The Progressive War

Salim Muwakkil

Among the many effects of the terrorism attacks of September 11, 2001, was the ideological shift they provoked among those on the left. Many left-leaning commentators were so disconcerted by some of their fellow travelers’ responses to the attacks, they jumped straight into bed with the neocon war party.

Journalists like Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman, Ron Rosenbaum, Greil Marcus and Dan Savage are five of the most prominent of these prowar progressives. But several others, including comedian/​commentator Dennis Miller, said they too were shocked rightward by the left’s reflexive, blame-America” reaction to 9/11.

The U.S. response to terrorism pushed me in a different direction. Sure, I was surprised, terrified and angered by the cold savagery of the hijackers and the intensity of their grievances. But I also was dumbfounded by our nation’s refusal to acknowledge its role in nurturing those grievances. The United States has thwarted democracy, inserted puppet dictators, smothered human rights, and stifled freedom in many countries in the Middle East. Did we think that our long history of ignoble intervention in the region would leave no angry aftermath?

This tendency to deny responsibility for the consequences of dubious deeds is a hallowed American tradition that is familiar to me as an African-American and a descendant of enslaved Africans. Denial doesn’t expunge the errors of history; it compounds them. Victims of those errors don’t disappear, and their quest for justice doesn’t dissipate.

When history’s victims inevitably lash out, their grievances are downplayed and they become targets of revenge rather than mediation — perpetuating the cycle. One of the roles of progressives is to connect the dots linking present disorders to past injustices. But fear of future terrorist attacks has convinced pro-war progressives to abandon that role and push for a muscular response to the present danger. But instead of discouraging potential terrorists, our military aggression likely is seeding vast fields of future antagonists, and nothing we have in our high-tech arsenal will be able to stem that hostile tide.

If we deny the historical context that connects the asymmetrical warfare” that we call terrorism to the past, we are only postponing a necessary reckoning. The pro-war progressives know this, but they are fearful, and fear is the right’s best recruiter. The defection of Hitchens, a British expatriate and ex-Trotskyite, is perhaps the most significant of the bunch. Until recently, he was a regular Nation columnist and one of the left’s most gifted polemicists. Hitchens’ pro-war argument is fueled by a powerful strain of anti-clericalism. He frames the ongoing war on terrorism (he included the Iraq invasion under this rubric) as a seminal struggle between totalitarian theocrats (or Islamo-fascists”) and the protectors of civil society.

The theocratic and absolutist side in this war hopes to win it by exporting it here, which in turn means that we have no expectation of staying out of the war, and no right to be neutral in it,” he wrote in his last column for The Nation. He resigned as a columnist because he said the publication was becoming the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.” 

Hitchens’ view is similar to that of Paul Berman, whose recent book Terror and Liberalism also urges a strenuous battle against Islamist totalitarians. By portraying the war on terrorism as a battle of liberalism vs. fascism, the pro-war progressives seek to claim the tradition of the anti-Stalinist left of Cold War lore. But that analogy is faulty.

The Arab world has legitimate grievances, and by ignoring them we are feeding the totalitarian impulse driving the Islamist cults. Were the administration more skilled in diplomacy and not dominated by the bellicose neocons that have hijacked U.S. foreign policy, it might have used the world’s sympathy following 9/11 to organize a more efficient global fight against terrorism. After all, diplomatic pressure from Libya and Egypt is what forced Sudan to eject Osama bin Laden in the 90s. Such an approach would have put the pressure on Muslim groups to speak out more vigorously against terrorism as an affront to Islam.

What’s more, the United States could easily have helped to dry up grassroots support for Islamist cults with a tangible expression of assurance that it seeks to assist rather than destroy the Muslim world. Political gestures could have been modeled on the European Union’s efforts at the 2001 U.N. conference on racism, when it vowed to forge new relationships between the colonized and the colonizers of history. 

Instead, the Bush administration launched an illegal military invasion of Iraq for what now appears to have been a fraudulent pretext; appointed Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, an open admirer of Israel; Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to head up Iraq’s reconstruction effort; nominated the well-known Islamophobe Daniel Pipes to the U.S. Institute of Peace; and continues to act in a way that seems designed to produce exactly the hatred of the United States that the radical Islamists want to provoke. 

If pro-war progressives truly seek to limit the allure of Islamo-fascism, they’ve chosen the wrong bedfellows. 

The pro-war progressives want to claim the tradition of the anti-Stalinist left of Cold War lore, but that analogy is faulty.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.
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