All The More Reason

When Progressives Leave the Field of Play
July 25, 2007, 5:23 pm
Filed under: Euston Manifesto, Iraq, Johann Hari

I like Johann Hari, and I often find myself nodding along involuntarily with much of what he writes. At the time of the Iraq war, he was one of a few leftists who spoke out in favour of intervention.

Since then, he has recanted – albeit in a slightly over-dramatic, ‘I once was blind but now I see’ fashion. The jist of his disavowal was as follows: we were right to go into Iraq, but we were wrong to think that neo-conservatives would act thereafter in the spirit of emancipation hoped for by the pro-war left (ergo, we were…er…wrong to go into Iraq). The culpable scarcity of American troops in the dawn of that liberation, combined with subsequent displays of incompetence bore the hallmarks of an administration with barely half an eye on the ball, and provide ample evidence for this proposition.

In his latest piece, though, he goes one step further:

“[the pro war left] has moved from tactically siding with the US in order to defeat a greater enemy – my initial position – to reflexively defending US imperial power, no matter how horrific. Many Eustonites somehow convinced themselves that the US military had become the armed wing of Amnesty International…A policy of systematic torture? The immediate imposition of mass privatisations, causing mass unemployment and sectarian unrest? The barricading of civilian men aged between 18 and 60 in Fallujah before attacking it with chemical weapons? Indeed, with a few exceptions, the pro-war left has never engaged with the situation in Iraq since March 2003.”

Leaving aside the slightly barmy implication that the current sectarian bloodbath was ‘caused’, or even catalysed, by insufficient mobilisation against privatisation, this is a serious indictment sheet.

I have some sympathy with the argument that the ‘Euston Agenda’ – at bottom, a belief in the universality of human rights, and the need for an worldwide defence of these values by progressives, using ‘hard power’ if necessary- should tackle abuses by the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom as vigorously as it does those in Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan.

When raised with comrade-members of the Euston cabal, the response to this is twofold: (a) those abuses are not comparable, and (b) there are plenty of voices willing to condemn the former in a knee-jerk manner, so why add to the bleating? These may both be legitimate points, but when your avowed intent is to defend universal human rights, it surely becomes impossible to stay silent on these matters without descending into a mire of hypocrisy and cant. Far from weakening our own position, we strengthen the case for universal human rights when we admit that their abuse – and their defence – is universal. A more nuanced tone is not only morally right, and vital for Euston’s credibility, it also wrong foots critics.

That piece of parish business aside, whilst Hari’s criticism of over-zealous leftists blind to American excesses may be partly fair, it fails to deal with what seems to me a far more important constituency- namely, those ‘progressives’ who seem blind to anything other than American excesses. They too must bear their share of responsibility for what has happened in Iraq in the past four years. Indeed, their malign influence can be seen even before the war.

When President Clinton came to power in 1993, we now understand from Iraqi insiders that he attempted to offer Saddam ‘a new chapter in relations’ through the medium of an American pastor of his acquaintance. When his advances were rebuffed, ‘progressives’ supported the view that starving a country into submission (lining the pockets of corrupt UN officials in the process), and ineffectually lobbing a few cruise missiles towards the Gulf every now and then, was preferable to the removal of that country’s despotic leader. President Clinton had eight years in which to construct and implement a soft, post-Saddam, landing. Instead – as with the deadly high-altitude bombing of Kosovo and the retreat from Mogadishu – he concocted a typically ineffectual Third Way between isolationism and using American might in a just cause.

Liberals, therefore, had ample opportunity to come up with a just and effective solution for Iraq, and they muffed it. In short, progressives abandoned a progressive cause and left it in the custody of Republicans. When it came to the crunch, instead of trying to pressure America into coming up with a coherent post-invasion strategy, the worldwide anti-war movement chose to sit at the back and throw bottles. Rather than a cautionary tale against humanitarian intervention, Iraq should be seen as a warning of what happens when leftists desert their internationalism en masse, in favour of unconstructive and onanistic isolationism They have nothing to be smug about, and much to be ashamed of.

Against this background, Hari’s claim that the pro-war left ‘has never engaged with the situation in Iraq since March 2003’ seems all the more absurd. Whilst Stoppers have spent their time attacking American abuses, liberal hawks have almost run out of breath with which to call for solidarity with Iraqi trade-unionists and other democratic and secular movements in the country. Whilst many of Hari’s colleagues call for withdrawal of troops – surely, by definition, the very antithesis of ‘engagement’ with the situation in Iraq – Eustonites continue to call for the moral support, already shown, to be bolstered by further material support. We may lose this argument and, more importantly, this war, but if Hari thinks that solipsistic self-criticism and trite references to ‘US Imperial power’ constitute a greater ‘engagement’ with the situation in Iraq, he has more to be self-critical about than he knows.

Michael P


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