Liberals are now the appeasers of hate
In the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, the Left's conscience has failed the world, writes Nick Cohen in a new book
In the run-up to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the rich world's liberals were in danger of becoming ridiculous. At no point before in history had their ideals seemed so dominant. About two-thirds of the world's nations were democracies at the end of the 20th century, not always very good democracies, but making a start nonetheless. Meanwhile, the language of human rights was becoming the way the world talked about the relationship between citizens and states. The non-governmental organisations the liberals most admired - Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Medecins Sans Frontieres - had successfully raged against oppression and mass suffering, and become "players" in global politics. Governments consulted them and feared their criticisms. The organisers of international summits invited them to attend their meetings and share their thoughts with the powerful.
In Bridget Jones's Diary, her retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Helen Fielding summed up the kudos of liberal interventionists when she made her modern version of Mr Darcy, not a landed aristocrat but a "top-notch human rights barrister" and "total sex god": there was no more worthy or desirable occupation for the modern hero. The human rights conventions and international criminal courts with which liberals sought to bind states offered unprecedented protection against crimes great and small. As democracy spread to South America and Asia, it seemed reasonable to believe that high standards of justice, which would have been impossible while the European empires and totalitarian systems of communism and fascism were alive, would become global norms.
When asked why they were going along with British MP George Galloway (a leader of the Stop the War coalition who used to suck up to Saddam Hussein) and his kind, the liberal anti-war marchers protested that they didn't support totalitarianism and wanted nothing more than to uphold these exacting standards. And I can see how they managed to convince themselves that their virtue remained intact. They followed sober and responsible politicians such as Robin Cook and Gerhard Schroeder; leaders who were committed to multilateralism and conciliation, which were good principles to have.
They opposed George W. Bush and Tony Blair because they didn't believe that Saddam posed an imminent threat and they feared an upsurge in al-Qa'ida violence when the fighting began - and these were undeniably good grounds for opposing war. They worried about how lopsided and dangerous a world with only one superpower would become when that superpower resorted to force without the support of a clear majority of the democratic nations, and this, too, was a reasonable worry for all who weren't American - and for many Americans as well.
Hundreds of millions of liberal-minded people felt the same - not just in Europe, but in South and Central America, Canada, the Middle East, South Africa, India, Australia and Asia. Yet for all their reasonableness, and all their good and intelligent arguments, they were in danger of becoming vicious, self-defeating and fraudulent. Ridiculous, in short.
Saddam was against everything represented by Amnesty International and all the other admirable nongovernmental organisations. No anti-liberal, anti-democratic tyrant could be further from the professed principles of the British Liberal Democrats, the European Social and Christian Democrats and the African National Congress. He was an embodiment of the mass terror and racism of the 20th century which they said they wanted to escape. When a war to overthrow him came, the liberals had two choices.
The first was to oppose the war, remain hypercritical of aspects of the Bush administration's policy, but support Iraqis as they struggled to establish a democracy. The policy of not leaving Iraqis stranded was so clearly the only moral option, it never occurred to me that there could be another choice. From the point of view of the liberals, the only ground they would have had to concede if they had stuck by their principles in Iraq would have been an acknowledgment that the war had a degree of legitimacy.
They would still have been able to say it was catastrophically mismanaged, a provocation to al-Qa'ida and all the rest of it. They would still have been able to condemn atrocities by American troops, Guantanamo Bay, and Bush's pushing of the boundaries on torture. They might usefully have linked up with like-minded Iraqis, who wanted international support to fight against the American insistence on privatisation of industries, for instance. All they would have had to accept was that the attempt to build a better Iraq was worthwhile and one to which they could and should make a positive commitment. A small price to pay; a price all their liberal principles insisted they had a duty to pay. Or so it seemed.
The second choice for the liberals was to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. To look at the Iraqi civilians and the British and American troops who were dying in a war whose central premise had proved to be false, and to go berserk; to allow justifiable anger to propel them into "binges of posturing and ultra-radicalism" as the 1960s' liberals had done when they went off the rails.
As one critic characteried the position, they would have to pretend that "the United States was the problem and Iraq was its problem". They would have to maintain that the war was not an attempt to break the power of tyranny in a benighted region, but the bloody result of a "financially driven mania to control Middle Eastern oil, and the faith-driven crusade to batter the crescent with the cross". They chose to go berserk.
In 2003, while his friends in Washington were enjoying their brief moment of triumph, the neo-conservative thinker Robert Kagan tried to warn Republicans that the apparently feeble liberals of Europe had a latent power. On the face of it, Europe and by extension the countries and organisations that favoured the multilateralism associated with the ideals of Europe was a joke. It talked loudly and carried a small stick.
For all the high-sounding speeches from the inhabitants of "Paradise" about "never again" and human rights, they relied on the Americans to stop the atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo and condemned them when they didn't intervene in Rwanda. Militarily, the US could have won the war in Iraq without the support of a single ally, including Britain. Economically, it could afford to rebuild Iraq, even if the task took decades, as it did in Western Europe and Japan after World War II.
But Kagan warned that politically a split in the democratic world would be calamitous. The European opponents of the war in Paris and Berlin, and all the organisations and liberal-minded people there and elsewhere who said they supported human rights, had the power to deny America moral legitimacy by saying the war was "illegal".
Logically, they should then have followed through and demanded that the Americans release Saddam from prison and restore him to the presidency that the invading forces had "illegally" stolen from him. But, as the theorists from the universities' cultural studies departments of the '80s and '90s had anticipated, there wasn't much call for logic in a postmodern world that welcomed self-righteous fury without positive commitments.
In defiance of the stereotype, Americans have always cared what the rest of the world thinks about them, said Kagan. Their Declaration of Independence said they must have "a decent respect for the opinion of mankind". Paine, Jefferson and Franklin said from the start that American democratic values should be universal. "Because Americans do care," argued Kagan, "the steady denial of international legitimacy by fellow democracies over time will become debilitating and perhaps even paralysing."
He didn't think of a further consequence - maybe because it was too scandalous to imagine. What would be the effect of pretending that it was illegal to overthrow a genocidal regime on Iraqis who were struggling to build a better country? The answer came soon after the invasion when the liberals gave aid and comfort to the Islamists and the Baathists. The "insurgents" were able to use the liberals' slogans - "It's all about oil!" "It's illegal!" - and to taunt their opponents with the indisputable fact that even their supposed liberal allies in New York, London, Berlin and Paris didn't support them.
The push for a democratic Iraq had American military and financial power behind it, but liberals the world over denied it moral support and legitimacy, which matter more. In the eyes of liberal opinion, the millions of Iraqis who voted for a new government were little better than the receivers of stolen goods.
Richard Dawkins was a typical case. A polemical scientist who had pulverised religious fundamentalism in Britain and the US, he couldn't see beyond Bush to an Iraq that was being pulverised by Islamists. In a letter to the press just after the war he summed up the liberals' raging indifference when he gloated, "Now Bush is begging the United Nations to help clean up the mess he created in Iraq, there is a temptation to tell him to get lost. It is a temptation to which I hope the United Nations will succumb. US armed forces are 'overstretched', and that is exactly how they should be."
The short point is that the ideology of the new far Left or new far Right, or however you wish to characterise the nihilist mentality we saw developing in the universities and the anti-globalisation movement, was now mainstream. There was the same commitment-phobia: the leaders of the anti-war marches in Britain who saluted Saddam or mused about executing apostates were the exception - most who marched behind them just grew impatient if you asked which Iraqis they were supporting and what type of Iraq they wanted to see. The idea that liberalism imposed the obligation to support others who shared liberal values was as beyond most liberals as it was beyond most of those who called themselves socialists.
The protests against Bush felt like a great leftish mobilisation, but it did not produce a new generation of left leaders. The only global figure to emerge was Michael Moore, and his film Fahrenheit 9/11, the most profitable documentary of all time, was the defining cultural moment of the protests. It was an embarrassingly shabby piece of propaganda, which worked on the correct assumption that its audience would be so angry it wouldn't care if what intelligence it had was insulted by honking factual errors and clunking internal contradictions. The high point was a countdown to the beginning of the war in Iraq in March 2003.
As a voice intoned "Ten, nine, eight, seven ..." the screen was filled with images of Baathist Baghdad. Moore brushed aside the millions forced into exile and the mass graves and torture chambers and decided instead to present life in one of the worst tyrannies of the late 20th century as sweet. Happy Iraqis enjoyed simple pleasures ("six ... five"). Merry children flew kites ("four ... three"). Blushing lovers got married ("two ... one"). And just as a lovely little girl reached the bottom of a slide, the countdown reached zero and explosions filled the screen. The camera cut to a man holding a dead baby, standing by a pickup truck full of corpses.
Presented with propaganda which might have come from the studios of the dictators of the '30s, the jury at the Cannes Film Festival and audiences in art house cinemas on every continent did not protest at the whitewash of totalitarianism, but rose to their feet and cheered themselves hoarse.
These weren't marginal Trotskyists heading from the far Left to the religious Right, but mainstream liberal consumers unable and unwilling to find a way to oppose Bush while retaining (or discovering) the smallest concern for the victims of fascism.
The refusal to think about a middle course sent the liberal organisations with the most to lose from a collapse of faith in universal human rights spinning off into the wasteland of moral relativism. Five years ago, if you could have asked journalists, diplomats, academics and the victims of oppression themselves who they would have trusted above all others to stay sober in a crisis, my guess is that they would have nominated Amnesty International. Peter Benenson, one of the great Englishmen of the 20th century, set it up as a rigorously, almost ascetically, impartial body.
At first, Amnesty dealt only with prisoners of conscience who espoused non-violence. It didn't matter which side they were on in the Cold War, or any other war, because Amnesty didn't concern itself with politics. Its reputation couldn't survive the aftermath of 9/11. The first sign that it was losing its compass came when Blair cited Amnesty International's reports on Iraq in a dossier on his reasons for going to war. In September 2002, he urged MPs to "read about the routine butchering of political opponents; the prison 'cleansing' regimes in which thousands die; the torture chambers and hideous penalties supervised by him and his family and detailed by Amnesty International. Read it all again and again. I defy anyone to say that this cruel and sadistic dictator should be allowed any possibility of getting his hands on more chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons."
Faced with the prospect of Blair removing the regime it had denounced for 34 of its 41 years, Amnesty cracked. Blair's description of the terror in Iraq was "opportunistic and selective", it snapped. Strictly speaking, Amnesty should have kept its mouth shut. All that should have mattered to its leaders was whether Blair was quoting their reports accurately - which he was: Blair was "selective" only in that he underplayed the scale of the terror. Amnesty couldn't admit that because the crisis was pushing it away from the necessary impartiality of any human rights worker or judge into a sly political posturing with echoes of the '30s. If it took sides in the war, Amnesty's history would have forced it to come out for a democratic Iraq.
But support for Bush, however limited, would have appalled its members. Equally, it couldn't support the Saddamists and Islamists. So in true Virginia Woolf style, Amnesty, along with a large segment of liberal opinion, pretended that both sides were equally bad and the US and Britain were moral equivalents of totalitarian movements and states.
Human Rights Watch, which had made its name as a rival to Amnesty with its investigations into Saddam's Iraq, tied its tongue in knots as it tried to find a way to oppose the war to overthrow him. Kenneth Roth, its director, came up with a canting formula that there was no humanitarian purpose to the war because, although there had been mass slaughter, ethnic cleansing and environmental destruction over 35 years, "no such slaughter was then ongoing or imminent" at the precise moment in 2003 when the war began. His lawyerly point was that although the Baathists were still killing, they were killing at a slower rate than in the past; the numbers of rapes and the intensity of the persecution of ethnic minorities were not up to their previous speed and nothing could be done until Saddam pulled his socks up and improved the strike rate.
Medecins Sans Frontieres was the only one of the major human rights organisations to hold on to the principles that had seemed to embody the highest hopes for the new century on September 10 2001. Its founder, Bernard Kouchner, a former French socialist minister, was an evangelist for saving humanity. He made his motto "mankind's suffering belongs to all men", as he laid out the duty of the rich world to intervene to save the poor world from crimes against humanity. There was a touch of the Old Testament prophet about him and after accepting that the Bush administration had made catastrophic errors, he turned to liberals from the rich world who thought they could sit out the Iraq calamity, and thundered: "As for us, as so often draped in our certitudes, let us not imagine ourselves protected from barbarism. Europeans' lukewarm interest in maintaining their American and British alliances won't protect them. Those who think so commit a fearsome mistake of analysis. Soon, the Americans won't be the only target of the fanatics, but all democrats, all moderate believers, and first of all, women."
Kouchner's denunciations of complacency didn't get his fellow Europeans quite right. They were frightened. The Middle East was just across the Mediterranean and the EU had a large Muslim minority with a strong Muslim Brotherhood presence. But they weren't willing to fight fanaticism not only because of the passivity their postmodern Paradise encouraged, but for a practical reason that the US conservatives who roared about the terrorist threat never grasped. I don't mean to diminish the suffering caused by the bombings in Madrid and London when I say that Islamist violence in Europe after 9/11 was tolerable. Europe could live with a few dozen or few hundred casualties once every couple of years. The fear of a catastrophic conflict in the future nagged away, but it didn't feel like a war.
By the time you read this, maybe the body count will have risen and forced Europeans to think a little less glibly, but in the five years after 9/11, the combination of fear and a relatively small number of casualties brought the ideal conditions for appeasement.
In the liberal and social democratic movements of Europe, fear led to denial, as it did in the '30s, and every upsurge of Islamism was blamed on the root cause of Western provocation. Like the British liberal-Left outside the Labour Party, the French Left just gave up on principled thought and chanted the slogans of Trotskyists. In Spain, the Madrid bombings brought to power the Spanish socialists on whose behalf my mother had boycotted General Franco's oranges a generation before. Their conservative rivals had seemed certain to win the election until they were caught spinning that the atrocities were the work of Basques rather than Islamists and the Spanish electorate punished them for playing politics with murder.
The brave Spanish socialists, whose grandparents had fought fascist armies that marched with the slogan "Long Live Death!" on their lips, collapsed before Islamists who declared "We Love Death" and ordered the immediate withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. Fascism wasn't ancient history in Spain. It had survived until 1975, and many socialist politicians were old enough to remember reading in Franco's school textbooks about how a conspiracy of Freemasons and Jews threatened Spanish purity. They showed no fellow feeling with Iraqis who were enduring what their grandparents had endured. As far as the Europeans were concerned, the unnecessary war had brought death into the Paradise of Fortress Europe, and that was the end of it.
The above is an edited extract from "What's Left? How the Liberals Lost Their Way", by Nick Cohen, published by Fourth Estate. Extract originally published February 17, 2007
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