Sunday, February 13, 2005

Why I was against the Iraq war

Dissent has just published an article by Norman Geras that purports to explain why so many lefties have been against the war in Iraq.

Geras comes to the dramatic conclusion that anti-Americanism is at the root of "the left"'s dislike for American militarist activism. To this strikingly original idea, Geras adds that, for some reason, "leftists" apparently "lack any genuine grasp of, or feeling for, the meaning of extreme forms of evil and oppression."

The article ingratiatingly begins by debunking some of the more hysterical right-wing explanations of the left's dislike for the war in Iraq. Pointing out that before the war in Iraq, the left was also against interventions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Iraq in 1991, Geras argues that hatred of George Bush, Israel, or Jews can't be the driving force behind the left's anti-interventionism, since none of these issues applied in the Balkans. Somewhat more cleverly, Geras suggests that the left's anti-capitalism, along with its tendency to see the United States as the embodiment of capitalism, has made it reflexively against whatever the U.S. does.

Normally, I wouldn't respond to this sort of nonsense, but at least one person whose political acumen I respect has expressed the opinion that he considers Geras's argument to be a "powerful critique of the (far) left." Personally, I thought Geras's argument was complete nonsense.

The first thing that's worth pointing out about this argument is that it's about no one in particular: he doesn't mention a single supposed lefty by name. That's partly because this is not an argument, but rather a political hit-piece. While Geras's argument may apply to the Ward Churchills of this world, he's not trying to attack certain outliers, but rather trying to tag the entire left as morally stunted, anti-capitalist America-haters. In short, Geras's goal is a political rather than intellectual one: to conflate all those who oppose the war into one common, noxious camp.

While I would not deign to speak for "the left" as a whole, let me say that Geras's description of why "the left" opposes American interventionism bears no relationship to my own opposition to the war.

To make it clear why not, let me explain, as simply as I can, my own opposition to the current Iraq war. Before I go there, however, it's worth noting that of the wars that the U.S. has waged since I reached my majority -- that is: Panama, Iraq I, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq II -- I have indeed been against all of them, with the singular exception of Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan exception is extremely important, not least because my support was not unambiguous. Once the Taliban was unwilling or unable to hand over Osama, it became obvious that war was necessary. However, I still had deep reservations, ones that would foreshadow my strident opposition to Iraq eighteen months later. My first worry was that Afghanistan would turn out to be a humanitarian disaster that the U.S. would now be responsible for -- the "Pottery Barn principle" before it was so named. Secondly, and more importantly, I was deeply nonplussed by the jingoistic, religiously-tinted rhetoric with which Bush sold the war. He seemed to me to be whipping the country into an utterly unnecessary frenzy. 9-11 had been a horrible crime, and the goal ought to have been, quite simply, bring the perps to justice (as he put it) dead or alive. But the axis of evil stuff, the "crusade" stuff, the general chauvinism, all that made me deeply uneasy: why exactly did George Bush feel the need to act as if Al Qaeda posed an existential threat to our country, when quite clearly, it was nothing of the sort?

Leaving aside Afghanistan, the reason I was against all the other wars was, at root, very simple, and it had little if anything to do with anti-capitalism. It has to do with the fact that in none of these cases was there any case of self-defense. What James Baker said of the Balkans -- "we ain't got no dog in that fight" -- seemed to me to apply equally well to Iraq. Once you accept Baker's argument about the Balkans, it leads to the question of what the "dog" was that we were fighting over in Iraq/Kuwait (or should I say, Rumaila?) in 1991. Here I will confess that a certain degree of anti-imperialism comes into effect for me. I do think it is immoral, as the movie "Air Force One" put it, "to murder 100,000 Iraqis to save a nickel on a gallon of gas." In a nutshell, I consider self-defense to be the only legitimate grounds for war. And Iraqi in 2003 was clearly not a case of self-defense, as even the Bushies conceded: it was a case, at best, of preemption.

Which brings us to Geras's second slander, namely the left's alleged inability "to digest the meaning of the great moral and political evils of the world and to look at them unflinchingly."

The first thing worth noting, since apparently the likes of Geras seems to need this reassurance, is that I am (along with many other leftists) in fact very aware that terrible, awful things are happening in the world every day. And yes, Saddam did some of the worst things to his people (and other people) of any of the monsters of the twentieth century. Likewise, Bosnia too was horrid. I followed the Balkan wars closely, and even attended Milosovic's trial in the Hague a couple years ago. We're all reading the same newspapers, Norm, and I suspect I read the pages about atrocities in the Third World with more attention than you do.

But does an ongoing or unfolding set of atrocities mean that we should necessarily intervene? Why does no one suggest we invade Sierra Leone? Myanmar? Zaire? Nepal? Liberia? To say nothing of Sudan, which everyone now describes as a genocide? Atrocious things are happening in all these places right now (not just ten years ago), but for some odd reason all these great pro-war moralists seem not to beat the war drums for these cases. Who is it who really lacks the moral imagination here? Everyone seems to acknowledge, tacitly, that atrocities alone are not grounds for intervention. In fact, we need to have a dog in the fight.

(Let me be clear that I am not advocating that we intervene in all these places. The causes of these evils are, mainly, not systemic, but local, and I just don't believe that Washington can parachute--or carpet-bomb--its way into these places and effectively resolve these local horrors. Geras calls this a lack of moral imagination. I call it humility.)

With all this said, however, I must now confess that my opposition to this current Iraq war has been far more strident than my opposition to the earlier interventions. So what was it that made me oppose to this war so much more virulently than I opposed these earlier wars?

I won't be shy. The answer is, indeed, "George Bush."

Let me unpack that answer. As anyone who reads this blog knows, my dislike of Bush is not rooted in a hatred for his character, or even for his foreign policies, so much as it is a product of my loathing for his domestic policies. What has outraged me about his conduct of the so-called GWOT is the way he has used the specter of war and terror to shore up political support for his domestic agenda.

The evidence of this manipulation of foreign policy to serve domestic political ends is everywhere. Just consider what's happened since his reelection. Much as it irks me, I personally believe that the election was in fact largely a referendum on his conduct in the war on terror, including Iraq. (Some pollsters suggested that was also about his "moral values.") But coming out of the reelection gate, what policy has he decided to promote with the supposed "mandate" he received in the "accountability moment"? That's right: rolling back Social Security.

Indeed, it is hard not to assume that Bush chose the Iraq war specifically to have it serve this effect of shoring up his domestic political success. What else can we conclude from the way he and Rove repeatedly say they are trying to recreate the success of William McKinley, another President who chose a needless war in order to shore up domestic political support? Bush honestly thought the Iraq war would be a "cakewalk" (if he'd realized how hard it would be, he'd have been much more hesitant about the political gamble) -- which is also why he didn't think there was much need for postwar planning. It would be a splendid little war, just great for the election.

In short, I see nothing moral whatsoever about Bush's aims in Iraq. Bush is all about "think local, act global," with the political always trumping policy. Global policies are this mainly a way to shore up political support for an odious domestic agenda.

And thus what we discover is that the so-called "liberal hawks," among which I presume Geras counts himself, are not so much moralists as dupes, victims of a political bait-and-switch. While they believe that by supporting Bush they are aligning themselves with the geopolitical angels, what they are in fact doing is providing Bush with the political cover from the left that he needs to push through the domestic agenda which presumably (as nominal liberals) they oppose. They're the P. G. Wodehouses of their particular political moment, but without the wit.

1 comment:

Sam said...

Nils, the basic response to those who claim that we must intervene against evil is their stunted definition of evil. For them, it is often "totalitarian" "atrocity." Even there, there is a selectivity problem: why these atrocious acts and not others. But once you start to train yourself to see that our moral imagination has been wrongly shaped to feel especially indignant about spectacular atrocities, notably those open to media portrayal, selecting those for outrage instead of systemic (but often much more serious) problems, the case for the selectiity of these occasional interventions becomes really crushing. That's to response to the argument that "the left doesn't face evil." We need a theory of evil, how to rank evils, and how to address them non-selectively before the charge makes any sense.