Camps of the Left

Some leftists have been asking themselves a taboo question - 'What is the moral cost of inaction?'

September 26, 2005 18:20


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A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq Edited by Thomas Cushman University of California Press 320pp., $21.95 The debate over the recent Iraq war had little to do - for either side - with the Iraqi people. In those tense preceding months, the whole world took part in a referendum on American power: Those in favor of the war wanted to see it extended; those opposed wanted to see it curtailed and humbled. The opposition focused its animus on President George W. Bush. He embodied, for much of the world, all that was wrong with America: its arrogance, its piety, its privilege, its naivet , its swaggering self-confidence. The Iraqis were merely a sideshow in a transnational circus complete with death-defying stunts, special effects, sleights of hand, moral intrigue and high melodrama. All this makes this book, A Matter of Principle, a curious document. It is a collection of essays by prominent liberals (though many have since been disowned by former comrades) arguing for war - on humanitarian, classically-liberal grounds. It's so quaint that it's tempting to dismiss these voices as minor curiosities of recent history. But many are too seasoned and thoughtful to ignore, so we're left to make sense of their uncommon path. Can there be a real liberal argument for war when the overwhelming majority of the Left - as we now recognize it - was so bitterly opposed? How do we account for the differences? It's helpful to divide today's Left into two intellectual camps. For simplicity's sake, call them the "anti-totalitarian left" and the "anti-imperial left." The first camp was forged in the battle against European fascism. Its concerns are individual liberty, secularism, open societies and political freedom. The second, which now dominates the scene, is defined by the anti-colonial struggles of the '60s and '70s - under the very long shadow of Karl Marx - and, especially, the American catastrophe in Vietnam. It rallies around national sovereignty and self-determination, anti-racism and resistance to the coercive influence of great powers on weaker nations. These writers identify strongly with the anti-totalitarian left. They took their lessons from Eastern Europe's transition to democracy and the Balkan debacles of the 1990s. Unlike the anti-imperialists, the triumph of the individual over state repression is their ultimate moral hurdle. And they have infinitely more faith in military power, especially American, to enact positive change. They believe that democracy, Western-style, is inalienable and, above all, enforceable. These divisions are crude, but they can help parse the raw emotional responses in the fraught period between 9/11 and the Iraq war. Two of the collection's more famous contributors, Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman, interpret 9/11 and Iraq very differently than most of their leftist counterparts. And both left many feeling bewildered and betrayed. But maybe neither case is so surprising. Hitchens has long been an advocate for Kurdish rights and a devout secularist. Also, as a student of George Orwell, he is alert to the horrors of totalitarianism. He rightly accuses the US of having "run a political slum in the Middle East." And the genocides in the Balkans - plus the tepid Western response - persuaded him that there were some regimes "with whom coexistence was neither possible nor desirable." Berman, in his "Terror and Liberalism," argues a clear link between European and Islamic totalitarianism - in everything from rhetoric to fashion sense. "What a tragedy for the Left," he writes here, "in failing to play much of a role in the antifascism of our day." Adam Mitchnik, a hero of Polish democracy, explains why many liberals in Eastern Europe supported the war: "We know what dictatorship is," he writes. "And in the conflict between totalitarian regimes and democracy, you must not hesitate to declare which side you are on." There is plenty of bad faith here, too. Despite much talk of abandoned Arab liberals, it's hard to find any mentioned by name. More troubling still, some writers try to distance themselves from the war's messy aftermath. It's hard to believe that the high human cost, the administration's recklessness, and the Iraqi resistance are as unexpected as some here now claim. There has been no shortage of talk on the meaning of an unjust war. What this book offers is a parallel dilemma: the unjust peace. What is the moral cost of inaction? As Jose Ramos-Horta of East Timor warns: "If the anti-war movement dissuades the US... it will have contributed to the peace of the dead."

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