Sunday, February 13, 2005

Another view on Geras's article

In addition being blind to the political nature of the people he's siding with, Norman Geras is apparently also closed to intellectual debate. His response to my post below was to write to me, "I won't thank you for sending me this since it doesn't engage with what I think in a serious way. Indeed I can't imagine why you've sent it to me other than todraw attention to yourself. I will thank you not to write to me again, and should you do so I'll delete without reading."

My friend Bill Barnes also wrote the following letter to Geras, which apparently got almost as warm a response as my own more public comment:

Your piece in the current Dissent constitutes a powerful critique of certain segments of the Left. But it suffers from one-sidedness in a number of ways. Let me point to two: First, your total focus on the sins of the Left without any substantial mention of how it was understandable that some form of such sin would be common on the Left, given the real world-historical crimes of Western governments and militaries (e.g., U.S. and Israeli support/excusing of the mass murder of Guatemalans for 30 years by forces fully as evil as the Iraqi Baathists; see also the new revelations on the British in Kenya). The real problem is how far such sin has been carried and persisted in, what the continuing failure/refusal to learn shows about the part of the Left you're talking about; and even more, the failure of a different Left to coalesce around a left-liberal- democratic socialist position and act as a powerful pole for the reeducation/marginalization of the portions of the Left you're talking about.

Second, You fail to note how diverse the left side of the political spectrum is re the degree of such sinning. Much of the Left is, in a variety of ways, "in between" where you are and where Ward Churchill is. On blogs like Crooked Timber people have been talking about how they've been active on the Left all their adult lives and they've never even met someone like Churchill, never heard anyone say the kinds of things about 9/11 that he has said. That's more than a bit naive of course, but it is true that most on the Left are in at least some ways ambivalent, equivocal about the sinning you skewer. Different versions of such sinning wax and wane among this great "middle". Relatively few were unambivalently "anti-American" re Clinton in Bosnia and Haiti or on Sept 12, 2001, or re the justification for some military action in Afghanistan (I realize this is probably somewhat less true in Europe).

More generally (and being unfair to you, for the sake of simplicity, in the same way you have been unfair to the Left), your moralism is a mirror image of that which you condemn. You reify your enemy's past (both of your enemies' pasts, that of the offending segment of the Western left and that of the Iraqi Baath), and your present cost/benefit calculations are based on extrapolating such reification through the present and into the future, without an adequate evidentiary basis. It is my impression that you are historically incorrect in saying that the practice of major, horrendous atrocities by the Iraqi Baath regime has been continuous, uniform, and on-going, as opposed to episodic and mostly pre-2000. (I do not mean any minimization of those atrocities or of the lower level day-to-day brutality of the regime; Sadaam and his hencemen were monsters and should have been taken out at any opportunity. But we still have to pay attention to the factors I'm pointing to -- such day-to-day level of brutality is entirely unexceptional in our world and time; the U.S. could not possibly set out to remedy or punish all such.

It is one thing to urge/insist that others pay any price, bear any burden, kill and die as much as necessary, to stop monstrous crimes that are ongoing or demonstrably imminent. It is quite another to do so to punish such crimes committed in the past or to preclude such crimes that might be committed in the future. There is a burden on you to demonstrate that the policy you support really does forestall more human suffering than it generates. There is a burden on you to demonstrate that it is highly unlikely that lesser measures would have produced a better balance of costs and benefits in terms of human suffering. Dropping a nuclear weapon on Baghdad in order to get rid of Sadaam would not have been justified no matter how wonderful a democracy might have eventuated in Iraq by the year 2020. (Would history have looked at such, and several million dead, maimed, seriously debilitated, as simply a tough-love form of democracy-building, or as a major-league war crime?)

The fall of the Baath regime has in no way ended the brutalization and murder of Iraqis (by all sides) — not to mention the killing and maiming of Americans and international workers — and such pacification is no where in sight. I agree with you completely in condemning anyone who welcomes or relishes this outcome because all they really care about is the U.S. or Bush administration looking bad (or for any other reason). But just as you call upon the left to look the reality of Sadaam's brutality in the face, so you must look the reality of war, ongoing war, in the face. For me what was decisive was that I knew from the beginning that the particular people making U.S. policy and directing the war and the occupation could not be trusted to conduct operations in a way that respected innocent human life or took account of human realities — not because of the nature of capitalism or imperialism or "America" but because over the last 40 years the American political system has been substantially taken over by a militaristic rightist ideological movement married to religious fundamentalism and popular chauvinism (see, e.g. Anatol Lieven, America Right or Wrong; Chris Hedge's "On War," New York Review of Books, 12/16/04). At this moment there is very little left in the way of effective checks and balances against this. You underestimate the danger of this situation.

As I wrote a year ago to Paul Berman and Dissent in response to the Berman piece you mention: We enemies of fascism cannot simply pronounce a death sentence against all fascists, much less all anti-liberals (we cannot simply "put an end to" the mass base of Islamic fascism, as Christopher Hitchens would like). Lets avoid debate about the death penalty and grant for the sake of argument that the lives of Sadam Hussein, his sons, Osama bin Laden, the gurus of suicide-bombing, and other leaders of torture and murder have no value; killing them is purely positive. But how far down the hierarchy of a "fascist" regime or movement can we maintain such a judgment? Are we not obligated to weigh the lives and suffering of mid-level functionaries and army majors and captains? is it only once we get to clerks and noncoms that "fascist" lives count? And what about the families of such people, and those living and working in close proximity? What about the "good Germans?" (We are all "good Germans" to some degree some of the time.)

Does "collateral damage" count as a serious negative only if and when it hits the entirely innocent? Does being in a "war against fascism" mean that we need have no compunction about helicopter gun-ships strafing the "Arab street"? If ten times — or fifty times— as many Iraqis die violent deaths and sustain serious injuries in 2003-04 as did in 2001-02 (there is no evidence of mass killings after the mid-1990s), can Iraqis be required to accept Liberalism's judgment that they are nonetheless better off because they no longer live under "totalitarianism" and many of those killed and maimed were anti-liberal, and Sadaam and his henchmen richly deserved what they got? (Remember when certain U.S. conservatives took the position that war with the Soviet Union was justified because every last Russian was "better dead than Red"? Does the reality of the Gulag make that true?) None of this is to say that no efforts should have been made to bring down Sadaam and his regime, nor is it to deny that deadly force is sometimes necessary in fighting fascism. But left-liberals must always fight to deny people like Bush and the Neocons control over the required cost-benefit, means-ends, strategic analysis and decision-making, because such right-wingers are congenitally incapable of cnducting such analysis and decision- making in a manner consistent with what left-liberals take as the core values of Liberalism.

There are lots of people in the Middle East, and indeed all over the world, including in the United States, who are ambivalent but not extremist enemies of left-liberalism, who identify their anti-liberalism with national patriotism or religious piety — just as there were in the Central Europe and the Japan of the 1930s (and South and Central America of the 1970s and 80s). For the left to fight the proto/quasi-fascist tendencies among these populations, to declare war on fascism, should not be to advocate wholesale violence against them — even if at times it is necessary to take some kind of military action against core extremists (as I believe it was for the left in Central America and for the U.S. and others in the Balkans and Afghanistan and against al Qaeda). Despite the obvious need to go to war against Nazi Germany and militaristic Japan, the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo and the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes (and the left in South and Central America frequently over-militarized the struggle against "fascism"). Left-liberalism must always oppose dehumanization of "the Enemy," "the Other." t some points Liberal Hawks come dangerously close to such blanket writing off of what they homogenizes into the mass base of "totalitarianism"-- they give aid and comfort to those who declare that in fighting such enemies, the end justifies the means. Ends-justify-the-means thinking is a slippery slope leading to a gradual descent into "fascism," and, when combined with great power and the moral obtuseness of (one or another kind of) fundamentalism or war fever, to monstrous crimes.

Islamic fascism is not the definition of 21st Century evil. The insistence that it is makes it impossible to engage other equally threatening realities. We now face a coming half-century of increasingly catastrophic environmental and public health disasters, amidst unrelenting poverty in much of the world, which will likely result in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. If the rich societies do not act to head this off, they will find themselves surrounded by "fascisms" and subjected to unrelenting terrorism — and perhaps succumbing to "fascism" themselves. Continuing power for the likes of Bush & Co. and the Neocons will make realization of such nightmares all but inevitable — not because these people are fascists, which they are not, but because they are willfully blind fundamentalists and sworn enemies of left-liberalism.

As I've mentioned before, the fundamental difficulty the left faces today in articulating its position on Iraq is that while everyone agrees that it is crucial to stabilize and provide security for Iraq, we must nevertheless do everything we can to ensure that the Bush regime does not secure political benefit from any improvements in the situation in Iraq. (If you like business analogies, then imagine a CEO who drives a company into years of bankruptcy, litigation and losses, and then wants to be feted not just for his efforts in securing the fiscal turnaround, but also for the original decisions that led to the disaster.) This tension can sometimes lead to a quandry whereby attacking the political activities of the Bush regime can appear as an effort to undermine the worthy shared goals of stability and security in Iraq. Certainly the Bushies make a lot of effort to portray political opponents in this light.

However, it's worth noting that the Bush regime faces an obverse tension; they want to ensure that they get political benefit from whatever outcome happens in Iraq, even if this means sometimes doing things that undermine the practical chances of success in stabilizing and securing Iraq, in order to better guarantee that whatever political benefits there are accrue strictly to them and their cronies. The most publicized instance of this sort was the decision immediately after the invasion to refuse to award reconstruction contracts to private firms from countries whose political leadership had refused to toady to the Bushies -- presumably eliminating some of the more competent reconstructors. Likewise, Bush would never consider renouncing the preemption doctrine in exchange for getting U.N. and NATO commitment to securing and stabilizing Iraq. Even now, after nearly two disastrous years, securing political benefit is still Bush's primary goal.

1 comment:

Bill Barnes said...

Nils, Thanks for the post, but I need to correct a misimpression. My piece is not a letter to Norm Geras but a compilation (and slight revision) of my side of a series of e-mail exchanges with Geras over the course of last week. Geras' replies to me, while not very substantively responsive, were entirely friendly. And despite my criticisms of his Dissent article, I continue to recommend it highly and to disagree with your dismissal of it.
Bill