...at least if this embarrassing moral waffling counts as liberalism. I am sorry that people I rather like, and some of whom I know would have written a far better statement, signed on to this feeble statement of "principles" [sic] by Bruce Ackerman and Todd Gitlin. How they got past the first substantive paragraph, I really do not know:
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 as well as the massacres in Spain, Indonesia, Tunisia, Great Britain, and elsewhere. Rather than making us safer, the Iraq war has endangered the common security of Americans and our allies.
So this is liberalism: to oppose criminal wars of aggression against defenseless nations when they aren't in America's interests?
That's a principle?
How else, after all, to interpret Ackerman's and Gitlin's opposition to the war on the grounds that it is "unwise" and "destructive of America's moral standing" as anything other than saying it isn't in America's interests? (And must liberals really be committed to silliness about America having "moral standing"? Can't liberals be realistic enough to observe that America has pursued the strategic interests of ruling elites like every other nation in human history, with the more-or-less predictable consequences for peoples and countries that fell afoul of those interests?)
About the closest these tepid "liberals" come to articulating a real, principled objection to the war of aggression against Iraq is to call it "illegal": but even that is far too weak, given that lots of illegal actions are morally correct, and lots of legal actions morally reprehensible. Why not "criminal"? Why not "illegal and unjust"? Why not "morally craven and indefensible"? Those are words that evoke, in my mind at least, principled opposition to what will be recalled as one of the great international crimes at the dawn of the 21st century, as opposed to evoking opposition that is based on merely strategic and prudential considerations.
If the first waffling and unprincipled paragraph about the war of aggression against Iraq left any doubts about the actual point of this exercise--namely, like John Kerry's Presidential bid in 2004, to show that Democrats are tough guys too, capable of pandering to the self-interest of the middle classes and ruling elites--then we need only skip past the next (oddly placed) paragraph on Israel to come to the following declaration:
Make no mistake: We believe that the use of force can, at times, be justified. We supported the use of American force, together with our allies, in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. But war must remain a last resort. The Bush administration's emphatic reliance on military intervention is illegitimate and counterproductive. It creates unnecessary enemies, degrades the national defense, distracts from actual dangers, and ignores the imperative necessity of building an international order that peacefully addresses the aspirations of rising powers in Asia and Latin America.
It is a pathetic "principled" objection to a war of aggression that, almost immediately, must be conjoined with an affirmation of the propriety of military force! That qualification is all the more damning because, once again, the objection to slaughter and destruction is couched purely in prudential terms--it "creates unnecessary enemies, degrades the national defense, distracts from actual dangers" and so on. That doesn't look at all like a rejection of military force except as a "last resort;" it looks like a rejection of military force whenever there might be imprudent consequences, otherwise not. On this rendering of the debate, the dispute between "liberals" and Bush is not over principles at all, but simple strategic calculations.
Ackerman and Gitlin then turn to a series of perfectly fine domestic policy talking points (they are well-summarized on the numbered list here), and even manage to articulate one actual principle ("every citizen is entitled by right to the elementary means to a good life," a principle to which I'm more confident Marxists, than liberals, are committed, but never mind), but they are soon back to revealing the moral bankruptcy of their liberalism:
We insist that America be defended vigorously against its real enemies -- the radical Islamists who organize to attack us. But security does not require torture or the rejection of basic guarantees of due process. To the contrary, this administration's lawless conduct and its violations of the Geneva Conventions only damage our moral standing and our ability to combat the appeals of violent ideologues.
In the first sentence, they immediately signal their acquiescence to the basic Bush fear-mongering central to the fake war on terror, only to offer, yet again, a series of tepid strategic objections to torture and adherence to the Geneva Conventions. Why the hesitation to simply say that it is the height of moral depravity and craven villainy to defend torture and undermine the Geneva Conventions? Why not say plainly that the U.S. is now run by war criminals, who, if there were an actual international legal system, would be facing an international tribunal at the Hague, like their soulmates in other nations who ran less powerful criminal enterprises and so could be brought to "justice"? Why, in short, must any weight, at all, be given to "moral standing" and the "ability to combat the appeals of violent ideologues"?
If this is liberalism, then it deserves to die.
Someone interested in liberalism and in principles, as opposed to political pandering, would do far better to look over this list of ten liberal principles by Geoffrey Stone from the University of Chicago Law School. Among other things, Professor Stone actually states some principles which have something to do with the post-Enlightenment liberal tradition, rather than a series of policy wonk talking points that might have been put out by the Democratic National Committee.
I hope some of my friends who signed Ackerman's and Gitlin's ironic confirmation of aspects of Tony Judt's critique (especially his observation that "America’s liberal intellectuals are fast becoming a service class, their opinions determined by their allegiance and calibrated to justify a political end...[and] who speak only on behalf of their country, class, religion, race, gender or sexual orientation, and who shape their opinions according to what they take to be the interest of their affinity of birth or predilection") will rethink the value of signing on to such displays and have their names removed.