Eye on the United States

American Liberals Torn

Peace protesters in Washington DC
Washington, DC, Jan. 19, 2003: Protesting U.S. plans for a war in Iraq (Photo: Nicholas Roberts/AFP).

Perhaps it is really true that people, as they grow older, become more conservative in their thinking. That, however, would be a somewhat oversimplified explanation for the fact that the leading liberal thinkers in the United States have deserted to the warmongers’ camp. True, the most prominent of those who have switched sides, including Democratic presidential candidate Richard Gephardt, the writer Salman Rushdie, and columnist Christopher Hitchens, are all middle-aged—an age when youthful passion supposedly gives way to logic born of experience. But then, why are the leaders of the American peace movement such eloquent elders as the 74-year-old rebel from MIT, [professor of linguistics] Noam Chomsky, the 77-year-old playwright and novelist Gore Vidal, and the 80-year-old historian Howard Zinn?

It is possible that the American left, regardless of age, now finds itself in the midst of an identity crisis.

The underlying dilemma is the clashing of two principles on which the liberal worldview is equally based: a humanitarian conviction and anti-imperialism. This contradiction, according to Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, is grounded in the two major U.S. wars of the 20th century: “The postwar generation constantly referred to the two primary scenarios of the Second World War and the Vietnam War. Thus in practically every debate about the use of military force, these two camps can be defined by this dividing line.”

Since the war in Yugoslavia, at the latest, the ideal of World War II has again come to the fore, even among liberals. Thus, in her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, the author Samantha Power laments that the United States could have prevented a lot of suffering over the last hundred years had it intervened promptly. According to this line of reasoning, there may now be a convincing argument for a war in Iraq: Saddam Hussein.

Since he seized power in 1979, Saddam Hussein’s regime of terror has been responsible for over a million deaths. The conclusion to be drawn was described by the éminence grise of the rock ’n’ roll generation, Greil Marcus, in the magazine First of the Month: “For those on the left, it is a duty to be not only a party for war among others, but rather the party for war to the maximum extent. The hostilities should no longer be limited to Iraq and Sudan, but must be extended to some of the darlings of those on the American right: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan.”

Jonathan Chait, senior editor at The New Republic, reminds his readers in his essay, “Why Liberals Should Support the War,” that it was in no way the idea of the Bush administration to disarm Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He cited a passage from one of Bill Clinton’s speeches: “If we allow the murderers of the 21st century to develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, they will become even deadlier. There is no clearer example of this than the threat from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.”

At that time, most liberals would have agreed with Clinton. Now, opposition to Bush has fueled the protests against a war. And yet, he was the one who reduced the Vietnam argument to hackneyed antiwar rhetoric. Had not the peace movement warned of a new Vietnam in Afghanistan? True, the highest ranking leaders of Al-Qaeda have not yet been found—but the images of people rejoicing as the troops marched into Kabul and the reports on the liberation of an entire people from the clutches of a barbarian brand of Islam have been the best advertisement for interventions since the Allied troops marched into Berlin.

The liberals’ crisis of identity has largely swept the intellectual and academic ground from under the peace movement. Many liberal pacifists are retreating because they do not want to have anything to do with the peaceniks from Hollywood, who are posing for the cameras, and the anachronisms of the radical left. Who can blame them?

The editors of The Nation have long since recognized the danger of this split among liberals. In its first January issue, there is a series titled “Waging Peace” that attempts to bring together the fragmented peace movements. From traditional peace movements to student organizations and anti-racist organizations—all the way to labor unions, human rights advocates, and environmentalists—a huge spectrum of political movements has launched a new coalition under the name “United for Peace.” The debate as to whether it is more important to prevent a war than to put an end to a dictatorship will continue. As things look now, the question will be answered neither by those at the grass roots nor by intellectuals and academics. In American politics, it now seems that the war against Iraq must be waged at any price. Arguments no longer count.