Friday, September 16, 2011

September 11 retrospective: The Dissent symposium (1 of 2)

Dissent has a set of online posts dated 09/08/2011 called, Symposium: Ten Years Later on the 9/11 attacks and their effects.

Dissent is a magazine that began as consciously social-democratic. Which means their domestic policy perspective tended to be on the left of the Democratic Party or even outside what would be considered respectable Democratic Party opinion. But they were also pro-Cold War and anti-Communist. And that combination during the Cold War often meant in practice that they were tempted to go the extra mile to show that they were reliably anti-Communist and suspicious of any kind of activism that may have carried a “Communist” taint in the eyes of good Cold War liberals.

It was an annoying habit during the Cold War and even more annoying now. A couple of the articles linked below have a residue of that tone. You can see self-descriptions of Dissent’s self-understanding in Mitchell Cohen, Decades of Dissent Dissent Winter 2004 and in this excerpt from their first issue, in the peak year of McCarthyism, 1954.

It sometimes hard to distinguish this don’t-associate-me-with-those-bad-leftist perspective from neoconservatism. The latter’s intellectual perspective evolved from 1930s American Trotskyism, particularly a brand popular among some intellectuals around the New School for Social Research, where their intellectual godfather Leo Strauss was a prominent figure. In its still liberal-left variant, this outlook often comes off as liberal “concern troll” pleading, i.e., scolding those bad libruls or “the Left” for not endorsing this or that Republican position.

Mitchell Cohen, a longtime co-editor of Dissent, gives us an example of that in Ten Years Later: What Should the Left Have Learned? 09/08/2011. Apparently he thinks that a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the main thing “the left” should have learned is that it was a great idea to invade Iraq:

Reducing all politics to “imperialism versus anti-imperialism,” is the gag of Gog and Magog.
Gog and Magog are prominent players in fundamentalist theories of the End of the World. But what he means by the gag of Gog and Magog, I don’t know.
But his piece is devoted to scolding an ill-defined Left for their supposed devotion to the notion of imperialism. But it was the neocons in the post-9/11 period that finally made the concept of “imperialism” respectable in discussing American foreign policy. They typically discussed the US as (an of course benevolent) empire and argued that it should use its power in a self-consciously imperialist manner. Whether that was based more on the residues of Trotskyism or their admiration for their own image of Winston Churchill and the British Empire would be hard to determine. But in a piece that scornfully scolds the Left (whoever he thinks that is) for talking about imperialism, you would think the neocons deserve at least a share of that scolding in passing! (The neocons have been very widely discussed, e.g., Robert Dreyfuss, Just the Beginning The American Prospect 04/01/2003; Andrew Bacevich, New Boys in Town: The Neocon Revolution and American Militarism 04/22/2005; Jim Lobe and Michael Flynn, The Rise and Decline of the Neoconservatives Right Web 11/16/2006.)

Other than having his head stuck in Cold War-era polemics, Cohen’s view of 9/11 and the Iraq War it was used to justify doesn’t vary from the neocons’ in any way that’s internally evident:

Things don’t—history doesn’t—work so simply. The United States, in response to the attacks of September 11, launched and botched an invasion of Iraq, in part with spurious rationales. Yet one day researchers may reach interesting conclusions about the long-term impact on the Arab world of TV images that showed a disheveled, once swaggering dictator crawl out of a hole. Stable democracy will probably not be the long-term result of the recent Arab upheavals or of the American misadventure in Iraq, but the fate of Baghdad's strong man certainly showed that his like is not invincible. Bin Laden's version of jihad and his organization suffered severe setbacks in the year leading to the anniversary of September 11. These were due both to U.S. forces — most important, the killing of bin Laden — and the fact that al Qaeda had no role in the dramatic changes in the Middle East. But these do not preclude a region in which a different kind of extremism, that of the Muslim Brotherhood, functions as superego. And one person’s religious fanaticism is also not another person’s democracy. [my emphasis]
The rationales for the invasion of Iraq were Saddam’s nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction" and his nonexistent ties to Al Qa'ida and specifically to the 9/11 attacks. They weren’t spurious "in part." They were entirely false. Cohen’s triumphalist treasuring of the image of Saddam’s capture clearly pleases him. And, with our sports-event coverage of war, no doubt it please most Americans. But if we’re going to consider the supposed value of that image as a justification for the Iraq War, we have to take into account the many other iconic images of that war and the realities they depict: the prisoners being tortured at Abu Ghuraib; the city of Fallujah flattened; the civilian dead from American raids; the disgraceful propaganda sideshow around the rescue of Jessica Lynch.

Whatever discrediting value the capture footage may have had on Saddam’s image, which wasn’t very good in the Arab world to begin with, whatever “interesting conclusions” those future researchers may draw from it, there were also the images of: Saddam being displayed for the cameras having a medical examination, a violation of laws of war against displaying prisoners as trophies; Saddam in court, defending himself in what amounted to a kangaroo court proceeding; Saddam maintaining a dignified posture at his own hanging, while his executions screamed insults with him, not bothering to treat his death as anything other than a revenge killing.

For that matter, at least some viewers must have taken the footage of Saddam’s capture not only as evidence of his final defeat, but also as evidence that he was willing to get out in the dirt literally as a resistance fighter, though he was likely more of a fugitive than a fighter then. Superficial triumphalist rhetoric leads to sloppy and arrogant thinking on foreign policy.

Finally, Cohen’s comments on Al Qa’ida are strange. If we define Al Qa’ida as Osama bin Laden’s original organization, it doesn’t seem to me from what I’ve read and heard on them that they had more than a marginal existence in the last year. And was Bin Laden’s death especially significant? In imagery, yes. In substantive effect on the real existing terrorist problem? Or on the United States' understanding of its foreign policy? Or on the Pentagon's and the domestic national security establishments' estimations of their budgetary needs? The answer seems to be no for all three.

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