After Iraq, the Left Has a New Agenda: Contain America First

Unless you live at the bottom of a well, you've probably noticed that 9/11 and Iraq have had a transforming effect on the American Right. The short formulation is that so-called neoconservatism has triumphed. In 1999, Republicans bitterly opposed U.S. action against a rogue state in Central Europe; in 2000, their presidential nominee ran on an inward-looking, reactive, "humble" foreign policy. All of that is history now. It is hard to find a conservative who does not believe, as the neocons do, in robust and pre-emptive American action against tyrants and terrorists.

That change is, I believe, a watershed, akin to Democrats' side-switch on civil rights in the 1960s and Republicans' switch on budget-balance in the 1980s. In the rush to notice neocons, however, another transformation has been overlooked. A new kind of leftist agenda has emerged from 9/11 and Iraq, one that both mirrors and inverts neoconservatism, and one whose implications seem just as profound.

To understand "neoleftism" (as I might as well call it), consider an ostensibly odd fact: Many neoleftists saw not failure for their side in the fight against the Iraq war, but success.

Success? Even though the Left's street demonstrations around the world failed to stop the war? Even though the quick victory and Iraqi celebrations seemed to vindicate neocons' predictions? Well, yes. Here is how The Nation, which is to the neoleftists something like what Commentary once was to the neocons, put it in an April 7 editorial:

"If we are present at the creation of a new American empire, we are also present at the creation of another superpower—the largest, most broadly based peace and justice movement in history, a movement that has engaged millions of people here and around the globe."

President Bush's arrogance and aggression, in this view, have catalyzed the truly international sort of activist network that the Left has long dreamed of. At last the globalized economy faces a globalized Left, one that can come together at the speed of e-mail to oppose corporate power—and American power.

"As the United States government becomes more belligerent in using its power in the world, many people are longing for a 'second superpower' that can keep the U.S. in check," writes James F. Moore, of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, in an article that he posted online. The newly energized Left is just such a force, he argues. True, "the second superpower is not currently able to match the first. On the other hand, the situation may be more promising than we realize. Most important is that the establishment of international institutions and international rule of law has created a venue in which the second superpower can join with sympathetic nations to successfully confront the United States."

Note that Moore speaks of confronting not imperialism or corporate capitalism or human-rights abusers, but the United States. This is significant.

In the years after the Soviet Union collapsed, the Left drifted ideologically but seemed to settle on two main priorities: advocating human rights and opposing corporate capitalism ("globalization"). If leftists could do both at once, for example by campaigning against "sweatshops" in developing countries, so much the better.

In the Iraq crisis, however, neither mantra worked. The war was, if anything, disruptive to multinational oil and business interests, especially those of Russia and France, and Saddam Hussein was a monstrous human-rights abuser. Leftists, caught on the wrong side of their own ideals, were reduced to harping on Iraqi war casualties and mumbling that one sort of misery was replacing another. Just last week, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, a Democratic presidential candidate, was asked whether the Iraqi people weren't better off with Saddam gone. "Well, that remains to be seen," was the best he could manage, before mustering this rousing condemnation of the Butcher of Baghdad: "I think most people would agree that Saddam Hussein was not an individual who the world could count on to work cooperatively."

Why is the Left suddenly unable to support or celebrate the downfall of a fascist tyrant? Because, just as neocons regard projecting American power as essential for making the world safer, neoleftists regard containing American power as essential for making the world safer. If containing America means tolerating or even supporting tyranny or terror in particular places—well, that is a price that must sometimes be paid.

In this neoleftist view, containing American power is important partly because far-right-wingers such as John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, and Bush himself happen to be in charge. But containing America is also important for its own sake. As egalitarians, neoleftists are alarmed and angered by America's preponderance of power. America is a bully not just because Bush is a bully but because the United States is simply too big to play fair.

That, indeed, was the whole point of the war: for America to kick a small country around. "The primary aim of the war," writes John Berger in The Nation, "was to demonstrate what is likely to happen to any leader, nation, community, or people who persist in refusing to comply with U.S. interests." Just as the disparity of power makes sexual relations between a boss and subordinate abusive even if the subordinate consents, so it made America's attack on Saddam abusive even if Iraqis celebrated. Thus can Berger write, of Iraq, that "one tyranny is overthrown not by its subjects but by another tyranny."

Now, anti-Americanism is nothing new for the Left, but neoleftism sports a distinctive variety. The Marxist and countercultural Left of the 1960s viewed "Amerika" as a fundamentally rotten place. Neoleftists, by comparison, are pretty happy with minivans and disposable diapers, and they like America's labor laws and litigation system enough to want to export them. Their beef is with American power, not American culture. Neoleftism thus exchanges the idealism of the 1960s for a kind of realpolitik. The second superpower may not be able to cure all the world's ills, as socialism once promised to do, but it can at least keep a rogue giant in check.

How, then, should the world deal with vicious regimes that have horrible weapons? Neocons say America should always be free to act alone; neoleftists say it should never be free to act alone.

Thus, again in The Nation, David Cortright, a founder of the Win Without War coalition, acknowledges the need for "an alternative vision, one that takes seriously the terrorism and proliferation threat but that provides a safer, less costly, and ultimately more successful strategy for countering these dangers." And that strategy is? "A global prohibition against all weapons of mass destruction," enforced by a hundredfold increase in the United Nations' weapons-inspection capability. If countries refused to cooperate, they could be hit with sanctions or even force.

Force? "This is not a pacifist vision that eschews all uses of military force. The threat of force is sometimes a necessary component of coercive diplomacy." The key, however, is that force should be used "only with the explicit authorization of the Security Council or regional security organizations. In no circumstance would the United States or any other nation have the right to mount a military invasion to overthrow another government for the ostensible purpose of achieving disarmament" (italics added).

That makes it about as clear as it could be that the first priority is not to disarm rogues but to defang America. It also makes clear that the Left is on the brink of a historical and fateful, and possibly also fatal, choice. The Left's idealism and anti-Americanism blinded it to the realities of Soviet Communism and put it on the wrong side of the Cold War. Now the Left is poised to repeat its mistake, letting its egalitarianism and anti-Americanism put it on the wrong side of the fight against tyranny and terror.

Far-fetched though the notion of a leftist "second superpower" might seem to a Washington establishmentarian, it is not necessarily pie in the sky. The passage in 1993 of the North American Free Trade Agreement was a tactical defeat for the Left, but it brought into being a far-flung and effective leftist anti-trade constituency. With the Iraq war, something analogous may be happening.

But the Left will pay a crippling price. If its new rallying cry is going to be "Contain America first!" the Left had better pack its bags for a long, long stay in the political wilderness, at least in America; and if it is going to make excuses for Saddam as it once made excuses for Stalin, it can kiss its moral relevance goodbye. One only wonders whether the Left still has time to back away from the cliff.