March 05, 2021
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Nation And Narration

The Chomskian left has consigned itself to the dustbin of history. But for all my sympathy with Hitchens, I cannot share his sense of exhilaration; instead, I modulate between relief and sorrow.

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Nation And Narration

Like the deadly particulate matter floating in the air of lower Manhattan, the political fallout from September's terrorist attacks will have immeasurable toxic effects for decades. The narrative of that fallout remains to be written--indeed, it remains to be lived and experienced. But it's already becoming possible to see several important story lines taking shape in U.S. political culture.

The early days now seem like days of hysteria: there was the justifiable hysteria of New Yorkers who feared that the bridges and tunnels were the next targets, and there was the ugly hysteria of right-wing pundits for whom the attacks changed nothing but the volume of their daily screeds.

One unwittingly ludicrous example was provided by the celebrated hack Shelby Steele, who was writing an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal denouncing the UN conference on racism when the planes hit, and merely tweaked it into a September 17 column denouncing global crybabies in general--some of whom were apparently flying those planes, although the connection wasn't made quite clear. (News flash: advocates of reparations for slavery kill 6000 in New York!!)

More dangerous were the early responses of people like Andrew Sullivan--and Ann Coulter and Rich Lowry of the National Review; Coulter went so far as to lose her job at the Review, less for the content of her written work (according to editor Jonah Goldberg's October 3 column) than for her public demeanor after her incoherent follow–up essay was spiked.

And Goldberg's postmortem has the ring of truth, for Coulter's now-infamous line, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity," was after all not terribly different from Lowry's plan for "identifying the one or two nations most closely associated with our enemies, giving them 24 hours notice to evacuate their capitals (in keeping with our desire to wage war as morally as possible), then systematically destroying every significant piece of military, financial, and political infrastructure in those cities."

This is strong stuff--so strong, in fact, that in response to Sullivan's vile suggestion that Gore voters would form a "fifth column" of decadent leftists in university towns and on the coasts (you know, where a lot of those decadent Oscar Wilde types live), any rational person could've replied that throughout September and October, you couldn't do better recruiting work for Al Qaeda in Muslim nations than to distribute free copies of the National Review.

Of course, some of the right's hysteria was understandable: remember, they excoriated Arab terrorists for days after the bombing in Oklahoma City, only to be compelled to swallow hard once the white kid with the crewcut emerged as the perp. Think of their tension, their long-unfulfilled desires to rage, rage against the backward cultures of Islam: by September 11, 2001, the right had been waiting more than six years to vent, and some of them simply lost control.

Interestingly, though--and devastatingly for the left--they reined themselves in; after the first few queasy weeks, there would be no more talk of crusades and conversions and infinite justice. For who knew, until September 11, that Grover Norquist, longtime tax nut and conservative organizer extraordinaire, had been cultivating Arab-American voters for the GOP? (So assiduously, it turned out, that he'd had his President lunching with some Hamas and Hezbollah supporters, as Franklin Foer pointed out in the New Republic.)

And who knew that the hard right would scotch its plans for systematically destroying the capitals of Muslim nations the minute they realized that they couldn't get to Afghanistan without going through Pakistan?

Prevented by their own President from conducting a hate campaign against Arabs, the harpies of the culture-war right turned to a safer domestic target--students and professors. In a remarkably crude, incompetent pamphlet, the Joe Lieberman-Lynne Cheney outfit, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, combed college campuses for seditious statements like "ignorance breeds hate," "hate breeds hate," "our grief is not a cry for war," "an eye for an eye leaves the world blind," "knowledge is good," and "if Osama bin Laden is confirmed to be behind the attacks, the United States should bring him before an international tribunal on charges of crimes against humanity."

(All but one of these are actual statements cited by ACTA as evidence of insufficient patriotism on U.S. campuses. Afficionados and adepts will recognize the last item as the words of Joel Beinin, the antepenultimate item as the words of Mahatma Gandhi, and the penultimate item as the motto of Faber College in Animal House.) Lynne Cheney has not commented on the pamphlet, and may in fact be in a secure undisclosed location for all I know; Lieberman's office has issued one of those "distancing" statements that stops short of taking the Senator's name off the letterhead.

Meanwhile, even as the New Republic continued to publish the work of liberal writers, the editorial staff collectively staged what Stuart Hall once called the Great Moving Right Show, and kept right on moving until they passed the National Review. Think I'm kidding? Count the number of times each magazine has criticized Ariel Sharon since September 11, and you'll get some sense of why I respect the National Review's Middle East coverage more.

Or read every post-9/11 editorial signed by the editors, like the October 29 clarion call to "weaponize" our courage. (In his bunker in Baghdad, a shaken Saddam Hussein looks up from his copy of TNR: "Nothing would please me more than to fight American armed forces in the daughter of the mother of all battles--but I cannot face the fearsome senior editors of this weekly magazine.")

Or look at their vicious attacks on Colin Powell, who is apparently unfit to run the State Department and should be replaced by someone wiser, someone with a firmer grasp of the perfidy of Arabs, perhaps someone who has attended the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, like editor Lawrence F. Kaplan.

* * *

The narrative of the left is more tangled and more somber. But before I remark on the ways the Chomskian left has consigned itself to the dustbin of history, let me go back to those early days of hysteria and say a few words in defense of people I now disagree with: it was entirely plausible, in those first few days, to think that the United States had received some kind of global comeuppance.

Bless their hearts, the diehards of the anti-imperialist left had always had the integrity and the conscience to say publicly that the United States had too often acted unilaterally and unethically in the post-1945 world, often against its own realpolitik interests as well as against its own democratic ideals.

The anti-imperialists were right about Vietnam, they were right about Chile, they were right about El Salvador and Nicaragua, they were right about Indonesia in 1975 and they were right about Iran in 1953. It was not initially unreasonable for any of them to think, as the World Trade Center collapsed five blocks from my best friend's apartment, son of a bitch, someone's gotten to us at last. Such a sentiment, despite the vitriol heaped upon it by the right, implied no sympathy with the attackers; the anti-imperialist left, at its best, despised anti–democratic forces no matter where they came from. It merely registered the sorry fact that the United States had, indeed, too often given the wretched of the earth cause to hate us.

But when the narrative of the attacks became more complex, the Chomskian left did not. Slowly it became clear that for all its past crimes, the U.S. government wasn't nearly as proximate a cause of the attack as were, say, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, U.S. "allies" who'd been dancing a dicey pas de deux with their own Islamist radicals for twenty years in order to keep the lid on the domestic unrest created in part by their own corruption.

And slowly it became clear that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were not animated by any of the causes dear to American leftists: the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not, it seemed, symbolic strikes against U.S. unilateralism with regard to missile defense, post-Kyoto energy policy, landmine treaties, or the rights of children. They were not cosmic payback for our support of Suharto or Pinochet or Marcos or Rios Montt or Mohammed Reza Pahlevi. They were not aimed at Katherine Harris or Kenneth Starr or William Rehnquist.

Indeed, the more the West learned about bin Laden, the more we were led down strange narrative byways we hadn't even considered as tangents to the main event: he was convinced by the Somalia expedition that the U.S. was a paper tiger? He wants American soldiers, especially women, to stop desecrating the land of the two holy mosques? He speaks of "eighty years" of Arab abasement, harking back to the end of World War I?

Well, that should have given anyone pause for thought. Maybe if bin Laden had denounced the CIA's overthrow of Mossadeq, maybe if he'd jeered at our futile attempts to play Iran off Iraq and vice versa throughout Reagan's presidency, and maybe if he wasn't carrying around one of those theories about the global Jewish conspiracy, he'd have had a shred of credibility with me.

But Somalia? Somalia really was an attempt at liberal-internationalist humanitarianism, and as for the eighty-year-old Sykes-Picot agreement divvying up Arab provinces after World War I, there aren't that many American leftists committed to the restoration of the caliphate, so it's hard for me to see the appeal on that count as well.

In fact, as Chris Suellentrop of Slate observed, the U.S. doesn't even deserve any grief about the end of the caliphate: "It would be nice," he wrote, "if bin Laden would note that the United States objected to the Sykes-Picot agreement as a betrayal of the principle of self-determination, but that's probably asking for too much." There's no doubt that our government has committed crimes against humanity in our name. But Somalia and Sykes-Picot aren't among them.

So, faced with an enemy as incomprehensible and as implacable as bin Laden, much of the left checked the man's policy positions on women, homosexuality, secularism, and facial hair, and slowly backed out of the room. They didn't move right, as so many Chomskian leftists have charged; they simply decided that the September 11 attacks were the work of religious fanatics who had no conceivable point of contact with anything identifiable as a left project save for a human-rights complaint about the sanctions against Iraq. As Marx himself observed, there are a number of social systems more oppressive than that of capitalism. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are good cases in point.

For almost a month, the dispute between the Chomsky left and the Hitchens left was largely a theoretical affair, featuring a sweetly pointless debate in the Nation over whose condemnation of Clinton's 1998 cruise-missile strike against the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan was more thorough and/or courageous; then the bombs started dropping on Afghanistan, and the camps hardened into place, with leftists who'd denounced the Taliban steadily for five years now denouncing a military action designed to remove the Taliban from power.

This is perhaps the most important episode in the many narratives of September 11, because it represented the earthquake that had been building along a fault line in the U.S. left dating back to the first Bush Administration's operations in Panama and Kuwait, and because it has ramifications for the future of U.S. foreign policy for decades to come.

A large part of the split had to do with the simple fact that bombs were dropping. For U.S. leftists schooled in the lessons of Cambodia, Libya, and the School of the Americas, all U.S. bombing actions are suspect: they are announced by cadaverous white guys with bad hair, they are covered by seven cable channels competing with one another for the catchiest "New War" slogan and Emmy awards for creative flag display, and they invariably kill civilians, the poor, the wretched, the disabled. Surely, there is much to hate about any bombing campaign.

Yet who would deny that a nation, once attacked, has the right to respond with military force, and who seriously believes that anyone could undertake any "nation-building" enterprise in Afghanistan without driving the Taliban from power first? Very well, some of my post-September interlocutors said, the Taliban must go, but not by force. A curious answer: for why would any clear-thinking leftist believe that the Taliban could be removed by persuasion alone, as if, like Al Gore after the Supreme Court's supremely corrupt decision in Bush v. Gore, they would smile wryly into the cameras and say, "It's time for us to go"?

The arguments against military force started flooding the left-leaning listservs.

  • One, the link between the attacks and the Taliban was not strong enough to justify bombing.

  • Two, we had supported bin Laden indirectly back when he was one of the mujahedeen fighting the USSR.

  • Three, the terrain and the enemy would quickly lead us into a quagmire.

  • Four, the bombing of Afghanistan was the moral equivalent of the September 11 attacks--or even worse, since the U.S. was attacking from a position of wealth and strength.

  • Five, there would be no "nation-building" after the ouster of the Taliban--just more bombing, this time in some other impoverished nation.

  • Six, the U.S. had been a global aggressor for so long and with such impunity that it had no moral ground from which to operate even after being directly attacked.

These are the arguments that have insured the Chomskian left's irrelevance to foreign policy debate for the foreseeable future, and I confess I am not always sure why anyone would make them in any case. Arguments three and five are relatively innocuous, being merely predictive, but the rest range from merely illogical (one, two, six) to morally odious (four).

For instance: the fact that a U.S. government was once foolish enough--or Zbigniew Brzezinski was once cavalier enough--to fund the Arab "Afghanis" in the 1980s does not mean that a U.S. government is barred from opposing any of their progeny now.

The Chomskian left has been playing this tune for some time now--today's public enemy was yesterday's CIA darling--and while it does serve a heuristic function, in that it reminds amnesiac Americans that baddies such as Saddam and Noriega and Suharto didn't appear on the world stage out of nowhere, it doesn't serve any substantive function except obfuscation. Would the Chomskian left seriously prefer that the U.S. stick by its totalitarian ex-clients no matter what, as the Cold Warriors of the right once urged us to do?

The argument about our past dealings with bin Laden is thus a smokescreen, as was Chomsky's argument in 1999 that our intervention against Milosevic in Kosovo could not be motivated by "humanitarian" concerns because if we were serious about humanitarianism we would also have intervened in East Timor.

Even Chomsky's fans will recall that this argument was not a clarion call for wider U.S. interventions around the world beginning in East Timor; it was an argument designed to obfuscate the issue at hand in Kosovo, namely, allegations that the Serbs were engaged in genocide.

Similarly, in addressing the question of whether the U.S. had the right to respond militarily after September 11, Chomsky offered more smoke: "Congress has authorized the use of force against any individuals or countries the President determines to be involved in the attacks, a doctrine that every supporter regards as ultra-criminal. That is easily demonstrated. Simply ask how the same people would have reacted if Nicaragua had adopted this doctrine after the U.S. had rejected the orders of the World Court to terminate its 'unlawful use of force' against Nicaragua and had vetoed a Security Council resolution calling on all states to observe international law."

Very well; with regard to Reagan's contra war and the mining of Nicaragua's harbors, Nicaragua and the World Court were in the right, and the U.S. acted like a rogue nation. How exactly does this prove that "every supporter" regards the use of force as "ultra-criminal" with regard to September 11?

The fissure on the left that began in 1989-90 and became visible in Kosovo is now a chasm. In retrospect, Kosovo didn't have quite the impact on the left it might have, partly because conservatives also opposed that operation on the grounds that Clinton had ordered it (by 1999, Clinton could have launched a campaign against childhood diseases and House Republicans would've responded by declaring measles a vegetable and bundling it into school breakfast programs), partly because of Monica, and partly because it was shrouded in murk from Srebrenica to Rambouillet.

But many of the most vocal opponents of the U.S.–led NATO intervention in Kosovo are now the most vocal opponents to the U.S.–led intervention in Afghanistan, which suggests two things: first, that the fact of civilian deaths on U.S. soil is in an important sense immaterial to their position on U.S. policy, and second, that on the grounds they offer today, they will never support another American military action of any kind. Permanently alienated by Vietnam, by Chile, by Indonesia, or by Reagan's deadly adventures in Central America, they're gone and they're not coming back, not even if hijackers plow planes into towers in downtown Manhattan.

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