“Supposed Liberal”

A commenter named “Bill” (he has a blog you can find here) responded to my post, “My Verdict On Syria,” with first a quote from the piece and then a short retort:

Thus, this is a defining moment for America, the only true enforcer of international law, the keeper of the flame of a progressive world civilization.

With all due respect, when supposed liberals use jingoistic slogans like this while advocating war, I have to wonder if there is any hope for country.

“And now the parting on the left, is now the parting on the right.”

Here is my reply:


With all due respect, to suggest that I am only a “supposed liberal” because I took a position to defend the integrity of the international prohibition against chemical warfare is, well, what I expected from some on the left, given what I have been hearing and reading. There is in your “supposed liberal” comment a sad note of intolerance, which I wish I could only expect from reactionaries and not from progressives. Alas, you may be correct: “And now the parting on the left, is now the parting on the right,” or vice versa.

And you used the term “jingoistic slogan.” Huh? Is it jingoistic to defend the keeping of international law? Does that make sense? Additionally, do you deny that international law would have any real force at this point in world history apart from our national willingness to enforce it? If not us, then who will do it? And if it doesn’t get done, what then? Do we want to retreat from the hope of a world civilization? Is that what American liberalism should stand for in the twenty-first century?

My decision was not based primarily on our parochial national interests, even though I don’t think it is ridiculously jingoistic for someone to suggest that the well-being of our country is important. My decision to support limited military engagement with Syria, as I clearly explained, was based on my conclusion that the potential for greater harm, including more killing of innocents, is greater if we do nothing than if we act. If defending humane international laws, which in this case were designed to prevent the kind of heinous deaths we saw last week, makes me jingoistic and illiberal, then I am at a loss to explain what the central tenets of liberalism might be.

I hope you don’t think Bernie Sanders is a “supposed liberal,” do you? His statement on the matter is instructive:

The use of chemical weapons by the Assad dictatorship is inhumane and a violation of international law. However, at this point in time, I need to hear more from the president as to why he believes it is in the best interests of the United States to intervene in Syria’s bloody and complicated civil war. I look forward to the Senate debate that will be taking place in the very near future.

If Senator Sanders eventually supports an authorization of military force in this matter, does that make him something other than a liberal? In fact, can his progressive credentials be questioned just because he is willing to consider the use of military force against Assad?

As I wrote the other day, I had hoped that our side—those of us who embrace the general ideas of liberalism—would not morph into Tea Partyish ideologues and demand fealty to some imagined liberal position on this issue or else risk having our progressive bona fides questioned. On this issue at least, there are good arguments on both sides, and liberals can embrace either resulting conclusion, depending on how each person applies liberal principles to what is happening in Syria.

Finally, I am a liberal. But I am not a pacifist. I believe the use of military force is a necessary evil in this world as long as there are people in it who don’t want to live as civilized citizens and who are willing to use violence and force against us or our allies. I also believe that not strongly acknowledging that brute fact about the world is why a lot of ordinary folks don’t trust liberals to run the country. Conservatives have co-opted the ancient and practical idea of “peace through strength,” and I wish liberals would seize the concept and demand its proper application.

Thus, despite a robust skepticism toward the military-industrial complex, I do believe in a strong and invincible American military. But not because I believe warfare should be a means to every parochial national end dreamed up in the minds of right-wingers, but because I believe it makes world civilization possible while there are so many bad actors around who want to impose their ideological or theological will on the rest of us.




  1. Well said, Duane. I can’t think of a thing to add.


  2. I agree, for what that’s worth. Your articulation of the issues states my thinking on these issues very succinctly.

    What you do is engage in analysis, logical thinking about the facts as we can know them about any particular issue or set of issues.

    Apparently, that is a rare commodity.

    Thank you.


  3. Ok, note to self: don’t do drive-by comments on the Erstwhile Conservative. 🙂

    I regret my use of the word “supposed.” I have no reason to doubt your liberal credentials, and obviously the left is divided on this issue (as is the right). I happened to read the post while feeling a great deal of frustration at seeing so many Democrats teaming up with John McCain and his gang of neo-con warmongers. But still, it was wrong of me to use that word. My apologies.

    My principal objection to your post was the American exceptionalism in it. I’m going to guess that if some right-wing warmonger referred to America as “the only true enforcer of international law, the keeper of the flame of a progressive world civilization” you’d find that disturbing. I certainly would.

    I am strongly opposed to authorizing an attack on Syria. I’ll spare you my rationale, while acknowledging that principled people of all political stripes can reasonably disagree on this one.



    • Peace to you, too, Bill. I appreciate your clarification and the way you expressed it.

      This is a difficult issue, and I understand your “frustration at seeing so many Democrats teaming up with John McCain and his gang of neo-con warmongers.” It is just as frustrating for me as I watch a lot of my liberal friends climb into political bed with Rand Paul and his gang of libertarian-conservatives. Let’s hope that no matter what happens, we liberals can live with ourselves in the morning, despite the beds we are sleeping in tonight.

      If you will permit me to do so, I would like to respond at length to something you said, as I will attempt, likely for the last time, to present a liberal-progressive case for the rational use of military force against Assad. You wrote:

      My principal objection to your post was the American exceptionalism in it. I’m going to guess that if some right-wing warmonger referred to America as “the only true enforcer of international law, the keeper of the flame of a progressive world civilization” you’d find that disturbing. I certainly would.

      I confess I believe in American exceptionalism, except I don’t believe in it the way right-wing warmongers do. I would very much be disturbed by a right-winger saying what I said because I can’t imagine a single one of them saying it. I would think they had been smoking something dangerously potent. The point is, Bill, that those folks don’t believe in “progressive world civilization,” and they certainly don’t believe the United States has any business promoting it around the world.

      America’s exceptionalism today is, among other things, found in our embrace of the principles of freedom and representative government and our unmistakable ability to defend those principles. But more than that, our exceptionalism is found in our willingness to use our power to defend those principles—which are really principles of progressive civilization—even if they are not directly threatened here at home. I say that even though I am acutely aware of how many times we have miserably and shamefully—and I mean miserably and shamefully—failed to live up to our principles in our past dealings with other nations.

      I want to remind you that it was a liberal—Abraham Lincoln was a liberal in the context of his times—who believed it was vital to protect, even if it meant civil war, our nation and what it stood for, a nation that he said was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” And he said those words at the dedication of a national cemetery in Gettysburg where somewhere around 50,000 soldiers from both sides died in three days of fighting.

      In talking about those “brave men, living and dead” who “struggled” at Gettysburg and who fought hard for and “nobly advanced” the cause—the cause being that our “nation might live”—Lincoln noted that they left “unfinished work” (the war would go on another 17 months or so), namely to ensure,

      that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

      Whether one agrees with how he proceeded, in Lincoln’s mind, what we stood for as a nation was worth preserving, even at the cost of using military force, even at the cost of many American lives. And if the way Lincoln defined what America stood for isn’t also a definition of American exceptionalism, then I don’t know what you might call it, and it was beautifully articulated by a man who would, if he were in office today, get called unflattering names by Tea Party Republicans.

      I said all that to say this, Bill: Even if one doesn’t believe the Civil War was necessary, even if one believes it would have been better to simply keep the “peace” with rebellious Southerners, going to war was at least rational in the mind of Lincoln and obviously many others who gave their lives for the cause. By appealing to the “liberal” Lincoln, I am simply arguing that there is a place for the rational use of military power that a progressive can defend on liberal grounds.

      And there are things worth defending, even if all the variables can’t be finally plugged neatly into the equation, even if the ending can’t be predicted with certainty. Lincoln didn’t know how the Civil War would unfold, and of course he didn’t know with certainty what the outcome of the war would be. But he thought it was worth the risk for the principles at stake and I think it is fair to argue, as I have done, that he acted rationally and with an eye toward a compelling vision of American exceptionalism.

      Today we are talking about a limited American military engagement—emphatically not involving troops on the ground—to uphold a principle of international law against the use of chemical weapons, weapons that may one day be used against American troops somewhere. Outside of our own self-defense, if there ever was a strong case to be made for the rational use for good of our exceptional military power, it is now. In doing so, we will not only have attempted to enforce the international prohibition against the use of specific and horrific weapons, we will, to borrow from Lincoln, have “nobly advanced” the cause of what I have called a “progressive world civilization.”



  4. ansonburlingame

     /  September 5, 2013

    This is the kind of confrontation, of a sort, that we all should be trying hard to avoid. Don’t let this “thing” go political is my hope, from right or left. First and foremost we should focus on, yep, AMERICAN interests. What is best for AMERICA.

    What did Duane say, “My decision to support limited military engagement with Syria ,,,,,”. Note the word “limited”. That word has gotten America in big trouble for a long time, 60 years at least. We keep either losing or at least not achieving our National goals almost every time we try to be “limited” in the use of military power by America. History shows us that, post WWII history in clear details, at least to me.

    We always start slow. Then we incrementally increase the size and rate of the application of military power. Then the application of that incremental power gets long and at least expensive, even deadly, until ………. Powell (and Weinberger) said don’t do that. Yet we keep doing just that. WHY?

    That is not a question of party politics. It is one of how best to apply American power, in all its forms, apolitically. But if we “go political” in such a debate, we divide amongst ourselves and someone else wins, time and again.

    Bill is easy to recognize in general terms. “John McCain and his neo-con warmongers” is a big indicator of his views. Duane, not surprising is not going to that “level”. At least he sticks to poking things at Limbaugh and Fox News, not John McCain, a man that MUST be heard and not rejected out of hand by thinking Americans in this case. He has important points to think about in this very complex debate.

    Duane, as a “liberal” is making a liberal case related to American use of power, He is not arguing against that use of power, he just wants to limit it. That is good, very good, in my view, his willingness to use power. And unlike the usual fare herein, Duane has restrained his polemics and is following a line of liberal reasoning that I can understand and to some degree agree with as a conservative and not axiomatically a warmonger, which I am not.

    America under President Obama has not done “nothing”. He has in fact applied some American power, OK call it influence, but they are the same thing in my book. Now he (the President) wants to escalate that use of power (influence). My only concern, is once we do so, escalate, then do so with enough strength and resolve to win, not stalemate, again.

    Syria is in fact going to CHANGE, big time, in the coming months and years. We can contain the conflict to Syria alone, or, ………. John McCain wants to accelerate the rate of change in Syria. I am not sure that is a good idea simply because Americans, we the people, refuse to exert the effort, money and lives to do so.

    As for international law, America has and always will defend that law, vigorously, in COURTS of law. Are we now ready to do so on the battlefield. Remember, once we enter any battlefield with militiary power, we better do so to win. Incremental application of military power by America drives Americans CRAZY, including me.

    Duane says yes, in this case, a very limited application of power, an escalation of previous applications. I continue to at least consider, wait, and see what the inevitable change might be in Syria, as long as the combat stays in Syria. For sure AFTER that change occurs, there are always Courts to punish, harshly and legally. But that takes patience as well.

    As for debates, herein, well let’s just guess at what is coming, almost certainly. Congress will support the President but tie his hands tighter, to limit even his views to escalate the application of power in Syria. We then will strike, on a very limited basis, unless something really unexpected happens. Then we will wait and see what happens.

    OR, Congress, the House specifically, will say NO to escalating the use of American power in Syria for now. Then we will wait and see what happens.

    Note, both options (are there any others) end in the same sentence.



  5. ansonburlingame

     /  September 5, 2013

    Ok, after rereading, there is another option. Congress can authorize war (using military power to destroy something, violate the peace). Then sit back and let a strong Executive, one whom most Americans TRUST (we elected him twice), use military power that will in fact WIN, something. That is certainly the Constitutional way to do things.

    Congress can in no way, ever, micro-manage a war, period. If all is not going well they however can END IT, in a moment. Just stop funding it, as things go along. That as well is Constitutional, stop funding any war if a majority (maybe more to override a Presidential veto) decide to do so.

    The last thing America needs however is CONGRESS directing INCREMENTAL war, up or down, right or left. Given the nature of the current bill in the Senate, if Syria or anyone else responds, well the President will have to go back to Congress before he can respond, back.

    We are in bad enough shape, historically, with incremental wars conducted by a strong Executive. If we now try incremental war with Congress controlling all the shots, almost literally, well we just compounded a grave historical mistake, incremental war now with MORE bureacracy and politics in place.

    We will look, internationally, related to war as we currently look with ‘debt ceilings”, will we not?



  6. King Beauregard

     /  September 5, 2013

    After watching the debate rage on site after site (and thank you for providing an island of well-thought-outness), I find that I can’t fault a person for being pro-war or anti-war in this case. Both sides can claim good arguments.

    The one stance I find infuriating is that this is a SIMPLE decision. If you feel there is one obviously right side and the other side is clearly wrong and/or delusional, either you do not understand the situation, or you do not want to be troubled with understanding. I am also seeing way too much “argument through history” at work: for example, Bush lied about Iraq, so we shouldn’t trust Obama either. (Great reasoning, champ: because Bush was a liar, it nullifies the possibility that Assad is gassing his own people.) This situation isn’t like any other; not even its closest analog, Libya, works the same way.

    Since you were dying to find out: at this point, I am opposed to military intervention, primarily because I am not persuaded that we will be able to “punish” Assad adequately without also causing undue grief to the Syrian population. At this time it looks like Congress won’t support going into Syria either, so I have a follow-up hope: I would like Obama to state publicly that he disagrees with Congress’s decision but he will respect it, and this will be the start of Congress reclaiming its duties involving our military.


    • Even though I would vote differently on the Syrian matter, King, you have stated the situation well. I agree with how you’ve limned it, and with your concluding wish. Nicely done.


    • I second Jim’s comments, King B. Excellent stuff.

      I am especially frustrated with those on the left (increasing in number) who are expressing utter certainty on the matter. I expect as much from right-wing Obama-haters, who have suddenly found Peaceful Jesus on the issue of the use of American military power abroad, but I wish more liberals would at least acknowledge the ambiguities involved and not express themselves in such black-and-white terms.



  7. ansonburlingame

     /  September 6, 2013

    So the end result, herein at least, is Duane, a liberal says Congress should say Yes. To what, exactly, however I don’t know yet. Is it YES to what the President asked for, authorization to use military power in Syria with no imposed limits in time or magnitude of such power, or a more limited Yes with a short time limit imposed therein and whatever other modifiers Congress might impose. Same uncertainty of the extent of a YES vote that Jim seems to support.

    King, another liberal says NO to a Congressional authorization for valid reasons. My only negative response to that conclusion is the very old and tired phrase that “Bush lied” thereby injecting politics and history into the issue, which I will ignore other than so noting.

    I remain on the “fence” as to Congressional action for reasons stated partially herein and more completely in my own blog. I want more information, which probably I will not get as it is too classified as the excuse. But as noted, I believe the means and methods to obtain classified info must and can be kept secret, but leaders can distill that information to unclassified sound bites understandable to all.

    In my view we the people at least, simply do not KNOW who actually caused the release sarin gas and who exactly ordered such action. All we really know is sarin gas WAS released.

    And IF we strike, fly swatter or a stick or a ……. NO ONE knows the response(s) and consequences OR the “back-up” plan after a response of any magnitude is seen. Remember, when the statue came down leaders thought all we had to do in Iraq was put them back on “bicycyles” (OMG).

    I do state however, after wiser men than I am decide what to do, I will support that hopefully AMERICAN decision with no political attacks on the decision to do whatever, now, in Syria.

    But as well, I remain firm in arguing that we the people and our leaders need a much more thorough debate/discussion over the issue of “deterrence in a modern world” against smaller countries with access to WMD. CAN we deter Iran from possessing nuclear weapons? (Iran actually using such weapons is a different discussion). CAN we prevent WMD possession and/or use across borders? Pakistani nukes (if Pakistan goes “radical”) comes into that discussion for sure, just like it will be after (if) Iran possseses nuclear weapons.

    Finally, but still an important discussion, an ongoing one, is America and the Arab Spring. Our somewhat confused politicies so far in that issue have been less than “satisfying” to most, in America and around the world. Well what should it be?

    And after we argue about all of that, well there is still jobs, income distribution, health care, and Lord knows what else to argue about to keep us all busy. Oh, I forgot debt and “ceilings”!!



  8. ansonburlingame

     /  September 6, 2013

    One final point. Go to http://ansonburlingame.wordpress.com/2013/09/06/international-punishment/.

    I have posted that link on Jim’s blog and do so herein. It is a different suggestion to consider related to Syria and other places in the future regarding internal use of WMD anywhere.

    Liberals don’t read my blog, but this is a decidedly liberal consideration that some might “like”. Basically it is an approach to use the rule of law to punish when WMD are only used internally in a given country.



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