Below is a blog I wrote in February, 2007 in response to the publication of extracts from the book in the Murdoch press.
Guardian or Turncoat?
It's been both amusing and thought-provoking to read extracts from "What's Left? How the Liberals Lost Their Way", by Nick Cohen. To be honest, I can't understand what his point is from the extracts that I've seen. I assume he is saying that Western left-liberals have so disappointed and embarrassed him, that he's going to cease being a left-liberal himself. I have to assume that he was once a left-liberal and now he is not. There's no attempt in the extracts to salvage some personal left-liberal stance or to espouse an alternative left-liberal vision. Instead, he seems to relish the experience of growing up and going over to the other (dark) side. All sides of politics revel in the presence of an opponent who turns, even if it happens late in life. Obviously, Conservatism will embrace Nick Cohen and publish his book and make him wealthy and important. Or presumably so he hopes.
Cohen's Arguments with the Left
So, what is the left-liberal philosophy he objects to? Is it a reasonable objection? What is to be done? The extract is one great howl. But as far as I can make out, these are the strands of his argument:
·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 opposing the war against Iraq, the liberal anti-war marchers protested that they didn't support totalitarianism and wanted nothing more than to uphold these exacting standards.
·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.
·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.
·Saddam was against everything represented by Amnesty International and all the other admirable nongovernmental organisations. 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 (assuming they were never going to support the war in the circumstances).
·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 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.
·They would have to pretend that "the United States was the problem and Iraq was its problem".
·The liberal left 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.
·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.
·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 liberals were 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.
·They pretended that both sides were equally bad and the US and Britain were moral equivalents of totalitarian movements and states.
·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.
·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.
Alternative Responses to the War in Iraq
It's interesting that Cohen never actually states that the left-liberals should have supported the war. They only have two choices:
·To oppose the war, but support the efforts of Iraqis to establish democracy; and
·To go berserk.
Naturally, he argues that they chose the latter. He complains that, by attacking Bush and his war, they appeased Saddam. Instead, he suggests that they should "accept" the war and support the efforts to establish democracy. In a way, he thinks it would have been better to attack Saddam and appease Bush. Presumably because Bush is one of us.
Democracy and the Rule of Law
At the heart of this debate is a conflict between two values: democracy and the rule of law. By the rule of law, I mean the institutions that have been established to achieve justice and avoid or resolve conflict between nations and between nations and their peoples. Within the rule of law, I include the United Nations and international law. It seems that Cohen's main gripe is that, when faced with a choice between the two values, the left chose the rule of law. This doesn't mean that they condoned what Saddam was doing. It just means that they considered that there was a better way to deal with it than starting a war without the sanction of the UN.
Justifying the War
Remember that at the time the stated reason for the war was not "regime change" but self-defence against "weapons of mass destruction". There was no suggestion that the establishment of democracy was the motive behind the war. This justification only arose when it became clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction. Regime change and the establishment of democracy was a rationalisation for a war that couldn't be reversed. Now, in other words, the end was supposed to justify the means.
Restraints on War
I think this is what motivates the left (to the extent that there is any one view). If the establishment of democracy had been advanced as a legitimate reason for starting a war (without the sanction of the UN), nobody in the international community would have supported it. It would have expressly contravened international law and the UN Charter, which restricts territorial aggression to self-defence. Perhaps, the lack of support in the UN for some sort of action against Saddam would have maintained the status quo, no matter how oppressive it might have been. Perhaps, the UN might have acted, if a majority of members thought there was no reasonable alternative. However, all political parties have to recognise that there are restraints on the right to start a war against another nation, no matter how good the cause or how undemocratic the nation is.
Recognising Your Own Powerlessness
Here, the plight the left finds itself in is that it has been forced to recognise its own powerlessness: it opposes the conduct of an oppressive regime, it monitors it and reports it, but ultimately it cannot overturn the government and establish a new order, except through UN action or democratic action from within the nation. Sometimes we just have to accept our own powerlessness, no matter how offensive our opponent is, at least until it attacks us or self-defence is justified. Unfortunately, this has been the plight of social democrats for decades. Unless they could overturn oppression through democratic means, they had to put up, even if they did not shut up.
Embracing Violence as a Means to a Political End
The only alternative was revolution, which communism advocated, but social democracy opposed. Communism endorsed the use of force and disobedience to the rule of law in the name of a higher cause: communism. Bush does the same in the name of the higher cause of democracy. Cohen seems to accuse the left of siding with totalitarianism or fascism. However, it depends on how you define fascism. You have to wonder whether fascism is really defined by the state's attitude to the use of force, whether internally or externally. It's this dilemma, this choice between two supreme but conflicting values, which has created the plight that the left finds itself in. The dilemma didn't present itself for a government that was determined to go to war, with or without the sanction of the UN. The Bush government was driven by pragmatism, not niceties or values.
Bush's National Security Policy
OK, this is not totally true when it comes to values. George Bush's National Security Policy from 2002 is enlightening. Here are ten points that summarise it:
1.There is a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy and free enterprise;
2.The values of freedom are right and true for every person in every society;
3.The duty of protecting these values against the enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages;
4.The US should use its unparallelled military strength and great economic influence to create a balance of power that favours human freedom and conditions in which all nations and all societies can choose for themselves the rewards and challenges of political and economic liberty;
5.The US should defend the peace by fighting terrorists and tyrants;
6.The US should preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers;
7.The US should extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent;
8.The US should actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world;
9.The US should hold to account all nations that are compromised by terror (including those who harbor terrorists), because the allies of terror are the enemies of civilisation;
10.As a matter of common sense and self-defence, the US should act against emerging threats before they are fully formed.
Using Violence to Promote Freedom, Democracy and Free Enterprise
These points leave no doubt that Bush regards it as his right and obligation to use its "unparallelled military strength and great economic influence" to promote freedom, democracy and free enterprise. There is no implication that this right is subject to any greater authority or principle. The US is to be its own judge, jury and executioner. You can see why, for the left to attack Saddam and appease Bush, it believes that it will undermine the rule of law in favour of the unilateral right to exercise force in the promotion of US values. This leaves the left powerless in the face of "unparallelled military strength and great economic influence" and a President who has shown he is prepared to exercise it. Manouvred into a corner, it's no wonder that some on the left went "berserk".
Waiting for the Judgement of History
Too powerless to achieve anything concrete, they could only hope that time and history vindicated them. Ironically, they have to wait out two four year terms to see how US democracy will deal with Bush. The President won't leave the scene with his tail between his legs, and the Conservatives will be there to sing his fanfare. Now it seems that Cohen will be there as well. Given the choice between the rule of law and "unparallelled military strength and great economic influence", he has chosen the latter. He has elected to be pragmatic rather than principled and patient, and now, like the left he attacks, he has to live with his choice. Perhaps, this is why I couldn't work out what he believes in any more. Unless the highest value for him is now pragmatism.(less)