What's Left

December 25, 2002

The semi-chauvinistic American left

By Stephen Gowans

Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun Magazine wants me to join him in condemning both the United States for its threat of war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein for his "morally outrageous behavior and genocidal policies." Lerner is part of the semi-chauvinistic American left - a group of progressives and liberals that condemns Washington's enemies unreservedly while at the same time condemning their own country for failing to live up to its rhetoric about being liberal and democratic in its foreign policy.

Why Lerner has chosen this occasion to make public his condemnation of Saddam Hussein's "morally outrageous behavior" is worth examining. He could have done so two years ago, five years ago, ten years, even fifteen years ago, for Saddam Hussein's behavior was no less - and indeed, far more - worthy of condemnation in the past than it is today. But as far as I know, Lerner wasn't organizing petitions and inviting others to join him in condemning the Iraqi leader (not in any obvious way) until Washington decided that drawing attention to Hussein's behavior might be a good way to justify a stepped up war on Iraq to seize control of the country and its vast oil wealth.

If your tastes, as Lerner's seem to, lean toward condemning crimes, injustices, and morally outrageous behavior, there's no paucity of outrages to choose from. Every army, every police force, every government, every organization is maculated to some degree by corruption, by criminal activity, by base motives, and by morally outrageous behavior. Accordingly, we can't expect Lerner, or anyone else for the matter, to condemn all instances of morally outrageous behavior everywhere, for morally outrageous behavior is so ubiquitous that the crusader against moral lapses would be unremittingly engaged, his time completely taken up in fashioning denunciations.

But of all the morally outrageous acts from which he could chose, Lerner has chosen to zero in on Saddam Hussein's, and he's done so on the eve of Washington escalating its war on Iraq. Why Hussein? And why now? It's as if Germany's liberals and progressives decided on the eve of Hitler's invasion of France that the French needed to be thoroughly castigated. "Hey, we don't like what the Nazis are doing, but then we don't think too highly of the French either." A German left that unreservedly condemned the Nazi's prospective victims would, with justification, be viewed with suspicion.

And so too should Lerner, for there is no connection between Saddam Hussein's behavior and Washington's decision to escalate its war on Iraq that would justify Lerner's broaching of the Iraqi leader's behavior in connection with a purported antiwar declaration. It should have been enough for Lerner to say he condemned the actions of his own government.

Whether the United States has the right to take control of another country by force (or otherwise), whether countries have the right to arm themselves against aggression (including that initiated by the United States or the UN Security Council), and whether the UN Security Council has the right to outrage the sovereignty of weaker countries, are entirely separate issues from the behavior of Saddam Hussein. The only relevance the Iraqi leader has to these questions is entirely incidental - it is part of the pretext for an invasion, and an essential element of Washington's war propaganda, and so, in these incidental ways, Hussein's behavior is germane, but only then. Lerner's inclusion of the issue in what is purported to be a plea against the war treats as legitimate an illegitimate aspect of Washington's case for aggression. It says, Saddam Hussein's behavior is indeed relevant (for if not, why mention it?) and so strengthens Washington's hand.

But, it is said in defense of the practice, that people can keep the two issues separate (and therefore there's no danger in presenting the two together) but that vastly underestimates the power of propaganda, and turns a blind eye to the efficacy of demonizing leaders to engineer consent for war against their countries, richly evident in the campaign of Washington-directed aggression against Yugoslavia. Many people who had reservations about NATO's prolonged bombing of Yugoslavia could assuage whatever discomfort they had by pointing out that, whether NATO had ulterior motives or not, the effects of the war were just, because a "monster" was ousted from power, and Serbs and ethnic Albanians were better off as a consequence. The same argument, adapted to Iraqis and the Kurds, is being used today.

What's more, the claim that the public won't see a connection between the issue of Hussein's behavior and Washington's casus belli is disingenuous, for the broaching of Hussein's behavior almost certainly originates in an attempt to ensure the public doesn't see those who oppose Washington's foreign policy as supporting Washington's demonized enemies; in other words, it's a widespread tendency to conflate unconnected issues that has inspired the ritualistic denunciation of Hussein. "If we condemn the Iraqi leader," the reasoning goes, "we can't be accused, simply because we oppose Washington's plans, of supporting him." Unfortunately, that ritual, punctiliously observed by the semi-chauvinistic American left, reinforces the idea that Hussein is the enemy, making Washington's case for war all the more compelling. This kind of behavior could be condemned for being entirely selfish, motivated not by humanitarian concern for the targets of Washington's imperialist aggressions, but for fear one's reputation will be sullied by being seen to support leaders with which much of the public is, owing to Washington's propaganda, likely to have little sympathy.

Of course, Lerner isn't alone. He's just one of many, including Z Magazine's Michael Albert and The Progressive's Matthew Rothschild, to join the Campaign for Peace and Democracy (CPD) in its high-profile condemnation of Iraq's leader. The CPD's director (one of a number) is Joanne Landy, hardly as prominent as Albert or Rothschild, but a paragon of the semi-chauvinist American left all the same. Landy, on the editorial board of the journal New Politics, has a history of being even more zealous in her criticism of Washington's enemies than Washington is itself. A fervent anti-Communist, Landy was a supporter of the Polish trade union Solidarity. She petitioned the Clinton government to lift its arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims, curious behavior for one leading a campaign for peace. She also, it seems, is a member of the archconservative Council on Foreign Relations, which publishes the foreign policy establishment journal Foreign Affairs. The Council on Foreign Affairs' commitment to either peace or democracy is tempered by how well either condition serves the interests of Washington, and therefore, the commercial interests of Western firms.

These days, apart from demanding the ritualistic flaying of Washington's enemies, the semi-chauvinistic American left is crowing about the growing movements against the war, but tellingly, the biggest antiwar movements have developed outside the United States, and the largest of those within the United States have been organized by what is sneeringly referred to as the "old" left or the "authoritarian" left, whose members are derided "not for what they say, but for what they don't say," what they don't say being the irrelevant denunciation of Washington's victims. Not joining in the "Two Minutes Hate" is said to reveal the "old" left as supporters of "thugs," "tyrants" and "monsters," which it doesn't, but this calumny is emblematic of the moderate left's long standing practice of smearing anyone or anything to the left of itself.

Soon enough, Lerner, Albert and Landy will be issuing denunciations of North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-Il, for North Korea, long in Washington's sights, is likely to be the next target of Washington's war of world conquest. This is presaged, as much as the imminent all-out war on Iraq was presaged almost a year ago, by a growing number of black propaganda articles appearing in newspapers, the most recent centered around North Korea's decision to bring a nuclear power plant, capable of producing bomb grade material, back on line - this after Washington dragged its heels on a deal to provide fuel oil and build plants that don't produce bomb grade material.

If you believed what the media told you (and I suspect what Landy, Lerner and Albert would tell you), North Korea must not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons, even though the United States and its allies have large nuclear arsenals themselves, whose threatened use Washington employs to force compliance with its demands. Rogue countries, it is said, are irresponsible and cannot be trusted for they may use the weapons to threaten other countries or to arm terrorists or both.

Washington, according to this received view, represents an "international community" that seeks to disarm or limit rogue states that "defy the world." It is, of course, in the interest of great powers to establish a monopoly on the world's most destructive weapons; armipotent countries get want they want by force or threat of force; weak countries, if they're to survive, capitulate. And North Korea, long threatened by the United States, and unwilling to capitulate, has a good reason to want to arm itself. Whether it is able to survive remains to be seen, but if it does, it will owe no thanks to the semi-chauvinistic American left, whose members, no doubt, wish for the regime's demise, even if it means it would be replaced (as it almost certainly would) by an American-subservient government that would turn over control of the country to US corporations, the IMF, and the World Bank.

That Washington's designs on North Korea are rapidly coming to fruition is largely disguised in the media, where a strong chauvinism pervades discussion of foreign affairs, one that holds that if one's own country seeks a monopoly on weapons of mass destruction, all is well and as it should be, for one's own country is the best, the most moral, the most highly guided by legitimate, and selfless, motives; other countries, especially those one's own government designates as "states of concern" are cunning, duplicitous, and guided by the most reprehensible of motives. These countries are also said to be led by "monsters," "thugs," and "dictators," who are (to use Noam Chomsky's words) "as evil as they come," and whose ouster would benefit the world.

Countries that are said to be "defying the world" are countries that insist on exercising their sovereignty, to decide how to arrange their economy, and how to defend themselves. But sovereignty, in recent times, has been dismissed as old-fashioned, a legal invention that allows "monsters" and "dictators" to outrage the human rights of their own people; it cannot, therefore, be allowed to stand, except, like so much else about the politics of Washington and its allies, where it suits the interests of Western governments and the business interests they represent; and indeed, since other countries' sovereignty often stands in the way of these interests, it is routinely outraged.

What's more, the case is made, and presented by the media of great powers as if it were an axiom, that allowing "rogue" countries to develop weapons of mass destruction is tantamount to presenting both one's neck and a knife to an evil and insane assailant animated by a desire to murder. Accordingly, much of the language surrounding discussion of these regimes, whether in the media, or among the left, calls forth this metaphor. North Korea, for example, is said to be a "desperate and brutal regime [that] continues to produce a terrifying society of cult-like fanaticism and mind control." And words such as "bizarre" and "reclusive" are regularly pressed into service to describe the regime.

Moreover, it is necessary, as Arthur Ponsonby once pointed out in his study of the propaganda used by the British in WWI, "to detach an individual on whom may be concentrated all the vials of wrath of an innocent people," on whom "every crime in the calendar [can be] laid at his door," and who can be set up as the "incarnation of all iniquity." Ponsonby was referring to Kaiser Wilhelm, "the villain of the piece" according to the allies, but there have been many Wilhelm's since: in recent times Slobodan Milosevic, today, Saddam Hussein, and increasingly, Kim Jong-Il.

These exercises in black propaganda begin with imperialist governments, and almost always Washington, establishing the case that the country in question must be invaded or blockaded or destabilized, and ultimately subjected to a course of regime change, all for the good of the country's people, the country's neighbors, and world peace, these points wholeheartedly seconded by an unquestioning media, and eventually, backed up by the Michael Alberts, Michael Lerners and Noam Chomskys of the semi-chauvinistic American left.

North Korea is routinely described by the media as reclusive, even autarkic, designations that make about as much sense a branding a person locked away in a prison cell a recluse who shuns contact with the outside world. North Korea, as other countries that insist on exercising their sovereignty over Washington's objections, is embargoed and menaced by American forces poised on its borders and has been menaced from the moment in 1945 that Washington decided to occupy the south of the Korean peninsula, and would have occupied the entire peninsula if it could have. The reclusiveness is hardly self-imposed.

What's more, the loss of trade with the Soviet bloc, a series of natural disasters and droughts, the channeling of scarce resources away from consumer needs into defense against a minatory United States, have reduced the country--whose every day of existence has been threatened by the implacable hostility of the United States--to desperate poverty and the organization of the country around a guerilla model. It is as easy to scorn North Korea for its militarism and secrecy and poverty as it is to scorn a child who has been starved and repeatedly threatened with violence by a hulking bully for his sullenness, his suspiciousness and his truculence. Those who are not pusillanimous, however, will not stoop so low.

That, however, cannot be said of the semi-chauvinist American left, whose leaders will demand obeisance to the war propaganda of Washington, and will carry on at great length about Stalinism, and dictatorship, and police states, and Michael Lerner, who says nothing about Kim Jong-Il today, will, on the eve of the destruction of North Korea by his own government, ask you to join him in condemning the United States for its aggression, and Kim too for his "morally outrageous behavior and genocidal policies." The beneficiary, as always, will be Washington and the investor class it represents; the losers, the investor class's victims, and anyone who hopes for something more humane, more rational, and more congenial, than the primacy of US capitalism.

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What's Left