The coming weeks are going to be critical for the left in this country for a very simple reason. Legitimate, important, valid or even extreme and hyperbolic arguments before a war are one thing. But they have a different salience when they are made during a war -- especially one that has barely even begun. There are already polling suggestions that the antiwar movement is at this point bolstering public support for the war. But if the antiwar rhetoric among the extreme left continues in the same vein as it has this first week, the marginalization of the left in this country, already profound, might become irreversible.
Let me take two comments this past week. In the Boston Globe, James Carroll explicitly denied any moral difference between the regime in Baghdad and the administration in Washington. He described the "shock and awe" air campaign as if it were the direct equivalent of 9/11:
"And what, exactly, would justify such destruction? What would make it an act of virtue? And is it possible to imagine that such violence could be wreaked in a spirit of cold detachment, by controllers sitting at screens dozens, hundreds, even thousands of miles distant? And in what way would such 'decapitation' spark in the American people anything but a horror to make memories of 9/11 seem a pleasant dream? If our nation, in other words, were on its receiving end, illusions would lift and we would see 'shock and awe' for exactly what it is -- terrorism pure and simple."
This lazy form of moral equivalence is not rare among the radical left in this country. But it is based on a profound moral abdication: the refusal to see that a Stalinist dictatorship that murders its own civilians, that sends its troops into battle with a gun pointed at their heads, that executes POWs, that stores and harbors chemical weapons, that defies 12 years of U.N. disarmament demands, that has twice declared war against its neighbors, and that provides a safe haven for terrorists of all stripes, is not the moral equivalent of the United States under President George W. Bush. There is, in fact, no comparison whatever. That is not jingoism or blind patriotism or propaganda. It is the simple undeniable truth. And once the left starts equating legitimate acts of war to defang and depose a deadly dictator with unprovoked terrorist attacks on civilians, it has lost its mind, not to speak of its soul.
9/11 and our current campaign against Saddam are, if anything, polar opposites. With overwhelming firepower and complete air command, the allies in Iraq could reduce Baghdad to rubble if they wanted to. Instead they are achieving what might be an historically unprecedented attempt to win a war while avoiding civilian casualties. Even if you take Iraqi numbers of dead at face value, even if you believe that every explosion in Baghdad has been the result of allied air power, the number of civilian casualties is still minuscule, compared to the force being used. On 9/11, in contrast, the entire aim of the exercise was to kill as many civilians as possible. For James Carroll to equate the two is a moral obscenity.
How big a leap is it from decrying allied warfare as terrorism to actually actively supporting the Baghdad regime against U.S. troops? In the past two years, we have indeed seen some misguided Americans fighting for the Taliban; we have seen human shields attempting to support Saddam's war crimes; we have seen an American soldier try to kill his own fellow service members; we have seen extremist Muslim Americans murder people in sniper fire and at airport counters. These people are very few in number, and should not be conflated with the "antiwar" movement as a whole. But observing "peace" rallies where Bush is decried far, far more passionately than Saddam -- where, in fact, Saddam is barely mentioned at all -- suggests that something not altogether different lurks beneath the surface among many others. Nick Kristof this week bemoaned the fact that "in some e-mail from fellow doves I detect hints of satisfaction that the U.S. is running into trouble in Iraq -- as if hawks should be taught a lesson about the real world with the blood of young Americans." (When you read Eric Alterman's blog, and see him almost high-five every allied setback, you can see what Kristof is worrying about.)
Then last week, someone actually came out and said it. Columbia University professor Nicholas De Genova hoped at an "antiwar teach-in," hosted by left-wing writer and historian Eric Foner, that there would be "a million Mogadishus" in this war. To translate: This guy wants to see a million young American troops subjected to war crimes, shot and mutilated, and paraded through the streets. No one in the crowd objected. "The only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military," he elaborated. And to loud cheers from an Ivy League college audience, he thundered, "If we really [believe] that this war is criminal ... then we have to believe in the victory of the Iraqi people and the defeat of the U.S. war machine."
Notice how de Genova parroted Saddam's propaganda that the dictator and the "Iraqi people" are indistinguishable. But notice something far more obvious. If de Genova's comments aren't an expression of a fifth columnist, someone actively supporting the victory of a vicious dictator over the troops of his own countrymen, then what, please tell me, is? And please, don't give me the old McCarthyite "J'accuse." De Genova has every right in the world to say what he believes; and I would defend his right to say it anywhere, free from any governmental interference. By the same token, I am allowed to say that his views are morally repugnant.
But then again, he has a point, doesn't he? The rhetoric of the "antiwar" movement has consistently argued that this is indeed a criminal war: that it is being conducted by an illegal president for nefarious ends -- oil contracts, the Jews, world domination, etc., etc. When you have used rhetoric of that sort, when you have described your own country as indistinguishable in legitimacy from a Stalinist dictatorship, when you have described the president as the equivalent of the Nazi SS, when you have carried posters with the words Bush = Terrorist and "We Support Our Troops When they Shoot Their Officers," then why shouldn't you support the enemy?
Before the war, such hyperbole could perhaps be dismissed as rhetorical excess. During a war, when American and allied soldiers are risking their lives, it is something far worse. Before the war, it was inexcusable but not that damning for the mainstream left merely to ignore the rabid, immoral anti-American rhetoric of some of their allies. But during a war, ignoring it is no longer an option. In fact, the mainstream left has a current obligation to declare its renunciation of what amounts to a grotesque moral inversion, to disavow the sentiments that were cheered at Columbia University.
You can see why they might be reluctant. De Genova's rhetoric -- and that of the rest of the far left -- describes President Bush as an unelected, maniacal tyrant, a caricature that is useful to Bush's political enemies. But indeed, if the president is what de Genova says he is, if he is, as the posters have it, the same as Hitler, then why indeed isn't Saddam indistinguishable? Why should we back one unelected dictator against another? Those are questions the rest of the antiwar left never answered categorically before the war, because they didn't have to. Now they do.