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March 20, 2003

In general, I try to

Daniel Radosh

In general, I try to avoid political discussions with my father. Today, however, he pressed me for a response to this article in Salon (you'll have to watch an ad to read it), by yet another left wing hawk. Since I spent far too long writing my reply, I might as well post it here, though it's depressing to do so now that the point is moot. If you're interested in what I think should happen next, skip to the last two grafs.

As I read it, Lempinen simply has a fundamentally militaristic philosophy: there is evil in the world, so wherever we can use force to put a stop to it, we should: Iraq, Nigeria. He stops there, but draw your own conclusions: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, half of Africa, Turkmenistan, Chechnya (which side should we join? both?). I'm surprised you so readily agree with his contention that the left should have sent individuals to joined the armed struggles in Central America in the 80s! But at least he's being intellectually honest: he believes in permanent war for permanent peace. Most of the rest of us think war should be a last resort. I share his anger at the situation in Nigeria, but am not nearly so willing to brush aside those niggling little fears he raises about the consequences of trying to solve that problem with a unilateral invasion. In fact, I think that would be downright insane. If he weren't advocating war, you'd probably see him as a parody of a bleeding heart liberal: A woman is going to die! That fact overrides all other arguments!

In any case, his critique of the left relies on several assumptions that I think are partly false. I'll start by saying that I agree that the left made a major error in not choosing to be more vocal in its denunciation of Saddam. However, I think that was a tactical error, more than a philosophical one. I think the left does care more about human rights in Iraq than the right, just as they care more about human rights everywhere, which is why every major human rights organization is funded and supported primarily by those on the left and dismissed by the right until it cynically finds them useful, as in Iraq or, briefly, Afghanistan. I also don't think that non-military opposition to oppression can be so quickly written off, and that most on the left do support internal armed struggles against oppressors, despite his contention that pacifism overwhelms that support. But here's the thing: This is the first article that I've seen criticizing the left for not protesting against other oppressive nations as well as Iraq. I give him credit for that. (Though it's funny that he thinks there should be more protests against China. Mocking people with "Free Tibet" bumperstickers is a favorite pasttime of the right! Or that he thinks the left doesn't protest Egypt. It wasn't the US military that got Saad Ibrahim exonerated). Usually when this argument is made, however, the critic only want to know why the left isn't protesting Saddam (and they don't expect anyone to ask back: why weren't you protesting Saddam's regime five years ago? Or twenty?). The response of organizers on the left is that such a question is only being asked because Bush has now declared Saddam the enemy, and Bush does not set the agenda for us. We do what we think is proper around the world, and to take on Saddam now would only be playing into the hands of those who say the left is pro-Saddam, thus bolstering their claim even as we try to refute it.

As I said, I happen to think that was a tactical error. The antiwar movement could have gotten more support if it had made a louder case for nonviolent opposition to Saddam's regime. Unfortunately, Lempinen makes no effort to deal with the case that has been made. He summarizes one leftist argument as "conflict can be solved without war" and then goes on to refute it by saying that there are times when it can't. Point taken, but the left's argument is only that this is not one of those times. There are numerous specific (if competing) arguments out there about what could have been tried first before an invasion (here; here ; here ; and, the one I ascribe to most, here (this one deals primarily with the war on terror, but its message can easily be extrapolated)) Maybe they would not have worked. But should they not have been tried? If Lempinen was genuinely unaware of these arguments, well, as I said, that's partly the left's fault, but it's also partly the media's. Slate's recent scorecard of TV pundits is telling: 18 pro war, 4 antiwar (one of them a silly celebrity). The people who could make the above cases or other ones are not invited to talk, period.

True there have not been "millions on the streets" to oppose Saddam and other dictators, but such a course has been openly discussed, and a minority of us supported it.

I have a few minor quibbles with some of his contentions: Frankly, I don't even understand this passage:

Today, the explicit anti-totalitarian impulse has been narrowed and diminished in leftist culture. Instead, the fundamental leftist reflex has evolved into something related, and yet quite different: antiwar, anti-America, and anti-American authority. That helps to explain the strange behavior of an alienated idealist like John Walker Lindh, who, in disillusionment with his native country, ends up fighting with the ferociously anti-democratic forces of the Taliban.

Lindh actually did exactly what Lempinen says leftists should do: he took up arms against oppressors! True, he was duped into seeing only the evil of the Northern Alliance (which was and is evil) and not of the Taliban (which was and is worse), but how does this support the claim that the left is now reflexively antiwar or anti-America? Perhaps Lempinen has not read the recent New Yorker article which makes a strong case that Lindh, idiotically, didn't know much about the Taliban and had no idea that it was going to end up fighting the US. (Tangentially, it also proves definitively that if the Lindh case is going to be held up of emblematic of anything, it must be the dangerous overreach of John Ashcroft's war on terror, not the naivite of the left.) As for his comment that "some lost souls would go to Iraq to serve as human shields, unaware or unconcerned that they would provide support and aid to a tyrant" -- well, sure, serving as a human shield is dumb, though he's buying into a particularly broad stereotype of them. If you actually read any of the blogs by human shields, once they leave Iraq, they can be forceful in their denunciations of Saddam -- after all, they've seen his work up close -- they just happen to feel that war and/or the US is worse. So yeah, lost souls, I agree. But you have to admit it's odd that the world hears more about human shields -- a tiny fringe of the antiwar movement -- than it does about those arguments I linked to above. One plays into the stereotype of the left, the other does not.

My main disagreement with this article, however, is that I think he brushes too quickly past the fact that everything the Bush administration says about this war is a lie. I mean, he says as much, but on balance he thinks we can ignore that because immediately taking out Saddam any way at all is better than not doing so. I think it's naive and dangerous to believe that Bush's motives don't matter (here's four reasons why). I think that taking out Saddam the wrong way for the wrong reasons is worse than not doing it at all. I would even support military action against Saddam if I truly believed it was part of a comprehensive plan for democracy and peace (see, again, A Real War On Terror). Now I'm a little curious what you believe [n.b., you in this case meaning dad, but I'd be happy to hear from others], since you called this piece brilliant: do you agree with him that Bush's motives are impure, that Iraq is not an imminent threat to the US or the region, that the only reason to take him out is humanitarian? If so, do you further agree with him that this should be the beginning of a worldwide campaign to enforce human rights wherever they are violated, as long as we can "safely" do so?

Finally, the irony is that I agree completely with his final point, which puts me at odds with others on the left:

For those leftists who have supported the war, and for those who have loudly opposed it, now is the time for a shift in strategy. Bush and his inner circle have repeatedly gone on the record describing the war on Iraq as a war of liberation. Even if we do not believe them, we must work relentlessly to hold them accountable. We must insist that the U.S. and its allies implement, as quickly as possible, a constructive post-war plan. They must protect the Kurds from Saddam and from Turkey. Aided by the U.N., they must provide for the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people, no matter the cost. If they truly want to detoxify the Middle East, Bush and his inner circle must commit to seeking a practical solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. They must be reminded constantly, and forcefully, that it is urgent to repair trust, and to stop the corrosion that comes with chronic hypocrisy.

While I wish the war hadn't started, I think he's right that we must now focus on winning the peace, including especially in Palestine. I will also add to his prescription a renewed commitment to nuclear nonproliferation, the International Criminal Court, the UN, and civil liberties in the US. This is all absolutely crucial to any plan for spreading freedom and human rights -- and my deep skepticism that any of it will come to pass is ultimately why I think this article is fundamentally wrong.

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