The Left, the Right and The War

Just what is left and what is right were things in doubt well before 9/11. Now would not be a bad time to workout where we are.

(1) We should try to see the situation as it presents itself rather than read the reviews. The position adopted by the “right” is not necessarily the right one, nor the “left’s” position necessarily, a left one. It is the nature of unanticipated events to confound expectations. Take an earlier example, the Falklands War. The Tory government’s immediate reaction to the seizure of the Falklands/Malvinas was, unsurprisingly, diplomatic protest. For that Labour MP’s denounced it for acquiescence to the hard-right military rulers in Argentina. But when Thatcher did go to war, the “left” orthodoxy had it that the war was an imperialist one, a slaughter for prestige and a few sheep, and an artificial boost for her own political power. The better reading of the war was this: the islands in question are insignificant. But their unanswered seizure would have consolidated the position of Argentina’s then rulers, the closest thing outside the Arab world to an expressly hitlerian regime since 1945. The happy result of the Falklands War was the turning out of that regime. That is what the left should have cared about, and Thatcher’s opinions should have been seen as hardly relevant.

Today, here, the most easily heard pro-war voices are on the right. Most of those opposing the war are putatively of the left. It’s old wisdom that you don’t know who your friends are. Well, you may not know, as people jumpy after 9/11 don’t know things, but you have a pretty good idea. And you also have a pretty good idea who your enemies are. It might be thought embarrassing to be caught “on the same side” as a Trent Lott or a Christopher Hitchens. Not to worry; their general wrongness isn’t going anywhere.

(2) It is possible to support a war administration as a war administration and not otherwise. If Bush was not elected, so what, at this point? The time to do something about that was 2000, or will be in 2004. Is Bush Churchillian? Well no, but it is not an argument to get lost in. We need not so much a Churchill as a people united to the destruction of its enemies. It is pretty self-evident that a tax cut does nothing to further the war. John Ashcroft’s devotion to his reading of the Second Amendment resulted in the destruction of records of firearm purchases by jihadis later detained (see Jeffrey Toobin’s article in the April 15, 2002 New Yorker). While an Andrew Card is unashamed to call Saudi Arabia “a wonderful ally” and George Bush opens his home to the “Crown Prince,” we should not forget that if ibn Sa’ud’s bastard litter is alive at the end of this thing, a lot of people will have died in vain.

War measures are called for and should not get reflexive objections. Military tribunals, immigration restrictions, extended detentions are not inherently wrong. It ought to be asked first, whether a measure really does help prosecute the war, and second, whether it is just too much of a trade-off. But we should recognize the business-as-usual is not adequate to our present situation and that any departures from the anti-bellum routine should not be regarded as an impending coup. Nothing that has been implemented, or even seriously proposed, threatens the country’s basic liberty. When it does, say so, but until then, don’t cry wolf.

(3) To feel uneasy in relation to power is a healthy thing. But not all power is too much and not every exercise of power is oppression. To use military force against an armed opponent is a simple right. If our military resources are overwhelming, so much the better. The sooner, and the more thoroughly, these enemies are crushed, the happier.

It’s not, in the end, about how it looks.

(4) The underdog is owed sympathy; the mad dog is owed a bullet.

(5) America itself is a perplexity for the left. Three points need to be made.

First, that America itself is a “hyperpower” only aggravates the uneasiness many feel with power in general. But a “hyperpower” is not a different kind of thing than any power, and it does not present a separate question. America the hyperpower is often the only force that, in practice, will apply force – or not – against the world’s worst offenders. It is American arms or nothing. Whoever opposes American military intervention across the board might want to devote a few words to the case of Rwanda.

Tariq Ali, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 chided us: other cities had been bombed, and we had no right not to be bombed. But see how right and power relate. In World War II, Warsaw was destroyed, while in Washington not a window was broken. Warsaw had a right not to be destroyed, as did Washington. Only Washington had the power to secure itself. Berlin and Tokyo, lacking both the right and the power, were destroyed, with all justice.

Second, (and not unrelated) that the 9/11 atrocities were effected in America is, as provocation, no more than happenstance. Those who carried it out, those who arranged it, those who financed it, those who supported it, those who cheered it, excused it, lied about it, all claim to be opposed to America. They are in the fact the enemies of man and have no place on earth.

Third, some wariness in the face of great waves of patriotism is justified. But sentimentality about the Other is not. Immediately after September 11, there was extraordinary communal feeling here, at least in New York City. A left that opts out, that prefers its sense of its own superiority to fraternity, is not a left.

(6) The existing left, if a large bird came and carried it off, what would be lost? The Green campaign of 2000, so wrapped up in its self-mythologizing, failed to deliver its goal (!) of getting 3% of the vote. It did, however, more surely than Katherine Harris or William Rehnquist, put George Bush in office. And those most prominent in that campaign are today available to declare that they are proud of their performance then. Invocations of class war by a Ralph Nader or a Michael Moore are even more inauthentic than the pretend populism of the Republican Party.

That left is unloved, and rightly. Consider one example. The number of civilian dead in Afghanistan has been consistently pumped up even before a single bomb fell. Chomsky, with a certain measure of confidence, predicted a “secret holocaust” of 4,000,000 dead before November (last November, but what’s the difference). It was important to the argument that the Afghan dead be at least as many as the American dead. So it must be, and so it would be. The left’s numbers have, from the get-go, reflected only the left’s wishes. Now, the World Trade Center. In trial testimony, it was said that the intention in the 1993 bombing was to kill a quarter of a million people. The World Trade Center, during business hours, held about 50,000 people. Initial estimates on September 11 were about 6,000 dead. That number was revised to a little under 3,000. And here’s the thing: the rest of the country, not sharing the moral and intellectual standards of the peace movement, acknowledged the revised figures, and nobody held out for the higher numbers. The anti-war left is miniscule and ineffectual. Most of us don’t want to be lied to.

The left to be jettisoned is a bourgeoisie that views “conscience” as a thing to accessorize with. Some people are prepared to offer blood, sweat and tears. That left offers only snot.

(7) Two unlikely sources, Andrew Sullivan in The New Republic and Katrina van den Heuvel in The Nation, have concurred that the war is an opportunity for the left. Truer it is an opportunity for a left, the left we ought to be. The war remains for us, whether “us” is that left, or America, or the world, ours to lose.

From June, 2002

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