Leftists Who Love the War Too Much

Greil Marcus is a discerning radical humanist. So it was a shock to pick up the progressive paper "First of the Month" and find him dissing leftist intellectuals for their skepticism about the war on terror. Marcus is not the only member of the counterculturati to find the hawk within. Dan Savage, the shoot-from-the-hip sex columnist, has lately become hip to the shoot. Then there's Christopher Hitchens, the ex-socialist who has found an occasion in 9-11 to revise his ideological profile. He is now a latter-day incarnation of the Cold War liberal. Hitchens's recent homage to George Orwell includes a remarkable defense of his work for the British government during the McCarthy era, when Orwell supplied lists of suspected com-symps, dutifully noting who was homosexual--or Jewish. Hey, says Hitchens, Orwell wasn't lying.

I can't think of any comparable example of bad faith among the neohawks, but I do have some thoughts about what makes them run. For one thing, there's a real temptation to leave the chronic depression and ample masochism of the left behind. The war on terror can seem like an opening to build a muscular new progressivism with its feet on the ground. And speaking of feet, there's an undeniable satisfaction in kicking a masochist while he's down. Among the many rewards for sadism these days is the power it confers--and for progressives power is in terribly short supply. Finally, never underestimate the appeal to a critic of being taken seriously, and that means declaring your independence from left-wing "orthodoxies."

This is not to say that the thinking of these neohawks can be dismissed as status anxiety. The danger is real and their sense of urgency is appropriate. Hitchens is correct to point out that the militant Islamists are fascists. Marcus is right to recoil from Noam Chomsky's reductive response to 9-11 (though he's guilty himself of a reductive response to Susan Sontag). But there is much more to the anti-war movement than ideologically driven rigidity. There are plenty of pragmatists arguing for peace, and a sound moral case for standing down. It's not the critique but the contempt for their dovish peers that reveals the neohawks' denial.

When Ron Rosenbaum lambastes anti-U.S. peace marchers--and uses his disdain for them as an excuse to declare his severance from the left--he represses his memory of the Vietnam peace movement, which also had its share of self-righteous fools. Such amnesia is a prerequisite for breaking ranks, which has become a post-9-11 ritual among pomo pundits. Like the revisionist liberals who became neocons in the 1970s, these neohawks invoke the blessed memory of Orwell or Hannah Arendt, as Marcus does when he argues that the situation produced by 9-11 is entirely new. Therefore, the knowledge gleaned from Vietnam--and from all the disastrous campaigns of American imperialism over the last century--is to be disregarded. In order to respond to the present danger, we must forget what we know.

What we know about U.S. foreign policy is that it played a crucial part in the rise of Muslim militance. You don't have to condone the attacks of 9-11 to understand that suicide bombers are driven by a response to real conditions, and America had much to do with creating those conditions. Now we find ourselves in the unenviable (but not unfamiliar) position of bolstering dictatorships in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt that suppress a democratic opposition--because it is Islamist.

The Bush doctrine comes veiled in an assurance that the societies we create in the countries we invade will be democratic and moderate. But how is that possible in the current climate? Already there are rumblings about returning a king to Iraq. Shades of the Shah, whom we foisted on Iran after we helped overthrow its democratically elected leader in 1953. We know where the Peacock Throne led. How can anyone believe that the U.S., which gave chemical weapons to Saddam (in order to strengthen his position against Iran) and armed the fundamentalists in Afghanistan (in order to build a bulwark against the Soviets), is now able to manage a region embroiled in the consequences of its machinations?

We know that Bush's motivation in Iraq is at least partly economic. Regulating the flow of oil from the world's second-largest petroleum producer would enable us to undercut OPEC and give us enormous leverage over Russia, which is dependent on oil prices for its recovery. Military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan would allow us to surround Iran and loosen our ties to the Saudis. Zionists who welcome the protection of America should consider that Israel could become expendable if it is no longer deemed geopolitically necessary. That's just one of the cataclysmic changes that may ensue from U.S. ambitions, which are imperial in the most traditional sense. The Bush doctrine abrogates the major innovation of American foreign policy, which was to rely on our economic strength rather than our military power. Now we are setting out to run the world by force of arms, a monumentally expensive--and offensive--proposition.

What will America be like in a permanent state of combat? The working assumption is that the economy will rebound, but even if it does, the cost of keeping the military locked and loaded against many enemies is bound to shrivel the already shrunken public sector. That means an even greater income gap and a further erosion of funding for education, environmental cleanup, health care, and the rest. We will be a country in which Billie Holiday's maxim "God bless the child that's got its own" becomes a fact of life for all of us.

In many ways, this potential America corresponds to the conservative worldview, but for progressives it should be as ominous as the threat posed by terrorists. And we will still face the danger of strikes against our cities by a transnational movement that would like nothing better than to see the Ashcroft doctrine fully implemented here. When Osama bin Laden predicted that America would become a hell for its people, he was speaking from a deep understanding of freedom's fragility. Even a victorious war could produce the conditions that fulfill his dream. The great strength of the left is its analysis of social dynamics. To jettison this knowledge, along with the lessons of recent history, is to invite the worst possible future.

This is not a brief for pacifism. There are times when war is necessary, and, in the media at least, there is a real debate about whether this is such a moment. The discussion isn't being led by chastened radicals but by mainstream liberals. The best arguments against invading Iraq can be found in The New York Times. Here you will discover an alternative to both Noam Chomsky and the Bush doctrine--a policy based on cooperative engagement and domestic defense.

9-11 did produce a new situation, but it makes a very old demand on us: to comprehend the world's complexity. That's something the neohawks have yet to demonstrate.


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