WASHINGTON - With all the enthusiasm of a teen-ager getting out of bed on a school day, American liberals are beginning to line up for war against Iraq. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's masterful presentation to the Security Council on Wednesday seemed to nudge a number of fence-sitters. "I'm convinced," read the headline of Mary McGrory's column.
But reluctance is the order of the day. As recently as Jan. 24, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said: "The American people don't want this war. Our global allies don't want this war. So why is President Bush stampeding down the warpath, and not working toward a real solution to disarm Saddam?"
The junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kerry, offered: "We should never fight a war because we want to. We should only fight a war because we have to."
And two days before Mr. Powell's U.N. testimony, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan let it be known that he was still skeptical about the administration's case. If, on the other hand, the Security Council should authorize war, well then Mr. Levin would support it wholeheartedly.
Mr. Kerry's comment sounded like wisdom to the dovish crowd of Democratic primary voters he was addressing, but it betrays a striking weakness. Thank God America is not in the position of fighting "because we have to." Nations in those circumstances are fighting for their existence. We are in the comparatively luxurious position of being able to fight to prevent a threat to our welfare from ever arising.
But Mr. Kerry was touching a chord that resonates with liberal audiences - liberals hate to see the United States acting in its own interests. Dustin Hoffman "spoke out" against war with Iraq, urging that "this war is about what most wars are about: hegemony, money, power and oil." (Sigh. He was so wonderful in Tootsie.) And 123 Democratic members of Congress signed a letter stating, "We believe the U.S. should make every attempt to achieve Iraq's disarmament through diplomatic means and with the full support of our allies."
International cooperation is a wonderful thing and should be pursued whenever possible (as the Bush administration has done). But there lurks in liberal critiques the assumption that only if the United States can convince the United Nations or "our allies" that force is required will the use of force be legitimate.
And it isn't that liberals are all pacifists. Recall that many liberals were beating the drums for war in Bosnia and Kosovo, and some even advocated war in Haiti in the 1990s. Those were wars liberals could back unreservedly.
Why? The actions in Bosnia and Kosovo had NATO and U.N. coloration. Liberals love the idea of a cooperative, peacekeeping, international body preventing nationalism from running amok. They love the idea so much that they ignore reality (nations follow their own interests at the United Nations, as elsewhere) and act as if the flawed international bodies we have are the embodiment of these fond dreams.
But it is also the case that liberals particularly distrust and in some cases even despise U.S. national assertion - even, it appears, in self-defense. The wars in Kosovo and Bosnia were utterly divorced from America's national security. Accordingly, liberals declared them to be moral and just. But the first gulf war, though it, too, could have been viewed as thwarting aggressive nationalism (Iraq's), was viewed more critically by liberals because our national interests were more directly at stake.
Most liberals wanted the first Bush administration to "let the sanctions work" just as they are today urging that we "let the inspections work." When it came to the security of Kosovars or Bosnians, liberals believed that war was the answer. But when it comes to the safety of Americans, they scorn everything except diplomacy.
Modern liberalism was born during the Vietnam War, when anti-war activists taught that America was an international bully, a supporter of tyrants on the "wrong side of history" and a deeply immoral nation. The sharpness of that indictment has blurred over the intervening years, but it remains the picture that liberals carry around in their mental wallets.
Mona Charen's syndicated column appears Mondays in The Sun.