Alexander Cockburn wants to know, and it’s sweet of him to ask. In his most recent essay, “Where are the Laptop Bombardiers Now,” he writes:
But today, amid Iraq’s dreadful death throes, where are the parlor warriors? Have those Iraqi exiles reconsidered their illusions, that all it would take was a brisk invasion and a new constitution, to put Iraq to rights? Have any of them, from Makiya through Hitchens to Berman and Berube had dark nights, asking themselves just how much responsibility they have for the heaps of dead in Iraq, for a plundered nation, for the American soldiers who died or were crippled in Iraq at their urging?
Cockburn’s essay is gradually making its way through the Intertubes, as I learned this weekend when I got an email from one of Cockburn’s more gullible readers, asking me to apologize to the children of Iraq. Well, I don’t know how Makiya and company feel about such things, but I can say that my position on Iraq four years ago hasn’t led me to wonder how much responsibility I have for the war. I opposed the war, and no, I’m not sorry about that.
Four years and six weeks ago, I had just gotten back from the antiwar rally in New York, and I wrote this:
Many of us fear what will happen to Iraqi civilians and American civil liberties; I fear this too, but as the impervious Bush imperium machine grinds on, I fear the aftermath of the war even more than the war itself.
A military governorship in Baghdad for at least two years? A Greater Turkey to contain the Kurds in the north? Osama at large and al-Qaeda regrouping in Afghanistan and Pakistan? NATO and the UN in shreds?
What a complete and terrible and deadly mess. Everyone with any damn sense at all knows that if President Gore were sitting in his rightful place in the Oval Office right now, we wouldn’t be on this obsessive and profoundly counterproductive path. Yes, President Gore would have taken out the Taliban and its terrorist training camps immediately after 9/11. And rightly so. But from that point on, there’s almost no point of contact between what Bush has done and what any sane or competent President would have done. That’s why these antiwar rallies are inevitably referenda on Bush. And that’s why it’s so important to keep the grounds of dissent as broad as possible, and the level of public outrage as high as possible, even during and after this war. We can’t call for votes of no confidence before 2004; we have to live with the guy the Supreme Court installed. So we have to contain him until we can remove him.
Now, perhaps you think this is just sloppy Alex Cockburn making a sloppy mistake, tossing me in with people who supported war in Iraq. But this kind of thing has been going on for almost five years now, and there’s no mistake about it. In the US, the Z/Counterpunch left didn’t care much for people who wanted the antiwar movement to be as broad as possible; they took it as their task to make sure that the political ground for the antiwar movement would be as narrow as possible, and to that end, they made a point of describing people like me and Michael Walzer and Todd Gitlin and Marc Cooper and David Corn (all of whom opposed war but favored UN inspections and/or no-fly zones and/or revised sanctions) as supporters of war in Iraq. I pointed this out in late 2002, in response to Ed Herman’s first Z essay on “The Cruise Missile Left”:
I will not take the bait Herman offers when he suggests that in the 1850’s, he and his friends would have been abolitionists whereas people like me, Marc Cooper, Todd Gitlin, and Michael Walzer would have made our accommodations with slaveowners and their sympathizers. Herman’s self-satisfaction on this score is all too common among those white Americans who insist that theirs was always the side of the angels on race matters, and I will not compete with him for the moral high ground of the 1850s. I will say only that I find his analogy between advocates of the overthrow of the Taliban and antebellum defenders of slavery to be every bit as convincing as his attempt to construe my opposition to war in Iraq—along with Cooper’s, Gitlin’s, and Walzer’s resolute opposition to war in Iraq—as a form of support for war in Iraq.
(There’s more—OK, much more—in this vein here, for those of you who feel like checking out my old haunt.)
The only correct form of opposition to the Iraq war, according to the Z/Counterpunch crowd, consisted of opposition to war in Afghanistan and Kosovo as well. The paramount principle at stake, for them, was the principle of national sovereignty: no international institution has the right to infringe on Milosevic’s, or the Taliban’s, or Saddam’s sovereignty. And sure enough, on those grounds, Ed Herman replied that “it is entirely reasonable to describe Berube as a supporter of the imminent war against Iraq.” Indeed, Herman went on to write a whole series of essays on his Cruise Missile Left, and in installment number two, he charged that “the CMLs accept the Bush premise that Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction are a major threat, and most of them believe that the inspections regime is reasonable and should be allowed to continue to seek out and remove those weapons.” “These views,” he explained, “are not ‘left’ at all, they are ‘moderate’ apologetics for imperial violence.” UN inspections, in other words, were a form of imperialism. We CMLs thought they were the best alternative to war and the best way of finding out whether the hawks’ claims about WMD had any merit; but then, being apologists for imperial inspections-violence, that’s just what we would say, now, isn’t it.
Having thus established that it was entirely reasonable to describe me as a supporter of war in Iraq, Herman went on, in his CML-2 essay, to endorse Cockburn’s entirely reasonable charge that I was working in concert with David Horowitz:
Berube has reacted strongly against the charge of being in league with Horowitz, but as Alexander Cockburn points out, “We find it pretty ripe that Berube should whine about guilt by association after he and Cooper and Corn have spent months smearing the peace movement because the Workers World Party and ANSWER have been organizing demonstrations.”
Actually, we spent months trying to argue that the antiwar movement was singularly ill-served by the neo-Stalinoids of the WWP, and we pointed out that an antiwar movement with ANSWER at its head looked like an antiwar movement designed by Horowitz, but no matter. As we knew at the time, the real problem wasn’t that we’d criticized ANSWER. The real problem was that we’d criticized Noam Chomsky, which, for some people, is even worse than supporting war in Iraq. Cockburn notes as much in “Where Are the Laptop Bombadiers Now,” in a passage that’s a minor marvel of disingenuousness:
The war party virtually monopolized television. AM radio poured out a filthy torrent of war bluster. The laptop bombardiers such as Salman Rushdie were in full war paint. Among the progressives the liberal interventionists thumped their tin drums, often by writing pompous pieces attacking the antiwar “hard left”. Mini-pundits Todd Gitlin and Michael Berube played this game eagerly. Berube lavished abuse on Noam Chomsky and other clear opponents of the war, mumbling about the therapeutic potential of great power interventionism, piously invoking the tradition of “left internationalism.”
Neither Gitlin nor I lavished abuse on Chomsky for his opposition to war in Iraq. But we did criticize him for things like this September 2001 interview with Radio B92 in Belgrade, for proclaiming on the afternoon of September 11 that the attacks paled in comparison to Clinton’s 1998 bombing of the al-Shifa plant in Khartoum (I wish I could have been half as eloquent as Leo Casey was at the time), and for announcing, in October 2001, “looks like what’s happening [in Afghanistan] is some sort of silent genocide.” (Two years later, of course, in response to the question, “where is the ‘silent genocide’ you predicted would happen in Afghanistan if the US intervened there in 2001?” Chomsky replied, “that is an interesting fabrication, which gives a good deal of insight into the prevailing moral and intellectual culture. First, the facts: I predicted nothing.” Since Chomsky neither predicted nor described a silent genocide, I’ve since concluded that in 2001 he actually invented a new kind of speech act for which he has yet to be credited.) And more recently, I’ve criticized Chomsky for going off about how poor Slobodan was horrified, horrified when he heard what happened at Srebenica – which, as Ed Herman has been arguing for many years now, never quite happened in the first place.
Familiar stuff, I know. But if Alexander Cockburn is going to wonder whether I’ve had any dark nights in the past few years, I suppose I can wonder in return if he’s had any moments of regret for inveighing against people like me and Gitlin as insufficiently anti-imperialist and unacceptably willing to consider violations of Saddam’s sovereignty. Because although the Sovereignty Left has achieved a remarkable consistency in defending Milosevic and the Taliban from international interventions, they also did their part to make the antiwar movement in the US smaller and less effective than it might have been when it came to Iraq.
The single most promising practical argument against war in Iraq, in 2002-03, was that it represented a disastrous diversion from the real battle, the battle against al-Qaeda and radical Islamism. Those of us who opposed the Iraq war on those grounds—as well as the moral grounds forbidding pre-emptive, unprovoked war—knew that Iraq would be a disaster, because the very idea of war in Iraq indicated that the hawks were going to screw up Afghanistan all over again. At the time, I believed that the people promoting war in Iraq were simply not serious about (or, in the case of our president and vice-president, not very interested in) the question of who’d really attacked us on September 11 and why. But, of course, you can’t make any of those arguments if you believe that the war in Afghanistan was not merely unjustified but actually, in Chomsky’s words (from a June 2006 interview), “one of the most grotesque acts of modern history.” Thus the Z/Counterpunch leadership of the antiwar movement in the US could not and would not make the argument that Iraq was a terrible diversion from Afghanistan, and it was less interested in keeping the grounds of dissent as broad as possible than in demanding that “clear” opposition to war in Iraq be predicated on opposition to war in Afghanistan.
Cockburn’s essay closes, appropriately, with a bit of self-congratulation for the achievements of the Sovereignty Left:
Post coldwar Liberal interventionism came of age with the onslaught on Serbia. Liberal support for the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq were the afterglows. Now that night has descended and illusions about the great crusade shattered for ever, let us tip our hats to those who opposed this war from the start—the real left, the libertarians and those without illusions about the “civilizing mission” of the great powers.
And, of course, Cockburn has a point. People like Michael Ignatieff and George Packer took Kosovo as a model for Iraq, and in so doing, traduced the very idea of international humanitarian intervention they were trying to promote. (Though, notably, Ken Roth wasn’t fooled, and neither was Samantha Power, and neither was Michael Walzer or Danny Postel or Ian Williams, and neither, for what little it’s worth, was I. Neither was most of the liberal and progressive blogosphere.) But on my reading—and if you want to hear more about this, just stay tuned for my next book, The Left At War—in the wake of Kosovo, the Sovereignty Left and the Liberal Hawks produced each other. In the US, the Z/Counterpunch crew have a symbiotic relation to Berman, Hitchens, et al., just as in the UK the Galloway/Respect crowd have a symbiotic relation to the Eustonites. To this day, each needs the other. And it is in both camps’ interest to pretend that Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq were all part of the same enterprise: all three wars were wars of liberation for the Hawks, and all three were exercises in imperialism for the Sovereignty Left. The Hawks wound up agreeing, in whole or in part, with Bush’s premise that Iraq was the next logical front in the War on Terror. And the Sovereignty Left has never quite explained what American empire was established in the Balkans, and they’ve never quite explained why they opposed the Taliban from 1996 to 2001 but opposed the Taliban’s removal after al-Qaeda’s strikes against the US. But both groups share the common goal of aligning supporters of war in Kosovo and Afghanistan with supporters of war in Iraq.
This is why, these days, you find such a willingness on the part of the Sovereignty Left to refer to the Euston Manifesto signers as members of the “Decent Left,” even though the author of “Can There Be a Decent Left?” opposed war in Iraq; it’s part of the necessary enterprise of blurring the distinctions. It’s also why the Sovereignty Left’s apologetics for Milosevic have gotten only more frenzied and hysterical with time: the debacle in Iraq, for them, has become grounds for delegitimating not only the US’ retaliatory strike against al-Qaeda, but the belated and badly-executed attempt to stop ethnic cleansing and genocide in the Balkans as well. Actually, you don’t hear them speak of “ethnic cleansing and genocide in the Balkans”; they speak instead, as Cockburn does here, of NATO’s “onslaught on Serbia.” And then they tip their caps to the Thatcher/Major wing of the Tories, and the Pat Buchanan wing of the American right, who insisted that the proper response to Milosevic was to do nothing at all.
I don’t always sleep well, I admit. But over the past four years, since the beginning of this terrible war, I have not lost sleep over my position on Iraq. And while I don’t imagine that we in the US could have stopped the criminally insane Cheney Administration from launching war in Iraq, I do wonder whether the American opposition to this war could have been more popular and more widespread four years ago. And sometimes I even lie awake and wonder how best to deal with people as intellectually dishonest as Alexander Cockburn.