The Magazine

The Fog of Peace

The evasions, distractions, and miasma of the anti-war left.

Sep 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 03 • By DAVID BROOKS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

That is exactly what you see in the writings of the peace camp generally--not only in Chomsky's work but also in the writings of people who are actually tethered to reality. Their supposed demons--Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Doug Feith, Donald Rumsfeld, and company--occupy their entire field of vision, so that there is no room for analysis of anything beyond, such as what is happening in the world. For the peace camp, all foreign affairs is local; contempt for and opposition to Wolfowitz, Perle, Rumsfeld, et al. is the driving passion. When they write about these figures it is with a burning zeal. But on the rare occasions when they write about Saddam, suddenly all passion drains away. Saddam is boring, but Wolfowitz tears at their soul.

You begin to realize that they are not arguing about Iraq. They are not arguing at all. They are just repeating the hatreds they cultivated in the 1960s, and during the Reagan years, and during the Florida imbroglio after the last presidential election. They are playing culture war, and they are disguising their eruptions as position-taking on Iraq, a country about which they haven't even taken the trouble to inform themselves.

THE NOTED HISTORIAN and Columbia University professor Simon Schama wrote a long essay for the Guardian that was published September 11. He begins by defending President Bush's use of the term "evil." But as he starts to talk about the war on terror and the possible war in Iraq, suddenly all logic is overtaken by his disgust for the Bush crowd:

"The United States Inc. is currently being run by an oligarchy, conducting its affairs with a plutocratic effrontery which in comparison makes the age of the robber barons in the late 19th century seem a model of capitalist rectitude. The dominant managerial style of the oligarchy is golf club chumminess; its messages exchanged along with hot stock tips by the mutual scratching and slapping of backs."

Schama goes on to attack Dick Cheney for Halliburton, Bush for Harken Energy, Secretary of the Army Thomas White for Enron, the proposal to eliminate the death tax, the banality of the architectural proposals for ground zero, Bush's faith-based initiatives, and so on and so on. It all adds up to one long rolling gas cloud of antipathy, which smothers Schama's ability to think about what the United States ought to do next.

This is the dictionary definition of parochialism--the inability to consider the larger global threats because one is consumed by one's immediate domestic hatreds. This parochialism takes many forms, but all the branches of the opposition to the war in Iraq have one thing in common: Iraq is never the issue. Something else is always the issue.

For Schama and many others, the Bush crowd is the issue. They stole the election. They serve corporate America. They have bad manners. This is the prism through which Maureen Dowd, Molly Ivins, and many others view the war. Writing in the Boston Globe, Northwestern University's Karen J. Alter psychoanalyzes the groupthink mentality that she says explains the Bush crowd's strange obsession with Iraq. The real problem, you see, is in their psyches.

Among some Democrats in Washington, a second form of parochialism has emerged. They see the Iraq conflict as a subplot within the midterm election campaigns. "It's hard not to notice that the sudden urgency of war with Iraq has coincided precisely with the emergence of the corporate scandal story, with the flip in congressional [poll] numbers and with the decline in the Republicans' prospects for retaking the Senate majority," Jim Jordan, the director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told the Washington Post. "It's absolutely clear that the administration has timed the Iraq public relations campaign to influence the midterm elections."

What's fascinating about this wag-the-dog theory is what it reveals about the mentality of the people who float it. These are politicians (far from all of them Democrats) who have never cared about foreign affairs, have no history with the Cold War, have no interest in America's superpower role. One sometimes gets the sense that these people can't imagine how anybody could genuinely be more interested in matters of war and peace than in such issues as prescription drugs, Social Security, and Enron. If the president does pretend to care more about nuclear weapons and such, surely it must be a political tactic. For them, the important task is to get the discussion back to the subjects they care about, and which they think are politically advantageous.