Pact with the devil

Political scientist argues that liberals provided ammo for war in Iraq

The U.S. invasion of Iraq was staged by a right-wing president and his neoconservative advisors—but it was the brainchild of liberal intellectuals, according to a Tufts political scientist.

Tony Smith © MELODY KO

Tony Smith, the Cornelia M. Jackson Professor of Political Science, says the work of “liberal hawks” in the 1990s established the ideological foundation for policies that the Bush administration ultimately adopted—with devastating results for the liberal cause.

“The neocons have taken a lot of grief for the war, and they deserve to,” says Smith. “Yet the liberals did all the intellectual groundwork.”

This hypothesis is the focus of Smith’s forthcoming book, Pact with the Devil: The Bush Doctrine, Liberal Hawks and the Betrayal of International Liberalism (Routledge Taylor, Francis), scheduled for publication in 2007. Smith is using the manuscript in a sophomore seminar he is teaching this semester.

“The title tries to get attention,” Smith says. In the context of his argument, he says, it’s important to understand the use of the term “liberal” as employed by political scientists, rather than as political jargon.

“Liberal hawks, as defined by international relations theory, support human rights and democracy promotion. It’s a very special use of the word,” he says. “For liberals, human rights and democracy promotion are high on the American agenda for world affairs.” Many of these liberals did support the war in Iraq, at least initially.

“These liberal hawks are generally Democrats, independents, those on the left. Probably none of them voted for [George W.] Bush. Yet they provided the ideas that were used by the neocons,” Smith says. He cites writers and journalists such as George Packer, author of Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005); Paul Berman of the World Policy Institute; Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya; New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Ignatieff of Harvard’s Kennedy School as examples of liberal hawks.

Politically pathological
“All believed democracy was possible in Iraq and that that was a reason to fight the war,” he says. From this viewpoint, the existence—or not—of weapons of mass destruction was beside the point. “In the real liberal argument,” Smith says, “it didn’t matter about WMDs; [these liberals believed] the Middle East is politically pathological and needs to be redeemed by democracy.”

“Bringing the Iraqis freedom, curing the problem that breeds terrorism—that was the argument that was very frequently heard and was the essence of the liberal argument.” The result was an ideological marriage of convenience. “They made a ‘pact with the devil,’ and the devil was, of course, George W. Bush, and, more than anyone else, Dick Cheney,” Smith says.

Smith is revising his book for publication, and that is the basis for the sophomore seminar. Over this semester, students will read the six chapters of Smith’s work-in-progress as well as companion pieces. The students will discuss Smith’s hypothesis, both in class and in several papers.

The seminar is a perfect combination of research and teaching, a hallmark of Tufts’ approach toward undergraduate education, Smith says. “I feel very fortunate to be at a place that encourages this. I have the opportunity to talk over each chapter with a group of bright undergraduates and to force them to think about the theory behind some of my issues and to have them feel free to criticize.

“The students get to see how a work is produced and to watch the general flow of thought” as the book evolves, he says. “I hope that it will help with my own writing and that it will help their writing.”

The American mission
Pact with the Devil
draws on Smith’s previous scholarship, particularly his book America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 1994) and several articles he has published on the history of Wilsonianism, which he defines as a perspective making the promotion of democracy abroad a central focus of American foreign policy—ideas very much embraced by the liberal hawks.

“It goes back to Wilson and the American mission,” Smith says. “In the 1990s, the liberals popularized it as a set of ideas that make sense of history.” Yet as envisioned by liberal thinkers some 70 years after Wilson’s time, “it became a set of ideas that Wilson did not have. It made liberalism a more robust and imperialist ideology than it had been in the ’20s, or even during the Cold War,” Smith says.

This school of thought and their initial support for Bush’s military aspirations have come back to haunt the liberal hawks, Smith says. The aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been “a disaster for human rights and democracy promotion,” he says.

“Everyone who now works for an NGO, for Human Rights Watch, for Amnesty International is now suspected [in other parts of the world] of having an agenda of American imperialism. Human rights groups are now suspected of being an American fifth column.”

U.S. involvement in Iraq has been a “huge setback for democracy,” Smith argues. “Our moral credibility has been seriously set back, and I can’t see how it can ever be regained. This is terribly, terribly difficult for liberalism,” both as a theoretical position and a course of action.

Helene Ragovin is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at