By Michael Berube, 9/15/2002
ALFWAY THROUGH George W. Bush's term of office, one year since 9/11, and the ideal of moral clarity in US foreign policy couldn't be murkier. According to Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, and Richard Perle, every moment we postpone war with Iraq damages our credibility; according to Brent Scowcroft, General Anthony Zinni, Lawrence Eagleburger, and James Baker III, nothing would damage our credibility so much as a unilateral, preemptive war on Iraq.
The Bush administration is trying to persuade "allies" like Saudi Arabia to sign up for Gulf War II, but somebody keeps dropping hints to the Washington Post that when Iraq goes down, the Rand Corp. will advise the president that the kingdom should go next. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, they tell the world that they desire nothing more than the liberation of oppressed Iraqis, but on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, their cheerleaders in the press bellow that what the Islamic world needs now is a crushing, humiliating military defeat that will bring a useful chaos to the part of the world running roughly from the West Bank to Islamabad.
Such is the position of the war party. To gauge by the president's speech to the United Nations Thursday, the administration actually has a serious case to make against Saddam Hussein's violations of UN resolutions; but then again, the administration does not always hold UN resolutions in such high regard, and according to the White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, has waited so long to make its case because August is a bad time for new product placement. And you would think that if the president was having a hard time making his case to the Republican policy elite, let alone the UN, it would be a simple matter for the American left to rally popular opposition to the war as well.
You might think that, but you'd be wrong. Most liberals in Congress are either mumbling under their breath or speaking up only to call for a "debate" they themselves are unwilling to begin; the progressive left has been noisier, but the progressive left has its own problems, mired as it is in an Afghanistan quagmire of its own making. It would be a positive service to democracy if left-wing public intellectuals would take the lead where elected liberals cannot or will not, urging their fellow Americans that the war on terrorism requires many things -- peace in Israel and Palestine, an end to the United States' long-term addiction to oil -- before it requires any regime change in Iraq. But the left is having some trouble providing that service, because one wing of it actually supports military intervention in Iraq, while another wing opposes all military interventions regardless of their objectives.
The left has been divided before, but rarely has it been at once so vehement and so incoherent as this. On one side are the internationalists who find themselves emboldened by laudable military interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, which used US air power -- but not ground troops -- to overthrow two of the worst regimes on the planet. Some, like Michael Walzer of Dissent magazine, have already signed on for another Mission for Good in Iraq, becoming even more hawkish than most of the first Bush administration; others, like The Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens, have tentatively suggested that the United States might do well to consider that "you can't subject the Iraqi people to the cruelty of sanctions for so long while leaving the despot in place." (Hitchens notes that since the United States has intervened on Saddam Hussein's behalf in the past, "there is at least a potential argument that an intervention to cancel such debts would be justifiable." Who could have imagined that Hitchens and his lifelong nemesis Henry Kissinger would wind up sitting on the same fence, each refusing to look at the other?)
On the other side are the anti-imperialists who opposed the war in Afghanistan in stark and unyielding terms. They did not cheer the collapse of the World Trade Center; that is simple slander. But they did argue, to their shame, that the US military response was even more morally odious than the hijackers' deliberate slaughter of civilians. Some antiwar protesters were 19-year-old anarchists, some were devout Quakers, and some were Trotskyite diehards; but some were America's most distinguished dissidents at home and abroad, like Howard Zinn and Gore Vidal. And the antiwar left's arguments against war were simply astonishing. As Z Magazine contributor Cynthia Peters wrote last October, the operation that wrested control of Afghanistan from Al Qaeda and the Taliban was a "calculated crime against humanity that differs from September 11th only in scale; that is: it is many times larger." Obtuse arguments like these, combined with the paranoid insistence that the United States had long planned strikes against the Taliban in order to secure an Afghan oil pipeline (a claim thoroughly debunked by Ken Silverstein in The American Prospect), have damaged the anti-imperialists' cause immeasurably. The anti-imperialist left correctly believes, for instance, that the American bombing of Kakrak in early July (a massive "intelligence failure" that killed about 50 Afghans attending a wedding party) was an atrocity; but it cannot admit that, on balance, the routing of the Taliban might have struck a blow, however ambiguous and poorly executed, for human freedom.
Accordingly, The Nation, the most mainstream of journals on the progressive left, has become remarkably ambivalent about what it means to be a progressive leftist. On one page of its Sept. 2 issue, an unsigned editorial titled "Iraq: The Doubters Grow" asks whether we will leave Iraq in chaos "as we have done in Afghanistan." On the very next page, an editorial by Anthony Borden and John West of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting details the chaos of Kabul yet acknowledges that "conditions are vastly improved from the circumstances of only a few months ago -- when the country was plagued by severe persecution and increasing food shortages with seemingly no hope." Perhaps we have not brought disaster to Afghanistan after all; it's hard to tell here. Still further left, the Counterpunch and Z Magazine stalwarts have kept their self-assurance but have lost their credibility -- not with the Bush administration, of course, which had no plans to read Noam Chomsky's complete works before settling on an Iraq policy, but with much of the rest of the progressive left, among whose ranks I include myself.
For leftists like me who had long considered Chomsky as our own beacon of moral clarity, it is hard to say which development is more catastrophic: the fact that Chomsky-bashing has become a major political pastime, or the fact that Chomsky has become so very difficult to defend. Chomsky's response to the war in Afghanistan offered a repellent mix of hysteria and hauteur, as in this early interview: "The U.S. has already demanded that Pakistan terminate the food and other supplies that are keeping at least some of the starving and suffering people of Afghanistan alive. If that demand is implemented, unknown numbers of people who have not the remotest connection to terrorism will die, possibly millions. Let me repeat: the U.S. has demanded that Pakistan kill possibly millions of people who are themselves victims of the Taliban. This has nothing to do even with revenge. It is at a far lower moral level even than that. The significance is heightened by the fact that this is mentioned in passing, with no comment, and probably will hardly be noticed. We can learn a great deal about the moral level of the reigning intellectual culture of the West by observing the reaction to this demand." By the same token, we can learn a great deal about the moral level of the antiwar left by observing its willingness to debate claims like these; over the past year, unfortunately, Chomsky and his followers have demonstrated rather little capacity for self-criticism. It is not permissible, apparently, to argue that Chomsky was right about Vietnam, Nicaragua, and East Timor but wrong about Afghanistan; those who fail to acknowledge Chomsky's infallibility about Afghanistan are guilty of thought-crime or conservatism, whichever is worse.
Most likely the hard left's myopia and intransigence will not matter to most Americans -- that is, those who never trusted the judgment of Chomsky or Z Magazine in the first place and don't see why it matters now that anti-imperialists have lost a "credibility" they never had in some quarters. But the reason it should matter, even in parts of America where there are no campuses, no anti-Sharon rallies, and no subscribers to Counterpunch, is that the United States cannot be a beacon of freedom and justice to the world if it conducts itself as an empire. Nor can we fight Al Qaeda networks in 60 countries if we alienate our allies in Europe, who so far seem to be much more capable of finding and arresting members of Al Qaeda than is our own Justice Department.
The antiwar left once knew well that its anti-imperialism was in fact a form of patriotism -- until it lost its bearings in Kosovo and Kabul, insisting beyond all reason that those military campaigns were imperialist wars for oil or regional power. And why does that matter? Because in the agora of public opinion, the antiwar left never claimed to speak to pragmatic concerns or political contingencies: for the antiwar left, the moral ground was the only ground there was. So when the antiwar left finds itself on shaky moral ground, it simply collapses.
In foreign affairs both left and right claim to speak for the conscience of America, but on Iraq the right has no moral clarity and the left has lost its moral compass. This is not a problem for the masters of realpolitik, who have long since inured themselves to the task of doing terrible things to human beings in the course of pursuing the national interest; but it is utterly devastating to those few souls who still dream that the course of human events should be judged -- and guided -- by principles common to many nations rather than by policies concocted by one. The emergence of the antiwar right, however, may yet hold a lesson for the left, insofar as it relies on Brent Scowcroft's internationalism rather than Pat Buchanan's isolationism: The challenge, clearly, is to learn how to be strenuously anti-imperialist without being indiscriminately antiwar. It is a lesson the American left has never had to learn -- until now.
Michael Berube is a professor of American literature at Penn State.
This story ran in the Boston Globe on 10/27/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.