Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Polemicists Parry: The Cockburn- Berube Rumble

Alexander Cockburn has started a fracas with blogger and liberal academic, Michael Berube with his article about the Laptop Bombadiers which lambasts "progressives" who supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In one particularly lyrical paragraph he says:

But today, amid Iraq's dreadful death throes, where are the parlor warriors? Have those Iraqi exiles reconsidered their illusions, that all it would take was a brisk invasion and a new constitution, to put Iraq to rights? Have any of them, from Makiya through Hitchens to Berman and Berube had dark nights, asking themselves just how much responsibility they have for the heaps of dead in Iraq, for a plundered nation, for the American soldiers who died or were crippled in Iraq at their urging ? Sometimes I dream of them, -- Friedman, Hitchens, Berman -- like characters in a Beckett play, buried up to their necks in a rubbish dump on the edge of Baghdad, reciting their columns to each other as the local women turn over the corpses to see if one of them is her husband or her son.

Berube has responded to Cockburn at the blog "Crooked Timber." In his response, he calls Cockburn intellectually dishonest, primarily offering evidence of this dishonesty by quoting articles by Ed Herman, which is OK for him, because according to Berube, everyone in the "Z/Counterpunch crowd" is interchangeable. (Herman responds to Berube here.)
After reading both articles, and the original article by Berube, which, before the war, ignited the ire of anti-war activists, I'd say that Cockburn is more honest than Berube.
Both are polemicists and employ a similar style of argument; Berube attacks everyone associated with the anti-imperialist left as being oddly obsessed with the notion of "sovereignty"- which is a neat way of avoiding the words empire and imperialism. Cockburn writes that everyone who supported the Clintonian sanctions regime, the bombing of Kosovo, and the attack on Afghanistan is also, regardless of their stated opposition to it, essentially responsible for the current debacle in Iraq.
While I do think it's weird to refer to "anti-imperialists" as the "sovereignty left," I don't think that's intellectually dishonest of Cockburn to make the argument that support for other US military interventions paved the way for the current one, or that public condemnations of the anti-war movement such as the one that Berube wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education, effectively amount to support for US imperialism - and therefore for the current war.
I also think that it's an important argument to make as we talk about solutions to the current crisis. As Gilbert Achcar pointed out redeployment is not withdrawal, and as CODEPINK is currently arguing, funding the war is not an anti-war strategy. Most democratic policy proposals, as they did in the case of the war in Vietnam, have opposed the Bush administration's bad strategy in Iraq, not the immorality, criminality, etc. of the war in the first place.
So, why be a non-interventionist and why does it matter for the current situation? I opposed the 1990s sanctions regime and I opposed the bombing in Kosovo, not, as Berube suggests in his response to Cockburn et al, because I loved either Saddam or Milosevic, but because I thought "no good can ever come from US-led military intervention." In my study of history, no matter what the US may say about its reasons for intervention, it has never really been humanitarian (nor has any major empire) and it wasn't in those wars. Berube suggests that a humanitarian intervention is possible, and says that he wouldn't sign major anti-war statements in 2002 and 2003 because they opposed interventions generally. I also read enough about the specificso each situation to believe that neither was any good. The sanctions regime was devastating to the Iraqi people and actually strengthened Saddam Hussein's power, while the Kosovo campaign has not, even according to one of my enthusiastic Albanian students, done much to "liberate" the Kosovar Albanians.
From the point of the view of the anti-imperialist left, those who, like Gitlin, Berube, and others on the "right wing" of the opposition to war in Iraq in 2003, hurt the anti-war movement because their public critiques of the left were more both more audible and more meaningful than their arguments against the war itself; they gained the public ear by echoing what was said in the corporate media. While they may have argued that they opposed the war in the "right" way, what was heard publicly was not "I oppose the war," but "I am a well recognized liberal and I oppose the anti-war movement because it is composed of a bunch of far-left wingnuts."
Criticizing the left publicly in the same terms that one can find in the "mainstream" news organizations, the "Dissent" crowd, has helped marginalize critics of US imperialism by calling them anti-Semites, lovers of Milosevic, supporters of Islamic fundamentalism, Stalinists, etc. etc. THEY argue that members of ANSWER discredit the anti-war movement with their bad politics. However, I would argue that the public condemnations of ANSWER (of whom I'm no fan) and Not in My Name (a slightly better group) by this crowd have done much more to discredit and dissmiss the left in the public's eye than anything you will see at an ANSWER demonstration, particularly if you don't listen to the speeches, as most people don't. In addition to that, despite their bad politics, ANSWER has done more to build the anti-war movement than have Gitlin, Berube, et al.
Those who have insisted that the anti-war movement should NOT talk about the Clinton era as part of the history of the current crisis, should NOT talk about US imperialism, and should NOT talk about Israel, would narrow the terms of debate and limit the range of critique because they see making the opposition to the war about opposing ongoing US policies in the world, not just the current war, as narrowing the number of people who can join the anti-war movement. They worry that being too left will marginalize the movement and keep it tiny and ineffective. Pragmatism, they say, demands building bridges on the narrow issue of...well, not exactly pulling the troops out NOW.
Those who oppose the war as part of a larger imperialist project would argue that just opposing the war as the Bush debacle will not stop the larger problems, and might, if it is done in such a way to reduce opposition in the US while continuing the exploitation of the region, actually make things worse. This demand that anti-imperialists shut up in order to stop imperialism doesn't make sense to anyone who knows anything about US foreign policy in the long term, nor does it make sense as a strategy to anyone who's ever been "radicalized" in the process of political organization. It would mean that instead of offering people who are new to an anti-war movement arguments about the deeper roots of the conflict, that people in the anti-war movement just...
wait a minute, I think I know the answer:
agree that the answer to our problems is ANYBODY BUT BUSH.
I suppose that if you really, really believe that Bush is the *only* reason that the US is in the current mess that it is with the rest of the world, or that the real problem with the war in Iraq was that it was "unilateral" (as Berube's earlier argument suggests) anything else is just beside the point and a bunch of sectarian nonsense.

In some cases, "sectarian" arguing of this type is important for clarifying the issues and can't be avoided. Perhaps you disagree? Let me know, oh commenters....

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Right on! Rebecca. This is a good blog post. I can't improve on what you say here. Perhaps the only obsevation I would make is about the degree of mistrust within the antiwar movement as compared to other social movements. Partly this can be blamed upon guys like this Berube character but I think it's mostly issues of race and class. When gentrifiers and the people they are pricing out are in the same coalition for example a lot of things are going to be swept under the rug only to come back and haunt us like a badly mixed metaphor.
mcapri

Anonymous said...

I don't understand, is Cockburn calling Berube a "parlor warrior"? He surely can't be calling him an "Iraqi exile" was there something cut from that quote?

Anonymous said...

http://www.boston.com/news/packages/iraq/globe_stories/091502_bush.htm

That's the Berube that bothered me

s.e.

Anonymous said...

I'll try again

s.e.

reb said...

Hi anonymous, the snippet at the beginning is an excerpt from a longer article which critiques everyone (including Iraqi exiles) that pontificated about the need for US intervention before the war and before the tide of public opinion turned against it in the US. it's not a piece just about Berube, but about a host of people.

reb said...

It's a good thing that Berube is a professor of literature, and not history, because his knowledge of the history of US intervention, as demonstrated in his critique of Chomsky linked above by s.e, is less than impressive.

Anonymous said...

Regardless of Berube's statements about Kosovo and Afghanistan (and I agree the newspaper piece that s.e. linked to is particularly disappointing), and his weird "sovreignty left" construction, and silly generalizations about the "Z/Counterpunch" crowd... Leaving all that aside, it seems to me what Berube is upset about is that Cockburn is saying he supported the IRAQ war. Berube has produced multiple citations where he OPPOSED the Iraq war. So where is the quote where Berube supports the Iraq war?

On the other hand, I think one of the commentators in the thread, abb1, said it best:

"Every US citizen should be [asking themselves just how much responsibility they have for the heaps of dead in Iraq], including Cockburn and Chomsky, and I am sure they do"

I think if Cockburn is arguing that Berube, by his previous support of "liberal interventionism" in Kosovo and Afghanistan, made it somehow easier later on for "liberals" to claim the Iraq intervention was justified, perhaps he's right - but I don't think it's all that obvious that's what he's trying to say, to me at least it sounds like he is specifically saying that Berube supported the Iraq War.

Anonymous said...

Nope, Berube is either

a)a "liberal"
b) a McCarthyite
c) an irrelevant counter-culturalist bourgeois academic
d) a fascist symp.
e) a combination of all the above

Ajit said...

Hi, Great post, This is the first time I came to this blog.

Berube in his Crooked Timber piece reproduces a quote where he worries about NATO and UN heading for the dustbin.
What kind of a Leftist would worry about the death of NATO? Berube is such a moronic character.

reb said...

ha ha on using my list of epithets hurled by Marxists at other Marxists with whom they disagree. In this case, though I think Berube actually refers to himself a liberal proudly. Doesn't he?

Anonymous said...

Ah, who cares about this political stuff... Let the speculation begin: A battle to the death? The end of Hogwarts? The end of the world?

Anonymous said...

meanwhile in iraq, blogs for bush

Michael Bérubé said...

I think Berube actually refers to himself a liberal proudly. Doesn't he?

It's not hard to find out, with the help of the Internets. But not even the Internets will turn up a sentence in which I support the invasion of Iraq.

fardels bear said...

At the end of the day it remains true that Cockburn claims MB supported the Iraq invasion despite the well-documented fact that MB did not support the invasion.

You agree with Cockburn and claim that MB's condemnation is actually support for the invasion. Why try to turn reality on its head like this? Rather than argue that MB's condemnation of the invasion was disingenuous or inconsistent? Then the argument can turn on whether or not he is actually being inconsistent or not, which would be a much more productive argument? Why insist that black is actually white?

Anonymous said...

"But not even the Internets will turn up a sentence in which I support the invasion of Iraq."

Yeah, but nobody said you did. You opposed the war but your campaigns to discredit the anti-war movement and make US militarism palatable to liberals helped to make the war possible. You were Bush's useful idiot.

Anonymous said...

"Bush's useful idiot" was Cockburn in his decision to campaign against Democrats in 2000 instead of lifting a finger to oppose the Repuglican takeover. No wonder Cockburn can't sleep at night

Anonymous said...

Yes Michael, keep drinking the Kool-Aid: if the Dems had been in charge of this war, everything would be just hunky-dory. And that "Tu Cockburn" was pathetic, even for you. All those sleepless nights must be starting to take their toll.

Anonymous said...

Thomas Mann via Jesus' General:

We were long since a great power, we were quite used to it, and it did not make us as happy as we had expected. The feeling that it had not made us more attractive, that our relation to the world had rather worsened than improved, lay, unconfessed, deep in our hearts. ... War then, and if needs must, war against everybody, to convince everybody and to win. We were bursting with the consciousness that this was [our] century, that history was holding her hand out over us, that after Spain, France, England, it was our turn to put our stamp on the world and be its leader; that [this] century was ours.