But what about Afghanistan? Only 19% of Democrats think the Afghanistan war is worthwhile, according to a Washington Post poll from March. Two-thirds of Americans think its time to get out. Eighty-seven percent of Democrats want withdrawal by this summer. A year ago, Obama hinted this was an achievable goal. When he announced a surge in December 2009, he said the troops will start coming home in mid-2011.
Although most Americans, especially on the left, oppose this war, Congress has rejected resolutions demanding an end to it. And now the administration and military are talking about getting out in 2014, predicting a violent summer in Afghanistanpresumably one that the U.S. cant afford to miss.
Many thought the ascent of the Democrats would end the bloodshed, if not immediately, soon enough. Two years have passed and there is more money being spent, more countries being bombed, and about as many Americans fighting and dying as when Obama took office.
Why much of the left backs the Libya war is an interesting question. Another mystery is why the president they elected to stop Bushs wars has not done so. There are several factors suggesting there will be continuing bloodshed so long as the left is in charge.
The first reason is simple partisan dynamics. The left might not like the wars, but they like their commander in chief. Even if they didnt, they will always hate the Republicans more, and thus work to shield the executive from criticism, tempering their own as well.
The right, meanwhile, loves wars almost as a matter of course. Their biggest war-related criticisms of chief executives like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are almost invariably accusations of weakness and reluctance to flex military muscle. There was an exception in the late 1990s, when many Republicans invoked America First to criticize Clintons escapades in Kosovo. But for the most part, conservative criticisms of liberal warmongers are always themselves coming from a hawkish position.
Rush Limbaugh popularized the allegation that instead of doing something serious to stop al-Qaeda, Clinton "bombed an aspirin factory" in Sudan. This perfectly illustrates the moral bankruptcy of such rightwing critiques. In reality, Clinton destroyed the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory, a major producer of anti-malaria and veterinary drugs for the region. Tens of thousands likely died because of this single act of terrorism. Far from being a mere diversion in the war on bin Laden, this one act likely killed more innocents than bin Laden has in his lifetime.
Since the rightwing attacks liberals for being weak, leftwingers can react in one of three ways: They can defend their president and assert he is in fact tough; they can concede that hes less belligerent than the opposition, which creates a bipartisan whitewash of Democratic war crimes; or they can respond, as precious few radicals do, that the Democratic president is in fact just as ruthless and immoral a killer as the Republicans are, and should be impeached and prosecuted no less than people like Bush and Cheney.
This last option is the only consistent and honest one, but it makes even relatively principled progressives uncomfortable. Why? America has a two-party system, and opposing Democrat warmongers means having "no voice" in U.S. mass democracy. And making too much a point of war might mean giving up more important things.
The Lefts Priorities
A straw poll from August 2009, half a year into Obamas reign, said it all. Stanley Greenberg polled attendees to the Netroots Nation gathering of progressive bloggers, giving them a list of political issues and asking which two "progressive activists should be focusing their attention and efforts on the most." Byron York reported:
The winner was passing comprehensive health care reform, with 60 percent, and number two was passing "green energy policies that address environmental concerns," with 22 percent. Tied for eighth place, named by just eight percent of respondents, was "working to end our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan."In 2004 and 2005, progressives condemned Bush as a war criminal, called his invasion of Iraq an illegal war of aggression, and spoke openly of impeachment. They sounded like Bushs war was their biggest political prioritymore significant than domestic spending programs, regulation, abortion and other traditional hot buttons. By Obamas first summer in office, only one out of a hundred progressive bloggers in this sample spent most of their time trying to stop Americas criminal wars.
Then Greenberg asked which one of those issues "do you, personally, spend the most time advancing currently?" The winner was health care reform, with 23 percent, and second place was "working to elect progressive candidates in the 2010 elections," with 16 percent. In 11th placeat the very bottom of the listwas "working to end our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan." Just one percent of Netroots Nations attendees listed that as their most important personal priority.
This was a small cross section of the left, but it speaks to a general trend. Certainly under Democratic administrations, issues other than war become pressing. A charitable interpretation is that the left is fatigued from years of protest and the political dynamics discussed above push war to the background. A less charitable view is that they dont actually hate war nearly as much as they pretended to, that they used it opportunistically as a partisan club against Republicans. An even more cynical guess is that they are every bit as self-centered and materialistic as they claim the rest of us are, and in exchange for health care subsidies and stimulus handouts, they are willing to look the other way as peasants are blown to bits in their name.
There are plenty of exceptions to this and hundreds, even thousands of left-liberal writers, lawyers, intellectuals, journalists and scholars who tend toward a much more radical, anti-partisan approach. A tiny minority of principled leftists oppose war vehemently and give it proper weight.
But clearly, the vast majority of left-liberals are not as antiwar as libertarians. Unlike left-liberalism and certainly conservatism, libertarianism tends to see aggressive war as the greatest of government evils. It is in the same general moral category as genocide (itself usually a product of war). We see everything about Americas warsthe killing of civilians, first and foremost; but also the killing of soldiers defending their country; the enslavement of U.S. troops disallowed from quitting their jobs at will; the expansion of state power; the regimentation of the economy; the crackdowns on civil liberties; the financing of it all through taxation and inflationas purely destructive and grossly immoral. Libertarianism is the ultimate antiwar philosophy. Leftism is much more squishy on the issue.
The Allure of Humanitarian Mass Killing
Indeed, few on the left eschew war totally. Pacifists and venerable radicals like the late Howard Zinn do, but most of the left has made peace with war as proper policy in the right hands. The war on Libya underscores this, as the image of a left-liberal president stopping massacres by bombing people has seduced half of the left, who have not even paused to think about the implications. Yet even during the Bush years, most of the left only opposed the Iraq war in the beginning because it was not done through the proper international channels. Once the war began, the moderate doves were hesitant to call for immediate withdrawal. All but a small minority of the left backed the war in Afghanistan, partly out of delusions that it would be a humanitarian endeavor. In the late 1990s, most of them uncritically swallowed the propaganda that the U.S. was stopping genocide in Kosovo, even when promulgated by a known and admitted liar.
Many left-liberals enjoy calling Bush the worst president in U.S. history, despite his many similarities to the current White House occupant. But even more telling is their understanding of history. Bush was supposedly a stain on Americas legacy in diplomacy. Comparing Bush to Wilson, FDR, Truman or LBJ, ask anyone on the left who is worse and 85% will answer Bush. Most would probably even say Reagan was worse. Heck, many will even say Hoover, a peacenik, was worse, simply because his alleged laissez-faire policies caused the Great Depression.
Yet Wilson, FDR and Truman, and possibly LBJ, are in a category of evil that does not just compare to Bushs, but probably dwarfs it several times over. These men are given a pass largely because they were domestic messiahsWilsons Progressivism, FDRs New Deal, Trumans carrying the interventionist flame and LBJs Great Society all win over the bleeding hearts. But there is something more at play here.
Wilsons war might be criticized but his idealism is defended and even some historians with a radical streak want to vindicate the war against the Kaiser. LBJ killed more civilians than Bush, on top of drafting soldiers by the hundreds of thousands, but at least the left still questions his war in retrospect.
FDR and Truman, however, are different. World War II is really the key to our puzzle here. FDR is defended not despite his war, but largely because of it. He is a "liberal Democrat" who waged Americas most popular and celebrated military crusade. Left, right and center worship this war, and the left is proud to claim it as their own. It was the war of American social democracy teamed up with Soviet Communism against fascism. It was a global clash between the left and right, and the more virtuous side won. The left is a bit embarrassed about Japanese Internment and Hiroshima, but is otherwise proud to own the last U.S. war that was clearly won, that everyone in America loves.
But World War II was the worst war ever. Fifty million people died. America lost over 400,000 and its government participated in the murder of a million or more, easily. Over sixty Japanese cities and more than 100 German ones were razed to the ground. The war made virtually everyone involved in it worse, except the politicians and connected businesses. The most common retrospective humanitarian defense of that warstopping the Holocaustwas surely not the motivation of FDR, who turned a boatload of Jews away from American shores. Indeed, people act as though the Allied saved six million Jews, rather than doing nothing about the slaughter for years, except perhaps to exacerbate the genocide.
FDR and Truman, conspiring with Stalin, worked to ship a million refugees back to slavery and death in Soviet Russia and did nothing as Russian troops exacted revenge on the Germans through ethnic cleansing and mass rape. Far from saving the world from totalitarianism, World War II ended in a stalemate between an expanded Soviet Union and an imperialistic United States that held the world hostage for decades under the threat of nuclear annihilation. No war conceived by Rumsfeld or Cheney comes close in its mass destruction.
World War II, the greatest international central plan, also transfigured the whole of American society, politically and culturally. The economy came to be commanded by the center, more so than any time before or since. The military-industrial-complex, welfare state, educational establishment and scores of new federal programs have lingered since the 1940s. Just as important, the American mindset finally made its last transformation from an essentially Jeffersonian outlook to Rooseveltianthe embrace of a permanent state-corporatist economy, social democracy and activism abroad. The nationalization of America that began with the Constitution and was consummated by Lincoln became permanent and universally accepted thanks to World War II. Maybe this partly explains why the left see it is a Good War.
Loving the State
War is the health of the state, as Randolph Bourne intoned, and during war the state is seen as savior. After 9/11, faith in the federal government skyrocketed. Statism and warmongering go hand in hand.
Every one of the specific reasons the left has softened on war, and fails to stand up to its president, relates to one general overriding factor: The left loves and trusts the state. The state is the protector of the poor and the environment. It tempers the predation of big business, keeps racism and sexism at bay, and educates children better than their parents could. It keeps guns out of the hands of criminals, keeps unsafe chemicals, tainted water and impure drugs at a distance, and, yes, it protects us from foreign threats to our liberty and upholds human rights abroad. If the state can do all this, why not push the world toward harmony and peace through the application of military force?
So invincible is the leftist love of the state that anything wrong with the state, the most severe of inequities and all crimes against humanity, are to be blamed on anyone but the state itself. If Bush is making a mess in Iraq, it is a lack of serious governance endemic to Republicans. If Obama is allowing the bailouts of the rich at the expense of the poor, it is because he is "not doing enough" or is a pushover for corporate interests. Never does it occur to the left that the state itself is the problem. Its capture by Big Business is only blamed on the businessmen, not usually the politicians. Thus "campaign finance reform"that ridiculous idea that Congress is so corrupt it must pass another law as a remedyis a pet project of most progressives. Even when Obama wages war in violation of the spirit of his campaign, it must be because of nefarious oil interests, mean Republicans, anti-government sentiment. It is never for the simple reason that the state is and always has been a criminal institution, its favorite activity typically being the murder and enslavement of innocent people, and Obama, by being at the top of the government, is simply doing his job exactly the way its to be done.
Even the Soviet Unions problem wasnt statism itself, but its perversion at the hands of an elite betraying socialism. The Nazis? Their great crimes were not crimes of statethey were crimes of racism and chauvinism, using the state as a means to an end. The crimes of the American governmentfrom massacring the Indians and enforcing slavery to invading Iraq and jailing millions of peopleare always blamed on something else: American racism or religious conservatism, but usually the profit motive. Never should blame fall without qualification on the public sectorthe institutional accumulation of all of societys evils.
For the left, the state is all that stands between a people and total ruin. It is what brought us out of the Depression, stopped private greed from wiping us out or turning us into serfs many years ago, keeps children out of coal mines, and protects us from industry that seeks something supposedly more evil than political powerwealth. The state is seen as being corrupted by money, rather than the other way around. The states retrenchment and deregulation caused the financial crash. It could never be government itself. Private interests are greedy, the cause of all our problems. The state is what binds us, what defends us, what makes us human.
Loving the state means loving it despite its flaws. And so the wars are never confronted head on for what they arethe fulfillment of statism, the extension of statist principles to their logical conclusion. Obama is not seen for what he is: the willing heir to Bushs murderous policies, a man who sought the job he got and always promised to carry through with it, only tweaking it around the edges.
Does the left hate war? Many of them do not. Many of them do, but not sufficiently. There are other things they seem to hate more: Republicans, conservatives, the free market, the prospect of giving up their domestic priorities or living without the states protection. To turn against the state fundamentally is worse than to turn against a mother or father or maybe even a child. The state is the head of the leftists family, and so, when the partisan dynamics are right, the political points can be scored, and the liberal state will come away from it looking all the better for the cameras, the left sighs in confusion, shrugs its shoulders in resignation, or even cheers in ecstasy as its beloved institution destroys millions of human beings and enlists a whole generation in the worst of all barbarities.
Am I being too hard on the left? Id love for them to prove me wrong. End the wars.