Saturday, May 3, 2008

How I Became a "Left Neocon" (A Confession)

I am a Left Neocon. I opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq on vague prudential grounds, highminded (as I thought then) principle (gauzy abstraction was more like it), and out of reflex. War? No! I marched. I spoke out.

My arguments at the time were those of a citizen—not an expert in Middle East policy, much less a military strategist. This is not the way to bring democracy; war is a blunt instrument; people will die and we'll be responsible for "pulling the trigger" on the situation. How should I know if Saddam is really dangerous?

Unlike some of my more prescient comrades in academia and elsewhere (but mostly in humanities departments), I never claimed to have "known" all along there were no WMDs. Although I guess I could have nodded and chuckled knowingly after the fact—as if I had access to information no one else did, or uncanny instincts rendering reliable inspections supererogatory—this pose (not uncommon by 2004) disgusted me. Could I have said whether or not the US military mission would succeed? Unlike many a PhD in Comp Lit, I had no crystal ball, and not the slightest inclination to pretend—in retrospect—to have had one when I protested initially, out of habit as much as anything.

Yet neither had I defended for a moment Saddam's "right" to rule—against America's claim to enforce UN sanctions, over the head of the Security Counsel to be sure—as some of my less complicated colleagues did back when, and still do. These unambivalent and unambiguous radicals; I blame Bush/Cheney for one thing: making them remotely plausible to themselves.

I was uncomfortable from the start with the anti-Americanism and antisemitic/anti-Israel rhetoric I encountered at the marches I attended, in San Francisco. I felt doubts about who I was in bed with. Having grown up "on the left," I should have been used to it. Fringe nuttiness went with the territory. Still...

So when Saddam's statue came down—looking a lot like Lenin's ravaged bronze carcass, except for a mosque in the background—my left-winged heart leapt, intuitively. Shouldn't it have? I was delighted by the scene of crumbling Fascist dictatorship. It was not quite a "guilty pleasure"—once the war started, I had said, "well okay, let's win"—but this feeling of elation left me wondering. Was I wrong to have protested in the first place? Was it really "left" to oppose US imperialism more than Baathist tyranny or the Taliban's brutal theocracy in Afghanistan (another regime that came to an end only over the objections of people like Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy)? Worst of all, could a person on the left take such pride in the accomplishments of...the US military? (I couldn't have said "George W. Bush.") Would my friends mind if I wasn't sorry to see free elections follow soon, were they to follow soon? What if—despite the best intentions of activist groups like ANSWER, who facilitated "antiwar" rallies as Maoist exercises in resistance to "American capital"—it worked?

If only things had been so simple! How relatively easily I might have digested the embarrassment of misunderestimating the Rumsfeldian military genius for new tactics using a lighter force. For the apparent "mission accomplished," as we know now too well, was anything but. Instead, as the war ground on and things got worse, horror compounding horror on a daily basis between 2004 and 2006, years which I happened to spend living in Turkey, I found that my "well okay, let's win" sentiment was not widely shared. It was appreciated neither by my expat colleagues in Ankara's top private university (professors from Norway to Italy to Canada agreed: Bush is worse than Saddam, worse than Hitler, worse than Anything) nor the majority of Turks (America's approval rating plummeted).

Which is how I became a "left neocon"—at a most inauspicious time in the history of the Neocons. While the rats around me were squeaking with delight over the apparent sinking of a ship they'd been no more tempted to board at first than I (in shameful disregard for the lives of innocent passengers, so deep did their hatred run for the captain, Ahab/Bush), I held increasingly to the belated insight (having by then read Kenan Makiya's Republic of Fear) that Saddam's removal was indeed something that—in and of itself—ought to have warmed the cockles of my "left" heart. Defeat for the US in Iraq, should it come at the hands of the terrorists ("insurgents"), would not bode well for humanity—Iraqis first of all—let alone social democracy.

Things were not looking good. Yet did that—the prospect of failure in a difficult situation—mean we should never have confronted Saddam? The more credence I gave to the idea that we had a right all along to be concerned with the internal politics of Iraq—that abuse of human rights, as well as legitimate fears about possible WMDs, could overrule a dictator's "sovereignty"—the more I found that brushing off the "accusation" that I had gone from being a post-Marxist to a neo-conservative was a stupid waste of time. In fact, what I was reading by Francis Fukuyama (who was not above spending a moment or two sloughing off the neocon label himself), Bill Kristol, and in the pages of Commentary magazine—even if I didn't agree with all of it—at least made more sense than the ravings of my Foucauldian buddies, or crackpots like British MP George Galloway or New Left Review's Tariq Ali. Moreover, what I read by Michael Ignatieff, Michael Walzer, and in Dissent made even more sense—but the postmodernists and old New Leftists couldn't tell a social democrat from a neocon at 20 paces sans blindfolds. And something inside me didn't feel like correcting them. Except to declare, on occasion, that I had remained a loyal Marxist after all—only now I was a "Christopher Hitchens Marxist," as I informed a scandalized group of Edward Saidists one balmy night in Istanbul. To their occidentalist horror. I specialized in ending dinner parties.

Paul Berman wrote recently that to understand the meaning of the word "neocon," as it is employed today, you have to imagine somebody holding their nose while saying it, or standing on a chair and shrieking like they've seen a mouse. One also notes a conspiracy-theory mentality at work, evident in the wish for a "cabal" of such vermin to pin things on: the excited search for a community of scapegoats to blame for the complicated and messy business, with unpredictable outcomes and risks galore, no matter what you do (or don't do), that is politics of its nature.

Was I wrong to protest? Though I may be the only one who thinks so now—better, I say, a left neocon, who today only regrets having been objectively right about a tragedy, than one of those unabashed post-leftists, who confuse schadenfreude, ressentiment, and the will-to-powerlessness with insight and courage (see Alan Johnson's critique of the post-left, May history prove me even wronger.

1 comment:

Artist22 said...

"Even wronger"! Love it! It seems that there would be tons of pressure on you from your collegues at McDonalds--such ultra-liberal establishments. And, they endoctrinate their customers, as well. I worry about my son getting too much of one message when he goes to McDonalds. Bless you for being brave. I'm sure your students are getting a broad perspective on which to base their opinions and political affiliations.

Darn, I wish Michigan wasn't so far away....