« More Newspeak | Main | Why Kerry's Spending Cap Sucks »

April 07, 2004

Reflections: War, Globalism & Sectarianism

Okay, I appreciate the many kind statements in comments and welcome any new readers. You'll quickly notice I'm not a very touchy-feely blogger-- I'm more policy work and political critique-- but the issue of the war post-911 is an emotional one. Since 911, I've been not only in dissent from my government as an opponent of wars, but in dissent from many friends and compatriots on the left in how the antiwar movement has conducted itself. So for those interested in those feelings and a rough broader analysis of how I think we got here and so on, check out the extended entry:

Let me start with the basics that started this round with the rightwing. I hate violence but, pragmatically I'm not a pacifist. So I square that emotional conflict by hating euphemisms for violence-- murder is murder, private gun-weilding combatants are mercenaries, killing any civilians to demoralize a popularion is terrorism, and so on.

And I have no tolerance for dictatorships and demand that opponents of war be as committed to fighting for democracy and justice, as they are to merely saying "no" to war. Even back in the First Gulf War, I marched against the war in San Francisco but was disgusted that "No Blood for Oil" simplifications generally substituted for broader analysis of why an invasion of Kuwait was unacceptable and how Saddam Hussein and his murder of Kurds and Shiites could be stopped without war. And as soon as the bombing of Baghdad ended, so did the antiwar movement mobilization.

Partly in reaction to my irritation at that left demobilization, I dedicated myself to more comprehensive coalition building on the left in the hopes that the result would be less simplistic responses to global events. I actually concentrated on domestic politics, but I have a holistic enough view that I think deeper understanding of core domestic economic and social issues and interests will lead to a more humane foreign viewpoint.

And I was actually encouraged that we intervened to support the restoration of Aristide in Haiti back in 1994 and very supportive of US interventions in Bosnia and then Kosovo to stop genocide. To me, these actions seemed to be developing a broader vision of globally-engaged use of US power to promote human rights, not merely to prop up US puppet regimes.

Flack from the Left: One reason I can't take the flack from the rightwing too seriously is that I took far harsher flak from leftwing friends for my pro-war position on Kosovo. Coming from political friends, it was tough to be accused of nasty motives and so on. I understood their bias against war, but was frustrated by the refusal of many left allies to recognize that a continual "no" was a complete abdication of the requirement to figure out how to use US power for good, since if we weren't engaged with that, others would harness it for evil (as we've experienced).

I understand the left historic distrust of US power; our government repeatedly has supported the overthrow of democratic regimes in places like Chile, Guatamala, Iran, the Congo. And our government has been buddy-buddy with dictators like Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein, only to suddenly "discover" they were horrible when it became convenient to use US military intervention.

But US actions are complicated, partly because our political system, however corporate-dominated, is responsive to democratic ideals. Just the fact that military intervention has to be clothed so often in the guise of justice or democracy reflects the lack of power by the corporate rightwing to just implement what they want and ignore the counter-demands of the left. So this is all contested territory. I hate the tautology that because the US government does something, it must be for corporate interests-- we know this because the US only does things that serve corporate interests. I think that's pretty accurate a lot of the time, but just often enough it's not true to mean that the Left has to always be struggling to analyze what's going on.

In many ways, the Left won the immediate post-Vietnam Era by discrediting the raw brutality of CIA interventions during Vietnam and shining public attention on the evil of the early Cold War coups around the world supported by the US. "The Vietnam Syndrome" was essentially the American people restraining a US military-industrial complex that they no longer trusted.

Reagan, despite his militaristic rhetoric, really couldn't fight that anti-intervention consensus too much. He deployed a few troops in the Middle East, only to run when terrorists blew them up in Lebanon. He directly invaded only one country, the postage stamp country of Grenada, and tried to fight wars by proxy in Central America, almost getting impeached because Congressional laws so restricted what he and his lackey Ollie North could do.

Military Not the Main Enemy of Peace and Justice: In a sense, the Left was looking in the wrong place for damage to the developing world in most of the 1980s and into the early 1990s. Much of the Left marched and chanted against war, even while the real action was not in the military but at the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF was choking poor nations through debt restructuring and Structural Adjustment mandates that starved children and undermined sovereignty through corporate economic power far more than anything the military was doing.

Which just added to my frustration at "peace activists" who mobilized when bombs were dropping, and then couldn't get the same level of mobilization to fight the corporate power that was killing far more people than the military ever did. The Commerce Department administrating trade agreements enforcing pharmaceutical IP rights on poor third world nations, and denying them needed drugs, was a far bigger killer than the Defense Department in the 1980s and 1990s.

The WWP Sectarians: One bizarre wing of the "antiwar movement" that epitomized that fixation on the military and opposing US military action across the board was the Workers World Party/aka the International Action Center/aka (after 911) ANSWER. Their fixation on warfare and nation-to-nation conflict came from their sectarian guru, Sam Marcy, who had led a faction out of the old Trotskyist Social Workers Party (SWP) back in the 1950s, because they felt the SWP was insufficiently supportive of the Soviet Union crushing democracy in Hungary back in 1956. The WWP Marcyites felt that if the Soviet Union opposed the US, then the Soviet Union was objectively good, the Hungarian democrats opposing the Soviet Union were objectively bad, and so on. This tautological view held that anyone-- Milosevic in Serbia, Hussein in Iraq -- opposing the US must therefore be defended against US aggression.

With more complicated situations like Rwanda, Bosnia, Haiti, and then Kosovo in the 1990s leading many left activists to reevaluate where US military force could be used to deter horrific war crimes and genocide, the WWP wing of the peace movement was increasingly marginalized.

Enter the Global Justice Movement: And further marginalizing them was the explosion of the "antiglobalization"/global justice movement, headlined by the Battle in Seattle in 1999, when the global trade talks were disrupted by an alliance of global unionists, NGOs, and anarchist street activists. Moving beyond simplistic nation-state analyses of the problem of global poverty, the global justice movement targetted global institutions like the IMF and the World Bank and symbolizing the way unrestrained corporate power was allowing millions of children to starve or die of disease each year. Foreign debt was crushing many developing nations. And IMF-ordered structural adjustment programs were forcing many nations to gut social welfare and education systems in favor of paying off bond-holders.

Both the style of the protests-- free-form and non-hierarchial-- and the multi-organizational engagement of these protests left the WWP types irrelevant to real debates. I went to protests where WWP leaders would ineffectually try to harangue people with their simplistic dogma and rigid rhetoric, and they'd just be ignored. So I was excited that foreign policy debates were now merging with economic justice debates in a pervasive manner-- and idiots like the WWP were completely marginalized in the movement. The small window-breaking wing of the movement, sometimes labelled the Black Bloc, had its problems -- just before 911 I wrote this piece on them after Genoa -- but they were a tiny problem in a broad global upswelling of challenge to global corporate injustice.

Then 911 came.

Protests planned in October by the global justice activists were seized on by the WWP to ressurrect both their influence in the Left and promote their rigid ideology. They created the ANSWER "coalition" (a coalition run by a board dominated only by ANSWER sub-groups or puppet allies), but got a bunch of left groups, scared by Bush's militarism, to sign onto to their endorsement list.

For me, the months after 911 were politically painful as hell. I opposed the war on Afghanistan, because I was sure that after Bush finished bombing, he wouldn't really fight the subjugation of women or pump in enough money to make up for the bombing damage we would do-- pretty much a correct bet given how we've abandoned the country. (After spending hundreds of billions on military adventures, that the US can now barely muster $1 billion in aid per year for Afghanistan is disgusting, but predictable given the Bush administration).

But I also hated the lack of sympathy for the victims of 911 I heard from ANSWER and many left activists failure to confront the real fears and desire for justice by those victims, their families and their sympathizers. Just because militarists were seizing on their pain to promote war-- and as we know the real goal was an irrelevant war in Iraq, with Afghanistan just a sideshow to justify that real goal --- didn't mean the pain was not real and that justice was not called for.

My AntiWar: At the time, I was in the national leadership of the National Lawyers Guild, one of the early groups to sign up with ANSWER, much against my opposition. I was pissed that they did so, but most members in New York were opposed to the WWP line. Unfortunately, I watched the WWP and allied groups destroy a democratic anti-war coalition that almost emerged in the fall of that year, which would have been a much healthier antiwar focus. However, because that group, along with opposing the war, also demanded that those behind the bombing of the World Trade Center be brought to justice through international law, the WWP-style sectarians deliberately destroyed thr group. They didn't have a majority in the 800-person meeting I went to, but they were willing to block and disrupt it, until people left in frustration and disgust.

Which left ANSWER as the only organized antiwar group. Which was the point. Rule or ruin. Destroy the sane antiwar alternative, so your sectarian group becomes the only option for those opposed to the war. It's a nasty tactic by the sectarian left (and no doubt used by the sectarian right-- think Club for Growth), but effective.

In the meantime, ANSWER had shoved the global justice movement aside, and seized control of the megaphone of the antiwar movement. So much to my frustration, I had to sit as ANSWER controlled the podium for antiwar speakers for the next year. It wouldn't be until essentially early 2003 that democratic left alternatives to ANSWER would reemerge and organize themselves- leading the massive New York City marches opposing the Iraq war.

Even the better antiwar activists seemed unable to articulate a positive message of how to promote global justice rather than just saying "No" to War, a problem I discussed in this post on Where the Peace Movement Went Wrong, but at least the leadership were good-hearted and not the rigid ideologues at the heart of ANSWER.

But it was a little late, and I understood why many confused liberals (yes nice folks like Kevin Drum and Matt Y), seeming to see a choice between ANSWER and Bush's nice promises/lies about WMDs in Iraq and bringing democracy there, could end up initially supporting the war.

For me personally, the months leading up to war led me straight into internal battles within my then-organization, the National Lawyers Guild. My criticisms of the WWP led to a WWP-allied member accusing me of "red baiting" (kind of the left equivalent of being called a traitor by the Right) and had a resolution passed denouncing all such red-baiting, citing posts on this blog as examples of such. The New York chapter jumped on the anti-red baiting bandwagon and I was essentially driven out of the organization. Very painful. I should stress that I see a lot of the internal hysteria in the Guild as similar to the hysteria of those who lined up behind Bush on the war-- a lot of them were good people just scared of attack. Given the Patriot Act, a lot of Guild members had good reason to be scared.

But it was personally very nasty to experience, and even the rightwing picked up on it, making me an unwilling witness for their real red-baiting attack on the Guild. (The quotes in the article by me are accurate, but the overall history of the Guild is a bit skewed-- the lines emphasizing the ideological diversity in the group is more accurate than any idea of a consistent ideology over time).

Why the Right is Wrong: So given my own ideological critique of the left on war, and my personal experience, I might be a good candidate for a "second thoughts" conversion to the right, or at least a nice neoliberal support for the war.

But if I know the leftwing sectarians well, I also know the rightwing. Maybe it's because I know the left crazies, it's easier to see the Bush folks in motion, since they have many of the same sectarian characteristics-- unwillingness to work in real coalitions, a binary view of the world into enemies and friends, and a will to fight war endlessly and globally. Which isn't surprising since at least part of the New Right, the neoconservatives, have a lineage partly as ex-Trotskyists, just like the Workers World Party. It's as if these two parts broke off, one siding with any enemy of the US elite however noxious, the other choosing to bolster any friend of the US elite however evil. Both believe in endless global war and military conflict, just as either side of the divide.

I don't buy either group's manichean vision, where I have to choose up sides in some global conflict between nations or global religions.

The world is not that simple. So-called "enemies" aren't monoliths. The US isn't a monolith. Our nation is divided by economic divisions and shifting political coalitions, so we don't even share a single "interest" in foreign policy. A foreign policy good for corporate America, or even a faction of corporate America such as the oil industry, is not good for other groups in the country.

My Side is Working Families, Here and Abroad: I don't side with some imaginary monolithic "United States"-- I side with regular working Americans, which differs from the foreign policy interests of most of corporate America. The latter spends a lot of time trying to convince regular folks that their interests are the same, and they occasionally succeed (the money does help), but the corporate types also fail as well. Combining the neoconservative vision with rightwing corporate power and the old toxic McCarthyite Right, the combination has been a nasty stew, but they aren't unbeatable politically.

Given the hostility of the Bush Administration to working class interests here in the US, it's easy for me to see where their foreign policy serves corporate purposes rather than a real commitment to fighting terrorism. If they cared about the victims of 911, they wouldn't starve New York City of funds for economic recovery. If they cared about the victims of 911, we would be spending hundreds of billions on police and public health facilities here at home to ward off violent or biological attacks, while spending similar amounts on global justice around the world to drain support from the terrorists.

The irony is that the Islamicists spent lots of money on schools and other services for years to build loyalty-- Hamas for examples started as a social service agency long before they launched attacks on Israel-- yet conservatives scoff at the idea that investments in social services matter in combatting terrorism. But then, defense contractors would make less money from schools than from weapons, so we spend anti-terror money on weapons, not schools.

Real Security is Global Justice: There are lots of common sense security measures to take-- inspect incoming ships, share criminal information better globally, and such-- but the reality is, and conservatives sputter in rage when you say it, that the only security we in America-- and the "we" here is regular folks in the US -- will ever have is through ending the global violence and poverty and inequality that feeds despair.

Violent forms of Islam didn't use to have large swaths of adherents in these countries. It's grown as global inequality has grown -- anyone who sees no relation between the horrors of the Sudan, the festering camps of the Palestinians, the war-torn poverty of Afghanistan and the violent Islamic movements that grew there are just plain blind. There is NO wealthy or even half-way developed country with mass-based involvement or support for such terrorist movements (save maybe our allies in Saudi Arabia). Yet conservatives seem completely stubborn in their resistance to that fact.

So they promote more war and more poverty around the world-- so either they are stupid, or someone backing them is benefitting from that global inequality they promote. Some are no doubt stupid, but the real answer is that a bunch of folks do fine in a world of despair, where US violence can be called in to knock out any regime that gets hostile to corporate interests.

As we watch corporate interests writing the corporate and labor codes of Iraq, you get a window into the world Bush's corporate backers would like to impose on the whole world-- all nicely without a vote of the Iraqi people, just written by US corporate consultants and shoved down the throats of the country through a puppet regime.

But there's plenty of resistance-- voters here in the US, unions and organizations in Iraq demanding real elections, and around the world activists and countries demanding that the Iraqi people, like all peoples, should have the freedom to control their own destiny, control their own oil and resources, and have a chance to participate in the emerging global democracy that we need.

Okay-- that's longer than I planned but gives some sense of where I fit in the spectrum-- basically far to the left but also on the hard end of demanding democracy as the first, last and core demand for all social justice. Because at the end of the day, when people can stand up for their own rights, the rest will follow.

Posted by Nathan at April 7, 2004 08:30 AM