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Cohen on Neocons and Liberal Hawks

Roger Cohen weighed in with a challenging Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times about the label “neocon” as a catch-all slur for those who supported the Iraq War. Challenging because Cohen bit off a lot: “20th Century liberal thought,” … Read More

By / October 4, 2007

Roger Cohen weighed in with a challenging Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times about the label “neocon” as a catch-all slur for those who supported the Iraq War. Challenging because Cohen bit off a lot: “20th Century liberal thought,” modern-day liberals, neocons, liberal hawks, Zionism, Bosnia, Iraq, Arnold Schwarzenegger , George Bush, Donald, Rumsfeld, Ann Coulter and more, but didn't chew quite enough. He aimed to clarify the distinction between neocons and liberal interventionists, in light of the fact that for today’s American left “anyone who supported the Iraq invasion, or sees merits to it despite the catastrophic Bush-Rumsfeld bungling, is a neocon.” First Cohen addresses what he sees as the anti-liberal hysteria that arose after the September 11 attacks. “Liberals were going to hand the country’s defense to the United Nations, turn the war on terror into police work and cave to bin Laden’s Islamofascism.” He goes on:

No matter that none of the above was true. No matter that 20th-century liberal thought, like Isaiah Berlin’s, stood in consistent opposition to totalitarianism in fascist or communist form. The nuance-free message served to get the commander in chief re-elected.

There’s a bit too much collapsing of ideologies here. Today’s liberals are a far cry from Isaiah Berlin. And it should be said that Berlin’s merits not withstanding, there’s a (neocon) argument to be made that his flirtation with relativism set the stage for the very crisis on the left that Cohen decries.

Here’s Cohen on the differences between neocons and liberal hawks:

“But distinctions matter. The neocon taste for American empire is not the liberal hawk’s belief in the bond between American power and freedom’s progress. As for social questions, the gulf is large.”

I’ll give him the point about social questions, but I’ve grown slightly skeptical about “the neocon taste for American empire.” If there was a theoretical strain of this back in the days of Leo Strauss, I don’t see much evidence for it in relation to the Iraq War. I do however see much evidence among today’s neocons of a commitment to “freedom’s progress,” and they get a lot of snickers and sneers for their efforts on this front. And I wonder if an Op-Ed about the increasing sloppiness in throwing around the word “empire” would clear things up more than Cohen’s piece. Then Cohen tells us who the liberal interventionists are:

Liberal interventionists, if you recall, were people like myself for whom the sight in the 1990s of hundreds of thousands of European Muslims processed through Serbian concentration camps, or killed in them, left little doubt of the merits, indeed the necessity, of U.S. military action in the name of the human dignity that only open societies afford.

Well, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and William Kristol were also among the earliest to call for U.S. intervention on behalf of Muslims in Serbian camps.

Ultimately, it seems Cohen wants to say, “distinctions are important,” and then again so are commonalities. He ends:

When John Kerry was vilified as a flip-flopping liberal by those armchair warriors, Bush and Cheney, I knew where I stood. When Michnik and Kouchner are neocons and MoveOn.org is the Petraeus-insulting face of never-set-foot-in-a-war-zone liberalism, I’m with the Polish-French brigade against the right-thinking American left.

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