Thursday, August 12, 2004

"Fighters", Yes, but not for Freedom

This has got to be one of the most amazing opinion pieces I've ever seen being carried by the Guardian.

In a New York Times review of Nicholson Baker's new novel, Checkpoint, Leon Wieseltier employs the phrase "liberal demagoguery". He does so not as a cultural relativist might, in reference to western promotion of secular-liberalism, but in response to what he sees as the left's adoption of the right's penchant for crude reductionism.

The plot of Checkpoint concerns a man who is so disenchanted with what George W Bush has done to America and the world that he plots to kill the president, or at least fantasises about it. In real life, liberals on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly lending their support, if only vocally, to simple solutions to what is in Iraq, and elsewhere, a complex situation.

At its most innocuous, this tendency manifests in uncritical applause for Michael Moore. I'd be a wealthy man if I had a quid for every time someone had told me that they didn't care whether or not Moore was a reliable documentary-maker just so long as he is against the war in Iraq.

In Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore seems to suggest, with good reason, that the Iraq war was a needless diversion from the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his followers. But point out that he was against going after Bin Laden when the US invaded Afghanistan, and that his initial response to the attack on the World Trade Centre was that it was wrong because New York "voted against Bush!", and few of his new fans appear bothered. Yeah, they say, he may not be consistent, but he's a counterbalance to the mad neocons. And that's all that matters. In other words, to use the old Arabic saying, my enemy's enemy is my friend.

In which case, you can end up with some very strange friends. Recently I voiced the opinion that the tragedy of the war in Iraq, aside from the many innocent dead and injured, is that is has created the conditions in which reactionaries such as Moqtada al-Sadr and his followers can flourish. The woman I shared this thought with, a cultured liberal who cut her teeth in the anti-Vietnam war movement, looked at me in disbelief. "But they're freedom fighters," she said with something that sounded like pride.

Now Sadr's militiamen may be fighting for a number of things. Two young Britons were reported yesterday to have joined Sadr's Shia militia in Najaf to fight a "jihad" to defend their religion. (Perhaps, but the fact is that the Shia enjoy more liberty to practice their religion in Iraq now than they did under Saddam Hussein, whose ruthless anti-Shia policies seemed to inspire few British jihadists.) Certainly it is possible to argue that, in terms of removing an occupying force, they have a just cause. But what they are absolutely not fighting for is freedom.

Freedom may mean different things to different people but there are limits to how much you can stretch the word and those limits stop worryingly short of the Iraq that Sadr would like to see. The kind of "freedom" Sadr aims to establish is the kind that operates in the neighbouring theocracy of Iran. A broad spectrum of opposition forces helped depose the shah of Iran back in 1979 but Ayatollah Khomeini, Sadr's role model, was not much interested in pluralism. Thus, when he assumed control, he had his erstwhile anti-imperialist comrades either imprisoned or murdered.

At the time, a number of European intellectuals were excited by the the extremity of Khomeini's anti-American rhetoric. As Francis Wheen observes in How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World, Michel Foucault "came back to Paris enraptured by the 'beauty' of the Ayatollah Khomeini's neanderthal regime". But as will prove the case with Sadr if he gets the chance, the violence of Khomeini's language towards America was as nothing compared with the violence he unleashed on his own people.
To use a cliche, read the whole thing. Liberal criticism of the conduct of operations in Iraq certainly ought to be welcomed rather than interpreted as evidence of "treachery", as a self-reinforcing unanimity of opinion can easily lead one down the road to disaster; nevertheless, one can't help getting the impression from certain sections of the left that they're actively rooting for American failure in Iraq, and that these individuals view America's presence in that country as inherently oppressive and deserving of uprooting by any methods whatsoever. One wonders what such people expect to happen come January, should John Kerry happen to win the election: do they expect the "freedom fighters" they're currently cheering on to suddenly welcome the American presence they'd been fighting against, or are they hoping Kerry rapidly brings the troops home with their tails between their legs?