Gilding imperialism's friendly mask
Posted: Thursday, January 29, 2004
By Stephen Gowans
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January 25, 2004, www3.sympatico.ca
Sweep away the mendacity of all the high-faulting pretexts for war, and still life goes on as it always has. Bush and Blair are liars, but so what? Anyone who had as few as two functioning neurons banging around their cranium could figure out that Saddam's cupboard was bare of weapons of mass destruction, and that the secular Baathists had no time for the religious fanatics of al-Qaeda. Besides which, who were the US and UK, two countries stuffed to the gunnels with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, which have never seen fit to be bound by international law, to say Iraq, or anyone else, couldn't have the weapons they themselves can't seem to get enough of? Is it that Washington and London and their imperialist rivals seek to preserve their monopoly over devastating weapons so they can push other countries around, without having to face stiff resistance -- that is, so they can continue to be imperialist powers, reaping imperialism's full rewards? North Korea's possible possession of nuclear weapons is hardly a threat to the world; it's a threat to US plans to make over the northern part of the Korean peninsula into a workshop for US capital. Since a new crop of sweatshops is hardly going to make my life, yours, of those of Koreans, any better, and is likely to make them poorer and more insecure, climbing aboard the "north Korea must irrevocably and verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program" bandwagon, hardly seems to be an act of enlightened self-interest.
Still, what those who doubted the Munchausens Bush and Blair never doubted was that Saddam was a monster. Hence, the mild reaction to former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's revelations about the Bush administration planning war on Iraq from its very first National Security Council meeting. Who could doubt the American population could get behind White House press secretary Scott McClellan's assessment? "The world," he remarked, "is safer and better because of the action that we took to remove a brutal regime from power in Iraq." It's easy to reconcile yourself to any war fought to drive a demon from power, even if the public justification is bullshit. American involvement in WWII, which was never inspired by the lofty ideas feel-good histories say it was, is nevertheless celebrated for its consequences. Maybe our motives weren't pure, it's conceded, but the Nazi reign of tyranny was ended, and the Holocaust was stopped. The ends, it seems, always have a habit of justifying the means, so long as the latter work.
It's to be accepted as self-evident, and denied only at the risk of being excommunicated from the Church of the Sane, that Saddam's demise as leader of Iraq has made the world a safer place. On this, former White House speech writer David Frum and Pentagon adviser Richard Perle, and dissidents of the sort who complain bitterly that the New York Times won't publish their op-eds, see eye to eye. "That he [Saddam] is evil," remarked a perspicacious critic of US foreign policy in the months preceding the invasion "is beyond question. The world would be a better place without him." The British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who's made sure he's followed the accustomed British policy of tagging along after the Americans, spoke almost the same words. And now McClellan. Do they all get their scripts from the same writer? Or is the truth so abundantly evident that it's one of those things everyone can agree on, no matter what their politics?
There are, to be sure, plenty of leaders around the world who Americans, cabinet members and dissidents alike, can agree are evil, and so getting rid of the demons – in some fashion – can be considered a desirable goal, whose achievement will justify whatever means make the demon go away. Therein lies a crucial point about prominent dissidents: their dissent is partial. They don't dissent from the demonization of the target; indeed, they often take a lead role in heaping opprobrium on the goat du jour. "Love me, love me, love me," they demand. "I'm a liberal. I'm for all things nice and pleasant and good and against all things bad and nasty and repellent."
Joanne Landy, an editor of the journal New Politics, is emblematic. She's one of the driving forces behind a petition that calls for a "democratic" US foreign policy, but amounts to nothing more than a public display of wrapping oneself in the flag of virtue. Landy and her co-signers are for democracy and freedom, and one guesses, for puppy dog tails, children's smiles, long walks along the beach, and that second cup of coffee on a lazy Sunday morning. She's also against nasty people and dictators and tyranny and grimy bathtub rings, and, well, just about anything bad, really.
Washington's conspicuously genuflecting to Mars offered Landy occasion to put her moral purity on display. She deplored the Bush cabinet's march to war, but at the same time, in a consummately safe and politic act, loosed a broadside against the reviled Iraqi leader. What Saddam's failings had to do with Washington's aggressive intentions was unclear to anyone not besotted by Washington's PR fantasy that Saddam and his mythical WMDs lay at the root of the planned takeover. Indeed, Landy and her co-signers made a point of skewering the story. No, they said, it wasn't Saddam's failings that were at issue. His worst crimes were committed while he was a client of Washington, and nobody at the White House or State Department seemed to particularly care. The problem was that Saddam had later chosen to step outside the orbit of US control.
Okay. So if Saddam's failings had no legitimate connection to the US policy of regime change, why was Landy conspicuously denouncing Saddam? Wasn't this raising the volume on the core justification Washington could use for war (we got rid of a nasty brutal dictator and the world's now a better and safer place)?
The most prominent of Landy's co-signers had argued that liberals, while being portrayed as occupying a pole on the political spectrum opposite that of conservatives, could be shown to share core assumptions with their conservative opponents, differing only in tactical considerations. Political diversity, they argued, amounts to nothing more than a disagreement over how to achieve the same agreed upon goals.
The same analysis applies to the anti-war stand of the same, radical dissidents, who articulated it. They agree with conservative forces on the goal (get rid of the monsters) but disagree on the means (regime change without US force or regime change engineered by the Pentagon or regime change by some other means?) Yet, it should be clear that once you've agreed there's a monster the world would be better off without, military intervention, or something equally, or more devastating, like sanctions and blockades, are likely to strike most people as being about the only realistic options.
You can use economic pressure and political isolation to force the targeted regime to step down, but that's a broad-brush approach that, pursued by the Clinton administration, led to the deaths of over one million Iraqis, but not to regime change. Nor has it the immediacy necessary to appeal to a public persuaded that the goat of the day represents a threat so vile and imminent that he must be neutralized post haste.
Another non-military alternative is to stand by and wait for the monster to be overthrown internally, but that hardly seems to have much chance of success, especially if the internal opposition must rely on its own limited resources. Besides, who's going to agree to do nothing, when the targeted leader has been thrust into the public eye as the new Hitler? Lurking in the background in these considerations is the specter of the Holocaust, and collective guilt over not having acted soon enough to stop it.
So, furnishing the internal opposition with aid, even creating an organized opposition from the rudimentary bits and pieces that already exist, is an option, but if you believe that Washington's motivations for regime change have nothing whatever to do with ousting the old regime because it abused human rights or was planning a genocide or had defied the UN, and, furthermore, that US aggressions are really all about pursuing US interests, then support for a policy of intervention amounts to clear-eyed support of Washington's imperialist goals.
It could be objected that while indeed this may be so, the objective in supporting a policy that advances US imperialism, is not to support US imperialism per se, but to rid the world of a monster and to improve the human rights situation. The implication is that given a choice between Saddam and an imperialism that offers some measure of democracy and civil and political liberties (as US imperialism, in its mildest guise, does), imperialism is the lesser of the two evils; that US domination of Iraq is preferable to Saddam. For Washington and the corporations whose profits grow with each cruise missile, tank and bomber delivered to the Pentagon, not to speak of each reconstruction contract they secure, this is surely so. For ordinary Iraqis, the equation isn't so lopsided.
Moreover, once you've accepted support for an internal opposition, which, chances are, will rely in some way on armed struggle or the threat of force to overthrow the targeted regime, how much further must you go to accept the legitimacy of armed intervention from abroad? Indeed, how are the two different? To be sure, the apparent locus of control is different; one's internal, the other external, but that's a surface distinction. Both types of intervention are, in fact, controlled from without, indirectly in the case of aid being furnished to an internal opposition, but even so, the goals of the intervening power, not the goals of the internal opposition and the domestic population, are likely to be senior. It's unrealistic to expect an intervening power to furnish funds, equipment, training and diplomatic support indiscriminately; it will, on the contrary, be careful to target its support to groups and movements that can be counted on to pursue its objectives. Hence, the differences in support for a proxy internal army entrusted with the goal of toppling a regime, or one's own military given the same task, are hardly different in either ends or means. Both options involve the use of force; both are controlled from abroad; and both rest on the understanding that the goals of the intervening power will be pursued.
That then seems to leave two options. You can insist that it's up to internal forces, and internal forces alone, to oust the monster, but few people are going to be comfortable with an non-interventionist policy when dealing with a figure who's been built up to be the new Hitler, a genocidal monster, or an imminent threat to world peace and security. Alternatively, you can support non-military intervention, which, can, in the case of sanctions, be more devastating than the direct use of force, or, in the case on internal revolt, also reliant on violence. Plus, the same goals of imperial domination lay behind these non-military measures. Repudiating the use of force applied from abroad, while favoring sanctions or material support to proxy armies, is sheer hypocrisy. It might seem to be the morally virtuous position, but it is hardly so. Which invites the question: What form of intervention, organized, directed, or aided by an imperialist power, is legitimate? The answer is: none.
This is not to argue for non-intervention as an absolute, but for intervention, where it's appropriate, that isn't bound up in the pursuit of the intervening power's geo-political objectives. Hence, there are two issues to be addressed: When is intervention appropriate? What kind of intervention doesn't advance imperialist aims?
Military intervention, under international law, is supposed to be limited to those instances in which a country faces an imminent threat from abroad. Under these guidelines Washington's use of military force has not, in dozens of cases, including the most recent in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, been legitimate. While the illegitimacy is of moral and legal consequence, it is of little moment from the perspective of practical politics. There is no overarching body, no system of sanctions and penalties, no international community, to stop the United States from stepping outside the bounds of international law. And while internal opposition is theoretically a check on Washington disregarding the rules, the American population is mostly unaware or unconcerned, but most importantly, materially unaffected, for the most part, by their government's ill-behavior. It may be that under the Nuremberg rules the waging of unprovoked wars is the most heinous of crimes, and therefore, that US presidents are the most heinous of criminals, but what does that matter to Americans, except perhaps for feeling a momentary twinge of embarrassment or guilt or irritation that anyone should bring the matter up? Has it affected them materially in any way they can apprehend? Have they lost their jobs because of it? Have their homes been bombed? Has their country been blockaded? Have their lives in any way been made poorer, or miserable? Except for the blowback of 9/11, the answer is no, and for most Americans, the idea that 9/11 is a retaliation provoked by US domination of the Middle East, is unfathomable.
What's more, I suspect that the strictures international law place on the use of military force are, today, regarded by large parts of the population in the Western world, as hardly desirable, an unwelcome restraint on the ability of the "international community" (i.e., US-led coalitions) to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries to prevent humanitarian catastrophes. The material basis for the US population to mount an effective opposition to their government waging unprovoked wars doesn't exist, not at the moment, and perhaps never will, and, insofar as intervention appears to have the effect, whether intended or not, of producing some humanitarian good -- whether stopping ethnic cleansing or ridding the world of a monster -- the use of military force is popularly supported.
War has almost always been associated with the investing of the enemy, and most particularly, the leader of enemy forces, with great malice. Evil, not context, or history, or economics, or the actions of outside forces, matter. The behavior of the enemy is to be attributed to one thing: wickedness. And while no human is ever thoroughly evil, in war, the distorting lens of propaganda, makes the enemy so. Hence, Washington invents the term "axis of evil" to describe Iraq, Iran and North Korea, three countries it intends to dominate, rather than "the axis of countries that resent US power," the resenting of US power being the thread that ties the three together, according to David Frum, who invented the phrase. And what does "resent US power" mean but "resists domination by Washington"? This transformation from human to demon is carried along upon a stream of exaggeration, as well as outright deception. Foibles are turned into sheer evil; well-intentioned mistakes into intended outcomes of diabolical design; restrictions on civil liberties become a power-mad quest for authoritarian rule and dictatorship; the leaders of governments that meet guerilla attacks head on are transformed into vicious, blood-thirsty war-lords. And once the enemy has thus been transformed, war can be justified to prevent the greater evil that must surely follow. The monster Slobodan Milosevic must be stopped before he carries out the planned genocide of ethnic Albanians; the monster Saddam Hussein must be stopped before he supplies al-Qaeda with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons; the monster Kim Jong Il must be stopped before he herds half his population into labor camps and sends nuclear armed missiles hurtling toward Hawaii. But Milosevic never carried out a genocide in Kosovo; Saddam Hussein didn't have banned weapons; and Kim Jong Il (who, we're told, is not only evil, but irrational and unpredictable) won't be inviting his country's complete annihilation by launching a missile at Hawaii, (though his irrational unpredictability is supposed to establish this as a very real possibility.) And while it may seem so to those who misunderstand the Bush administration to represent a qualitative break from administrations of the past, the doctrine of preventive war, promulgated by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld under the heading "pre-emptive war," is hardly the creation of the Bush administration, but has been practiced by preceding administrations, from Clinton's, which contrived a story about a genocide it had to prevent in Kosovo, to all post-war administrations right up to Reagan's, which sought to prevent the spread of communism.
It must be acknowledged then that the rhetoric of preventive war involves highly exaggerated portraits of an evil which can have no basis in reality. This is a world of comic book fiction, teeming with comic book plots and comic book villains and heroes, who are larger than life. Large parts of the population, and no less sections of the political Left, are taken in, including those who otherwise greet the official pronouncements of imperialist governments and their established media with great skepticism. Where accusations of great evil are concerned, they're prepared to accept a high false positive rate, if the accusations are leveled at foreign leaders. Where their own leaders are concerned, their standards are more exacting. Thus, obloquies can slip effortlessly from one's tongue in connection with Washington's latest bogeyman, but to speak, in the same manner, of George W. Bush (or any president) is unwelcome. To insist that the world would be a safer and better place were Bush voted out, ousted illegally, or to use his own ominous words, taken out, would be dismissed as lunacy of the worst sort, and, at best, naivety, (which it is), and yet the most prominent of Left intellectuals can say the same about Saddam without inviting the mildest reproach.
To be sure, were Bush swept from power, it's doubtful US foreign policy would change in any significant way, and the chances that the goals to which foreign policy is yoked would change are infinitesimally slim at the very best. There may be changes in the tone and the feel of policy, and the methods may differ (or not), but replacing Bush with Clark or Dean or even Kucinich isn't going to transform the United States from an imperialist power driven to open up space for its corporations, to one that doesn't scramble for access to foreign markets and resources and seek to enlarge its economic sphere of influence. It would be naïve then to say, as is said of Saddam and Milosevic and Mugabe and Kim, that the world would be a better place without him. Who the president of the United States is, is hardly as important as the "anonymous economic and social forces" (to use Jacques Pauwels' apposite phrase) that act as coercive external forces. This, many prominent dissidents in the US, will agree is true.
But if it's naïve to suggest anything of significance would change were Bush ousted, why isn't it equally naïve to claim the world is better off for Saddam having been deposed? The answer is that it is indeed naive; that Saddam's ouster, by itself, made no difference, which is not to say that regime change hasn't made a difference, but when Washington talks about regime change it means something far more fundamental and far-reaching than simply deposing a single person: it means undertaking the wholesale transformation of a society, from top to bottom. Washington never sought to depose Saddam alone. It sought to depose a way of organizing the Iraqi economy, which limited, and in many respects negated, the interests of US corporations. It should be wondered why Washington has taken pains to organize the selling off of Iraq's largely publicly-owned economy; why it has set out to wean Iraqis from economic supports put in place by the former Baathist government; and why it has maneuvered to ensure that Iraq will be open to penetration by US capital on preferable terms. One might also wonder why George W Bush's National Security Strategy is top heavy with references to spreading free trade, free markets and free enterprise, including to Iraq, or why (to show the Clinton administration's goals were the same), NATO demanded at Rambouillet that the Milosevic government allow Kosovo to be made over along free market lines. It should be wondered too why Perle and Frum say they're willing to live with the continued rule of a Communist government in North Korea so long as the new regime, like the Chinese Communists, adopts "rational" economic policies, i.e., applies for admission to the WTO and allows US corporations to operate low-wage sweatshops. Washington doesn't seek regime change so much as system change, an opening of economies partly or wholly closed to US corporations. The demonization of individuals simply provides an excuse to occasion, by military means or otherwise, the radical makeover of a society along lines that profit US corporations. And Washington doesn't particularly care who presides over the newly opened economy. Whether communist, pro-capitalist, dictatorial or democratic, the nature of the leadership is of little moment. What matters is whether the regime is willing to allow its country to be folded into the US economic sphere of influence.
"Washington's policies," remarks the historian Jacques Pauwels, "whether fashioned by the Republicans or the Democrats, consistently aim to serve the corporate interest."  So too does the conspicuous demonization of foreign leaders by radicals serve the corporate interest, by reinforcing the official pretext for changing foreign regimes in favor of those whose policies invariably turn out to be congenial to US corporations. It is unthinkable that the US would oust a foreign leadership and allow one to take its place that was not willing to bow to its (inegalitarian) economic demands. The DOS regime, which replaced Milosevic's, has been ardently committed to the neo-liberal policies US corporations insist on, not surprisingly, since the DOS, is largely Washington's own creation. Similarly, the high sounding Western-backed Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe, which seeks Robert Mugabe's ouster, is equally an enthusiastic standard bearer of neo-liberalism. For all his failings – and there were many – Saddam Hussein presided over the development of a society far more materially and socially advanced than most others in the region. It would be naïve to think that the remaking of Iraqi society by the US will improve the conditions of the country's ordinary citizens. Indeed, Iraqis already find themselves significantly worse off, and as US policy makers insist on laying the groundwork for the eventual selling off of Iraq's publicly owned enterprises and assets, and on weaning Iraqis from social supports provided by the former government, they will sink further into poverty and misery. US corporations, however, will profit. While all this happens, the American people will be persuaded by the official mythology, which proclaims Saddam's fall from power was necessary because even radicals can agree that foreign regimes that are barriers to expansion by US capital must go.
It is a mistake to adopt the great man theory, the idea that history is shaped by individuals in positions of great power, rather than by anonymous economic and social forces. To be sure, the same anonymous forces determine who the great men are, but they determine much beyond that. This, successive US administrations have understood, and have based their foreign policy on. There is much more to turning a country around than changing the personnel at the top; the laws, the system of ownership, the way the economy is organized, must be changed too. And yet what's plain to those who formulate imperialist foreign policy is lost on many of those who oppose it. Dissidents will bristle with outrage at the abuses, real or invented, of foreign leaders targeted by their own government, but will, with exceptions, be blind to the wholesale economic transformations their government will impose on the hapless victim, and will remain oblivious to how the lives of ordinary people in the conquered lands have been impoverished, while corporate interests at home have been enriched. Their attention ends the moment the decisive blow is administered to the great man, leaving the intervening country room to quietly plunder its latest conquest, the attention of the dissidents now drawn to the new great man who will, in time, be thrust to the center of a new "crisis" the international community must face up to and address. And so, despite their egalitarian sympathies, many dissidents of the Left are completely unaware of the transformation their governments engineer of target countries from roughly egalitarian societies into grossly inegalitarian ones, along the lines of the US capitalist model. Others aren't, but place more of a premium on liberal values than egalitarian ones, and are less concerned with the loss of full employment and food subsidies and social safety nets in the newly conquered country than with the lifting of restrictions on freedom of assembly and free speech and multiparty democracy.
At home, the same dissidents also work to replace their own leaders, and, when successful, feel betrayed in time as it becomes clear that the personnel change at the top failed to effect the desired change. Clinton was no better than Bush, Blair no better than Thatcher. That changing the name plates at the cabinet table doesn't, by itself, change much of anything, should provoke the obvious question: Why is it that the successor's policies almost always turn out to be the same as those of the reviled predecessor, even where the successor is ostensibly poles apart from his predecessor politically? The answer is that successor and predecessor, no matter what their political differences, are constrained by the same economic and social forces. That they respond similarly to those forces, or in the same manner, should be no surprise. And yet many dissidents labor under the illusion that economic imperatives can be left in place, their coerciveness somehow blunted by the election of someone with the right credentials. Their own governments are free from this illusion, and therefore ensure their regime change policies are aimed at much more than simply changing the roster of foreign governments.
Inversions are instructive. If the "international community" is duty bound to go to war to prevent imminent humanitarian catastrophes and to remove monsters from power, (and to stay around afterwards to refashion the economy along lines that suit the purposes of Western corporations), does it not also follow that the international community, sans the US, is duty bound to go to war with Washington to prevent continued US lawlessness? It is no exaggeration to say the US is the most regressive force on the planet, and far and away the greatest threat to peace and security, beyond the combined threat multiplied tenfold of the members of the extended "axis of evil." That the world would be better off without US bullying is plain. One need only cite one big example, and one small example, of Washington's danger: its withdrawal from the ABM treaty, which threatens to spark a renewed nuclear arms race, and if the construction of a missile shield proves successful, will provide the US with a first strike capability to sweep away Russia and China as potential threats to its domination of the planet; it's intention to thwart WHO plans to limit the growing crisis of obesity, safeguarding the profits of the grocery, fast food and sugar industries, which would be affected. In Washington, corporate interest trumps all other concerns, from security to the environment to poverty to homelessness to unemployment and, yes, to obesity. And so, if ever a case could be made for the preventive use of force, the United States is the prime candidate as the target country. Would those who backed NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia and saw merit in the US attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq agree? What of those who struggle with the question of whether it's right to sit idly by and watch great evil stalk the world? If great evil is afoot in the world, most of it surely comes from the US. Should an outside force (or one from within) launch an attack on Americans in an effort to overturn US militarism and imperialism, killing tens of thousands in the process, whose deaths could then be dismissed sententiously, in the American way, as the few broken eggs needed to make an omelet? The absurdity of this position is clear.
This is not to say that criticism of targeted regimes should be withheld. It would be naïve to think that anybody is beyond reproach, free from error, and morally pure, and one adopts an untenable position by denying the warts and blemishes of targeted leaders. But not all criticism is sincere, and some is vain and self-serving and has political consequences that could hardly be called progressive. One could, for example, take exception to the Cuban government's decision to execute hijackers, arguing against capital punishment under any circumstances, while making the case that Cuba's defense of its actions has been weak and unconvincing. That is my own view. To make the case in a constructive way, is one thing. To do so as part of visible public campaign mounted in the midst of a propaganda offensive launched by the US government, whose aim is to overturn Cuban socialism and deliver the country back to its accustomed role as purveyor of cheap labor and raw material for US capital, is quite another. The latter is a self-serving act of flaunting one's moral purity, which, while perhaps satisfying personally, has the political consequence of reinforcing the demonizing of a foreign regime long on Washington's hit list. Deploring Cuba's warts will have you singing the same tune as Washington. By itself, this isn't a bad thing. But it becomes a reprehensible political act when it's deliberately timed to echo Washington's insincere criticisms; and when it's utopian in character, that is, when it takes no account of harsh realities: that Cuba's socialist experiment has been forced to eke out an existence under hostile and extremely unfavorable conditions; that the US has indefatigably sought to overthrow the country's socialism for more than four decades; that the full efflorescence of political and civil liberties along with the kind of acephalous political structure favored by Left critics in the US would have condemned the island to a quick return to the margins of capitalism long ago. The latter point is hotly debated, its critics arguing that a rich democracy teemed with undiminished political and civil rights are Cuba's best defense against US imperial designs. The argument is breathtakingly naïve, but debating the point is largely a waste of time. There's no resolution, because no one has ever tried to defend a revolution by refraining from imposing some limitations on political and civil liberties, and by eschewing all forms of central authority. To be sure, even multiparty democracies that boast strong civil and political liberties have not fared well in seeking to wall off, all, or large parts, of their economies from US corporate control. Indeed, their very openness has provided Western governments an entrée to manipulate the political process, destabilize the economy, and organize the overthrow of the government, while seeing to it that the new government is committed to canceling the offending socialist or economically nationalist policies of the past. I doubt the prospects for survival of a decentralized state that shuns all restrictions on civil and political liberties are, in the face of hostility from conservative forces within and abroad, very promising. Accordingly, full democracy and unlimited liberty, while unquestionably desirable, cannot, under current circumstances, be considered attainable, if a socialist or economically nationalist regime is to have a fighting chance of survival.
The very idea of economic and social rights, and more so, the idea that they should be guaranteed, is largely foreign to a Western and particularly, US audience, whose acquaintance with human rights is likely to be limited to civil and political liberties: the right to free speech (the right to have your say, and be ignored); the right of assembly (the right to hold large-scale demonstrations that make no difference); the right to form a political party (the right to enter the political arena and be vastly outspent and overshadowed by established parties flush with corporate donations and backing.) That anyone could have a right to shelter, to food, to clean water, to medical care, to employment, is unthinkable in the US. That anyone's right to these necessities could be guaranteed is doubly so. And so it follows as a matter of course that the political dialogue, even on the Left, where one would expect concern for economic and social rights to be most acute, is largely devoid of references to this class of rights, but teems with references to civil and political rights. Indeed, so thoroughly does awareness of political and civil liberties overshadow economic and social rights, that where the two come in conflict, support for the primacy of political and civil liberties almost always prevails by default.
Of course, this isn't invariably so, for there can be found small pockets of support for the idea that economic and social rights, can, at times, be senior to civil and political liberties. Those who lean in this direction, are, not surprisingly, regarded in countries like the US with great suspicion, not only by the population at large, but by large parts of the Left, as well. They are called the old Left, the authoritarian Left, Stalinists, and their elevation of economic and social rights above civil and political liberties is denounced as apologetics for the denial of a full spectrum of civil and political rights. On the other hand, the new Left, anarchists, social democrats, and those who call themselves democratic socialists – the broadest part of the Left in Western countries – are inclined to give political and civil liberties primacy. While they lambaste the old Left for accepting the diminution of political and civil rights as a necessity of political survival for regimes trying to guarantee economic and social rights, the idea that their elevation of civil and political liberties above other rights might, by their own formulation, be considered apologetics for the denial of material security to all, would be incomprehensible to them. Finally, some Leftists deny the two sets of rights can ever be in conflict, and that the failure to deny either, here and now, is reprehensible and a great failure. The latter two groups make up the bulk of the most progressive part of the populations of Western imperialist countries, which means that a regime that seeks to withdraw, or remain aloof from, the Western imperial orbit, and uses central authority and limitations on some rights to ensure its survival, is highly unlikely to receive the support of these groups. On the contrary, it's far more likely to find itself the object of their intense disdain.
While it may seem that the failure of the Western Left to support many anti-imperialist struggles is rooted in the ideas they hold dear, it is more appropriate to say their ideas and actions are rooted in material conditions. Those denied adequate shelter, who haven't enough food, and can't find work, will place a greater premium on economic and social rights, than someone who has a secure job, plenty to eat, and comfortable accommodations. The right to form one's own political party hardly matters to one who hasn't enough to eat, and if the former must be given up for the latter, the choice is an easy one to make. By comparison, one whose livelihood, and therefore whose material security, depends on his liberty to speak and think and organize as he pleases, will find the preservation of political and civil liberties enormously important, and will hardly look favorably on any regime that fails to share his convictions. One's heart never strays far from one's stomach.
Another part of the reason the Left in Western countries, but most particularly the US, zealously participates in the demonization of regimes their governments seek to oust, is based on political calculation and compromise of a sort rampant among Left forces, which can be summed up in the phrase, "We must pick our battles." If the Left's recent history wasn't littered with one defeat after another the strategy might recommend itself as a guide to future battles. As it's been a dismal failure, one can be skeptical. Here's how this political calculus played out with regard to Iraq: Anyone who vigorously opposed the invasion and occupation of Iraq, who did not, at the same time, make his distaste of Saddam plain, was said to run the risk of being denounced as a defender of a dictator, supporter of a tyrant, and apologist for a nasty, brutal regime. To side step the charge, the Left needed to join in the demonization. This would take the allegation that the Left supports Saddam's crimes off the table, and focus the debate on the invasion and occupation itself. Hence, argue vigorously against both Saddam and US plans for military action.
The reasoning seems plausible enough, but there are three problems with it. It can't be denied that opponents who refused to demonize Saddam were called dictator-lovers. But the most vociferous accusations came from the Left (from people like Michael Albert, Todd Gitlin and Joanne Landy), not the Right. Moreover, Noam Chomsky, who more than anyone else made clear his distaste for Saddam, was accused by conservative forces of bearing the sins of the Left, to wit, of supporting dictators and tyrants. The accusations your opponents hurl at you needn't have any basis in reality, and often don't. Therefore, as a means of taking the Left's supposed support for dictators off the table, the strategy failed miserably, especially so considering it was demonizers of the Left like Albert, Gitlin and Landy who made sure it was brought up over and over again, particularly in connection with the International ANSWER campaigns. (Today, Landy fulminates against ANSWER for showing a videotape on its campaign buses praising Saddam's health care system.) Most importantly, however, the strategy had the opposite effect of that intended: It turned up the volume on the core justification Washington uses for the war and occupation (we got rid of a nasty brutal dictator and the world's now a better and safer place.) Against this, the opposing arguments that military action breached the strictures of international law, wasn't approved by the UN Security Council, and was based on a pretext, didn't have a chance. There's too much sympathy for the view that the ends justify the means, and that the goal of Saddam's ouster was imperative, to give legal and moral objections any persuasive force. Which is part of the reason Paul O'Neill's revelations have been greeted with all the indignation and galvanized political activism a yawn can muster.
1. Jacques R. Pauwels, The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War, James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Toronto, 2002. p .22-23.
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