Like his fellow Englishman Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen decamped from the left soon after 9-11. And like Hitchens, Cohen was labeled a sell-out by his former comrades. Hitchens could no longer suffer his colleagues at the Nation blaming George W. Bush for the 9-11 attacks, and Cohen was irked by the “hypocrisy of the left which called Saddam a ‘new Hitler’ one minute and excused him the next.”
In his new book What’s Left?, Cohen, a columnist for the Observer and London Evening Standard, examines why the left abandoned its allies — in Iraq, in particular — and began making excuses for the fascist regime of Saddam Hussein. According to Cohen, the left is motivated by one overwhelming factor: an all-consuming hatred for America. “The apparent commitment to help Iraqis [overcome a murderous, fascist regime] vanished the moment Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and became America’s enemy,” Cohen writes.
When anti-Americanism became more important than solidarity with Iraqis against the Baathist-al Qaeda alliance, it was time for Cohen to sever ties with the Left. “Anti-Americanism has left [liberals] blind to the evils of militant Islam,” writes Cohen. Any enemy of the left’s enemy became an ally. Thus video-butchers and suicide murderers were members of a noble resistance. As Hitchens has written, such a stand is not anti-war. This is taking the other side in the conflict.
The left’s anti-Americanism is compounded by an irrational loathing of Western democratic values. In the past the left might hold that the lack of women’s rights in the Third World was a horrible injustice that demanded feminists’ divine intervention. Indeed until recently feminists were scurrying all over the globe, holding righteous conferences that bemoaned the lack of women’s rights in the Third World and Arab states, not to mention the existence of forced marriages, honor-killings, marital rape, the murder of homosexuals and the banning of education for women.
But once the Baathists and militant Islamists became America’s enemies, the left turned its ire toward George W. Bush and its attention to protesting the war and to perceived hate crimes against Muslims in the West. Liberals demanded that Bush and Blair be impeached and Donald Rumsfeld be hauled into the dock for war crimes. A few went so far as to defend forced marriages, restrictions on the movement and education of women, the forced wearing of the burka, etc., on the grounds that these were the legitimate customs of an authentic, traditional culture, a tradition equally as valid as the West’s imperialist, patriarchic, racist culture. Women’s rights were put on the backburner or forgotten. Betrayal is the word Cohen uses time and again. “It was somehow culturally imperialist to criticize reactionary movements and ideas, as long as they aren’t European or American reactionary movements and ideas,” he writes. “This delusion is everywhere now. It lies behind the extreme form of multiculturalism we have in this country.”
Besides their fanatical hatred for America, Cohen offers other reasons why the left has given a free pass to fascists. High on the list is the death of socialism, which forced the left to form new alliances or to make excuses for the far right. With socialism out of the picture it is no longer clear what it means to be on the left, and liberals feel they have gone as far to the left as they dare. Then there is the “justifiable horror at the disasters of the Bush presidency,” and the liberals’ “uneasy relationship” with democracy. “You only have to look at their willingness to use the courts to enforce their will or to restrict freedom of speech to realize that many liberals are falling out of love with the free elections and robust debates that define liberal democracy,” Cohen writes. Thus, the constant whining from the left about partisanship and barriers to crossing the divide.
WHEN THE WAR TO overthrow Saddam Hussein came, Cohen notes, liberals had two choices: the first was to oppose the war, remain hypercritical of aspects of the Bush administration’s policy, but support Iraqis as they struggled to establish a democracy. The second choice was to look at the civilians and troops who were dying in a war whose central premised had proved to be false and to go berserk. Following the lead of their ideological fathers who saw no difference between British rule in India and Nazi imperialism in Europe “they chose to go berserk.”
Cohen shows a keen grasp of the causes of the current mayhem in Baghdad, noting how Baathists and Islamists formed an alliance against the common enemy of democracy. It was a simple plan, but extraordinarily effective. Al Qaeda’s Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi’s strategy was to terrorize the Shia majority, while suicide bombers were to murder Shias and blow up their shrines until they turned on the Sunni minority. Once this counter-revolution commenced the fighting would be seen as a civil war and the Western media and a majority of the British and American public would demand the troops withdraw. Al-Zarqawi was killed before he could see his plan realized, but realized it was. Beautifully.
According to Cohen, the left disgraced itself not because it was against the war, but because it could not oppose the counter-revolution once the war was over. In a chapter titled “The Disgrace of the Anti-War Movement,” Cohen recounts the February 15, 2003 anti-war marches that took place in hundreds of cities on every continent (yes, even Antarctica). Between six to 10 million participated in anti-war demonstrations, marching “to keep a fascist regime in power.” It was not the numbers of protesters Cohen found disturbing, but the gaiety and the circus atmosphere that prevailed, especially in London. Whether they knew it or not, these people were saying continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide were preferable to a U.S./British invasion. Would not a somber demeanor have been more appropriate? he asks.
It is small wonder that Cohen and Hitchens no longer wish to be associated with such clowns. Shortly after 9/11 Cohen had written in the New Statesman that the U.S.’s “unilateral” foreign policy meant it was “right to be Anti-American.” With the publication of What’s Left?, the greasepaint is removed, the clown is forgiven.
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