"We were wrong"

Now when will Nader, Moore, Steinem, Chomsky -- and the other leftists who were monumentally mistaken about the war in Afghanistan -- join me in admitting it?

By Wagner James Au
Published February 1, 2002 2:05AM (EST)

We were on our feet and roaring. It was supposed to be a memorial in honor of 3,000 fellow Americans who had died a scarce week before. Instead, the packed auditorium of San Franciscans had just soared through the grieving stage into the angry one. But we weren't outraged about Osama bin Laden's diabolical attacks. We were too busy endorsing the idea that our fellow Americans were murdered because we hadn't signed the global warming accord in Kyoto.

"America, is there anything you did to set up this climate?" the Rev. Amos Brown, a left-wing preacher and former San Francisco supervisor, brayed from the podium. "In Central America, in Africa where bombs are still blasting ... in the global warming conference ... at the world conference on racism, when you wouldn't show up?"

To my shame, I was part of the ovation that followed. Even worse, as it turned out, Brown's tirade deeply offended one of the service's honored guests: Paul Holm, the former partner of Mark Bingham, one of the heroic resisters aboard Flight 93.

"This was supposed to be a memorial service," he told a nearby politician. But not to most of the left-wing audience. The familiar brief against America had been read, and that was our cue to rise.

The Rev. Brown's statements and our responses to them were appalling, absurd. But many more were to come, largely from a loose coalition of antiwar activists on the left, who were marshaling protests even before the first U.S. ordnance was dropped on Afghanistan. That was September. Since then, virtually every single theory and criticism they raised in the following months have proved wrong. Where their placards talked of a "racist" war and predicted a backlash of hatred against Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans, at home, relations with our fellow Islamic citizens have (with some repugnant exceptions) been vastly improved. Where they promised millions of dying Afghans, cut off by American bombs from critical humanitarian aid, the life-saving convoys are now thundering in. Where they were confident that bombing would provoke Muslim rage on Middle Eastern and Pakistani streets, those streets are silent. Where they advocated an inept alternative to U.S. military intervention -- something to do with world courts and increased domestic security -- the agile assault, combining U.S. air power with local militias and U.S. Special Forces on the ground, quickly dismantled the terrorist cabal that had enslaved the nation and menaced the world, interrupting mass murder plans in active preparation, and yielding evidence against terrorists already ensconced within our borders. Above all, where the antiwar crowd begged Americans to contemplate the role of our Middle Eastern policy in provoking the attacks of 9/11, the videotape confession of Bin Laden and the text of the hijackers' plans conclusively demonstrate its near-total irrelevance. In their private moments, al-Qaida members don't fret over the plight of the Palestinians, or the Iraqis. Those political grievances were aired only for public consumption, to wheedle sympathy from Arab populations -- whose knowledge of U.S. foreign policy is often grotesquely distorted by their state-controlled media, anyway -- and to disorient the kind of people in the West who were willing, like me, to turn a funeral wake into a mob of cheering ideologues.

My only slight consolation is that I have, since that memorial, parted company from this pack and its unexamined assumptions about the war. But even as a tentative peace spreads over Afghanistan, the silence from that quarter is telling. After months of expressing solidarity with the Afghan people during the bombing, the Web sites that aggregate antiwar protest opinion-- Indymedia, Alternet and Common Dreams, for instance -- seem to be quietly withdrawing their focus on the region. (The number of Alternet pieces on Afghanistan and Central Asia, by my count: in November, six. In December, three. In January, two.) After our government liberated the country and began taking steps to rebuild it, you could sense the antiwar left's waning interest. All that conditional compassion was revoked; the revival tents folded up; the caravan gone in search for another flash point of misery (preferably one for which America could be plausibly blamed).

One thing you won't find anywhere on those sites, as their focus flits away: the words "We were wrong."

For the most part, it has been conservative commentators who have made an issue of the antiwar left and its galling behavior, but there are exceptions: New Left veteran Todd Gitlin has been particularly eloquent, as has fiery Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens. But Gitlin, a cultural studies professor at New York University, lacks the cachet on the left of his fellow academic Noam Chomsky, and most leftists excommunicated Hitchens long ago for his rolein the Clinton impeachment.

To mainstream liberals, the failings of the antiwar left seems a nonissue. "Of course those opposed to the United States defending itself against terrorism are wrong," Jacob Weisberg wrote dismissively in Slate last month.

"They also happen to be totally irrelevant."

Untrue. The war in Afghanistan and the protest against it have smoked out the most divisive, self-destructive contingent of the left. They are small in number, but disproportionately influential, and retain the power (and willingness) to shred any chance at creating a coherent liberal agenda. Conservative attacks on the antiwar left from the likes of Andrew Sullivan and David Horowitz are easily dismissed by hardcore leftists -- after all, they're the enemy. Instead, it is liberals themselves, joined by members of the honorable left, who should now aim their rhetorical fire at the retreating leaders of the refuted antiwar left. Their past sophistries on Afghanistan and terrorism should be publicized, their future credibility permanently damaged. Ignore them, fail to address them, and I fear their imminent return, out to initiate further guerrilla attacks on the slow advance of meaningful social progress. I should know. I was one of them.

Shortly after Sept. 11, a Gallup poll suggested that around 4 percent of the population held a categorical opposition to U.S. military action -- perhaps not coincidentally, that was just a little more than the percentage of the vote Ralph Nader received in the 2000 presidential election. Not to suggest that all or even most of Nader's supporters joined him in opposing the war in Afghanistan. I can attest to that: I was among those who cast his lot (regrettably, in retrospect) with Nader/LaDuke.

What can be assumed is tremendous overlap among Nader's most vocal advocates and the most vocal war opponents. Indeed, the Green Party, which during the 2000 race was criticized for having a scant platform on foreign policy, made a point of issuing a statement against the war. Nader himself regularly speaks out against U.S. policy in Afghanistan, as do some of his most visible advocates, notably filmmaker Michael Moore. It's not readily apparent why so many war opponents in America are Greens. Germany's Green Party foreign minister was actually a leading advocate for Europe's coalition efforts in Afghanistan. (One German Green official mordantly advised the pacifists in his party that a "therapeutic approach" was not an effective way to deal with terrorists.)

It makes a bit more sense, however, when you think about the nature of war. Deciding to engage in one is a complex, ugly business. It involves, for example, choosing to endanger the lives of some civilians, in order to save the lives of many more. It means, in other words, choosing the lesser of two evils. A little like, say, voting for the moderate-liberal candidate, as opposed to a left-liberal third party candidate campaigning in swing states.

Despite Bush's subsequent coronation, this inability to think in nuances has apparently persisted, even intensified. Which is probably why the same people who were calling Al Gore a dupe for the oil industry, are now saying that war in Afghanistan was just a ruse for Unocal. Or why the same people who were saying there was no difference between Gore and Bush, are now saying there's no difference between bombing Taliban positions and crashing a jet into a skyscraper.

I mean this figuratively, mostly; but often, it's quite literally the case. Cartoonist Ted Rall, for example, whose scattershot conspiracy theories on Afghanistan oil pipelines gained heavy play over the Web, was applying similar illogic last election: "Now, if you believe the scaredy-cat Democrats, is the time for all good lefties to come to the aid of their party," he wrote in October 2000. "By costing the Democrats this election, however, Ralph Nader just might pull the party back to its progressive roots."

Just before the election, Alternet contributor and Nader supporter Ted Wise asserted that when it came to civil rights, the major party candidates were more or less the same, since "equality will not be secured by Al Gore, nor can it be truly derailed by George Bush." Shortly after Sept. 11, he was suggesting that American retaliation would be morally equivalent to the terrorist assault itself -- that it would merely mean, he wrote, "hunting down those responsible for mass death [and] inflicting upon them some more mass death ..."

Medea Benjamin, a key speaker at the San Francisco peace protest and the Green Party's California candidate for Senate in 2000, recently touted the study of an obscure University of New Hampshire professor of economics, who claims that over 3,700 Afghan citizens were killed in the U.S. bombing. While "professor" seems to suggest academic impartiality, and "of economics" implies a certain statistical rigor, the study itself is not strong on either of those.

Billed as a comprehensive tally taken from media accounts during the air war, it's actually cobbled together with a vague, question-raising methodology ("Whenever possible, I have sought cross-corroboration" -- And when not possible?), from news clippings gathered with a certain gullible promiscuity, "[from] the Afghan Islamic Press ... Reuters, BBC News Online, Al Jazeera, and a variety of other reputable sources," presented with a dogmatic stridency that's troubling to anyone who does not share it. (Arguments that hitting targets within civilian areas was necessary because Taliban and al-Qaida forces were hiding there "can be quickly dispensed with as reflecting the racism of those proposing such an argument.") Even the layout is shot through with bias. (Sample heading: "Seven Days of Ignominy.")

During the most ferocious period of the bombing, human rights groups conducting research within Afghanistan (as opposed to, say, from a desk in New England) placed the number of civilian deaths at about 50, and in early December, as the strikes tapered off, Doctors Without Borders estimated total deaths to be in the hundreds.

Then again, who can say for sure at this point in the war? The 3,700-plus figure may somehow turn out to be close, or at least not a total fabrication. The point is, for now, there is no reason to believe this casualty statistic. But despite its prima facie flimsiness, the study has become a last desperate salvo from the antiwar camp, showing up on countless antiwar/left publications. (Even respected leftist historian Howard Zinn cites it confidently, without any qualifications or misgivings.) What's striking is how most of those waving the New Hampshire professor's analysis proclaim it to be some kind of authoritative report, instead of the emotionalist agitprop it really is. Many of them even grouse that the mainstream media has given it little coverage. (Which is a little like a creationist complaining that Stephen Jay Gould won't return his calls.)

Also striking is how a leading figure in the Green Party would willingly fob around the findings of such an obviously problematic study. It's this recklessness that characterized party leaders' behavior in the last election -- and it's why, I think, that liberals ignore it now at their peril. Every Democrat in Congress (but one) voted with the Bush administration to authorize any steps necessary to fight terrorism. Who knows what spoiler strategies are now being contemplated on the far left, bent on gunning for Democrats whose reelections hang on a close race? ("Democrats are just as pro-war as Republicans -- vote for the party of peaceful alternatives.") Judging by Green Party tactics in 2000 (and the party's subsequent, unrepentant defense of them) it's not an implausible concern.

None of the above is to say the fracture point lies solely within the Green Party. It extends to not-strictly-partisan intellectuals with substantial influence on the left. This would not include Susan Sontag, whose infamous New Yorker rant, while wrong, was hardly the traitorous screed her right wing critics made it out to be. But now may be the time for an extended reexamination of Noam Chomsky, a thinker I once admired. Even after his savagely lame comparisons of the terror attacks with Clinton's missile strike on a Sudanese factory, he seemed to drift into a spiral of declining faculties. In a reply to Christoper Hitchens, who'd ripped him apart for the analogy, Chomsky insinuated that Hitchens was a racist, and when called on this undignified rhetorical feint (along with several grave factual errors), Chomsky flatly denied it. This sorry exchange was topped by his astounding predictions that America was about to commit genocide in Afghanistan -- and when those proved pathetically wrongheaded, rather than retract them, he quietly altered his definition of genocide.

Salon readers caught a glimpse of Chomsky's diversionary flimflam when, in a recent interview, he asserted that his claim of Sudanese deaths from Clinton's missiles were based on "estimates made by the German Embassy in Sudan and Human Rights Watch" -- only to have a spokeswoman for the rights group e-mail Salon to state that her group conducted no such study. But amazingly, even in the face of direct contradiction, Chomsky unearthed another citation, purportedly from Human Rights Watch, to insist that the group had. But the citation, if accurate, actually confirms nothing of the kind. As for the "German Embassy" estimate, an Internet search for the relevant quote offered by Chomsky there reveals an article by the former German ambassador to Sudan, prefaced with a disclaimer saying it reflects his personal opinions, which "have not been seen or authorized or approved by the German government.")

So far, though, Chomsky's most vocal opponent has been conservative polemicist David Horowitz, whose recent flailings against him landed some blows, but considering the source, have done little to affect the professor's cultish fan base -- except maybe to amplify their adulation further. Horowitz is hardly the best candidate to fashion an effective critique of Chomsky's work. But there must be some scholars on the left who can. And for the sake of creating a reasoned dissent on America's genuine failings in foreign policy, they must. Without one, Chomsky and his acolytes will continue to galvanize the very young, drawing them away from mainstream liberal activism and into his netherworld of impervious collusion between power and wealth where any chance at progress seems impossible and quite beside the point.

Along those lines, feminists should take a sober look at many of their leading lights, and ask hard questions about their actions during the war. Eve Ensler, whose "Vagina Monologues" launched a franchise for dramatizing brutality against women, actually opposed the bombing in Afghanistan, and obstinately held to that view, even after American JDAMs (joint direct attack munitions, or guided bombs) had sent the Taliban misogynists fleeing. "I know in my body," she told Janelle Brown, "that violence has created in so many other people seeds of things that will come to be, in our lifetime, as deadly as anything we've seen."

The qualification "in our lifetime" allows her a generous margin of error -- perhaps because she recently put her name to a petition that made predictions that turned out wrong in a matter of months: "We will not support the bombing or U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, for it would only punish suffering people, and increase the hatred on which terrorists feed." Another signatory was Gloria Steinem, who, a few months later, sat with an Afghan feminist at a speaking engagement in a luxurious San Francisco hotel, to murmur words of encouragement, now that Afghan women were free from the Taliban. No mention that Steinem was recently advocating a course that would have meant their continued oppression. (As did Alice Walker, another signer, or Barbara Kingsolver, who wrote that the bombing was answering "one terrorist act with another.") Content to consign the women of Afghanistan to further brutality, rather than support something so coarse as American military might, these leading American feminists betrayed them, as well as their own feminist principles. (Meanwhile, the real women's rights advocates were airborne, arcing down on Taliban front lines at Mazar-e-Sharif.)

The Bush administration's military campaign against al-Qaida has been exemplary, and it deserves strong praise from the liberal left. But much of its remaining agenda --including its ominous and potentially disastrous threat to declare war on Iran and North Korea, among other regimes -- does not, and should be vigorously debated. It would be wonderful to have something like the zeal of the antiwar protesters to help fight the Bush team's military overreach. But right now, the antiwar faction is moored to the mainstream of political discourse by the thinnest tether. Getting them to admit their errors on major foreign policy issues like Afghanistan -- and maybe to even acknowledge that their political goals are ill-served by dive-bombing major elections with unqualified third-party candidates -- would do much to move them back onto solid ground.

Or they can continue as they did after Sept. 11, with callous moral equivalencies, bolstered by dubious studies and disreputable conspiracy-mongering. Doing so will finally set them adrift, in the company of the Larouchites and the Reformites, lost like them in the shoals of unreason. Then again, for the sake of the rest of us, maybe now is the time to cut the cord.

For my own part, I've spent many of my hours since that September memorial wondering how I could have joined with them, by leaping to my feet like that. What were the root causes for such a loss of critical thought? An intricately simplistic view of the world, perhaps, influenced by Chomsky and others, energized by meaningless pieties like those in Ensler's petition, propelled by a privileged absolutism which also motivated opting for the likes of Ralph Nader. Is that what it took, to make us all so quickly forget we were there to mourn with a man who had just lost his partner in a fireball?

Mark Bingham spent the last moments of his life forcing the fanatic at the controls to spend the last moments of his (as it comforts me to imagine) with a lionhearted gay man slamming his face into the steering column. None of us cheering at the memorial will ever likely match that valor, or the strength of his moral compass. Had we even a fraction of either, we'd have kept in our seats in the auditorium, letting all that demagoguery wash over us in hard, unforgiving silence. Failing that, we are now obliged to direct that quiet contempt at ourselves. Until then, we are still standing there, cheering our own heartless irrelevance, rippling in waves of applause really meant for ourselves.

Wagner James Au

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

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