RECENT EVENTS--September 11, the war in Afghanistan, and the coming war in Iraq--have rigorously tested one of the perennial cliches of politics: that the Left is for idealists. Dreamers. People longing to change the world--and make it better. It's no longer true. Idealism has become a property of the Right, while the Left has been taken over by low partisan enmity.
Last week, Britain's Foreign Office released a brief report on human rights in Iraq. Drawing heavily on Amnesty International research, the report told of the estimated 100,000 Kurds Saddam Hussein killed in 1987-88; the estimated 5,000 killed and 10,000 injured by chemical weapons used against the Kurd town of Halabja; the systematic torture and mass killings of many thousands of prisoners; and the widespread torture and rape of women in government custody. Saddam's regime, the report said, shows a "cruel and callous regard for human life and suffering." One would think such a report would receive standing ovations from human rights groups. Wrong. Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International, called the report "a cold and calculated manipulation of the work of human rights activists."
Given a choice between Saddam Hussein and his enemies, why in the world wouldn't Amnesty International prefer Saddam's enemies? Amnesty is, after all, a human rights organization. It is not a question of the honesty of the Foreign Office's report. Khan alleged no misreporting of Amnesty's research. The British government didn't make up the stories of torture, rape, and execution. What is it then? Well, to be of the Left is to be anti-American and to oppose America's allies. So it appears that Amnesty International cherishes its leftist credentials more than it does human rights.
One need only surf the antiwar websites to find example after example of such moral absenteeism (definition: vigilance when it comes to the alleged misdeeds of George Bush, but for some reason not in class the day Saddam's crimes against humanity are described). In its Bush-bashing "statement of conscience," the antiwar organization Not in Our Name says it opposes war against Iraq because "We believe that peoples and nations have the right to determine their own destiny, free from military coercion by great powers." Yet apparently they don't believe in the Iraqi people's right to determine their own destiny free from the endless repression of Saddam Hussein.
Clearly, the Left has given up principled opposition for the sake of mere opposition--or something that amounts to the same. "Let us find a way to resist fundamentalism that leads to violence," Hollywood actor Tim Robbins told an antiwar crowd in Central Park at a recent rally, "fundamentalism of all kinds, in al Qaeda and within our government ." Yes, you heard him right. Robbins equated the Islamist terrorists responsible for the deaths of thousands to (need it even be said?) democratically elected officials of the freest country in history.
This moral absenteeism apparently slows rational processes. For example, the Left seems to be unaware that to oppose terrorist violence is to generally support efforts to stop terrorist organizations. (Maybe you don't have to sign off on every last action taken under the banner of a war on terror, but one can hardly subscribe to the principle of anti-terrorism while opposing the actions to which it necessarily leads.) Similarly, to support the principle of self-determination is to support the administration's efforts in Iraq. And memo to Amnesty International: To support human rights is to oppose Saddam. To attempt otherwise is to abandon the ideals of anti-terrorism, self-determination, and human rights. Thus has the Left adopted conservatism's most debilitating and cynical inhibitions against trying to make things better for our fellow man. The formerly internationalist Left has thus become morally constipated and isolationist.
It's no wonder several ideal-bearing liberals have chosen to flee the movement in recent months. Christopher Hitchens departed The Nation in despair over the absence of principled opposition to the Iraqi regime. In the Washington Post, he then nailed the problem: "Some peaceniks clear their throats by saying that, of course, they oppose Saddam Hussein as much as anybody, though not enough to support doing anything about him." The always dazzling Ron Rosenbaum of the New York Observer also recently said goodbye to all that, furious over the marked stupidity of a Left that offers cheap, snide remarks on George W. Bush when it should be reexamining the moral blind spot that allowed it to apologize for Stalin, and which now makes it possible for leftists to believe, in Hitchens's words, "that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden."
Indeed, why can't a Left that built its domestic agenda on equal rights for women and minorities oppose a dictator who licenses the procedural rape of dissident females and kills minorities? Why can't a Left that supports an absolute separation of church and state find the strength to oppose religious dictatorships abroad? Ditto for economic opportunity, the freedom of speech, and the right to vote. Why can't the Left be passionate about these ideals when it comes to the most pressing political events of the day?
The accompanying cliche to the idealist liberal was the cynical conservative. Conservatives were cautious and suspicious of action. But the Right today is alive with hopes and energized by a sense of possibility: Reaganites, neo-Wilsonians, realists, all of them taking part in a war against the world's most despicable aggressors. Unlike leftists, they can claim they are doing quite a lot to achieve that most cherished of ideals, peace.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.