One big problem with liberal and leftist debate about Al Qaeda or Iraq is that it rarely seems to have much to do with Al Qaeda or Iraq. Too often it is about settling personal and political scores, which invites both liberal impotence and conservative McCarthyism.
A few figures on the left do come close to fitting the peacenik caricature currently in fashion. If Alexander Cockburn, Noam Chomsky or Gore Vidal has ever had anything balanced or nuanced to say about America’s role in the world, I’ve missed it. But excluding Chomsky’s (considerable) authority on college campuses and Vidal’s among the global glitterati, their influence is negligible. Perhaps their reflexive anti-Western views represent majority opinion among the 2.7 percent of voters who pulled the lever for Ralph Nader. I don’t know. But they enjoy no discernible resonance in policy debates or electoral contests.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that those who condemn liberals and “the left” for their irresponsibility about the war have to reach so deep into the anonymous masses for targets. When New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof–who has plenty of kind words about the Saudis–takes off after the “intelligent left” “slipping into a…cesspool of outraged incoherence,” he is reduced in his target-hunting to picking off a previously unknown group called Citizens for Legitimate Government, a few unnamed “liberal Web sites” and a conspiratorial (and anonymous) e-mail or two. The same sorry tactic was employed by New Republic editor Peter Beinart vis-à-vis Al Qaeda last year to excoriate globalization protesters in the wake of 9/11.
The other side has been no less intellectually lazy or politically transparent in its choice of attack. Writing in this magazine a few months ago, Adam Shatz falsely accused Paul Berman and others associated with Dissent magazine of allowing Israel to “shape and even define” their foreign policy views. He childishly chided Michael Walzer for appearing “to regard [Noam Chomsky] as an even greater menace to society than Osama himself.”
This is nonsense on a nuclear scale but no worse than Christopher Hitchens’s slander of Jimmy Carter, whom he accuses–sans evidence–of inciting Saddam Hussein to attack Iran in 1980. Hitchens also voices contempt for that segment of the “fellow-traveling” left, minuscule if indeed even existent, that views the terrorist mass-murderer bin Laden as merely “a slightly misguided anti-imperialist.” Meanwhile, the usually perspicacious Ron Rosenbaum attended an antiwar demonstration and discovered, as Michael Tomasky wrote on the Altercation website (www.altercation.msnbc.com), “mirabile dictu, that a lot of the anti-American palaver he heard there was insipid, reflexive, and, worst of all, guilty of a grotesque tendency to see only America’s evils and not those of Al Qaeda or Saddam or Joseph Stalin. So Ron says goodbye to all that, evoking the title of a famous 1929 memoir by Robert Graves upon leaving his native England.”