The Cruise Missile Left

prominent set of commentators claiming to speak from the left
have aligned themselves with the national leadership in support
of an aggressive military interventionism and projection of
power abroad. This is by no means a genuine left—that
is, one that opposes the powerful in the interest of the non-elite
majority. I call them a “cruise missile left” (CML)
because of their alignment with power and their eager support
of external violence, which is a very important component
of their intellectual labors. One of their cohort, Christopher
Hitchens, even explicitly lauds cruise missiles themselves—“precision-guided
weaponry”—which he finds “good in itself,”
but especially admirable when decimating the forces of evil
that are the official targets (“Its a Good Time for War…,”
Boston Globe,
September 8, 2002).

CMLs often designate themselves the “pragmatic,”
“rational,” and “decent” left and they
spend considerable energy attacking their erstwhile comrades
for failing to keep in touch with the U.S. public, for “reflexive
anti-Americanism” (Todd Gitlin), for “genuflecting
only briefly—if at all—to the [9/11] dead”
(Marc Cooper), for “refusing to acknowledge that the
country faced real dangers” and has a right to defend
itself (Michael Walzer), and for not crediting U.S. policy
with successes when it attacks and removes bad men from power
(Michael Berube et al.), among other leftists’ failings.

CMLs are of course welcomed by the mainstream media, because
they not only support the elite political agenda, they attack
its real left critics with great vigor and with the credibility
of alleged leftists who have escaped “the politics of
guilt and resentment” (Walzer, “Can There Be a Decent
Left?,” Dissent, Spring 2002). Marc Cooper recently
published a second article in the Los Angeles Times
that focused on the recent failures of the peace movement,
attributed to the influence of a left faction “steeped
in four decades’ worth of crude anti-Americanism,”
although why he and the “decent left” haven’t
successfully stepped into the breach and revitalized the movement,
Cooper never makes clear (“Protest: A Smart Peace Movement
is MIA,” LAT, September 29, 2002). CMLs even speak
of the “Chomsky-left” as a generic class of leftists
who are extremist, angry, reflexively anti-American, etc.,
and attacking Chomsky is a favorite outing for CMLs. This
helps improve their access to the mainstream media, where
in addition to garnering publicity they are relatively free
from critical response.

One problem with the CMLs is that, not really being on the
left, they have lost sight of what the left is all about.
The left’s criterion of success is not the extent to
which it is listened to or heard, irrespective of message
content; it is its success in getting a left message across
(and on some issues, like “free trade,” and the
merits of overseas military ventures [except in the heat of
battle and under a furious elite propaganda barrage], the
“radical left” is far closer to mainstream opinion
than is the “decent left,” and it is listened to
on those issues by ordinary citizens when they can be reached).
On issues where it is in a minority position, a real left
does not abandon its position in order to be acceptable. Marc
Cooper objects to the left’s “scold mold” and
its “alienation from its own national institutions,”
and Gitlin calls on the left to be “practical—the
stakes are too great for the luxury of any fundamentalism.”
One can readily imagine the Cooper, Gitlin, Walzer, Berube,
and Hitchens equivalents of the 1850s explaining to the abolitionists
that they must tone down their message and alter or even drop
their anti-racist and anti-slavery message given the “political
realities” and public sentiment. But then, as now, a
genuine left focuses on the struggle against basic exploitative
and unjust policies and structures—it does not give up
its radical educational and organizing role in order to win
transitory victories and gain access and approval from the
mainstream. Most certainly it does not join militaristic bandwagons
and support wars against distant small targets on the grounds
of the evil being attacked in some particular case.

The CMLs have tried to convey the image that their leftist
enemies have felt no sympathy for the 9/11 victims or have
said that they, or at least the United States, “had it
coming.” There is an “odious whiff of ‘chickens
coming home to roost’ that has permeated much of the
left’s reaction to September 11,” says Marc Cooper.
Michael Walzer speaks of “the barely concealed glee that
the imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved.”
Neither cite any cases in point and CMLs mainly assert this
without bothering to offer evidence. They maintain these claims
in the face of almost universal statements by members of the
real left that those killed in the 9/11 events were truly
innocent victims who deserve real grief and sympathy; that
this was a terrible act of terrorism; and that those who planned
and facilitated it should be pursued by all legitimate methods
and punished. Some leftists have said that the attack can
surely be explained as a consequence of U.S. policy abroad,
but they don’t say that explaining it justifies it, or,
more outrageously, that it makes the U.S. victims proper targets.

Although the real left was full of sympathy for the 9/11 victims,
agreed that the perpetrators should be pursued and punished,
and that the United States had legitimate security concerns
that demanded attention, the Bush administration response
and the threat that it posed was quickly the primary real
left concern. The actual course of events has completely vindicated
that priority. The left considers the United States a dangerous
and aggressive imperial power that has been employing its
military and economic resources to take advantage of the opportunities
provided by the death of the Soviet Union and its own domination
to advance its narrow and mainly corporate interests. It has
done this by pushing a regressive global economic agenda that
has done terrible injury to the global majority, and it has
displayed an exceptional willingness to use force and the
threat of force. It also seems very obvious that the right-wing
and business-dominated Bush administration took advantage
of 9/11 with its “war on terror” to advance its
regressive agenda at home and abroad. That would seem extremely
important and deserving of front and center treatment in discussing
9/11 and its significance. But for the CMLs, using such a
critical framework shows the left’s “reflexive anti-Americanism,”
its view that “patriotic feelings are politically incorrect,”
and “the lingering effects of the Marxist theory of imperialism”
along with a failure to recognize that “religious motives
really count” (Walzer—he means Islamic religious
motives, not the motives of the Christian right, pro-Israel
faction, and market fundamentalists doing their thing in Washington,
DC). For the CMLs, imperialism is an obsolete notion and U.S.
global power affords no basis for sustained criticism: the
United States fights both just and unjust wars, and the CML
aim is to make it more “responsible” in its use
of power. As Gitlin says, “There is on occasion something
to be said for empires,” and “the trick is to use
power with justice” (“Empire and Myopia,” Dissent,
Spring 2002).

In the wake of 9/11 leftists should have joined together with
their fellow Americans “in recognition of our common
perplexity and vulnerability” (Gitlin). We shouldn’t
study closely what the United States has done to arouse widespread
hatred with a view toward working to diminish anti-U.S. terrorism
by policy changes. We shouldn’t look at what Bush, Cheney,
Rumsfeld, and Ashcroft have done with 9/11, to forward their
agenda at home and do things abroad that might make anti-U.S.
terrorism more likely in the future. No, we should stay focused
on the U.S. victims and how we may together punish the folks
responsible. This is precisely the perspective Bush and Ashcroft
have wanted and successfully cultivated, with the help of
the media and CMLs.

The CMLs are all agreed that the war against Afghanistan was
desirable, reasonably handled, and has had largely beneficent
results. In Gitlin’s words, it was “a just, coalitional
war of self-defense.” It is interesting to see how uniformly
they slither past the fact that the United States once again
violated international law and ran roughshod over the UN.
The UN Charter requires UN Security Council approval unless
a military operation is required for self defense, where self
defense means a response to an ongoing attack or one that
is imminent. But like Bush, the CMLs are impatient over such
niceties. Thus, Marc Cooper explained that the left must recognize
that bin Laden and al Qaeda couldn’t be neutralized “by
international law alone,” but a few sentences later he
states that the left must push for “an authentic internationalism
that would include strengthening the United Nations,”
which he had just rationalized U.S. bypassing (and weakening).

The CMLs are all keen on the idea that the United States has
a right to defend itself and that the Afghan war was just
plain old self defense, but also justified by the fact that
the Taliban was a terrible government whose removal was desirable.
They never discuss seriously whether that war, and the “war
on terror” of which it is a part, constitute acts of
defense or whether they might be based on some other motives,
like vengeance, the political need for violent action, and
the advantage of a war to the Bush administration’s agenda.
They don’t discuss the possible connection of this war
to other interests being pursued by a great and aggressive
imperial power. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that
a relatively easy victory might facilitate and encourage the
Bush administration’s aggressive proclivities. Some of
them are not happy at the current plan to commit aggression
against Iraq, but they fail to grasp that this rush to war
is linked to a larger agenda and was greatly aided by the
victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The CMLs are very cagey in discussing the Israel-Palestine
conflict. They regularly say that “peace in Israel and
Palestine” is desirable and that the United States should
help bring it about. But none of them point out that for decades
the United States has given unconditional support to Israel’s
occupation and long-term ethnic cleansing. None of them have
noted that the “war on terror,” supposedly aimed
at U.S. self defense, has given Ariel Sharon carte blanche
to step up his assault on Palestine. All of them are of the
view that the Kosovo war was a just war against ethnic cleansing,
but none of them comment on the fact that the same power that
pursued that war now supports an accelerated ethnic cleansing
and state terrorism in the occupied territories. (Of course,
none of them talk about the disclosures that al Qaeda had
been brought in to fight in Bosnia and had ties to the Kosovo
Liberation Army; nor do they discuss the massive ethnic cleansing
of Serbs, Roma, Turks, and Jews in NATO-occupied Kosovo.)
They don’t make the connection of Sharon’s war to
the Afghan War, the possible forthcoming war against Iraq,
and the larger Bush agenda, which has nothing to do with “self

So the “decent left” is virtually silent on the
crushing of the Palestinians, accelerated by the war on terror.
They all agree that Saddam Hussein’s is a “terror
regime” (Gitlin), but the word terrorism is never attached
to Sharon and his policies, nor to the United States. The
CML’s are also extremely blase, if not openly apologetic,
about the “sanctions of mass destruction” in Iraq,
which are estimated to have killed over a million civilians,
far more than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki taken together. Gitlin
expresses “doubt the sanctions against Iraq are effective,
let alone just.” Marc Cooper dismisses the claim that
they are “genocidal,” saying that “the entire
American left supported similar painful sanctions against
the apartheid state of South Africa” (LAT, September
29, 2002). The ignorance here is monumental—the vast
majority of blacks in South Africa applauded those sanctions,
even if they suffered from them and the South African sanctions
did not prevent the import of needed medical supplies and
repair of destroyed water sanitation systems. It did not involve
a “process of destroying an entire society” (Denis
Halliday). Notice also that Cooper implies that a sanctions
system that killed a million civilians is properly described
as only “painful.” Imagine what he would say if
someone brushed off the 3,000 9/11 deaths as merely “painful.”
He asks, what else can we do but starve or invade to stop
this “dangerous dictator?” He takes as given the
official U.S. version that Saddam’s weaponry poses a
threat that will not be contained as it is everywhere, by
the counter-threat of weaponry held by others. His indignation
about this dictator’s theoretical threat contrasts markedly
with his failure to say a word about how we might control
the actual use of advanced weaponry by Ariel Sharon in Palestine.

It is now very clear that in Afghanistan the United States
targeted literally hundreds of civilian villages and sites
where al Qaeda or Taliban might be located; that, as the New
York Times
finally acknowledged, many civilians died when
airstrikes hit “precisely the target they were aimed
at…because in eagerness to kill Qaeda and Taliban fighters,
Americans did not carefully distinguish between civilian and
military targets” (Dexter Filkins, “Flaws in U.S.
Air War Left Hundreds of Civilian Dead,” NYT,
July 21, 2002). Marc Herold has provided compelling evidence
in support of this targeting claim and his minimum estimate
of civilians killed directly by U.S. bombs is some 3,100.
Many thousands more were injured or traumatized and still
further thousands died of hunger, disease, and cold in refugee
camps to which they fled from bombed villages.

After having castigated the left for insufficient attention
to the U.S. victims of 9/11, it is notable how unconcerned
or apologetic the CMLs have been about civilian casualties
of the Afghan war. Hitchens has written gross apologetics
for the bombing, taking Pentagon claims of care for civilians
at face value, while suggesting that Herold’s figures
might be inflated by bias (Boston Globe, September
8, 2002; the Nation, December 17, 2001). Marc Cooper
has also denounced Herold’s figures as “unverified”
and probably “false,” in sharp contrast to his reaction
to reports of U.S. 9/11 deaths where the focus was on the
victims, not on whether the number was larger or smaller than
reported. Michael Walzer also knows that Herold was “aiming
at as high a figure as possible,” and that the left fails
to make the basic moral distinction between “premeditated
murder and unintended killings.” But Walzer fails to
grasp the elementary notion that bombing hundreds of sites
overflowing with civilians because an al Qaeda soldier might
be there is as premeditated a form of killing as shooting
each of them individually.

Possibly most blatant is Michael Berube, who finds the Afghan
attack “laudable” and the negative reactions of
the “Chomsky-left” simply “morally odious.”
He cites Cynthia Peters’s statement that the U.S. crimes
there differed from 9/11 only in being “many times larger.”
Berube finds this morally odious because it compares “the
hijackers deliberate slaughter of civilians” with “the
U.S. military response.” This is wonderfully evasive
rhetoric: a bin Laden spokesperson could have contrasted the
“hijackers attack on the symbols of U.S. imperialist
power” with “the U.S. aggression against Afghanistan
relying on firepower rained on innocent villagers.” That
would have matched Berube’s rhetorical ploy. Berube’s
“U.S. military response” included the previously
mentioned targeting of hundreds of civilian villages, using
cluster bombs and other ferocious weapons, that “deliberately
killed” by planned military tactics more than 3,000 Afghan
civilians. The self-proclaimed “progressive” doesn’t
bat an eyelash at these 3,000-plus deaths. He even pretends
that any bombing deaths were only “intelligence failures”
rather than a result of systematic targeting of “maybe”
al Qaeda hideouts (he mentions the Karakak bombing as “an
atrocity,” but an “intelligence failure”—and
he mentions no other basis for the bombing deaths).

In an even more egregious bit of apologetics for killing Afghan
civilians, Berube castigates Chomsky, now “so difficult
to defend,” with his “repellant mixture of hysteria
and hauteur” (“Peace Puzzle: Why the left can’t
get Iraq right,” Boston Globe, September 15, 2002).
He cites Chomsky’s statement pointing out, “The
U.S…demanded that Pakistan terminate the food and other
supplies that are keeping at least some of the starving and
suffering people of Afghanistan alive.” Chomsky went
on to suggest possible mass deaths based on this disruption
of supplies. This was the repellant hysteria and hauteur.
In a brief letter of reply, Chomsky pointed out that he was
reporting New York Times statements on what the United
States was demanding of Pakistan (closing the border and preventing
food trucks going into Afghanistan) and what horrified officials
of a number of international aid organizations on the scene
were saying might well be the consequences of the forced closure
of the borders. Berube was repelled by this expression of
concern over the possible deadly effects of curtailment of
the food supply that were anticipated by international aid
personnel, but the policy and its consequences didn’t
faze him at all. Berube could overlook all these petty details
of civilians killed and starved because, “on balance,
the routing of the Taliban might have struck a blow, however
ambiguous and poorly executed, for human freedom.” This
rationale, common among the CMLs, will be a handy justification
for any attack on any repressive state—Arundhati Roy
points out that such a rationale could justify an attack on
India to strike a blow for the untouchables; but it could
also rationalize attacking Israel to end the occupation, or
the United States to end the drug war’s war on the black
population and free the million prisoners of that war.

Berube tells us the war “Might have struck a blow,”
but then again it might not, as the Northern Alliance, another
terrorist warlord group was put in power, war-lordism has
returned in the regions, the drug business flourishes again,
and the United States, having hit the poor country with bombs,
once again runs. Berube, like the other CMLs, isn’t bothered
by the flaunting of international law or the United States
taking it upon itself to determine the political constitution
of another country by violence—it doesn’t strike
him that this may be incompatible with true freedom and self-determination
and may yield a neo-colonial external control. He is not worried
about precedents in such interventions or that its success
might feed on itself and lead to successor wars to “strike
blows for freedom.”

The notion that the war in Afghanistan is a phase of imperial
action and reflects a broader and uglier agenda is outside
Berube’s framework of thought. Like the other CMLs, he
believes that the Afghan and Kosovo wars were good wars, with
humanitarian ends, and that we must push the leadership toward
doing good abroad: “the United States cannot be a beacon
of freedom and justice to the world if it conducts itself
as an empire.” Berube would perhaps think it foolish
to say, “The lion cannot rule as king of the jungle unless
it conducts itself like a king, and behaves responsibly.”
After all, the lion’s behavior toward antelopes flows
from its nature. But for the CML’s an empire—or
at least their own—need not behave like an empire; it
can “use power for justice.” The United States as
presently organized and run has the capacity to treat people
abroad nicely and not serve its own TNCs and military industrial
complex—what its leaders need is good advice from Michael
Berube and the “rational left” to get straightened

S. Herman is an economist, author, and media analyst. His
most recent book, co-edited with Philip Hammond, is Degraded
Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (Pluto, 2000).