Nick Cohen: crude parodies and a thinly veiled agenda

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(A week late, but this is the first time I have had the time and energy to complete this article. Nick Cohen’s book “What’s Left?” is now out.)

Don’t you know your left from your right? (Part 2 here)

There are two extracts from Nick Cohen’s forthcoming book What’s Left? published in last Sunday’s Observer, in which he has a weekly column. For anyone who is not familiar with his writing, he is part of the same tendency as Paul Berman (of Dissent magazine and the author of Terror and Liberalism) and Christopher Hitchens; that is to say, he is from a left-liberal background but supports recent western military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and accuses the left generally of betraying its principles in its opposition to them. Until the early 2000s his columns had a strong pro-civil liberties stance and concern for asylum seekers; after the demonstrations against the war in Iraq in 2003, he denounced the Stop the War coalition of being an alliance of the “enemies of economic freedom” (the Socialist Workers) and the “enemies of sexual freedom” (the Muslim Association).

I must admit here that I write as a Muslim rather than as a leftist and that when the first Iraq war happened, I was only 12 and away at boarding school. I vividly remember the feeling of gloom which accompanied the build-up to war, which we were told could drag out much longer than it did in the event, and could lead to conflict with other neighbouring countries. As it happened, Saddam Hussain simply had no allies. Despite various rumours that Saddam Hussain had entrusted the Iranians with a whole load of their hardware in case they were destroyed, they did not (as one might expect) come to his aid.

Why leftists suddenly changed from denouncing Saddam Hussain as a fascist when he changed from being a US ally to an enemy I have no idea, but Cohen’s observation that “the politically committed are like football fans”, seeing no good in the opposing side, probably has some relevance, but so does the observation that the war was all about oil, that the claims that if Saddam Hussain had kept hold of Kuwait then he’d march on to Riyadh next were rather far-fetched, and that if the west had put up with Saddam Hussain’s oppressive nature for as long as it had, why would it care that it had extended to one more district? One might add to this the fact that the war was accompanied by one of the most punishing embargoes in human history which caused much suffering to the civilian population without really weakening the régime.

What disgusts me is his attitude to those who opposed the Iraq war. He opens the second of his extracts in today’s Observer with this description of the worldwide protests against the war:

On 15 February 2003 , about a million liberal-minded people marched through London to oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime. It was the biggest protest in British history, but it was dwarfed by the march to oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime in Mussolini’s old capital of Rome, where about three million Italians joined what the Guinness Book of Records said was the largest anti-war rally ever. In Madrid, about 650,000 marched to oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime in the biggest demonstration in Spain since the death of General Franco in 1975. In Berlin, the call to oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime brought demonstrators from 300 German towns and cities, some of them old enough to remember when Adolf Hitler ruled from the Reich Chancellery. In Greece, where the previous generation had overthrown a military junta, the police had to fire tear gas at leftists who were so angry at the prospect of a fascist regime being overthrown that they armed themselves with petrol bombs.

Cohen noted that a few, like Ariel Dorfman, “recognised that they were making a hideous choice”, denying Iraqis their freedom as such a war would recruit more terrorists and allow more weapons to fall into the hands of despots. Cohen himself shows no such subtlety, nor credits us with much, accusing us again and again of “oppos[ing] the overthrow of a fascist regime” as if that was what we were there to do. Most of us remembered the first Gulf War and the Kurdish and Shi’ite uprisings which followed it and knew that Saddam Hussain was a brutal mass murderer. Our reasons were more complicated, but among them were that claims about weapons of mass destruction, the justification for the war, were unreliable, that US policy had cared little for democracy in the past, and so talk of democracy in Iraq would be just talk; that there would be considerable numbers of civilian casualties, particularly given that depleted uranium would likely be used; that our purported local allies were unreliable or discredited and wanted power for themselves (as with Ahmed Chalabi); and that it would open up allies for local extremists of every type, including Wahhabis, Shi’a and followers of various other ideologies. It is significant, although Cohen and his ilk fail to notice it, that a coalition that includes local Muslim Brotherhood activists opposes a war which opened up such avenues for Muslim extremists, and which overthrew a régime whose values are much closer to western secularism than to theirs.

Most of the reasons given above for opposing the war have proven, to one extent or another, to be justified, but to say this means running the risk of being accused of gleefully saying “I told you so” by Cohen and others like him. We should, according to him, have taken the option to “oppose the war, remain hypercritical of aspects of the Bush administration’s policy, but support Iraqis as they struggled to establish a democracy”. While I am sure some Iraqis do believe in democracy, whether those Cohen has in mind support a democracy in which Muslims are free to vote an Islamic party into government, for example, is debatable. This has not proven to be the case in other Arab Muslim countries which have established “democratic” institutions. Cohen’s allies include the “Worker Communists” whose idea of “freedom” includes confiscating the property of religious foundations. Perhaps Cohen shares this position, but when he sung the praises of WCPI activist Maryam Namazie in the Observer, he did not declare her affiliation. And while the rule of law and freedom of speech (within certain limits) is important for a healthy society, before we export “democracy” at the barrel of a gun we should consider that in the west, it routinely delivers decades of minority rule, whether by magnifying a simple majority in the country into an absolute one in the legislature or by empowering the third-place party to effectively choose the government.

I suspect that Cohen dislikes the anti-war movement because it is against the interests of his friends in Iraq, and among the Iraqi exile community, who want to establish a secular socialist state of a somewhat less oppressive nature than Saddam’s, but certainly hostile to the religious beliefs and sensibilities of most Iraqis, both Arabs and Kurds. Iraq is not a western country, and the imposition of an imported socialist order there would have had the same miserable consequences it would have anywhere else. Most of us who opposed the war - probably including even George Galloway - did not support Saddam Hussain; we simply did not want the country opened up to ideological and sectarian gold-diggers who have made the country barely inhabitable since the invasion. Cohen saw an opportunity for his favourite gold-diggers; it is not surprising that he detests those of us who would deny them, but he might give us the credit of sincere intentions rather than portraying crude parodies of our position.

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