The Left and 9/11
Wars tend to spread beyond their original objectives, and the war in Afghanistan is no exception. Hardly had the Taliban collapsed when a new war was declared, a war on terror with a long list of enemies (almost none of them related to Al Qaeda) and no obvious endgame. Not without reason, our European allies increasingly see this war as a naked effort to remap the world in US interests. The war's collateral effects now include widespread violations of civil liberties at home, an aggressive foreign policy and an emboldened unilateralism.
As it turns out, the more persuasive analysis on the left of these collateral effects belongs not to Hitchens but to Chomsky. While Hitchens was outlining his support for a war on "Islamo-fascism," Chomsky was predicting that the terrorist threat would be invoked to justify further adventures, just as it was during the Reagan Administration. And the second war against terrorism is staffed by some of the same people who led the first one. John Negroponte, Reagan's ambassador to Honduras and the point man of our Central American wars, is our ambassador to the United Nations. Reagan's special envoy to the Middle East, Donald Rumsfeld, is Defense Secretary. One can differ with Chomsky on Afghanistan and still see much of value in his critique of the war on terrorism. "I don't believe that we're ideologically committed to do evil," says playwright Tony Kushner. "On the other hand, what Chomsky says about the globalization of the war is absolutely true. It's the beginning of an unapologetic imperium, and that's quite frightening."
Chomsky's framework for understanding US foreign policy is appealing because it appears to see through the fog, while allowing those who accept it to feel like they're on the side of history's angels. His world is an orderly, logical one in which everything is foretold. The shape events assume may be unexpected, but the events themselves are the predictable outcome of this or that American policy. Applied to Vietnam, East Timor and Palestine, Chomsky's analysis of American imperialism has demonstrated uncommon prophetic powers. Applied to Cambodia and the Balkans, it has prevented him from comprehending evil that has not been plotted from Washington.
Unlike Chomsky, Hitchens has an acute sense of the contingency, and the ironies, of history. But he now talks about global politics as though it were a great chessboard, which the United States could master provided it learned the rules of the game.
Despite their strengths, since September 11 both these paradigms have proved to be unreliable compasses. Chomsky's jaundiced perspective on American power makes it virtually impossible to contemplate the possibility of just American military interventions, either for self-defense or to prevent genocide. Hitchens's intoxicated embrace of American power has left him less and less capable of drawing the line between humanitarian intervention and rogue-state adventurism. What the left needs to cultivate is an intelligent synthesis, one that recognizes that the United States has a role to play in the world while also warning of the dangers of an imperial foreign policy.
Even where a growing consensus is apparent, as in the case of Iraq, such a synthesis remains elusive. Why does the left oppose war on Iraq? Do we oppose it because the US government's reasons for going to war are always deceitful, or because the United States has no right to unseat foreign governments that haven't attacked us first, or because this war is ill-timed and is likely to backfire? Do we oppose it because it's unilateral and illegal under international law, or because the American government has failed to put forward a coherent vision of Iraq after Saddam? As with Afghanistan, there are more than two ways to be for or against an intervention in Iraq. Like the war on terror, the debate on the left over the uses of American force has no end in sight.