In early November 1956, Soviet tanks swarmed into Hungary to crush an insurgency that had just thrown off Moscow's yoke. In the United States, where the presidential election was days away, the Democratic nominee was the professorial and sometimes equivocal Adlai Stevenson--the epitome of the peace-loving, arms control-pushing, diplomacy-advocating liberalism that Republicans loved to tar as squishy-soft. In Hungary's case, however, Stevenson didn't flinch.
At a Cleveland campaign stop, having just learned of the news, the candidate forthrightly pledged America's solidarity with Hungary's revolutionaries, "a brave and determined and desperate people ... struggling against enormous odds to shake themselves loose from Russian imperialism." Stevenson chided the Eisenhower administration for its sham policy of "rolling back" communism, but he didn't let the U.S. campaign trail overshadow the European theater. "As a spokesman for the Democratic Party," he affirmed, "I am sure we want and pray that President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles can make our influence and desire for right and justice felt once more, for we are Americans first and Democrats second."
No one denounced Stevenson as a warmonger or a me-too Republican. His heartfelt support for the Hungarians was fully in line with mid-century liberalism. The New York Times, for one, began its editorial with a simple declarative sentence: "We accuse the Soviet Government of murder." For liberals, an instinctive revulsion toward the invasion joined naturally with a ready sympathy for a foreign people rallying for freedom under the American flag.
There are important differences between today's crisis in Georgia and the crisis in Hungary. But one of the more salient is this: Where once liberals took the lead in decrying the subjugation of foreign peoples yearning for democracy, this time too many on our side of the aisle either lagged or lost their way. When Soviet tanks barreled into Georgia in early August on the absurd pretext of stopping "genocide," the first instinct of many liberals was either to lob verbal water balloons at President Bush and John McCain or to retreat behind a scrim of pox-on-both-their-houses pseudo-sophistication.
For many, blaming the Republicans took precedence. Diminishing themselves, liberals tried to make sport of McCain's appropriation of Wikipedia boilerplate for a speech and make hay of his aide Randy Scheunemann's lobbying for the Georgian government. Or they went after Bush (or American policy in general) for "provoking" Russia by expanding NATO, supporting Kosovo's independence, and embracing Georgia's pro-Western premier, Mikheil Saakashvili. "[W]e should acknowledge that at least some of the blame lies, as it does so often, with our own hubris," Michael Hirsh wrote in Newsweek, faulting "Washington's active support of the Orange and Rose Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia and its feckless encouragement of their Westernized, pro-NATO presidents." When the right language happened to come from McCain--who declared, "We are all Georgians now"--the general response among liberal pundits was to scoff. Writing on The Washington Post's website, Andres Martinez told the senator to speak for himself. "I am not a Georgian," he insisted, deriding the "over-the-top rhetoric about democracy and liberty" from McCain and Bush. Blogger Matt Yglesias, writing under the aegis of the Center for American Progress, called the statement "empty political sloganeering," "downright irresponsible," and "mawkish sentimentality."
Many liberals took pains to find fault on both sides, rather than focusing on Russian aggression. Indeed, Barack Obama, though he later righted himself, bungled his initial response by implying that both sides deserved equal blame ("Now is the time for Georgia and Russia to show restraint ..."). Robert Farley, a regular contributor to The American Prospect's website, wrote on his personal blog, "Both the Russian and Georgian cases are generally unsympathetic, but I guess that I'm mildly less sympathetic to the Georgians." And longtime commentator William Pfaff wrote, "The accompanying Washington blather is about saving plucky and democratic Georgia from the Russian wrath that has fallen upon it for attacking two even smaller and pluckier Caucasian enclaves, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which reject what they consider Georgian oppression"-- then asked rhetorically, "So who is democratic and who is not?"
Perhaps worst of all were those who seemed to take a measure of satisfaction in Putin's punishment of Georgia. "The bloody conflict over South Ossetia will have been good for something at least if it teaches two lessons," wrote Anatol Lieven of the New America Foundation. "The first is that Georgia will never now get South Ossetia and Abkhazia back. The second is for the West: it is not to make promises that it neither can, nor will, fulfill when push comes to shove."
There were key exceptions, of course. For diplomats and policy hands steeped in the situation--Ronald Asmus, Richard Holbrooke, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Strobe Talbott--an appreciation of geopolitical complexities and strategic intricacies did not entail the abdication of principled judgment. Ironically, those from whom we expect abstracted analysis had no trouble identifying the fundamental issues at stake in Georgia, while those whose role normally includes articulating moral sentiments (intellectuals and highbrow journalists) or venting gut reactions (columnists and bloggers) tended to counsel inaction from a pose of worldly-wise fretfulness about the situation's intractability.
Why should the statements of liberal pundits trouble us? It's not because their criticisms are necessarily wrong. Only a jingoist would deny that U.S. policies deserve cold scrutiny; only a Manichaean would insist that Georgia's government is pristine. On the complex policy questions of whether to expand NATO or shrink the G-8 or extend missile defenses to Poland--or even whether to take a "hard" or a "soft" line--good arguments can be found on various sides, and I, for one, don't claim to know the best answers.
No, the problem with these first reactions was that they didn't stop to consider the more primary liberal principles at stake: respect for international law; compassion for a nation under attack; and, above all, sympathy for a people who have been looking to the United States as a model of democracy--precisely what liberals say we want the world to do. The failure of many liberals to recoil instinctively at Putin's invasion or to express solidarity with Georgia bespeaks a larger neglect of our guiding ideals--a reluctance to stand up for liberty, democracy, human rights, and respect for law, whatever course of diplomatic action we ultimately decide should follow. There was a time when liberals felt affinity with democrats around the world, and weren't shy about saying so. These days, we seem too ambivalent or hard- hearted to offer even rhetorical support to our fellow liberals in distant places. What has changed?
For one thing, partisanship. Encouraged by cable television, talk radio, and the Internet, public discourse has degenerated into a crude taking of sides. Partisanship can be salutary, but when it becomes automatic, it chains us to party lines, even when those lines clash with our beliefs. It clouds our vision, filtering distant events through the lens of the permanent campaign. During Watergate, William F. Buckley concluded that so few of his fellow conservatives were willing to acknowledge Richard Nixon's crimes because they didn't want to "wake up in the morning and find that they are in agreement with a particular conclusion reached by The New York Times." Today's political culture has redoubled those fears on all sides, so that liberals dread waking up to find ourselves in agreement with The Weekly Standard. Focused on the petty partisan politics surrounding the Georgia crisis, too many liberals applied the dubious dictum that the enemy of my enemy is my friend (or at worst a misunderstood rational actor entitled to the benefit of the doubt). A reflexive distrust of "neocon" foreign policy led them to mitigate Putin's viciousness and to shrug off Georgia's sad fate as the predictable price of poking the bear.
The war in Iraq not only honed these partisan reflexes but drove many liberals to a wholesale embrace of the kind of cruel realism that they once considered anathema. Back in the Clinton years, liberals came close to shedding their Vietnam Syndrome, growing comfortable with an internationalist foreign policy consistent with international law. But, after September 11 and during the run-up to the Iraq war, the Bush administration hijacked the liberal vocabulary of democracy, liberty, and human rights. It then proceeded to make a mockery of this rhetoric by thumbing its nose at the United Nations, curbing civil liberties at home, and torturing suspected enemies. Ashamed of the deeds done in the name of their principles, liberals turned not just on Bush but on the very espousal of those principles. They ceded them to the neocons, and ran as far away from foreign policy idealism as they could.
Suddenly, realism looked newly appealing. Unlike the hard left, which viewed the Iraq war from the get-go as an imperialist undertaking, antiwar liberals frequently made the case against deposing Saddam in prudential terms, contending that the mere threat of force could contain and even disarm him. Republican realists like Brent Scowcroft, who spoke out against the impending invasion, provided ideological cover. But this beneficial small-r realism--a commonsense commitment to evidence, accountability, and the judicious weighing of costs and benefits--soon curdled into a doctrinaire Realism of the sort that used to appall liberals when it was preached and practiced by the likes of Henry Kissinger.
Liberals, in short, seem content these days to derive their political analysis entirely from patterns of thought forged in the Bush years. If every foreign crisis is another Iraq waiting to happen, then every expression of feeling for an oppressed people becomes propaganda for neocon war-makers; every thought of intervention becomes a prescription for disaster; and no cause--not even democracy--is more urgent than opening the American people's eyes to the deceptions and dark motives of our leaders.
But our eyes are now open. After years of brandishing our skepticism, we should recognize our success. Our anti-Bush bona fides are beyond question. No one on the left has fallen for anything Bush has said in a long time. (The right doesn't follow him in lockstep anymore, either.) Liberals don't need to subordinate our commiseration with the Georgian people to another chance to batter the Iraq war's enthusiasts. What's more, by continuing to let our anger over Iraq and Bush control our view of international affairs, we limit our capacity to defend what we really believe in: not the higher wisdom of realpolitik but the cause of liberalism.
It's understandable that in these times liberals might hesitate before rushing to wave the banner of democracy promotion, given how Bush has abused it. But we should remember that it was our banner in the first place. As we prepare to sweep our current president out the door in favor of what will in all likelihood be an Obama administration, we are, quite unnecessarily, handing Bush a final, enduring victory: We are allowing our judgments and ideas to be dictated not by our own principles and beliefs, but by his.
David Greenberg is a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image.
By David Greenberg