Why the left should back US

In its editorial “The other 9/11s”, the Mail & Guardian (September 12) continues to maintain its simplistic analysis of United States foreign policy: a complicated problem is crudely linked to past American machinations in Chile, Vietnam and Angola, the behaviour of its one-time secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and US support for Israel.

The issues at stake today are more intricate and the problem of securing human rights in an age of rogue states and religious extremism more complex. A range of left-wing intellectuals has understood this, most of whom never appear in our media and all of whom are ignored by the M&G.

In fact, in debates leading up to the Iraq war, and in post-war discussions, traditional labels of left and right have proved meaningless: many progressive and highly respected public intellectuals and scholars supported the war initially and have subsequently maintained their positions. Of those the real surprise was the soft pedalling on American imperialism by the highly respected Michael Ignatieff, the director of Harvard’s Carr Centre for Human Rights.

In a seminal article, The Burden, Ignatieff wrote about the necessity for regime change in Iraq, especially given the putative failure of containment as a policy: “The disagreeable reality for those who believe in human rights is that there are some occasions — and Iraq may be one of them — when war is the only real remedy for regimes that live by terror.”

Although Ignatieff’s article alerted observers to the problematics of intellectual labels, it was the British-born and Washington-based public intellectual, Christopher Hitchens — an arch-critic of US foreign policy and bête noire of the neo-conservatives — who proved to be the most intriguing of the “hawks”.
Having spent years trashing Kissinger and other icons of the right, Hitchens’s relentless defence of “regime change” in Iraq has become a talking-point.

For the man who once proclaimed, after reviewing Kissinger’s memoir, The White House Years, that he had taken a vow never to read another work by the former secretary of state until the publication of his prison letters, Hitchens’s support for President George W Bush’s war has been likened to a Damascene conversion.

But close inspection of Hitchens’s voluminous writings demonstrates a consistent loyalty to an internationalist and socialist worldview. The time had come, notes Hitchens, to show solidarity with the Kurdish and Iraqi people. The US had a moral obligation to end Saddam Hussein’s homicidal rule, especially after Bush the Elder had betrayed the people of Iraq in 1991.

For Hitchens the matter is relatively simple: countries surrender their sovereignty when their record includes the invasion of neighbours, the sponsoring of terrorists, the murder of their own people in great numbers and the holding of weapons that violate non-proliferation treaties.

Such voices have been muted in South Africa. With the Independent stable regularly genuflecting to its in-house polemicist, Robert Fisk, the Sunday Times publishing in the main the opinions of observers such as John Pilger and John le Carre, and the M&G ignoring serious progressive engagement, little of the debate that has characterised the American scene has been available to South African readers.

Those on the left who dine out on “Bushisms” would be surprised to know that the latest salvo in support of Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been fired by Norman Geras, one-time editor of Britain’s prestigious New Left Review.

In a blistering condemnation of what he refers to as “opposition to the US, come what may”, Geras excoriates his hypocritical left-wing colleagues whom he accuses of repeating the same errors committed by their Stalinist comrades. Had the anti-war marches succeeded, writes Geras, “the life of the Baathist regime would have been prolonged, with all that that entailed: years more of the rape rooms, the torture chambers, the children’s jails and the mass graves recently uncovered.”

Echoing Ignatieff and Hitchens, Geras contends that sovereignty is not sacrosanct. But he goes further: the left was wrong for not being bothered about “making common cause with, marching alongside, fundamentalist religious bigots and known racists” and for dismissing “Iraqi voices in support of the war as coming from American stooges”. Widespread support for the war, as opposed to marches against it, would have set a powerful precedent against other murderous dictatorships.

“You have to go back to the apologias for, and fellow-travelling with, the crimes of Stalinism,” writes Geras, “to find as shameful a moral failure of liberal and left opinion as the wrong-headed ... opposition to the freeing of the Iraqi people from one of the foulest regimes on the planet.”

Given an assessment by Human Rights Watch that about 290 000 Iraqis disappeared — the majority presumed dead — during 23 years of Saddam’s rule, we need to reflect deeply and apply our minds to this complex issue.

Of course, important and eloquent voices on the left remain critical of the war and the post-war Anglo-American occupation. But our force-fed diet of anti-American opinion pieces ought to be tempered with the best of left-wing critiques. And when we praise the behaviour of France and Germany for their determination to operate through the United Nations, it should be remembered that, according to an Iraqi report to the UN in 1998, these two paragons of multilateralism provided 73% of the technical machinery necessary for Iraq to develop chemical and biological warfare. It should also be remembered that the majority of the UN members are corrupt dictatorships.

Has the M&G any proposals for dealing with what it terms “every wild-eyed incendiarist in the Middle East”? Any cursory knowledge of Islamic extremism reveals a depth of hatred towards Western secularism that goes beyond American imperialism and the affront of a Jewish State in what was once “Dar al Islam”, or territory once under Islamic control: Sayyid Qutb, Abu ala Mawdudi, Ali Shariati, Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini have challenged Western values at their core. What is to be done?

Professor Milton Shain is director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town.

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