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
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This explains the strange passivity that has marked much of the Democratic response to Iraq. The president must "make the case," many Democrats say, as if they are incapable of informing themselves about what is potentially one of the greatest threats to the United States. Tom Daschle's entire approach to the Iraq issue has been governed by midterm considerations.

On September 18, as the U.N. was consumed by debate over Iraq, as the White House was drafting a war resolution on Iraq, Daschle delivered a major policy address. The subject? The tax cut Congress passed over a year ago. The speech, the New York Times reported, was "the beginning of a party-wide effort to turn attention away from Iraq and back to the domestic agenda." The United States is possibly on the verge of war, and Tom Daschle is trying to turn attention away from it. He's running around Capitol Hill looking for some sand to bury his head in. This is parochialism on stilts.

For a third branch of the parochialists, Iraq is not the issue, America is the issue. The historian Gabriel Kolko recently declared, "Everyone--Americans and those people who are the objects of their efforts--would be far better off if the United States did nothing, closed its bases overseas, withdrew its fleets everywhere and allowed the rest of the world to find its own way without American weapons and troops." For peaceniks in this school, the conditions of the world don't matter. Whether it is Korea, Germany, the Balkans, or the Middle East, America shouldn't be there because America is the problem. This is reverse isolationism: Whereas the earlier isolationists thought America should withdraw because the rest of the world was too corrupt, these isolationists believe that America should withdraw because the United States is too corrupt.

"I Hear America Sinking" is the title of James Ridgeway's recent piece in the Village Voice: America is too corrupt and troubled to attempt any action in Iraq. "American foreign policy is like their television," writes John O'Farrell in the Guardian. "It has to keep jumping from one thing to another because the president has the remote control in his hand and his attention span is very limited." Writers in this school derive an almost sensuous pleasure from recounting how much people in the rest of the world dislike America; whether those anti-Americans also, by the way, kill homosexuals, oppress women, and crush pluralism is relegated to the background. For these parochials, the immediate priority is hating America.

A fourth form of parochialism is what might be called modern multilateral gentility. For people in this school Iraq is not the issue--the U.N. is the issue. Now, it should be said that there are substantive reasons to care about whether or not the United States has allies. We need friends to help transform the Middle East. But for many of its supporters, multilateralism is purely a procedural matter. They seem to care less whether an action is undertaken than whether it is undertaken according to all the correct and genteel multilateral forms.

Like all forms of American gentility, this multilateralism is greatly concerned with refined manners. There can be no raw bullying around the earth, no passionate declarations of war, no ungentlemanly crusades. Instead, the conflict must be resolved through the framework of the United Nations (which for some reason is seen as a high-toned and civilized center of conflict resolution). Like all forms of American gentility, multilateralism carries a strong aroma of cultural inferiority. We Americans are sadly crude and uncultured. The Europeans are really much more sophisticated and subtle than we are about the affairs of the world. Their ways and manners are more mature.

Multilateral obsessives tend to be more centrist than other people in the peace camp. They are more respectable and more establishmentarian. But like many other members of the peace camp, they simply do not tackle the question of what Saddam might do or what the future might look like. Preferring process over substance, they hold to a multilateralism descended from previous genteel causes, such as civil service reform and campaign finance reform. In their quiet and sober way, they too contribute to the fog of peace.

NOW it should be said that within the peace camp, there are honorable exceptions to this pattern. Adam Shatz recently wrote a long piece in the Nation surveying left-wing thought on the war. The left is wrapped around its own axle, Shatz noted, because it can't come to terms with American power.

Richard Falk, the left-wing legal scholar, himself has argued that in deciding whether to go into places like Afghanistan and Iraq, "we should look with as much care as possible at the case where the interventionary claim is being made, and consider the effects of intervening and not intervening." This hardly seems like a radical notion, but of course it is precisely this approach that the peace camp, by and large, refuses to take. As Shatz observed in his piece, "Falk has been widely chastised for his vacillations."

Moreover, there are some in the peace camp who are willing to grapple head-on with the risks of preserving the status quo. Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton's secretary of state, has argued that there is no need to take on Saddam right now because the efforts to thwart him have worked. "Since the administration of former President George H.W. Bush, each time Mr. Hussein has pushed, we have pushed back," she wrote in a recent Times op-ed. Furthermore, she argued, "Saddam Hussein's military is far weaker than it was a decade ago. And he must surely be aware that if he ever again tries to attack another country he will be obliterated. All that is grounds for calm, but not complacency."

When you come across the Groundhog Day predictions of what will happen if the United States invades Iraq--the Arab Street will explode, we will create a thousand new bin Ladens, we will become stuck in a quagmire--you're actually relieved. Here are writers who are at least willing to compare the risks of action with those of inaction. Stephen Zunes argues in the Nation that Iraq is not a center of anti-American terrorism, international inspectors can insure that Saddam will not obtain weapons of mass destruction, and the Iraqi people would not welcome a U.S. effort to topple the current regime. Writing in the New York Times, author Milton Viorst predicts that if the United States goes into Iraq, Islamists in Pakistan will overthrow the government there and launch a nuclear attack on India. These assertions and predictions may be wrong and far-fetched, but at least Zunes and Viorst are willing to think about the world and about the future.

They are still the exceptions. For most in the peace camp, there is only the fog. The debate is dominated by people who don't seem to know about Iraq and don't care. Their positions are not influenced by the facts of world affairs.

When you get deep enough into the peace camp you find fog about the fog. You find a generation of academic and literary intellectuals who have so devoted themselves to questioning meanings, deconstructing texts, decoding signifiers, and unmasking perspectives, they can't even make an argument anymore. Susan Sontag wrote a New York Times op-ed about metaphors and interpretations and about the meaning and categories of war. It filled up space on the page, but it didn't go anywhere.

Tony Kushner, the fashionably engage playwright and most recently the author of "Homebody/Kabul," contributed to a symposium, also in the Times. Here is the complete text of his essay:

"Change is not the substitution of one static state for another. The meanings of Sept. 11 continue to be fought over, and the prevailing interpretations will direct future action. Colossal tragedy has made available to America the possibility of a new understanding of our place in the world.

"Tragedy's paradox is that it has a creative aspect: new meaning flows to fill the emptiness hollowed out by devastation. Are we dedicated to democratic, egalitarian principles applicable to our own people as well as to the people of the world? And do we understand that "our own people" and "the people of the world" are interdependent? Will we respond with imagination, compassion and courageous intelligence, refusing imperial projects and infinite war?

"The path we will take is not available for prediction. We ought not to believe columnists, think-tank determinists or the cowboy bromides of our president and his dangerous handlers and advisers. We, the citizenry, are still interpreting.

"Our conclusions will then force our reinterpretation. Urgency is appropriate but not an excuse for stupidity or brutality. Our despair over our own powerlessness is simply a lie we are telling ourselves. We are all engaged in shaping the interpretation, and in the ensuing actions, we are all implicated."

Tony! We can hear you but we can't see you! You are lost somewhere in the fog of peace.

David Brooks is a senior editor of The Weekly Standard.