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Is it Still Possible to be a Lefty? (Part two)

[Read part one here.]  Who says we aren’t lefties anyway? I want to try to deal quickly with the accusation – so frequently heard and read – that no-one who supported the Iraq war can still be considered a left-winger … Read More

By / October 11, 2007

[Read part one here.] 

Who says we aren’t lefties anyway?

I want to try to deal quickly with the accusation – so frequently heard and read – that no-one who supported the Iraq war can still be considered a left-winger or a real liberal. Despite the frequency with which this jibe is heard, it doesn’t stand up to even the most elementary consideration – and here then is an elementary consideration.

Most liberals supported the US’s armed interventions in Balkans without considering themselves to have crossed over to the right. Perhaps that was helped by the fact that many conservatives were opposed to those interventions and that the President at the time was Democrat Bill Clinton. Yet, most liberals accepted that the armed force of the United States can be used for a good cause.

Next up was Afghanistan, where many liberals were willing to support the overthrow of the Taliban regime, a manhunt for terrorists, a US led occupation and the attempt to ‘enforce democracy’. This time the President was George W Bush, but that fact didn’t lead the liberals to announce themselves converted to right-wing Republicanism – they supported a just war, even when they found themselves on the same side as Bush and the neo-cons.

Yet when it comes to Iraq, where of course there was a much bigger split in opinion over whether it was a ‘just war’ or not, anyone who took the position that the armed removal of the Saddam dictatorship was desirable is now accused of having sold out to Bush and forfeited any right to consider themselves ‘of the left’. The actual core case of liberal and left supporters of the Iraq war – that the Saddam regime was essentially fascist, totalitarian and murderous and its overthrow would be an act of liberation – is rarely addressed. Very few in the anti-war camp are willing to even consider that there may have been a left-case or simply be a disagreement over whether or not Iraq could be considered a just war or a different view of the wisdom of the timing or circumstances of this particular war. For the bulk of the anti-war movement, we are now beyond the pale, sell-outs and neo-cons. We have ‘lined up behind Bush’ or become ‘cheerleaders of US imperialism’.

That so many of the people uttering these clichés were themselves with Bush over Afghanistan or supportive of ‘imperialist bombs’ falling on Belgrade does not seem to register. It seems we are guilty by association with an incompetent right-wing administration. Guilt by association is always a weak piece of rhetoric and its facile nature is shown by the fact that it only seems to work one way. The anti-war left do not consider themselves to be tainted by the fact that right-wing isolationists, nationalists and downright fascists were also opponents of the war. Nor does it comprise a sell-out that while Kurdish socialists welcomed talk of liberation, Saddam himself praised those who took to the streets to oppose his removal.

It is very tempting to look at this ‘argument’ and shrug one’s shoulders and say “Who cares what they call us?” It is tempting for liberal-hawks to disassociate themselves totally from the modern left and leave the ‘left-right’ labels for the last century. But that would be a mistake for two obvious but crucial reasons.

Firstly, despite the domination of the Iraq issue over political discourse in the past few years, being left-wing or liberal isn’t just about foreign policy. To put it bluntly – Michael Moore is full of shit when he talks about Iraq or terrorism but he is right about healthcare. Bush may have been right about Iraq but he is wrong about most other things.

Secondly, in the struggle against violent Islamism and for the expansion of democratic rights globally, the right aren’t doing a very good job and an alternative approach is sorely needed. The constituencies in the Middle East who offer the best chance for progressive change – human rights activists, women’s groups, student movements, liberal intellectuals, the labour movement – are all natural allies of the left and they have been betrayed by the anti-war movement and ignored by the pro-war right. In the next two parts of this series I want to address those two reasons and move the argument away from why we are still lefties to why it is still necessary to be a lefty.

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