A prominent set of commentators claiming to speak from
the left have aligned themselves with the national leadership in support
an aggressive military interventionism and projection of power
abroad. This is by no means a genuine left--that is, one that
opposes the powerful in the interest of the non-elite majority. I
call them a "cruise missile left" (CML) because of their alignment
with power and their eager support of external violence, which is
a very important component of their intellectual labors.
CMLs are of course welcomed by the mainstream media, because they not only support the elite political agenda, they attack its real left critics with great vigor, and with the credibility of alleged leftists who have escaped "the politics of guilt and resentment" (Walzer, "Can There Be a Decent Left?," Dissent, Spring 2002). Marc Cooper recently published a second article in the Los Angeles Times that focused on the recent failures of the peace movement, attributed to the influence of a left faction "steeped in four decades' worth of crude anti-Americanism," although why he and the decent left haven't successfully stepped into the breach and revitalized the movement, Cooper never makes clear ("Protest: A Smart Peace Movement is MIA," LAT, Sept. 29, 2002). CMLs even speak of the "Chomsky-left" as a generic class of leftists who are extremist, angry, reflexively anti-American, etc., and attacking Chomsky himself is a favorite outing for CMLs. This helps improve their access to the mainstream media, where in addition to garnering publicity they are relatively free from critical response.
One problem with the work of the CMLs is that, not really being on the left, they have lost sight of what the left is all about. The left's criterion of success is not the extent to which it is listened to or heard, irrespective of message content; it is its success in getting a left message across (and on some issues, like " free trade," and the merits of overseas military ventures [except in the heat of battle and under a furious elite propaganda barrage], the "radical left" is far closer to mainstream opinion than is the "decent left," and it is listened to on those issues by ordinary citizens when they can be reached). On issues where it is in a minority position, a real left does not abandon its position in order to be acceptable.
Marc Cooper objects to the left's "scold mold" and its " alienation from its own national institutions," and Gitlin calls upon the left to be "practical--the stakes are too great for the luxury of any fundamentalism." One can readily imagine the Cooper, Gitlin, Walzer, Berube and Hitchens equivalents of the 1850s explaining to the abolitionists that they must tone down their message and alter or even drop their anti-racist and anti-slavery message given the "political realities" and public sentiment. But then as now a genuine left focuses on the struggle against basic exploitative and unjust policies and structures--it does not give up its radical educational and organizing role in order to win transitory victories and gain access and approval from the mainstream. Most certainly it does not join militaristic bandwagons and support wars against distant small targets on the grounds of the evil being attacked in some particular case.
The CMLs have tried to convey the image that their leftist enemies have felt no sympathy for the 9/11 victims or have said that they, or at least the United States, "had it coming." There is an "odious whiff of 'chickens coming home to roost' that has permeated much of the left's reaction to Sept. 11" says Marc Cooper; Michael Walzer speaks of "the barely concealed glee that the imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved." Neither cite any cases in point, and CMLs mainly assert this without bothering to offer evidence. They maintain these claims in the face of almost universal statements by members of the real left that those killed in the 9/11 events were truly innocent victims who deserve real grief and sympathy; that this was a terrible act of terrorism; and that those who planned and facilitated it should be pursued by all legitimate methods and punished. Some leftists have said that the attack can surely be explained as a consequence of U.S. policy abroad, but they don't say that explaining it justifies it, or, more outrageously, that it makes the U.S. victims proper targets.
Although the real left was full of sympathy for the 9/11 victims, agreed that the perpetrators should be pursued and punished, and that the United States had legitimate security concerns that demanded attention, the Bush administration response and the threat that it posed was quickly the primary real left concern. The actual course of events has completely vindicated that priority. The left considers the United States a dangerous and aggressive imperial power that has been employing its military and economic resources to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the death of the Soviet Union and its own domination to advance its narrow and mainly corporate interests. It has done this by pushing a regressive global economic agenda that has done terrible injury to the global majority, and it has displayed an exceptional willingness to use force and the threat of force. It also seems very obvious that the rightwing and business-dominated Bush administration took advantage of 9/11 with its "war on terror" to advance its regressive agenda at home and abroad. That would seem extremely important and deserving of front and center treatment in discussing 9/11 and its significance.
But for the CMLs, using such a critical framework shows the left's "reflexive anti-Americanism," its view that "patriotic feelings are politically incorrect," and "the lingering effects of the Marxist theory of imperialism" along with a failure to recognize that "religious motives really count" (Walzer--he means Islamic religious motives, not the motives of the Christian right, pro-Israel faction, and market fundamentalists doing their thing in Washington D.C.). For the CMLs, imperialism is an obsolete notion and U.S. global power affords no basis for sustained criticism: the United States fights both just and unjust wars, and the CML aim is to make it more "responsible" in its use of power. As Gitlin says, " there is on occasion something to be said for empires," and "the trick is to use power with justice" ("Empire and Myopia," Dissent, Spring 2002).
In the wake of 9/11 leftists should have joined together with their fellow Americans "in recognition of our common perplexity and vulnerability" (Gitlin). We shouldn't study closely what the United States has done to arouse widespread hatred with a view toward working to diminish anti-U.S. terrorism by policy changes. We shouldn't look at what Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft have done with 9/11, to forward their agenda at home and do things abroad that might make anti-U.S. terrorism more likely in the future. No, we should stay focused on the U.S. victims and how we may together punish the folks responsible. This is precisely the perspective Bush and Ashcroft have wanted and successfully cultivated, with the help of the media and CMLs.
The CMLs are all agreed that the war against Afghanistan was desirable, reasonably handled, and has had largely beneficent results; in Gitlin's words, it was "a just, coalitional war of self-defense." It is interesting to see how uniformly they slither past the fact that the United States once again violated international law and ran roughshod over the UN in going to war. The UN Charter requires UN Security Council approval unless a military operation is required for self defense, where self defense means a response to an ongoing attack or one that is imminent. But like Bush, the CMLs are impatient over such niceties. Thus, Marc Cooper explained that the left must recognize that bin Laden and al Qaeda couldn't be neutralized "by international law alone," but a few sentences later he states that the left must push for "an authentic internationalism that would include strengthening the United Nations," which he had just rationalized U.S. bypassing (and weakening).
The CMLs are all keen on the idea that the United States has a right to defend itself and that the Afghan war was just plain old self defense, but also justified by the fact that the Taliban was a terrible government whose removal was desirable. They never discuss seriously whether that war, and the "war on terror" of which it is a part, constitute acts of defense or whether they might be based on some other motives, like vengeance, the political need for violent action, and the advantage of a war to the Bush administration's agenda. They don't discuss the possible connection of this war to other interests being pursued by a great and aggressive imperial power. It doesn't seem to occur to them that a relatively easy victory might facilitate and encourage the Bush administration's aggressive proclivities. Some of them are not happy at the current plan to commit aggression against Iraq, but they fail to grasp that this rush to war is linked to a larger agenda and was greatly aided by the victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The CMLs are very cagey in discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict. They regularly say that "peace in Israel and Palestine" is desirable and that the United States should help bring it about. But none of them point out that for decades the United States has given unconditional support to Israel's occupation and long-term ethnic cleansing. And none of them have noted that the "war on terror," supposedly aimed at U.S. self defense, has given Ariel Sharon carte blanche to step up his assault on Palestine. All of them are of the view that the Kosovo war was a just war against ethnic cleansing, but none of them comment on the fact that the same power that pursued that war now supports an accelerated ethnic cleansing and state terrorism in the occupied territories. (Of course, none of them talk about the disclosures that al Qaeda had been brought in to fight in Bosnia and had ties to the Kosovo Liberation Army; nor do they discuss the massive ethnic cleansing of Serbs, Roma, Turks, and Jews in NATO-occupied Kosovo.) They don't make the connection of Sharon's war to the Afghan War, the possible forthcoming war against Iraq, and the larger Bush agenda, which has nothing to do with "self defense."
So the "decent left" is virtually silent on the crushing of the Palestinians, accelerated by the war on terror. They all agree that Saddam Hussein's is a "terror regime" (Gitlin), but the word terrorism is never attached to Sharon and his policies, nor of course to the United States. The CML's are also extremely blase, if not openly apologetic, about the "sanctions of mass destruction" in Iraq, which are estimated to have killed over a million civilians, far more than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki taken together. Gitlin expresses "doubt the sanctions against Iraq are effective, let alone just." Marc Cooper dismisses the claim that they are " genocidal," saying that "the entire American left supported similar painful sanctions against the apartheid state of South Africa" (LAT, Sept. 29, 2002). The ignorance here is monumental-- the vast majority of blacks in South Africa applauded those sanctions, even if they suffered from them; and the South African sanctions did not prevent the import of needed medical supplies and repair of destroyed water sanitation systems, and did not involve a "process of destroying an entire society" (Denis Halliday).
Notice also that Cooper implies that a sanctions system that killed a million civilians is properly described as only "painful." Imagine what he would say if someone brushed off the 3,000 9/11 deaths as merely "painful." He asks, what else can we do but starve or invade to stop this "dangerous dictator"? He takes as given the official U.S. version that Saddam's weaponry poses a threat that will not be contained as it is everywhere, by the counter-threat of weaponry held by others. His indignation about this dictator's theoretical threat contrasts markedly with his failure to say a word about how we might control the actual use of advanced weaponry by Ariel Sharon in Palestine. But it serves the imperial state's agenda extremely well. It is now very clear that in Afghanistan the United States targeted literally hundreds of civilian villages and sites where al Qaeda or Taliban MIGHT be located; that, as the New York Times finally acknowledged, many civilians died when airstrikes hit " precisely the target they were aimed at...because in eagerness to kill Qaeda and Taliban fighters, Americans did not carefully distinguish between civilian and military targets" (Dexter Filkins, " Flaws in U.S. Air War Left Hundreds of Civilian Dead," NYT, July 21, 2002). Marc Herold has provided compelling evidence in support of this targeting claim, and his minimum estimate of civilians killed directly by U.S. bombs is some 3,100. Many thousands more were injured or traumatized, some dying with a lag, and still further thousands died of hunger, disease and cold in refugee camps to which they fled from bombed villages.
After having castigated the left for insufficient attention to the U.S. victims of 9/11, it is notable how unconcerned or apologetic the CMLs have been about civilian casualties of the Afghan war. Hitchens has written gross apologetics for the bombing, taking Pentagon claims of care for civilians at face value, while suggesting that Herold's figures might be inflated by bias (Boston Globe, Sept. 8, 2002; The Nation, Dec. 17, 2001). Marc Cooper has also denounced Herold's figures as "unverified" and probably " false," in sharp contrast to his reaction to reports of U.S. 9/11 deaths where the focus was on the victims, not on whether the number was larger or smaller than reported. Michael Walzer also knows that Herold was "aiming at as high a figure as possible," and that the left fails to make the basic moral distinction between " premeditated murder and unintended killings." But Walzer fails to grasp the elementary notion that bombing hundreds of sites overflowing with civilians because an al Qaeda soldier might be there is as premeditated a form of killing as shooting each of them individually.
Possibly most blatant is Michael Berube, who finds the Afghan attack "laudable" and the negative reactions of the "Chomsky-left" simply "morally odious." He cites Cynthia Peters' statement that the U.S. crimes there differed from 9/11 only in being "many times larger." Berube finds this morally odious because it compares "the hijackers deliberate slaughter of civilians" with "the U.S. military response." This is wonderfully evasive rhetoric: a bin Laden spokesperson could have contrasted the "hijackers attack on the symbols of U.S. imperialist power" with "the U.S. aggression against Afghanistan relying on firepower rained on innocent villagers." That would have matched Berube's rhetorical ploy. Berube's "U.S. military response" included the previously mentioned targeting of hundreds of civilian villages, using cluster bombs and other ferocious weapons, that "deliberately killed" by planned military tactics more than 3,000 Afghan civilians. The self- proclaimed "progressive" doesn't bat an eyelash at these 3,000-plus deaths. He even pretends that any bombing deaths were only " intelligence failures" rather than a result of systematic targeting of "maybe" al Qaeda hideouts (he mentions the Karakak bombing as "an atrocity," but an "intelligence failure"--and he mentions no other basis of bombing deaths.)
In an even more egregious bit of apologetics for killing Afghan civilians, Berube castigates Chomsky, now "so difficult to defend," with his "repellant mixture of hysteria and hauteur" ("Peace Puzzle: Why the left can't get Iraq right," Boston Globe, Sept. 15, 2002). He cites Chomsky's statement pointing out that "The U.S...demanded that Pakistan terminate the food and other supplies that are keeping at least some of the starving and suffering people of Afghanistan alive." Chomsky went on to suggest possible mass deaths based on this disruption of supplies. This was the repellant hysteria and hauteur. In a brief letter of reply, Chomsky pointed out that he was reporting New York Times statements on what the United States was demanding of Pakistan (closing the border and preventing food trucks going into Afghanistan), and what horrified officials of a number of international aid organizations on the scene were saying might well be the consequences of the forced closure of the borders. Berube was repelled by this expression of concern over the possible deadly effects of curtailment of the food supply that were anticipated by international aid personnel, but the policy itself and its consequences didn't faze him at all.
Berube could overlook all these petty details of civilians killed and starved because, "on balance, the routing of the Taliban might have struck a blow, however ambiguous and poorly executed, for human freedom." This rationale, common among the CMLs, will be a handy justification for any attack on any repressive state-- Arundhati Roy points out that such a rationale could justify an attack on India to strike a blow for the untouchables; but it could also rationalize attacking Israel to end the occupation, or the United States itself to end the drug war's war on the black population and free the million prisoners of that war.
Berube tells us the war "Might have struck a blow," but then again it might not, as the Northern Alliance, another terrorist warlord group was put in power, war-lordism has returned in the regions, the drug business flourishes again, and the United States, having hit the poor country with bombs, once again runs. This is the rational and decent left--bomb away because it "might" be a blow for freedom.
Berube, like the other CMLs, isn't bothered by the flaunting of international law, or the United States taking it upon itself to determine the political constitution of another country by violence--it doesn't strike him that this may be incompatible with true freedom and self-determination and may yield a neo-colonial external control. He is not worried about precedents in such interventions, or that its success might feed on itself and lead to successor wars to "strike blows for freedom."
The notion that the war in Afghanistan is a phase of imperial action and reflects a broader and uglier agenda is outside Berube's framework of thought. Like the other CMLs, he believes that the Afghan and Kosovo wars were good wars, with humanitarian ends, and that we must push the leadership toward doing good abroad: "the United States cannot be a beacon of freedom and justice to the world if it conducts itself as an empire." Berube would perhaps think it foolish to say that "the lion cannot rule as king of the jungle unless it conducts itself like a king, and behaves responsibly." After all, the lion's behavior toward antelopes flows from its nature. But for the CML's an empire--or at least their own--need not behave like an empire; it can "use power for justice." The United States as presently organized and run has the capacity to treat people abroad nicely and not serve its own TNCs and military industrial complex--what its leaders need is good advice from Michael Berube and the "rational left" to get straightened out.
First published in Z Magazine
Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
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