I write this in momentous days. George Bush, implicitly accepting that weapons of mass destruction will never be found in Iraq, orders an enquiry into the intelligence justifying the war against Iraq in March 2003. A reluctant Tony Blair is forced to do the same in Britain. Colin Powell backtracks: he no longer knows if he would have supported military action because the "absence of a stockpile changes the political calculus; it changes the answer you get." Donald Rumsfeld desperately holds the line, "What we have learned thus far has not proven Saddam Hussein had what intelligence indicated and what we believed he had, but it also has not proven the opposite," however, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz finds himself besieged in Kirkuk by "heartfelt complaints and long lectures from people who contend that Arabs here are mistreated by Kurds; that Shiite Muslims, the long disenfranchised majority group, will settle for nothing less than direct elections; and that local militias with no allegiance to the central government are frightening people."
US newspapers have not only published "exclusives" on WMDs that have forced the Administration's retreat but have noticed the complexities of the political situation in Iraq, from the importance of Ayatollah Sistani to the demands of the Kurds for autonomy and their own military force to the Governing Council's application of sharia law to the status and rights of women. In the same opinion section of the Washington Post, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch and former National Security Council Zbigniew Brzezinski sing in harmony about the loss of 'moral authority' and 'trust' by the United States. There is no longer any reference to President Bush's rationalisation of February 2003 that "success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress towards a truly democratic Palestinian state." News from Afghanistan is of continuing bombings and shootings, by US forces, by insurgents, and by factions competing for power. The greatest source of nuclear proliferation is unveiled not as the "enemy" but the "ally" of Pakistan. The mainstream media is now even giving attention to the story, circulating for years but ignored in the 2000 election, of President Bush's absence without leave from the National Guard in 1972.
My simplistic reaction is, "What took y'all so long?" Long before the first bombs fell on Baghdad, many observers were making the assessments that are now being presented as discoveries. The former arms inspector Scott Ritter insisted, "Since 1998 Iraq has been fundamentally disarmed: 90-95% of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capability has been verifiably eliminated," an analysis eventually upheld by the UN's chief inspector, Hans Blix. The Los Angeles Times reported in October 2002, 'Senior Bush administration officials are pressuring CIA analysts...[who concluded] that years of U.N. inspections combined with U.S. and British bombing of selected targets have left Iraq far weaker militarily than in the 1980s...to tailor their assessments of the Iraqi threat to help build a case against Saddam Hussein.' Newsweek was given the transcript of the 1995 interrogation of the defector Hussein Kamel al-Majid, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, in which he told UN inspectors that all chemical and biological stocks had been destroyed and Iraq's nuclear programme abandoned.
Beyond the spectral WMDs, there were wider concerns. The editorial writers at American Prospect warned, 'If the fighting turns ugly and there are large numbers of civilian casualties -- if we have to level the very cities we say we are liberating -- American legitimacy in the eyes of the world and of the Iraqis will be shot.' James Fallows worried about 'blowback' from an invasion, 'If we can judge from past wars, the effects we can't imagine when the fighting begins will prove to be the ones that matter most.' William Raspberry stripped away the rhetoric of Bushian 'democracy' to ask, 'Is it hopelessly cynical to imagine that democratization is a much lower priority than controlling Iraqi oil reserves, asserting our authority in that part of the world and (perhaps) avenging our president's father?' Republican businessmen in a full-page advertisement in the Wall Street Journal argued this 'is not a just war.' Forty-one Nobel laureates in science and economics, all former advisors to the US Government, agreed, as did General Anthony Zinni, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: 'I don't know what planet [supporters of an attack upon Iraq] are on....Access to energy drives all U.S. policy in the region.' A career State Department official resigned with a public letter to Colin Powell, 'The policies we are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests.'
So why has it taken a year for the "mainstream" opinion to adopt these comments? The equally simplistic response is that that it did not suit the US or British Governments, or those who supported their foreign policies, to acknowledge the analyses of war's opponents. When the talk-show host Bill Maher erred by remarking after 9-11, 'We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly,' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer declared, 'There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do.' The consequences for those who were sceptical went beyond "reminders": the pro-war camp tarred Scott Ritter as a pervert seeking underage women and as a recipient of money and gifts from Saddam, Wolfowitz ordered the CIA to spy on Blix, and Security Council members who wavered over a resolution for war were kept under US surveillance.
Most news outlets did not need the warning; as a senior executive at CNN admitted in August 2002, 'Anyone who claims the US media didn't censor itself is kidding you. It wasn't a matter of government pressure but a reluctance to criticise anything in a war that was obviously supported by the vast majority of the people.' T.R. Reid, the London bureau chief of the Washington Post, offered another reason for caution: 'Americans ought to know [why the attacks of 11 September occurred]....[But] the fact is, if I wrote this story now, thousands of people would write into the Washington Post and say, "Fire the guy." My editors are right: we're not ready for this.' CNN President Walter Isaacson echoed, 'If you get on the wrong side of public opinion, you are going to get into trouble.' Dan Rather finally confessed in May 2002 (but only on the BBC and not in the United States, where he continued to present the news):
It is an obscene comparison -- you know I am not sure I like it -- but you know there was a time in South Africa that people would put flaming tyres around people's necks if they dissented. And in some ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tyre of lack of patriotism put around your neck. Now it is that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions, and to continue to bore in on the tough questions so often. And again, I am humbled to say, I do not except myself from this criticism.
Self-appointed intellectual vigilantes awaited those on the "wrong side." Susan Sontag's transgression was to ask, in The New Yorker's roundup of reactions to 9-11, 'Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?' Even before the magazine was in the newsstands, Charles Krauthammer led the lynch party, 'Within days of the World Trade Center massacre, an event of blinding clarity, we are already beginning to hear the voices, prominent voices, of moral obtuseness.' The Weekly Standard awarded the Susan Sontag Certificate 'recognizing inanity by intellectuals and artists in the wake of terrorist attacks,' and one article in The New Republic, a journal for which Sontag had written, began, 'What do Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Susan Sontag have in common?'
Sontag was effectively silenced and removed from public view. And the hunt was on for others. Andrew Sullivan sounded the warning, 'The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead -- and may well mount what amounts to a fifth column.' The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, led by Joe Lieberman and Lynne Cheney, issued an all-points bulletin on the Internet and in print for 'subversive' university lecturers and students. Another website, Campus Watch, was launched by Daniel Pipes to 'monitor and gather information on professors,' particularly American scholars of the Middle East, 'who fan the flames of disinformation, incitement and ignorance.'
Yet the most effective policing of opposition came not from these long-established sentries against "extremists" but from those who claimed a place within the "Left." Michael Walzer asked in Dissent, "Can there be a Decent Left?" given a "guilt, produced by living in [the US] and enjoying its privileges," accompanied by "festering resentment, ingrown anger, and self-hate." Joe Klein waved credentials as a 1960s activist to quell British objections over detentions in Camp X-Ray: "Most Americans don't give a fig about what you think....And there is an old American saying which I think I've just invented: Before you get up on your high horse, be sure you are not riding an ass." Thomas Friedman joined Klein in quashing weak-willed Europeans as he praised the President for updating the "madman" approach to foreign policy: "[The Bush team's] willingness to restore our deterrence, and to be as crazy as some of our enemies, is one thing they have right. It's the only way we're going to get our turkey back."
A sustained assault upon activism was also being waged by Todd Gitlin, who followed up his post-9/11 adoption of the US flag with an assault upon the "left-wing fundamentalist" in January 2002. No specific fundamentalist was named but the reader was assured that "on the left, both abroad and at home, [there was] smugness, acrimony, even schadenfreude, accompanied by the notion that the attacks were, well, not a just dessert, exactly, but...damnable yet understand payback...rooted in America's own crimes of commission and omission...reaping what empire had sown." Only a few weeks after speaking at an antiwar rally in October, Gitlin damned protestors who supposedly had 'a refusal to face a grotesque world...a near-total unwillingness to rebuke Saddam Hussein, and a rejection of any conceivable rationales for using force.' The opposition was converted into the naÃ¯ve followers of the 'morally tainted' and 'doomed' Ramsay Clark, the former US Attorney General who now 'belong[ed] to the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic.'
The most prominent guardian of our decency, however, was Christopher Hitchens. Part of his investment was personal: on the eve of 9-11, Hitchens was setting himself up as the 21st-century arbiter of decent political opinion via Orwell's Victory and Letters to a Young Contrarian, a self-promotion which included the smiting of supposed villains such as Raymond Williams, Isaac Deutscher, and Edward Said. The event, however, served as a catalyst for Hitchens to lash together the immoral "Left" and "theocratic fascism."
Significantly, Hitchens' immediate reaction was to search for a deeper reason for the tragedy, "One day into the post-World Trade Centre era, and the question 'how' is still taking precedence over the question 'why,'" and to cast President Bush as "a shadow framed by powerful advisers and handlers, a glove puppet with little volition of his own and a celebrated indifference to foreign affairs." (At this point, Hitchens was a companion to the questions of Susan Sontag. Indeed Hitchens would be challenged by Leon Weiseltier, who also savaged Sontag, in The New Republic as a "contrarianism-artist.")
Within five days, Hitchens returned to the safer ground of blaming the "Left" with its "masochistic e-mail traffic...from the Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein quarter." Further venom was spat at Chomsky, in an exchange in The Nation and in public addresses, as "soft on crime and soft on fascism" and an "intellectual and...moral disgrace." Sam Husseini of the Institute for Public Accuracy was in "denial" with "the simple refusal to admit that a painful event has occurred," "a cheery rationalisation of something ghastly," and "a crude shifting of blame." Hitchens even pictured himself "looking out at a gutted Capitol or charred White House and reading [Harold] Pinter or [John] Pilger on how my neighbourhood had been asking for it." (The last was a fantasy too far. Hitchens was forced into a retraction for the first and last time after Pinter and Pilger wrote the Guardian to rebut the slur.)
Hitchens could march on, acclaimed by fellow "Left"-bashers such as Michael Kelly "for [joining] the side of giving war a chance." When uncertainty in Afghanistan suddenly turned into triumph in mid-November 2001, Hitchens celebrated with a 'Ha Ha Ha to the Pacifists':
Looking at some of the mind-rotting tripe that comes my way from much of today's left, I get the impression that they go to bed saying: what have I done for Saddam Hussein or good old Slobodan or the Taliban today?
Well, ha ha ha, and yah, boo. It was obvious from the very start that the United States had no alternative but to do what it has done. It was also obvious that defeat was impossible.
He had the certainty of superiority: 'If, as the peaceniks like to moan, more bin Ladens spring up to take [Osama's] place, I can offer this assurance: Should that be the case, there are many, many more who will also spring up to kill him all over again....We are both smarter and nicer, as well as surprisingly insistent that our culture demands respect, too.'
Hitchens would cling to this superiority. He would have to, for he would soon be beset by doubts, doubts about the continued bombing of Afghanistan ("a piece of grand-opera petulance"), doubts about the US relationship with Israel, doubts about Camp X-Ray ("there is no Devil's Island solution to this crisis"), even doubts about "the appalling situation of a national security regime" and "the essential smallness of George Bush." Fortunately, all this could be assuaged by hopes for a new war against Iraq , one in which "the long period of unwise vacillation and moral neutrality seems to be drawing to a close."
Hitchens girded himself for battle by calling Tariq Ali 'ridiculous,' Robert Fisk 'a reactionary simpleton,' and Nelson Mandela 'stupid' and 'crass,' speaking 'garbage.' He gave up his column in The Nation, as he had 'come to realize that the magazine...is becoming the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.' He promised, 'I am booked to have a reunion in Baghdad with several old comrades who have been through hell. We shall not be inviting anyone who spent this precious time urging democratic countries to give Saddam another chance.'
Yet the shrillness of these diatribes exposed rather than obscured the fatigue in Hitchens' arguments. Questions about weapons of mass destruction, inspections, the aftermath of military operations, double standards (why attack Iraq and not North Korea, which was far more likely to have WMDS?) and the "very, very weak case that the administration has made for the war" received the ritual response, "One is confronting an aggressive totalitarian dictatorship that's proved its credentials both as aggressive and as totalitarian many, many times and whose megalomaniacal leader quite obviously does not understand...the rationality of things like deterrence and containment," and the dismissal, ''It's just that you really do seem to find Mr. Bush more irritating than Mr. Hussein." By February 2003, after insisting that "there may be a sort of understanding between [Saddam's] people and al Qaeda, a sort of non-aggression pact," he was hoping that Al Gore and Hillary Clinton "get some sort of wasting disease" and muttering, "Gore and wife say that Bush is picking a fight with Iraq? Fuck them."
In December 2002, George Packer staged a gathering of Michael Walzer "the theorist," Christopher Hitchens "the romantic," David Rieff "the skeptic," Leon Wieseltier "the secularist," and Paul Berman "the idealist" as "people, who generally have little trouble making up their minds and debating forcefully, talk[ing] themselves through every side of the question" on war against Iraq. Unsurprisingly, all would support military action, since Packer had introduced them with a caricature of protest which was "not a constructive liberal antiwar movement." The article closed with the "liberal hawks" bolstered by the Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya, who "met their hope of avoiding a war with an even greater hope, [giving] the people in the room an image of their own ideals."
Just over a year later, Slate hosted an e-mail exchange between eight "liberal intellectuals" with a more complex outcome. Fred Kaplan had left the fold before war began, pondering, "If the administration lacks the acumen or persuasive power to deal with such familiar institutions as the U.N. Security Council or the established governments of France, Germany, Turkey, Russia, China -- even Canada -- then how is it going to handle Iraq's feuding opposition groups, Kurdish separatists, and myriad ethno-religious factions, to say nothing of the turbulence throughout the region?" Jacob Weisberg departed at the end of the five-day exchange, citing "the emerging picture of the dishonesty involved in getting the public to support the war" and "the liberation fantasy that caused so much additional damage to the already wrecked society of Iraq."
The other participants held on to the justness of the war, but for different reasons and with different degrees of conviction. Kenneth Pollack accepted that intelligence estimates of Iraq's WMD "were wrong" but "Saddam Hussein's regime was still a source of considerable instability in one of the most important and fragile regions of the world." George Packer simply crossed his fingers and hoped for the best: "Just because the outcome is still to be determined, and the job will require enormous imagination, flexibility, local knowledge, and staying power on our part, success or failure will depend in large part on whether Americans manage to summon these mental qualities."
Three contributors upheld the narrative of America rescuing an immature and dangerous Arab world. Fareed Zakaria did so with sweet reason ("after 9/11 we came to realize that we couldn't let the Middle East keep festering in its dysfunction and hatreds"), Thomas Friedman with a remedy for juvenile delinquency ("the real WMD that threatened us, and still do, are the young people being churned out, year after year, by failed and repressive Arab states, who hate us more than they love life and therefore are undeterrable"), and Paul Berman with the summoning of demons ("the war was brought on, in my view, by the mass totalitarian movement of the Muslim world -- the totalitarian movement that, in its radical Islamist and Baathist wings, had fostered a cult of indiscriminate killing and suicide").
And Hitchens? He alone admitted no errors, accepted no argument, proclaimed unconditional victory. He turned adversity into triumph, "The antiwar forces cling to their taunt on WMD because every other part of their propaganda and prediction has been utterly exploded," insisting that even the taunt was hollow because of Iraqi "secret bargaining (now exposed) with North Korea." He continued to spin the tale of Saddam's alliance with Al Qa'eda, ridiculing those with the "touching belief that the connection [between foreign insurgents and Iraq] began only a few months ago." There could be no acceptable challenge to his view when "we have seen the tree of liberty being watered in the traditional manner."
But, of course, the significance of the Slate debate was not that Christopher was still slinging his guns. Rather, it was that all others except Berman were not dismissing the arguments of war's opponents but engaging with them. The "ha ha ha to the pacifists" had given way to a space for dissent.
In part, that space was cleared by events: not only the absence of WMDs but also a "liberation" which was not one of Iraqis garlanding American troops with flowers but of looting, disorder, and economic breakdown, a transition to "democracy" blocked by American fears of a Shi'a leadership in Baghdad, hundreds of US and foreign troops and personnel and thousands of Iraqis wounded and dying after President Bush declared victory, a road map for Israel and Palestine that was long thrown cast aside, Afghanistan producing record crops of poppies but still in turmoil, Osama bin Laden still at large and Al Qa'eda still issuing threats. The opening was possible, however, because dissenters long before March 2003 had argued an the alternative to war was preferable, not because they loved Saddam but because they foresaw the problems that invasion would bring and anticipated that the goal of American action was not liberation or security but power. As Matthew Parris, the former Conservative MP wrote in the London Times about 'how to be an honest critic of the war':
I am not afraid that this war will fail. I am afraid that it will succeed.
I am afraid that it will prove to be the first in an indefinite series of American interventions. I am afraid that it is the beginning of a new empire: an empire that I am afraid Britain may have little choice but to join
On a cloudy February day, for the first time in 16 years, I marched. So did my six-year-old son, bored and cold, and my three-year-old daughter, far more enthusiastic in her chants of '1-2-3-4. We don't want your bloody war.' So did 1.5 million others through the streets of London. So did millions in Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Paris, Sydney, Delhi, Tehran, and New York. The British journalist Peter Kellner commented, "The march won't stop this war. But it might stop the next one."
The US and British Governments will try to limit their enquiries, passing the blame to their intelligence services. The Coalition Provisional Authority will continue to hold up a "handover" to Iraqi authories in July 2004, with or without elections, as the triumph of democracy. President Bush will continue to declare, with no sense of irony, "America is safer when our commitments are clear, our word is good and our will is strong."
Yet, in the Bush Administration's grudging approach to the United Nations to resume some role in Iraq, in the Pentagon's resigned acceptance that "hard power" cannot be used to change governments in Damascus and Tehran, in a confrontation with North Korea which has turned to negotiation rather than showdown, in the continued development of the International Criminal Court, in the challenges to Presidential and Prime Ministerial authority which could not have been anticipated after the toppling of Saddam's statue, the impact of dissent is being felt.
Christopher Hitchens still berates us, "I now find the noises made on the left would have left us with Slobodan Milosevic in power, Bosnia ethnically cleansed, Kosovo part of Greater Serbia, Afghanistan under the Taliban, and Iraq the property of a psychopathic crime family."
Fortunately, we are beyond Hitchens. We are beyond the caricatures of "Right" and "Left" used to quash our opposition. Edward Said's call still rings true: "The intellectual's role generally is to uncover and elucidate the contest, to challenge and defeat both an imposed silence and the normalized quiet of unseen power, wherever and whenever possible."
Scott Lucas is Professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. His new book, The Betrayal of Dissent: Beyond Orwell, Hitchens, and the New American Century (Pluto) is published in Britain in March and in the US in May.