in idem, ed., A Matter of Principle, 9, original emphasis. For this argument see also Tesón, Fernando, “Ending Tyranny in Iraq,” Ethics & International Affairs, 19, 2 (Summer 2005), 120.

80 Cushman, “Introduction,” 9–10, 15.

81 Christopher Hitchens, “Epilogue: After the Fall …,” in idem, A Long Short War, 101.

82 See Dodge, Toby, “Coming Face to Face with Bloody Reality: Liberal Common Sense and the Ideological Failure of the Bush Doctrine in Iraq,” International Politics, 46, 2–3, March 2009, 263–71. Ryan, Neoconservatism and the New American Century, 105.

83 Dodge calls the administration's approach the “decapitation thesis,” which was followed by the establishment of a minimalist neoliberal state that would adopt a laissez-faire approach to politics and the economy – a disaster, he argues, for post-Saddam Iraq. Dodge, 264–65.

84 Cited in ibid., 255. See also Seymour M. Hersh, “Offense and Defense,” New Yorker, 7 April 2003,, accessed 2 Sept. 2010.

85 Department of State, Future of Iraq Project,, accessed 2 Sept. 2010. Fallows, “Blind into Baghdad.”

86 Cited in Dodge, 266.

87 Ibid., 268–70. On the administration's incompetence and lack of planning see Charles Duelfer, Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 273–96 and 309–30. See also Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (London: Penguin, 2007); and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad's Green Zone (London: Bloomsbury, 2008).

88 George Packer, “What We Got Wrong and Why,” Slate, 16 Jan. 2004,, accessed 4 Feb. 2011.

89 For a sample of their views see David Rose, “Neo Culpa,” Vanity Fair (Jan. 2007),, accessed 4 Feb. 2011.

90 Jacob Weisberg, “Should We Have Backed This Invasion?”, Slate, 12 Jan. 2004,, accessed 6 Sept. 2010.

91 George Packer, “The Trouble with Liberal Hawks,” Slate, 12 Jan. 2004,, accessed 6 Sept. 2010.

92 Michael Ignatieff, “Getting Iraq Wrong,” NYT, 5 Aug. 2007,, accessed 6 Sept. 2010. My emphasis.

93 Weisberg.

94 Packer, “Trouble With Liberal Hawks.”

95 Thomas Friedman, “Four Reasons to Invade Iraq,” Slate, 12 Jan. 2004,, accessed 6 Sept. 2010.

96 See Berman's contributions to the Slate forum: “Stopping Muslim Totalitarianism,” 12 Jan. 2004,; “Iraq's Crack Polish Division,” 13 Jan. 2004,; “Only the Left Can Win the War of Ideas,”; “Hitler, Stalin, Hussein,”, all accessed 6 Sept. 2010. See also Paul Berman, “Will the Opposition Lead?”, New York Times, 15 April 2004.

97 Christopher Hitchens, “How Did I Get Iraq Wrong? I Didn't,” Slate, 17 March 2008,, accessed 6 Sept. 2010.

98 Thomas G. Weiss, Humanitarian Interventionism (Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2007), 119–29.

99 Weiss, Humanitarian Intervention, 117. The Responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, Dec. 2001,–en.asp, accessed 27 June 2011.

100 Thomas Carothers, “The Backlash against Democracy Promotion,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006, 55–68. See also Helen Laville, “Gender Apartheid? American Women and Women's Rights in American Foreign Policy,” in Andrew Johnstone and Helen Laville, eds., The US Public and American Foreign Policy (New York: Routledge, 2010), esp. 91–100.

101 Carothers, “Backlash against Democracy Promotion,” 56–62.

My thanks to Christopher Phelps for excellent feedback on an earlier draft of this article.

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