Since the September 11 attacks, it’s become a cliché to say that the left is divided over American foreign policy. But “divided” doesn’t begin to capture the diversity of opinion about the war in Afghanistan and the war on terror–or, for that matter, the inner conflicts that have racked many people on the left. Standing outside my apartment on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn on September 11, I saw the towers on fire. As shaken and horrified as I was, I knew two things: (1) the American government–my government, for better or for worse–would respond; and (2) that despite my fear that the response would be disproportionate, I wasn’t going to be attending any peace rallies, at least not yet.
Since then, the fog of war has grown thicker and thicker. On some days, I’m sympathetic to Noam Chomsky’s critique of the war on terrorism as an arrogant war of empire. On other days, I remember the view from Flatbush Avenue on September 11, and I’m gripped by the sense that anti-imperialism is a woefully incomplete guide to today’s situation. I never saw the Soviets, the Cubans, the Sandinistas, the ANC or the PLO as enemies. Al Qaeda is another matter altogether.
Curious whether others shared my own ambivalence, I undertook an informal investigation of left-wing opinion on American foreign policy since 9/11. I spoke to a range of left intellectuals, from social democrats who were convinced that Afghanistan was a necessary and just war, to anti-imperialists who believed that it was a nasty war of retribution. More important, I spoke with people, arguably the left majority, who fell somewhere in between, in that sea of uncertainty that is the post-9/11 condition. They weren’t ecstatic about the war in Afghanistan, but they couldn’t bring themselves to oppose it either. The question that has vexed them is where to draw the line between self-defense and imperial aggrandizement.
Some of the people I interviewed opposed going to war in October because they feared a bloody quagmire and didn’t trust the Bush Administration, but changed their minds a month later when the Taliban unexpectedly fell. Others went in the opposite direction, coming out against the war only after US bombing began to inflict heavy civilian casualties. A few people supported targeted strikes against Al Qaeda training bases, but not the overthrow of the Taliban–not because of any sympathy for the regime but because the Bush Administration might be emboldened to overthrow other governments. Others argued, in contrast, that we shouldn’t be bombing Afghanistan unless we were willing to send in ground troops. Some said that a struggle against radical Islam is necessary, but that we should be waging it in Saudi Arabia, not in Afghanistan. And many of the people who cautiously supported the Afghan intervention passionately assailed the war on terror as a new cold war, a danger to both American democracy and security.
To be honest, I’ve held a number of these positions myself. There may not be thirteen ways of looking at “America’s new war,” as CNN almost instantly (and vaguely) named it, but there are certainly more than two.
Reading the left press, however, you wouldn’t necessarily know this. Since September 11, the debate on the left has been framed by the extremes of pro- and antiwar opinion–that is, if you can call it a debate. It’s more like a shouting match, with accusations of treason of one kind or another being flung by both sides.
New Left Review editor Tariq Ali sneers at supporters of the war, including his ex-friend Christopher Hitchens, as “the new empire loyalists,” while Hitchens excoriates opponents of the war on terror as “Ramadanistas.” In “Can There Be a Decent Left?”, an essay in the spring Dissent, Michael Walzer–who lent his signature to “What We’re Fighting For,” a prowar manifesto sponsored by the center-right Institute for American Values–accused the antiwar left of expressing “barely concealed glee that the imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved.” (When I asked him to say whom he had in mind, he said: “I’m not going to do that. Virtually everyone who read it knew exactly what I was talking about.”)