Punished for Being Right?
Writing about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq can be a frustrating experience. On the one hand, the boundaries of “reasonable debate” are so narrowly construed within the popular media as to make the discussion of any genuine alternative points of view virtually impossible; on the other, the polarized and polarizing orthodoxies of American political discourse require that any criticism of the wars be accompanied by so many qualifications and caveats as to render genuine argument meaningless. On the political right, this requires creedal affirmations of the goodness and justice of the American cause, full-throated avowals of American exceptionalism, and unqualified statements of support for the troops. In some environs of the left, it requires condemnations of American empire, coupled with declarations of our complicity in every dastardly deed of international malfeasance since the sinking of the Maine.
Constructive analysis of our military adventures is, of course, a much more difficult animal to wrangle than one would be led to believe on the basis of whatever one’s preferred mode of political discourse – left, right, or “center” – might happen to be. And so it is that Michael Bérubé’s The Left At War performs an important service in clearing away much of the intellectual dead wood in discussions about the morality and politics of the Iraq and Afghan wars. At the same time, he stakes out and defines a position that no doubt describes where many of us on the left actually see ourselves: Opposed to the immoral and illegal militarism of the Bush administration, but at the same time troubled by the dualistic reductionism of many of our fellow critics on the left. Bérubé defines these critics as representatives of the “Manichean left” in contrast to the more pragmatic and reality-based “democratic left.”
As the fog of war descended after September 11th, 2001, many leftists attempted to articulate grounds for opposition to the administration’s emerging brand of foreign policy chauvinism, first in Afghanistan – which was as Bérubé notes a very difficult case for many of us – and then in Iraq. It is difficult to look back from the vantage point of 2010 and not believe that much, though not all, of the left wing anti-war case of 2001-2003 has been vindicated. And yet within the realm of mainstream political opinion we are still viewed, in Bérubé’s phrase, as “dirty fucking hippies” (130). Meanwhile, the “liberal hawks” who championed the Iraq war (of whom Berube singles out George Packer for particular criticism), have maintained a high degree of public respectability despite being astoundingly wrong about just about everything.
In the first instance of course, they were wrong in their advocacy of Iraq as a “war of choice” as opposed to a “war of necessity.” The phrase “war of choice” is an oxymoron from a moral point of view. Just wars are not “optional.” As admirable as the liberal hawks’ intentions may have been, there were no morally or legally credible grounds upon which to view an invasion of Iraq as fulfilling the criteria of a “humanitarian intervention” (Bérubé, 149-151), let alone for seeing in the invocations of Iraqi WMD or ties to Al Qaeda any real threat to the United States. While it was undoubtedly true that Saddam Hussein was in many ways a monstrous figure, whom it was easy to transform into a villain of Hitleresque stature, nothing in international law or the literature of humanitarian intervention justified the calls for war.
And then, of course, the liberal hawks were wrong in their estimation of the likelihood of successfully transforming Iraq into a stable, pluralistic, and democratic regime in the aftermath of deposing Saddam. They, no more than the Bush administration, were willing to take realistic stock of the internal tensions within Iraq that were bound to snap in the aftermath of an invasion. As a result, instead of the beautiful visions of a free Iraq promoted by liberals such as Kanan Makiya, a tyrannical regime was replaced by abject chaos. Perhaps worse, by turning our attention away from Afghanistan, the war in Iraq has allowed the Taliban to retrench and seriously set back the attempt to stabilize that country as well.
And finally, of course, the liberal hawks were wrong to place their faith in the ability and prudence of the Bush administration. Irrespective of whether there was a genuine casus belli for war in Iraq, irrespective of the likelihood that Saddam Hussein’s fall would flower forth in a free and democratic Iraq, it should have been apparent from the beginning that the Bush administration was uniquely ill-equipped to successfully prosecute the war. Led by a man who combined hubris and ignorance into a particularly volatile elixir of bellicose confidence, backed by a band of neo-conservative intellectuals and spoon fed information by sycophantic aides and a vice president whom “Machiavellian” does not adequately begin to describe, there was nothing about the Bush administration that ought to have inspired the least confidence in the liberal hawks that any war plan, let alone one as clearly difficult as Iraq, would be carried out with any degree of competence.
By now, of course, all of this is so well known as to be considered conventional wisdom. Much of it was clear at the time. Many of the Bush administration’s advisors in the Pentagon and the State Department sounded alarm bells about the difficulty of an invasion only to be rewarded with ridicule and demotion. Foreign policy realists were far more skeptical than the administration about the possibility of refashioning Iraq in our own preferred image. And those who knew of the ethnic and religious tensions in the region warned that any brand of liberal reasonable pluralism would be very difficult to achieve under any circumstances, let alone in the aftermath of a destructive military campaign. Why then, is it that those on the left who recognized these things in 2003, and who didn’t need the better part of a decade to understand either the realities of the situation in Iraq or the gross incompetence of the Bush administration seem to have been punished for being right?
Bérubé’s answer to that question lies in his analysis of the role of the Manichean left, and particularly the contributions, such as they were, of Noam Chomsky in defining the terms of debate for the left. Chomsky stands in as the most well-respected and widely known figure on the Manichean left, but the arguments made by him not only in the run-up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but throughout the 1990s as well, were echoed by many others, and served to create a very visible target both for the political right and the liberal hawks, enabling them to tar the whole of the anti-war movement as representatives of a left-wing political fringe. At the same time, the highjacking of the anti-war protests by ANSWER provided red meat for Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity to paint the political left as the antithesis of everything American. As opposed to the “Very Serious” pundits for whom the necessity of war was a foregone conclusion, everyone to the left of Paul Berman was cast as utterly beyond the pale of serious public discourse.
The Left at War offers up a withering critique of role that the Manichean left played in creating these circumstances. By becoming the caricature of leftwing radicalism that the proponents of war needed them to be, the Manichean left served to marginalize justifiable critique of the Bush-Cheney administration in general, and of its plans for perpetual war and the expansion U. S. hegemony in particular. They provided a distraction, which enabled the media to focus on how extreme Michael Perenti or George Galloway were, rather than how absurd the idea of invading Iraq was. After all, how seriously could one take the opponents of war, if they ran in the company of the Workers World Party or the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic?
However, not all of Bérubé’s blows strike home. For example, he rightly notes that Islamic radicalism has a much longer history than proponents of the “blowback” theory of U.S. middle east involvement are often willing to admit (16). But even so, American actions, such as the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq, or its support of settlement expansion in the West Bank, provide a focus and catalyst for Jihadist propaganda, which has no shortage of examples of genuine American perfidy to choose from in attempting to cast us as the villains in its cosmic drama. What’s more, U.S. support for repressive regimes in the region, who for their part attempted to crush reasonable democratic reform movements, pushing dissidents toward Islamic radicalism, has been a contributing factor in the rise of those movements, as well as feeding their anti-American rhetoric.
Clearly, Bérubé (via Ellen Willis) is correct that 9/11 cannot simply be laid at the feet of the United States. Islamic radicals are not deprived of judgment and agency as a result of American policy, deterministically constrained to follow only one path of resistance. Yet I believe this misreads the point of the blowback argument, which is not that we set dominoes in motion, only to watch them fall along a predetermined path. Rather, our policies produce unintended consequences that often cannot be known until years, or even decades after the fact. It is the failure to recognize the possibility of blowback in our Middle East policy during the past half century that led to the sequence of events by which we now find ourselves deeply embroiled in two pointless and unwinnable wars. Although it is easy to read this argument so as to lay all blame at the feet of the United States, a better understanding of it is as a counsel of prudence and humility in international affairs, rather than the hubristic faith in our ability to control all outcomes that has been demonstrated by U.S. administrations both past and present.
The real question for pragmatic leftists is what alternative they offers to the forms of apocalyptic dualism shared in common by the Manichaeisms of all stripes.
The problem with the Manichean left, as Bérubé articulates in great detail, is its insistence, as the name implies, on breaking all political discourse down into a set of binary oppositions: left/right, good/evil, oppressed/oppressor, resistance/empire. The difficulty with these kinds of oppositions is that they provoke the drawing of narrower and narrower lines in the sand. It is not enough to be against the war; you must be against the war for the right reasons. According to this position, of course, any war that the United States may be involved in is by definition an aggressive war of imperial expansion, and therefore has to be opposed in principle. The attempt by some pragmatic leftists to articulate a rationale for supporting the invasion of Afghanistan results in nothing but rebuke from the Manichean left, and serves as evidence of their complicity with the American imperialist project. The result is a form of metaphysical dualism that prevents any possibility of principled disagreement between the Manichean leftists and their opponents. Any support of any kind for anything that they oppose is the result of either false consciousness or a desire to curry favor with the powerful in media and government.
The political realm thus becomes the setting for what Reza Aslan terms a cosmic war between the powers of light and darkness (Aslan 2009). To deviate from the received doctrine under such circumstances is tantamount to betrayal, and evidence that one has gone over to the other side. It is, in short, a fundamentally religious vision of political conflict, as Bérubé acknowledges, citing Willis’s assessment of the doctrine of the Manichean left:
At the heart of the matter is an unspoken meta-argument: that America is a sinful country, and must achieve redemption through nonviolence. Violence committed against us is the wages of sin. To strike back in kind is to continue to collect the geopolitical equivalent of bad karma, inevitably provoking more blowback. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind. (Ellen Willis, quoted by Bérubé, 157)
In this regard, there is an alarming convergence of ideology in the viewpoints of the Manichean left on the one hand, and that of both the American religious right and Jihadist Islam on the other. All three subscribe to the doctrine of a cleansing cosmic war through which the evil will be vanquished, the righteous vindicated, and the political institutions of society bent to the service of our preferred utopia, whether it be the Kingdom of God, the garden of the righteous, or the classless society.
Given the stakes, cosmic warriors can allow for no compromises, can brook no ambiguity, and can permit no half measures. The insistence on their own moral purity is a symptom of the absolutism with which they hold to their convictions. Compromise taints us, and the acknowledgement of uncertainty, or even of the possibility that the other side might have a point, undermines the conviction that, not only are we on the right side of the war, but our opponents are totally without redeeming qualities.
It is rather remarkable that arguments which take place solely within the realm of the secular can manage to replicate the worst qualities of religion, as reason gives way to ideology, and moral certainty becomes a self-reinforcing worldview. Remarkable, but at this point no longer surprising. As Bérubé notes throughout The Left At War, the reliance by the Manichean left on conceptions of false consciousness to explain their failure to make themselves persuasive to a mass audience both allows them to maintain its own hermetically sealed worldview, and to dismiss any forms of reality-based criticism as a manifestation of the principle that the ruling ideas of every epoch are the ideas of the ruling class.
The Manichean left divides the world into categories of good and evil. As there is no middle ground, anyone who is not in their camp must be among the forces of evil. Once again, it is striking the degree to which this kind of dualistic absolutism is shared in common by the Chomskys and Hermans of the world with its George W. Bushes and Ayman al-Zwahiris. Having neatly divided the universe into the righteous and forsaken, they all arrogate to themselves the right to decide who is, and who is not, in each category. “Whoever is not for me is against me” (Luke 11:23).
Political life requires more humility than this. As easy as it is to rest comfortably in the knowledge of our own righteousness once we’ve defined its terms so as to ensure that we are included and our opponents cast out, doing so fails to take account of how difficult it can actually be to wade into the swamp of politics and discern, in the midst of conflicting ends and contradictory data, a reliable way forward. The Manichean leftist obsession with moral purity and absolute principle requires it to leave questions of consequences aside. If acting to prevent genocide leads us to sin, better to allow the genocide than to get our own hands dirty. And if getting our hands dirty means that we need to support the occasional military foray into the Balkans or Afghanistan, then it becomes incumbent on us to turn all of our rhetorical and intellectual fire, not on war criminals such as Slobodan Milosevic, but on their opponents, who in our worldview can only be agents of the evil empire.
An Augustinian Left
None of this is to suggest that there are not extremely good reasons to critique U. S. foreign policy from the left. The question is rather one of the grounds and aims of that criticism. The grounds of the Manichean left’s criticisms are quite clear – they are rooted a belief in the radical evil of American empire. Their aim, however, is far more opaque. What is it they envision as happening as a result of their critique? Better policy? It’s not clear what kinds of U.S. policy would meet with their stringent demands for moral perfection. The dismantling of American empire? That’s a vision to get behind, but what would it look like? The abolition of global U.S. hegemony? Again, a laudable goal, as long as there is an understanding of what would replace it, and how. It is often hard to escape the conclusion, in reading the work of Noam Chomsky or Ward Churchill and their ilk that their critique has no objective. It exists for its own sake, as a kind of radical perpetual motion machine, content to continue churning until the end of time, irrespective of any actual events in the world.
But for those on the left who are seeking to articulate a vision of a more just, more democratic, and more peaceful world, it matters a great deal where one starts. Bérubé defines his own position throughout The Left at War as on “the democratic left,” drawing an important distinction between his own position in support of democracy against the forms of totalitarian and genocidal racism behind which many on the Manichean left have thrown their support (5-8). I will use the term “Augustinian left” to describe my own very similar position.
An “Augustinian” left makes for a nice contrast with the Manichean left, given the historical conflict between Augustine and the Manicheans over a somewhat related set of topics. Like their modern counterparts, the Manicheans of the late Roman Empire were dualists obsessed with the conflict between the pure and ennobling mind and the corrupting forces of the body. Like the King of the Moon in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, their aim was to transcend the realm of the dirty, the carnal, the physical, for the sake of the enjoyment of pure and uncorrupted thought. Augustine, by contrast, did not view escape from the body as the royal road to paradise. On the contrary, he made a conscious decision to break with the Manicheans, precisely in the recognition that it was not the flesh that corrupted the mind, but precisely the mind that corrupted the body. Slaves to our passions we may be, but the seat of the passions is in the intellect (Augustine, 590).
To frame the matter somewhat differently, the contrast is between those who believe that if they can escape from the contingency and ambiguity of the world, and live solely within the realm of their own beautiful ideas, they can avoid being tainted by the sin and evil that surrounds them, and those who recognize that we live in the midst of a world over which we can never exercise complete and total control, and that life will always involve some degree of negotiation between our ideals and that which is really possible. The “city of God” of which Augustine wrote was not a world that could be created through the expulsion of all that was evil and corrupt, leaving only the pure and righteous. Rather, the city of God was built in the midst of the corruption of the world, piecemeal and partially, without guarantees of success, but in the recognition that there is that of good and evil in all of us, and nobody is capable of acting with complete moral purity.
The knowledge that all of our actions are an admixture of good and evil absolves us from the need for moral perfection, and allows us instead to seek the good in the midst of ambiguous circumstances, particularly in the realm of politics. Indeed, politics by its very nature often requires a willingness to act with dirty hands, hands perhaps even stained with blood. As Max Weber saw the world of politics, it is the “strong and slow boring of hard wood,” the practice of which put one’s soul in danger. Those who desire to remain pure are better off not entering into the subject at all.
Augustine was aware of these contradictions within political life, both that it was necessary, even for all of its compromises, and that it came with a cost:
It is true [he writes] that the Imperial City has imposed on subject nations not only her yoke but also her language, as a bond of peace and society, so that there should be no lack of interpreters but a great abundance of them. But how many great wars, what slaughter of men, what outpourings of human blood have been necessary to bring this about! (Augustine, 928).
For an Augustinian left, the empire is subject to critique and condemnation for its “imperial designs,” but at the same it recognizes that no political system comes into being or maintains its reign without the imposition of some form of order on society. The anarchist ideal of a society with no governance and no rulers is a dream incapable of realization. In the same vein, the desire to engage in political life from a position of pristine innocence, while understandable and in many ways laudable, cannot produce a politics capable of achieving what the Manichean leftists most claim to want: Peace, justice, and equality. An Augustinian left recognizes that these goods have their price, and even then can only be partially bought.
The critique of empire, and the recognition of the merely partial morality of all human social systems, means that an Augustinian left is willing to enter into the political quagmire without any illusions of perfect outcomes. Genocide is worse than empire, and if its prevention requires the temporary alliance of leftist advocates of human rights, NATO, and the United States military, then so be it. If the alternative is pretending that no genocide occurred, or minimizing its consequences, it is very hard to see how a pragmatic, democratic, or Augustinian leftist is on the wrong side of that moral equation.
Perhaps the quintessential Augustinian leftist of the past century was Reinhold Niebuhr, and while the invocation of his name may offend the sensibilities of the disciples of Noam Chomsky, his contribution to understanding how to develop a morally grounded left-wing politics is essential for development of a modern left that is capable of offering up real solutions to political problems, and not party line platitudes.
In describing Niebuhr as an “Augustinian leftist” I want to emphasize two dimensions of Niebuhr’s thought: First, his position on the left of the political spectrum. Despite his “disputed legacy” among theologians and ethicists, the fact remains that Niebuhr was solidly on the left for virtually the entirety of his adult life. His position on the spectrum may have swung from more to less radical over the years, but he never came so close to the center as to be reasonably described as “liberal” except in the broadest sense of that term. His reputation as a cold war hawk, emerging from his (as it turns out fully justified) anti-communism led some, particularly in the 1980s, to brand themselves as “conservative Niebuhrians,” and while there is much in Niebuhr’s writing that can be borrowed for those purposes, I suspect the term would have chilled him to the bone.
Secondly, I want to emphasize that his position on the political left was not incidental to his Augustinian outlook, but was rooted in his theological and ethical point of view. It was precisely because of his recognition that all movements and ideologies were subject to taint and liable to human fallibility that he believed it was incumbent on society to ensure that justice was done on behalf of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. His participation in the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and his involvement in radical politics were grounded by his understanding that the moral risks entailed in any political movement were counterbalanced by the need of those who sought to broaden the scope of participation in democratic society to put themselves in a position to do so. His acknowledgment of the fallen nature of all human institutions does not obviate the need to contribute to those institutions, nor indeed, does it make it possible for us to avoid being touched by them.
In an essay entitled “Augustine’s Political Realism,” Niebuhr articulated an argument for an Augustinian political theory based on recognition of the moral limits of human political action. Contrasting the “realistic” and “idealistic” strands in political thought, he argues that, while both have their merits and are needed in political life, an “idealism” that is incapable of compromise is one that will be irrelevant to public discourse. Augustine’s realism is preferable, insofar as it enables us to understand how power is disseminated in political life:
This realism has the merit of describing the power realities which underlie all large scale social integrations whether in Egypt or Babylon or Rome, where a dominant city-state furnished the organizing power of the Empire. It also describes the power realities of national sates, even democratic ones, in which a group, holding the dominant form of social power, achieves oligarchic rule, no matter how much modern democracy may bring such power under social control. This realism in regard to the facts which underlie the organizing or governing power refutes the charge of modern liberals that a realistic analysis of social forces makes for state absolutism; so that a mild illusion in regard to human virtue is necessary to validate democracy. Realistic pessimism did indeed prompt both Hobbes and Luther to an unqualified endorsement of state power; but that is only because they were not realistic enough. They saw the dangers of anarchy in the egotism of the citizens but failed to perceive the dangers of tyranny in the selfishness of the ruler. Therefore they obscured the consequent necessity of placing checks upon the ruler’s self-will.
Chomsky often offers up Niebuhr as an example of the “manufacture of consent” by the power elite. He even cribs the Niebuhrian phrase “necessary illusions” as the title of one of his best-known books. But his critique of Niebuhr is based on a misreading of the overall theme of Niebuhr’s writing, as well of the paradoxical nature of much of Niebuhr’s rhetoric. Chomsky hacks one passage from Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society to pieces in order to make it sound as though Niebuhr advocates the wholesale institutional deception of the proletariat, while leaving out Niebuhr’s crucial qualifiers. The full passage reads:
It is much more rational to refrain from defining an ultimate goal and to abandon some degree of certainty in the possibility of its attainment. But moral potency is sacrificed for this higher degree of rationality. The naïve faith of the proletarian is the faith of the man of action. Rationality belongs to the cool observers. There is of course an element of illusion in the faith of the proletarian, as there is in all faith. But it is a necessary illusion, without which some truth is obscured. The inertia of society is so stubborn that no one will move against it, if he cannot believe that it can be more easily overcome than is actually the case. … These illusions are dangerous because they justify fanaticism; but their abandonment is perilous because it inclines to inertia.
We are all subject to illusions, in Niebuhr’s estimation, because we all act out of faith in some higher end or goal. The “cool rationalists” whom Chomsky mocks are not Niebuhr’s version of Platonic philosopher-kings. Rather in their rationality they run the risk of moral inertia borne of their embrace of uncertainty and the decline of their sense of moral urgency, while proletarian certainty and urgency may lead, in the absence of some form of “cool rationality” to political disaster! There is some irony in Niebuhr’s declaration that proletarian faith is that of “the man of action” given its embrace by a Manichean left that is incapable of acting in any constructive way.
Niebuhr’s social analysis bears more than a passing family resemblance to the Gramscian analysis that Bérubé (via Stuart Hall) employs in the latter chapters of The Left at War. Niebuhr’s analysis of political power grounded in the collective egoism of social groups, who act out of a sense of their own interest, intersects in interesting ways with the Gramscian analysis of hegemony and civil society. Both Niebuhr and Gramsci see a role for intellectuals in the formation and development of the capacity of the proletariat for political action. Indeed, much of what Bérubé finds of value in the Gramscian approach, I see in Niebuhr. His Augustinian leftism offers a basis for social analysis that recognizes the necessity of the struggle for justice, our capacity for moral action in the midst of the ambiguities of social life, and the limitations that all ideologies and worldviews place on our ability to see the path in front of us clearly.
It is no accident that Niebuhr’s social analysis has sprung back into the public consciousness in the wake of the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. While his brand of “Christian realism” has often been appealing (if misunderstood) among the plain vanilla “realists” in the foreign policy realm, it has also proved attractive to those on both the political left and right who see in his embrace of the need for moral action in the public realm something that is at the same time cognizant of the fallibility of all human projects, and the limitations of all human perspectives. And yet, for the sake of greater peace, fuller justice, and broader equality, he represents a form of Augustinian leftism that recognizes the need to act, even in the absence of assurances of our own purity, or of the ultimate achievement of our goals.
Berube, Michael. The Left At War. New York: New York University Press, 2009. 7. Subsequent citations in text.
Ricks, Thomas. Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003-2005. New York: Penguin, 2007.
 Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone. New York: Knopf, 2006.
Jones, Seth. In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2009.
 Isikoff, Michael. Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scanal, and the Selling of the Iraq War. New York: Crown Publishing Co., 2006.
Aslan, Reza. How To Win A Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror. New York: Random House, 2009. Subsequent citations in text.
Johnson, Chalmers. Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2000.
Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 589. Subsequent citations in text.
 Walzer, Michael. “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 2:2, 1973. 160–180.
Weber, Max. From Max Weber: Essays on Sociology. Oxford: Routledge, 1948. 128.
 Dorrien, Gary. Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Niebuhr, Reinhold. “Augustine’s Political Realism” in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. 128.
Chomsky, Noam. Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2003. 17.
In a 1987 article, Chomsky uses the publication of a questionable biography of Neibuhr as the occasion for an analysis of a number of Niebuhr’s writings. In some cases, his points are well taken, but in the main he misunderstands both Niebuhr’s rhetorical style and his underlying argument. See Noam Chomsky. “Reinhold Niebuhr,” Grand Street 6:2 (Winter, 1987), 197-212.
Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932. 211. Italics added.
Lieven, Anatol and John Hulsman. Ethical Realism: A Vision for America’s Role in the World. New York: Pantheon, 2006, to take but one of many examples.