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The Cruise Missile Left: Helping the Establishment Attack the Peace Movement

by Ed Herman (via Hep) Tuesday, Apr. 29, 2003 at 9:48 PM

Marc Cooper, Eric Alterman, Christopher Hitchens and Todd Gitlin, to name a few, paint the authentic Left with false assumptions, unsupported statements and incomplete reporting. Their progressive credentials are eagerly used by the Bush Admin to discredit the Peace Movement.

From Z Magazine, November 2002


Edward S. Herman

A 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, Sept. 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, Sept. 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 himself 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


One problem with the work of 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

upon 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 Sept. 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


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 rightwing 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 D.C.). 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 in going to war.

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


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


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. And 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 defense."

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 of

course 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, Sept. 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, and 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. But it serves the imperial state's

agenda extremely well.

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, some dying with a lag, 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, Sept. 8, 2002; The Nation, Dec. 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


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' 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 of 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, Sept. 15,

2002). He cites Chomsky's statement pointing out that "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 itself 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 itself 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. This is

the rational and decent left--bomb away because it "might" be a

blow for freedom.

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 that "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 out.

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