News & Politics

The Imperialist Propaganda of Hitchens and Friends

So-called 'liberal' advocates of empire played a crucial role in selling Bush's disastrous wars.

The following is an excerpt from "The Liberal Defense of Murder" by Richard Seymour. Published by Verso, 2008.

It will be recalled that the predictions of a cakewalk towards a jubilant, free Iraq were not solely the product of the Bush administration. What has sometimes been called the 'pro-war Left' --in fact, a loose coalition of liberals, former radicals and ex-socialists -- has shocked and awed former colleagues and comrades, with bold and strident claims about the great works that American military power could achieve in Iraq, and elsewhere. It has been of great service to the Bush administration that, in addition to the shock troops of Christian fundamentalists, Israel sympathizers and neoconservatives, it could boast the support of many prominent liberal intellectuals, some of whom still claim an affiliation to the Left. (A number of them even claim to represent the authentic Left against the 'pseudo-Left'.

Some of these commentators are close to Washington or to figures who have been prominent in the Bush administration. Some have helped formulate policy, as when Kanan Makiya was called upon to help devise plans for the 'New Iraq'. And they have all performed a role of advocacy for the Bush administration and supportive governments.

To put it briefly, they have helped to screen the war-makers from articulate criticism. They have taken threat-exaggeration out of White House press briefings (where it would be regarded cynically), and the moral exaltation of American military power out of the realm of the Pentagon (where it might result in laughter). This coalition is historically far from unique, in many ways resembling the Cold War intelligentsia who pioneered 'CIA socialism'. And it plays a traditional role in castigating dissent among the intelligentsia, while the arguments of the pro-war Left reach wider audiences through journals, newspaper columns, television slots and so on. As well as acting as conduits for the distribution of policy justiications, the liberal pro-war intellectuals help frame arguments for policy-makers in terms more palatable to potentially hostile audiences. The arguments themselves are antique, and have not improved with age. They are symptomatic of the hegemony of what Jean Bricmont calls the 'interventionist ethic'. If it were not for certain widely held assumptions about the remedial power of conquest, originating in the age of European empires, their arguments would make no sense to anyone.

Disaster Triumphant

Many of the current batch of liberal advocates of empire have a history on the Left, often abandoned at some point after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For all but recalcitrant Stalinists, the human prospect following the collapse of the Russian superpower in 1989 was supposed to be a promising one. Fukuyama's sighting of an 'end' to history was, notwithstanding his own dyspepsia, touted as a prospectus for universal accord. The one true model for society had been revealed by no less an authority than History, and that model enjoined free-market capitalism and liberal democracy. As Gregory Elliott observes, 'the locomotive of history had terminated not at the Finland Station, but at a hypermarket. All roads lead to Disneyland?' There were some outstanding problems, of course: in place of Stalinist dictatorships emerged new particularisms of a religious or national sort that, while hardly systemic threats, clearly posed problems for the 'New World Order' that Bush the Elder had vaunted. It was in the course of engagement with these problems that former left-wingers decided at various points to pitch in their lot with what the French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine had referred to as the American 'hyperpower'. The occasion for apostasy varied, but key moments were Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, and the attacks on the World Trade Center. In the absence of states purportedly bearing the historical mission of the proletariat, many former Marxists, including anti-Stalinists, either made peace with centrist liberalism or morphed into their neoconservative opposites. American military power was now an ally of progress rather than its enemy.

As the profile of political Islam has risen under the impress of 'al Qaeda', a modish concern of pro-war intellectuals has been the chastisement of religion, and especially Islam, as a source of reaction and irrationalism. Similarly, the gurus of spiritualism, New Age mysticism, Western Buddhism and 'postmodernism' have been berated as agents of the Counter-Enlightenment. Predictably, anti-imperialism has been incriminated by association with the enemies of progress. For figures such as Christopher Hitchens, the 'war on terror' is an urgent contest between the forces of secular humanism and Enlightenment, and those of medieval terror. To oppose it is to give succor to an implacable enemy. Sadly, as Adorno and Horkheimer observed at an incomparably graver moment, Enlightenment of this kind 'radiates disaster triumphant'. Nowhere has the brochure for humanist imperialism less resembled the practice than at the frontiers of the 'war on terror', whose bloody outcomes include violence of genocidal proportions in Iraq, and whose motifs include the resurrection of modes of torture abandoned by the enlightened despots of the eighteenth century, the mercenary armies of nineteenth-century imperialism, the ethnic cleansing and aerial bombardment of the twentieth century, and an unprecedented complex of global gulags. 'Progress' of this kind belongs in the annals of discredited ideas, along with Manifest Destiny, the civilizing mission, Lebensraum and the 'master race'. It happens to share its origins with all of these.

The Strange Death of Irony

We were to hear a great deal after 9/11 that the response of the antiwar Left was 'delinquent', 'self-hating' and lacking in sympathy for its victims. The correlate to this supposed indifference was the claim by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson that the attacks were punishment from God for having allowed homosexual intercourse and abortions to take place. According to Paul Berman, the 'left-wing Falwells' called for the U.S. government to stop 'trying to preserve the Jewish state' and allow 'Saddam Hussein to resume his massacres (thus eliminating America's other putative sins)'. Rejecting the thesis of divine violence thus, somehow, implies the innocence of the American state. At the least, this petulant outburst conflates a critique of the American state's foreign policy with an assault on cosmopolitan liberalism. The irony is that Berman could have found no surer supporters of Israel or American policy towards Saddam than Falwell or Robertson, while they are as robustly critical of the Left for undermining America as he is.

As the historian of ideas Corey Robin points out, Robertson and Falwell were not the only ones to think that 9/11 terminated a period of decadence. Mainstream pundits, such as David Brooks of the New York Times, made similar noises without the religious cues. Perhaps one should have seen it coming. In 2000, Robin had interviewed a pair of disillusioned neoconservatives, irate at what they saw as Clinton's paucity of global ambition. Irving Kristol had reviled the 'business culture' of conservatism, lamenting the lack of an 'imperial role'. For William F. Buckley Jr, the emphasis on the market had become 'rather boring ... like sex'. The sighs of relief after 9/11 were palpable. 'What I dread now,' George Packer wrote, 'is a return to the normality we're all supposed to seek.' 'This week's nightmare, it's now clear, has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent decade-long dream', added Frank Rich. For William Kristol and Robert Kagan, neoconservatives affiliated to the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the 1990s had been 'a squandered decade', and there should be no 'return to normalcy'. Lewis Libby, then a Pentagon advisor and now a convicted perjurer, complained of a lax political culture that made Americans appear morally weak and slow to defend themselves. The attacks on Washington and New York offered an opportunity for the moral resuscitation of the American empire, providing the Bush administration with a rationale for an audacious and aggressive project. Or, as then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice claimed, they 'clarified' America's role.

On the day that the attack on Afghanistan began, former New York Times editor James Atlas told the paper's readers that 'our great American empire seems bound to crumble at some point' and that 'the end of Western civilization has become a possibility against which the need to fight terrorism is being framed, as Roosevelt and Churchill framed the need to fight Hitler'. The alarming ease with which 'Western civilization' is conflated with the American empire is matched only by the implication that nineteen hijackers from a small transnational network of jihadis represent a civilizational challenge, an existential threat comparable with the Third Reich. But this has been precisely the argument of neoconservatives and liberal interventionists: there is an 'extraordinary threat', hence the need for 'extraordinary responses'. Failure to recognize this bodes ill for 'civilization'.

 

Copyright Verso, 2008.

To buy "The Liberal Defense of Murder", click on the link.

 

 

 

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