Nick Cohen of The Observer has written a book about the failings of the far left in its foreign policy called What’s Left: How Liberals Lost Their Way. There is an excerpt of it here, and another one here. It is an unrelenting and eloquent call for certain segments of the left to take account for their hypocrisy. In the same way Andrew Sullivan, a conservative, flawlessly points out the double standards and failings of the right, Cohen, a liberal, does the same for the left.
First, he recounts the way the left would weep over Saddam Hussein’s crimes right up until the moment Western military powers stood up in resistance to them:
The apparently sincere commitment to help Iraqis vanished the moment Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and became America’s enemy. At the time, I didn’t think about where the left was going. I could denounce the hypocrisy of a West which made excuses for Saddam one minute and called him a ‘new Hitler’ the next, but I didn’t dwell on the equal and opposite hypocrisy of a left which called Saddam a ‘new Hitler’ one minute and excused him the next. All liberals and leftists remained good people in my mind. Asking hard questions about any of them risked giving aid and comfort to the Conservative enemy and disturbing my own certainties. I would have gone on anti-war demonstrations when the fighting began in 1991, but the sight of Arabs walking around London with badges saying ‘Free Kuwait’ stopped me. When they asked why it was right to allow Saddam to keep Kuwaitis as his subjects, a part of me conceded that they had a point.
Then he jumps forward to the current Iraq war as the hypocrisy continued:
I waited for a majority of the liberal left to offer qualified support for a new Iraq, and I kept on waiting, because it never happened – not just in Britain, but also in the United States, in Europe, in India, in South America, in South Africa … in every part of the world where there was a recognisable liberal left. They didn’t think again when thousands of Iraqis were slaughtered by ‘insurgents’ from the Baath party, which wanted to re-establish the dictatorship, and from al-Qaeda, which wanted a godly global empire to repress the rights of democrats, the independent-minded, women and homosexuals. They didn’t think again when Iraqis defied the death threats and went to vote on new constitutions and governments. Eventually, I grew tired of waiting for a change that was never going to come and resolved to find out what had happened to a left whose benevolence I had taken for granted.
Then comes the knock-out passage in which he goes beyond Iraq and spells out the deeper sickness that has insinuated itself into much of the left:
Why is it that apologies for a militant Islam which stands for everything the liberal left is against come from the liberal left? Why will students hear a leftish postmodern theorist defend the exploitation of women in traditional cultures but not a crusty conservative don? After the American and British wars in Bosnia and Kosovo against Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansers, why were men and women of the left denying the existence of Serb concentration camps? As important, why did a European Union that daily announces its commitment to the liberal principles of human rights and international law do nothing as crimes against humanity took place just over its borders? Why is Palestine a cause for the liberal left, but not China, Sudan, Zimbabwe, the Congo or North Korea? Why, even in the case of Palestine, can’t those who say they support the Palestinian cause tell you what type of Palestine they would like to see? After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington why were you as likely to read that a sinister conspiracy of Jews controlled American or British foreign policy in a superior literary journal as in a neo-Nazi hate sheet? And why after the 7/7 attacks on London did leftish rather than right-wing newspapers run pieces excusing suicide bombers who were inspired by a psychopathic theology from the ultra-right?
In short, why is the world upside down? In the past conservatives made excuses for fascism because they mistakenly saw it as a continuation of their democratic rightwing ideas. Now, overwhelmingly and every where, liberals and leftists are far more likely than conservatives to excuse fascistic governments and movements, with the exception of their native far-right parties. As long as local racists are white, they have no difficulty in opposing them in a manner that would have been recognisable to the traditional left. But give them a foreign far-right movement that is anti-Western and they treat it as at best a distraction and at worst an ally.
They’re good questions, and it’s exactly what makes me squeamish about today’s liberalism.
I’ve spoken quite highly of Barack Obama on this blog and elsewhere, but if any Democrat wants to seal up my vote right now, he or she will assure me not only of a commitment to the withdrawal of troops from Iraq (a policy I agree with), but a commitment to ensure a significant presence in Iraq in the form of massive amounts of foreign aid and diplomatic assistance. Too much of the rhetoric from Democratic presidential contenders sounds like abandonment of Iraqis and of the decidedly liberal cause of developing a thriving democracy there. While all of them eagerly (and rightfully) point out that there is no military solution to the ongoing struggles in Iraq, none of them are particularly eager to suggest that there is a non-military solution other than shoving everything off onto the nascent Iraqi government, which isn’t a solution at all. Most importantly, there continues to be an absence in the Democratic Party of a leading figure who believes in both the importance and the possibility of transforming the Middle East.
As each of the Democratic presidential contenders flesh out the details of their respective Iraq policies, I wait and hope for one of them to drop the hypocrisy Cohen so accurately illuminates and pick up the mantle of true liberalism.