Liberal support for war and human rights abuses

19 Feb

Guantanamo X-Ray prison at dusk, January 2002 (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll reveals something quite depressing. The poll shows that a majority of Americans, including many Democrats, support President Obama’s counterterrorism policies of keeping Guantanamo Bay prison open and drone strikes against suspected terrorists abroad. These are policies that Obama and many liberals criticized Bush for doing. But now that Obama is carrying them out, there’s ample support these policies.

According to the poll, 70 percent of respondents support keeping Guantanamo Bay prison open. Of those, 53 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats and 67 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats support keeping that gulag open. As for Obama’s drone strikes, 83 percent of Americans support them, including 77 percent of liberal Democrats.

The U.S. government, under Bush and now Obama, used Guantanamo Bay prison to indefinitely detain (incarcerate an arrestee without a trial) and even torture people suspected (not convicted) of being terrorists. This is despite the fact that the vast majority of detainees had little to no connections to terrorism (two former detainees wrote op-eds in the New York Times recounting their horrible experiences). While Obama uses drones to kill suspected terrorists (including American citizens without due process) in places such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, these strikes have killed hundreds of civilians, including children — not to mention destabilizing Pakistan. And no, they are not “collateral damage” — they are human beings. Indefinite detention, torture, and killing civilians violate the U.S. Constitution, the laws of war, international human rights law, and are fundamentally inhumane and immoral practices.

The liberal hypocrisy revealed in this poll was rightly criticized by progressive commentators, such as Sam Seder at the Majority Report, Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks, and Glenn Greenwald at The Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent accurately observes, “It’s hard to imagine that Dems and liberals would approve of such policies in quite these numbers if they had been authored by George W. Bush.” Greenwald brilliantly excoriates this hypocrisy:

“Indeed: is there even a single liberal pundit, blogger or commentator who would have defended George Bush and Dick Cheney if they (rather than Obama) had been secretly targeting Americans citizens for execution without due process, or slaughtering children, rescuers and funeral attendees with drones, or continuing indefinite detention even a full decade after 9/11? Please. How any of these people can even look in the mirror, behold the oozing, limitless intellectual dishonesty, and not want to smash what they see is truly mystifying to me.”

This poll forces one to rethink what it means to be a “liberal” or even a “progressive” in the age of the so-called “War on Terror”.

American liberalism is generally defined by for support for political and civil rights, the rule of law, separation of church and state, and a guarantee of equal opportunity for socioeconomic advancement. As a result, liberals support equality under the law, the right to due process, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, which are basic political and civil liberties in a democratic society. On the economic realm, unlike socialists or other radical leftists, liberals do not want to abolish capitalism. They support the basic tenets of a capitalist economy, such as private control of the means of production, but would rather regulate it to protect workers and the broader society. Therefore, liberals support government funding for social programs, such as education, healthcare, infrastructure, environmental protections, and food and shelter for the poor and homeless. Therefore, to be an American liberal is to advocate for basic political and civil liberties and social justice. Within the American two-party system, liberals find their home in the Democratic Party and stand in opposition to the Republicans.

So what gives? Why would American liberals support keeping Guantanamo Bay prison open and drone strikes against terror suspects, including American citizens, even though such strikes kill civilians? These policies go against some of the basic tenets of American liberalism, particularly the rule of law. Indeed, that’s what liberals said when they criticized the Bush administration’s practice of torture and indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay — those practices violate basic civil liberties and the U.S. Constitution.

The most obvious answer is that because Obama, a Democrat, is implementing these policies, liberals support them because of party loyalty. When Bush tortured, detained, and killed people, liberals opposed those policies because they were carried out by a Republican administration. Now that a Democrat is doing the same things, liberals support those policies. As a result, these policies have become (as Greenwald accurately points out) bipartisan consensus. Both Democrats and Republicans support indefinite detention, rendition, drone strikes, and the basic paradigms of the War on Terror.

But this goes deeper than party loyalty. The history of American liberalism is not one of a principled commitment to pacifism, antimilitarism, or human rights. Liberals, throughout American history, have supported wars and draconian national security policies that egregiously violated human rights and exacerbated human suffering.

There are plenty examples of this. World War I engulfed Europe, particularly Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire of the Middle East and North Africa in a massively bloody conflict that lasted from 1914 to 1918. In the first half of the war, the American public was largely opposed to having the U.S. enter the conflict and the nation declared a policy of neutrality. Through fear-mongering and skillful manipulation by the media, a pacifist public was turned hungry for war. Woodrow Wilson, a liberal Democrat (and also a white supremacist), convinced the public that U.S. involvement in World War I (which began in 1917) would make “the world safe for democracy” (sound familiar?). It was also framed as “the war to end all wars” and “the great war for civilization”. Many leading American intellectuals supported the war based on this mantra, including liberal philosopher John Dewey. Those who criticized the war, such as labor organizer and Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs and leftist writer Randolph Bourne, were repressed. Debs was imprisoned, while Bourne was forced to leave the publications he wrote for.

In the end, World War I did not make the world safe for democracy nor end all wars. Over 8 million people lost their lives and over 21 million were wounded in the war. Germany and Italy, who lost the war, were forced to pay massive reparations, which devastated their economies. This created the ripe conditions for fascist dictators Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy to take power and start World War II in 1939. In addition, during the war, Britain and France drafted a secret deal, called the Sykes-Picot Agreement, that carved their spheres of influence in the Middle East, which was still controlled by the Ottoman Empire. France got Syria and Lebanon, while Britain got Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which ended the war, gave Britain and France “mandates” (essentially colonial control) over these areas since the Ottoman Empire ended. As a result, the borders of the Middle East were drawn by European imperialists — not the people of region. This would lay the groundwork for the current problems that exist in the Arab World today, such as the Israeli occupation of Palestine, sectarian conflicts, inequality, and the existence of oppressive autocratic regimes, many of whom, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, are Western allies [note: I highly suggest reading The Modern Middle East: A History by James Gelvin to learn more about this.]. So one of the bloodiest and most devastating wars in human history was enthusiastically supported by liberals as a war that would “make the world safe for democracy”.

During the Cold War, liberals were just as militaristic as conservatives. During the 1960 presidential election, liberal Democrat John F. Kennedy criticized then-President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, for decreasing American power and not being strong enough against Communism. If elected, Kennedy promised to make America “first in military power across the board”. After he was elected, he fulfilled that promise by increasing military spending. In describing Kennedy’s military policy, Andrew Bacevich writes in his excellent book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War:

“Between 1961 and 1962, its [the army’s] budget shot up, as the service added 207,000 more soldiers to its rolls. The number of active-duty divisions increased from eleven to sixteen. To bolster the U.S. commitment to NATO, Kennedy dispatched additional ground troops to West Germany. He also more than doubled the army’s Special Forces and expressed intense personal interest in the development of counterinsurgency doctrine and techniques — these, Kennedy believed, held the key to rolling back the Red tide threatening to inundate the Third World. Readiness, mobility, and deployability became the new watchwords: Kennedy’s army existed not to serve as a nuclear tripwire, but to engage the enemy — with particular attention to applying force on a limited scale for limited aims while minimizing the risk of events mushrooming out of control.”

In April 1961, three months after he was elected, Kennedy approved a CIA plan to send a group of CIA-trained Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro. This operation came to be known as the Bay of Pigs invasion and failed miserably. Kennedy also expanded U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. He increased the number of military “advisers” from 900 to nearly 17,000, sent in the U.S. Air Force to attack rural South Vietnam by dropping the deadly defoliant Agent Orange in the countryside to drive the people the people into concentration camps that were “protected” by armed guards, and increased U.S. military aid to the South Vietnamese army called the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). After Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, his vice president Lyndon B. Johnson, also a liberal Democrat, became president and took things further. Based on the lie that the North Vietnamese attacked U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, Johnson sent ground troops into Vietnam and, by the end of 1968, there were over 500,000 U.S. troops in the country fighting against a nationalist, anti-colonialist insurgency. After the war officially ended in 1975, over 58,000 Americans and over millions of Vietnamese were dead. All of this done to “defeat communism” — which was nothing but a pretext to justify Western aggression against movements of national independence in the Third World.

Liberal support for militarism and human rights abuses continues in the post-Cold-War era. The first female Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, appointed by Democratic president Bill Clinton in 1996, remarked to Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” In a May 1996 interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes, Lesley Stahl asked Albright about the sanctions in Iraq, “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth?” To which Albright callously responded, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.” So killing half a million Iraqi children was “worth it” to contain Saddam Hussein.

These are just a few of many examples of liberals (politicians, intellectuals, etc.) supporting wars and human rights abuses. Liberals are not fundamentally pacifist but human rights abuses, particularly those that result from war, certainly go against liberal values. Yet, many liberals will tolerate and support these abuses, as evidenced by the recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. When it comes to war and military interventions, Stephen Walt explains that there is little difference between neoconservatives and liberals:

The only important intellectual difference between neoconservatives and liberal interventionists is that the former have disdain for international institutions (which they see as constraints on U.S. power), and the latter see them as a useful way to legitimate American dominance. Both groups extol the virtues of democracy, both groups believe that U.S. power — and especially its military power — can be a highly effective tool of statecraft. Both groups are deeply alarmed at the prospect that WMD might be in the hands of anybody but the United States and its closest allies, and both groups think it is America’s right and responsibility to fix lots of problems all over the world. Both groups consistently over-estimate how easy it will be to do this, however, which is why each has a propensity to get us involved in conflicts where our vital interests are not engaged and that end up costing a lot more than they initially expect.” 

Even though the Vietnam War, a war waged and expanded by liberal presidents, was not approved by the United Nations, the essence of Walt’s argument is correct. Liberals and conservatives both believe that American power, particularly military power, is fundamentally good and that the U.S. should remain the dominant power in the international system. The only difference between the two is how American power is managed and who is managing it. Liberals believe that they are better managers, while conservatives believe the same about themselves. While Bush focused more on large-scale invasions and occupations to project American power, Obama is relying more on drone strikes and special operations forces to do the same thing. In the end, both strategies result in human suffering, death, and instability. However, stuff like human rights don’t factor into the decision-making calculus of elites who are projecting American power, whether they are Republican or Democrat.

This is the deeper reason why many liberals support keeping Guantanamo Bay prison open and Obama’s use of drone strikes, including against American citizens.  Not only do they support these policies because Obama is carrying them out. They also support them because they believe in the inherent goodness of American power. As a result, liberals, like conservatives, will support American militarism and draconian national security policies as measures to keep us “safe” or to promote “democracy” and other liberal values (even though such policies do neither).

It is important to keep in mind, however, that not all liberals are militaristic. While 53 percent of liberal Democrats and 67 percent of moderate and conservative Democrats supper keeping Guantanamo Bay prison open, that leaves around 47 percent of liberal Democrats and 23 percent of moderate/conservative Democrats who do not support keeping it open. Moreover, around 23 percent of liberal Democrats do not support Obama’s use of drone strikes. And there are liberal and progressive commentators, such as Cenk Uygur, Sam Seder, and Glenn Greenwald, and Democratic politicians like Dennis Kucinich who speak out against these policies. There are also conservatives and libertarians who speak out against these policies, too, such as Ron Paul, Justin Raimondo, Andrew Bacevich, and the editors of

However, the militaristic tendency with American liberalism is the mainstream. So to be in favor of drone strikes and keeping Guantanamo Bay prison is to be a mainstream liberal. This mainstream tendency needs to be seriously challenged. One cannot claim to believe in liberal values and, at the same time, support militaristic foreign policies and draconian national security policies that egregiously violate human rights. Moreover, one does not need to call oneself “liberal” or “conservative” to support fundamental human rights — one simply needs to be a human who cares about other humans.


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3 responses to “Liberal support for war and human rights abuses

  1. jonolan

    February 22, 2012 at 9:01 am

    Get real. Liberals are race-based and little else. They don’t complain about Obama doing as others have done – who they complained about – because he’s Black. That’s the whole of it.

    Notice how all the Leftists’ rhetoric on “the war on Brown people” ended as soon as they installed a Black POTUS?


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