Michael J. Totten

Friday, June 20, 2003

In a Nutshell

Roger L. Simon sums up the entire post-Iraq war debate in a single sentence.

To complain about the absence of WMDs at this point would be like having liberated Auschwitz during WWII only to grouse that there wasn't any cylon-b in the concentration camp, just dead bodies.

The rest is pretty good, too.

The Hole in the Donut

Mike Silverman quotes James Taranto.

As a consequence of this uncertainty about their future, today's Democrats are intellectually stagnant. They are the conservative party--not in the ideological sense, but in the sense of being opposed to change: Leave Social Security alone. Don't cut taxes (but don't raise them either). Roe v. Wade is sacrosanct, and anyone who questions it is unqualified for the federal bench. Affirmative action? Defend it, don't end it. And on foreign policy, the top liberal priority is the maintenance of Cold War-era institutions and alliances. Only on a few fringe issues (gay rights comes to mind) can liberals and Democrats be said to have any sort of agenda other than the preservation of the status quo.

Mike (who is himself a liberal) then adds the following.

Well, I don't exactly consider equal rights for gay people to be a fringe issue, and I would add that on health care the Democrats have some non-status-quo ideas, but other then that, Taranto really hit the nail on the head. Mainstream left-liberalism today has really run out of gas. That is why you are seeing a lot of former "mainstream" liberals go one of two directions -- towards a hawkish liberal/libertarianism (that's me!) or towards Green Party style leftism.

Well, I've done both. I voted for Nader twice (in both 1996 and 2000) and now I'm in the liberal hawk camp. I was in the liberal hawk camp back when I was a Nader Democrat, too. You know, Bosnia, Kosovo, allathat.

Much of the rest of the left really is in a weird sort of conservative stasis right now. I am by nature an anti-conservative. Not in the ideological sense, as James Taranto says, but in the dispositional sense. Stasis and the status quo don't work for me. If you sit in a rut you'll rot in it.

In Dissent magazine Paul Berman, one of the left's deepest thinkers, makes a similar point in a completely different way when he reviews Forrest D. Colburn's Latin America at the End of Politics.

Reading Latin America at the End of Politics, I came away thinking that the political revolutions of the last couple of decades have achieved marvels in the field of political liberty. And it is good to be rid of the failed and false economic doctrines of the past. But the feeling of having come to an "end," the feeling that Marxism and some other doctrines of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have become hopelessly antique-this feeling had better give way to a feeling of new promise, and soon. This is Colburn's point, and I am entirely sympathetic with it. We have got to find a new way of posing the old questions of social conscience. We have got to find a language for speaking about equality and fraternity and not just about liberty - a new socialism, whatever it will be called, to replace the several failed socialisms of the past. Some people have kept on chanting the erroneous and antiquated slogans of long ago, which is pointless and even harmful, and other people have chosen to waste away their lives in shopping malls, which is idiotic. Surely there has got to be another alternative. But what will this new alternative be - the new appeal to the social conscience? What will it look like? What will be its sound and rhythm?

I won't tell the Latin American left what it should do. But the (North) American left should focus on what it has always focused on. Liberty. Equality. And fraternity.

Equality has been largely achieved in the US insofar as it can without smacking up against liberty. Some form of universal health insurance is still necessary, the less statist and corporatist the better. Tax cuts should target the needy before the well off. Marriage rights should be extended to gays.

But these are mostly piecemeal issues, the home stretch before the American left will have won all it battles and can retire.

From that point on, what is lacking is fraternity and liberty across the globe. The Middle East, Africa, and parts of Asia suffer the worst sort of tyranny imaginable. We should export our liberal ideals to them. It is what the suffering masses need and want. This is not imperialism. It is not conquering and annexing and enslavement. It is liberation, and liberation is what liberalism is.

There isn't a lot else left for the left to do. Expanding the sphere of mature liberalism is the only future liberalism can have. And that is why I am where I am.

Some have veered toward the left-wing fringe where they rebel against liberalism itself. This is perverse, and it positively defines idiotarianism.

Still others are paralyzed with fear and uncertainty, and so they want to do nothing. This is the "conservative" faction James Taranto identifies. They are in a temporary state of torpor, and it cannot last. This is the group to watch. When they decide to move forward again, will they choose to align with the liberal hawks or the radical left? That's the million dollar question. It is they who will decide how the left redefines itself as soon as it gels in some form again.

Will these liberals side with idealists or with the nihilists? The question nearly answers itself.

(Don't bet your bottom dollar on nihilism.)

Thursday, June 19, 2003

Bush's Abdication

In The New Republic Peter Beinart says the Bush Administration is abdicating America's long-standing responsibilities in Liberia. Learn from England and France, he says. And be more imperialist.

Yesterday's Liberals

They say what is conservative today was liberal yesterday. That does seem to be the case.

Conservative writer John Little of Blogs of War designed this t-shirt. (Click the photo to buy one.)

This is just the sort of thing that was all over my radical left college campus in the early 90s. What's next, John? Free love and bong hits?

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Iranian Blogs

John Little at Blogs of War has a great list of Iranian blogs.

Toward the Tipping Point

Via Instapundit comes this piece from David Warren where he says the Iranian mullahs are on their way out.

Last summer, the mullahs came perilously close to losing their turbans, and were reduced to importing Palestinian and Afghan thugs to beat up the student demonstrators, for fear the Persian thugs whom they used to entrust might join the other side. This summer, they have started from that position. And the demonstrators, who last summer called on Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei to step down, have moved their envelope. They call on Mohammad Khatami, the publicly elected but essentially powerless "president-for-show," to resign. They call for Ayatollah Khamenei to be executed.

David says he belongs to a small minority that predicts the mullahs will crack soon. That minority is bigger than you think, David. Count me, too.

Revolutions Real and Imagined

The revolution in Iran is on. Here is Koorosh Afshar in National Review.

During the past few nights, we Iranian youth have been agitating - at great risk to our lives - to remove the 24-year-old plague that has stricken our homeland. Our goal is to topple the theocratic regime of the mullahs. Our opponents are barbarian vigilantes - members of Ansaar-e-Hezbollah - who are backed by heavily armed Iranian riot police.

Westerners may have difficulty imagining what these people are like. In fact, it's quite easy: Simply remember the Taliban. The only difference is that they don't wear Afghani clothes.

In the past few nights, my peers - and our mothers and sisters - have poured into the streets of our city. Some of us have been arrested and many have been injured by the ruthless attacks of Ansaar-e-Hezbollah. These people attack whomever they see in the streets with tear gas, sticks, iron chains, swords, daggers, and, for the last two nights, guns.

It has become almost routine for us to go out at night, chant slogans, get beaten, lose some of our friends, see our sisters beaten, and then return home.

Each night we set to the streets only to be swept away the next dawn by agents of the regime.

What I would give to watch the children of Iran bravely take on the hated mullahcracy!

This is what always attracted me to the left. Stodgy old conservatives did not understand. They thought revolution was wrong, even when just. They were "red" even when they weren't. Or in the case of Henry Kissinger, the anti-Soviet revolutions in '89 were "destabilizing." Brett Scowcroft tacitly endorsed the massacre of the students in China's Tiananmen Square.

Odd, then, that only conservative magazines report Iran now.

I’m not the only person who’s noticed.

Disgruntled liberal Meryl Yourish discovered the disconnect, too.

This, I thought, must be covered on Indymedia. So I check the main site. Nothing. New York? Nope. DC? Nada. Seattle? Nuh-uh.

Okay, then, San Francisco. There must be at least one article about Iran in the birthplace of modern American protest. No, there isn't. But there are articles against the war in Iraq…

Andrew Sullivan finds more lapses.

Much of the antiwar left has long since stopped caring about the actual freedom of people under oppressive regimes, except, of course, if their plight is a way to blame or excoriate the United States. The antiwar left's blindness toward the evil of Saddam is now compounded by its refusal to grapple with the next great part of the struggle against Islamo-fascism.

Check out some of the more mainstream publications of the left: The Nation's home page has nothing -- nothing -- about Iran on it. Search for Iran on its Web site and you get more results still gloating over the Iran-Contra scandal than anything that's going on in Iran today. "What Liberal Media?" blogger Eric Alterman has said nothing as the story has unfolded. This magazine (Salon) has been a little better -- but not by much. The Boston Globe editorialized -- but mainly against what it sees as counterproductive American support for the dissidents.

Last month I predicted in a roundabout way that this would happen.

In Builders and Defenders, I wrote this:

After September 11, I discovered an intellectual weakness on the left that I never noticed before. For some reason, perhaps for several reasons, liberals and leftists are bored by the outside world.

Compared with conservative magazines, publications like The Nation and The American Prospect rarely feature articles about what happens in other countries. They'll do it occasionally, but almost always in the context of how it relates to America. The Nation might report on the effects of Iraqi sanctions, but rarely does it publish anything about Iraq in its own context. If you want to learn about the history of the Baath Party, Saddam's human-rights abuses, the fate of the Marsh Arabs, or Iraqi public opinion, you have to seek out magazines and journals of the center and the right.

Of course there’s more to it than that.

Liberal hawks like myself, Meryl Yourish, and Jeff Jarvis pay rapt attention.

But the anti-war liberals aren’t interested in the slightest. A revolution against tyranny is boring. They would rather discuss Howard Dean.

The radical left is another matter entirely. This is the crowd that says America is a fascist police state. The last thing they want to discover is that a real fascist police state exists in Iran.

Every Friday at 5:00 p.m. the Jackass Contingent marches in front of my building. They bang on drums and shriek against a war that’s already over. They say dissent has been crushed, but the only thing that’s crushed is the size of their rally. Look how brave and heroic I am, they proclaim. You idiots are wasting your lives in office towers while I’m taking on a dictatorship!

But they aren’t taking on a dictatorship. They are wallowing in fantasy. If they pay any attention at all to Iran they’ll see what dictatorship looks like. They’ll see young people who really are brave in dissent, and who really are engaged in revolutionary activity. And they would look at themselves in the mirror and know they are frauds.

I feel sorry for them. I do. They live in the wrong country, and in the wrong time. They want to take a stand. They want to fight power. But there is no power to fight. America is a liberal democracy, the very sort of thing Iranians die for.

So they dream up a fight in their heads. “Welcome to Nazi Germany” is what someone scrawled on the side of my building.

The real Nazis are elsewhere. And they are fighting for their lives.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Israel and the Left

Regarding my post on anti-Israel bias in the New York Times, Stephen Meyer emails:

Clearly you are right. I say 'clearly' as I simply don't get how any other view can be intelligently held. Yet otherwise intelligent people, on the American left and worldwide, "think" otherwise.

Anti-Semitism may explain most of the rest of the world holding the view but surely anti-Semitism hasn't informed the American left in this matter. What then?

I gather you have a good many years of intimacy with the left of our country. (I have very little since my '72 graduation.) That you part company with the left on Israel and many foreign policy issues means, to me, you may have a very good handle on the left's, again to me, indefensible stance and how they got there. Sure would like to get your thoughts on this.

The American left is diverse, especially if you define “the left” as the left half of the country; radicals, liberals, Democrats, and left-of-center independents. Plenty of people on the left do support Israel. Those on the left that don’t are themselves diverse. Some are anti-Semitic, but most just don’t know their history.

I was biased in favor of the Palestinians until relatively recently. September 11 pushed me slightly closer to the pro-Israeli camp, but only insofar as making me sympathize more with the victims of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. I despised those groups already, so 9/11 had little effect on my views.

Most people on the left, whether they are mainstream or radical, reflexively side with the underdog; labor unions, mom-and-pop businesses, poor people, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, social minorities (like gays), and citizens of the Third World. Most on the right reflexively side with the overdogs; management, large corporations, the wealthy, social and religious majorities, and the West. Clearly there are large numbers of individuals for whom this doesn’t apply, and any individual can make exceptions (as I sometimes do). But it’s true more often than not, so it works as a generalization. I sometimes think it’s the only factor that unites the fringe and the center. After this, “the left” breaks down and becomes a meaningless category.

I initially sympathized with the Palestinians for this reason and only this reason. When I knew next-to-nothing about the Arab-Israeli conflict and I saw photographs of Palestinian kids throwing rocks at Israeli tanks, it was a no-brainer to side with the kids. I’d do the same today without apologies if I didn’t have more information.

When I learned a bit more, it was still easy to sympathize with the Palestinians. Here’s a group of people who kinda sorta live within Israel, yet are not Israeli citizens and are not granted the right to self-government. They want their own state, and it’s a grievance that someday must be redressed. It looks to the uninformed observer a bit like the apartheid regime in South Africa. It’s the civil rights revolution all over again. Or so it appears on the surface.

I never excused the terrorists. They were undermining the Palestinian cause, and they made it difficult to support them. But I didn’t think it right for extremists to discredit the majority. Even after September 11 I maintained this view. A friend once asked me in an argument whose side I’d be on if a full-scale war erupted between them. If push came to shove, I said, I would have to choose Israel. I sympathized with Palestinians, but I knew very well that Ehud Barak was elected because he promised a permanent settlement. Arafat was a dictator, and he rejected Israel’s offer. If a war were required to settle it, it would not be right to blame Israel.

Still, I knew I was unfairly biased. I didn’t understand the Israeli view. So I read Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem. He is fair to both sides, and that’s why I picked him. When I finished the book I was no longer biased. Though he tilts toward Israel himself, Thomas Friedman put me in the middle. I gave each side a hearing and split the difference.

I kept reading, and I kept learning. I discovered that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not fighting for a state in the West Bank and Gaza. They are fighting for a Taliban regime “from the river to the sea,” including all of Israel. They say negotiation is treason, and that means war. I learned about Arafat’s education system, which glorifies suicide murder.

In a nutshell, the more I learned, the more I leaned toward Israel.

Then came the moment of moral clarity.

In one week of March last year, Israelis suffered a suicide-bombing per day. Every time I clicked on the news, there were more.

I caved the day after the Passover Massacre.

On my way home from work I saw my first pro-Palestinian rally. Hundreds of people took to the streets to harrass commuters with “check points.” I saw ugly signs saying Israel and America were terrorist states. What timing! My gut clenched and my heart broke with every new bombing, and activists chose this moment to scream about the Israelis?

I saw a woman holding a baby while handing out flyers. She looked nice and approachable, so I asked her opinion. How she could go to his rally after Israelis were massacred? Wasn’t the timing unseemly? And she launched into a blistering anti-Semitic rant. It was the usual b.s., but packed with a smouldering intensity that matched that of the skinheads. Our discussion turned to a screaming match. I felt like a jerk because it frightened her baby, but she did most of the yelling. Other activists came to her side. They folded their arms and nodded their heads at every racist and terrorist statement she made. I felt like I was facing a mob with torches and lynch ropes.

I went home and vowed to have nothing to do with such people. I’d as soon join the Klan.

Not everyone who is Palestinian-biased is like the bigots I met on that day. Surely the editors of the New York Times would have been as disgusted as I was.

Some people are simply out of their league; they don’t know the history and facts of this conflict. They don’t know the background, and the background is long and complex. Their views are like mine were just over a year ago. They are vaguely informed and they try to be fair. They want a settlement now, not a settlement later. They think they know what the endgame will look like, so they berate anyone who doesn’t move toward it directly. And they’re stuck in a reflexive underdog-ism that takes a great effort to break.

Others, like those I saw at the rally, are hateful and nasty. I have a lot of experience with the left, but I don’t understand every faction. Anti-Semitism used to belong to the right. It’s brand-new to the left, or it’s back from a slumber. I don’t know which and I wish I knew why.

UPDATE: Matthew at A Fearful Symmetry emails:

It's always been my belief that anti-Semitism on the left had "slumbered" for nearly a century in the form of extreme anti-capitalism. Look at any left-wing propaganda tract describing the evils of the bourgeosie and you'll come across caricatures that look markedly similar to the anti-Semitic pamphleteering of the right. (During the Dreyfus Affair at least, the French left was aboveboard in its equating "capitalists" and Jews when refusing to defend Dreyfus.)

This all makes more sense when you consider the language the left uses to describe Israel now. They call Israel an "example of international war-capitalism," an "American colony intended for use as a imperialist assault on the brown people of the region," a "capitalist apartheid state," and so on. They frame being anti-Israel as integral to being anti-globalization, anti-American, and anti-capitalist. The visions of anti-Semites of the left and right come together in one gloriously hateful mess, driven by the Fanonesque unifying principle of the today's radical left: "To kill in the name of rebellion is not a crime."

This makes some sense. It's still puzzling why this attitude would reemerge in a racist form among people who so proudly claim to hate racism. But it helps explain why you see it on the fringe and not in the mainstream.

Monday, June 16, 2003

How to Make Peace

Today's required reading is about Jews and Arabs who take a trip to Auschwitz.

Read Pilgrim's Progress by Yossi Klein Halevi in The New Republic.

Regime Change

Michael Ledeen says the mullahcracy in Iran may not last much longer. The tipping point may be near.

There is mounting violence against the regime. We are no longer talking about purely peaceful demonstrations. The protesters know they are going to be attacked with guns, clubs, knives, machetes and chains, and they are responding with Molotov cocktails and guns of their own. In some of the recent street fighting, the demonstrators strung wires across the streets to bring down the Basiji, who were on motorcycles.

The regime is in a real jam. The mullahs know the people hate them — even the timorous correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor in Tehran says that 90 percent of Iranians want democratic change, and 70 percent want drastic change — and they also know that their own instruments of repression are insufficient to deal with a massive insurrection. Many leaders of the armed forces have openly said they will side with the people if there is open civil conflict. Members of some of the most powerful institutions in the country have said that they believe more than half of the Revolutionary Guards will support the people in a frontal showdown. Ergo, the mullahs have had to import foreign thugs — described as "Afghan Arabs" in the popular press — to put down demonstrations.

On the other side of the barricades, the pro-democracy forces seem to have passed the point of no return. They know that if they stop now, many of them will be subjected to terrible tortures and summary execution. Kamenei and Rafsanjani are not likely to embark on a domestic peace process.

Copyright 2003 Michael J. Totten