Can Liberals End the War?

Anti-war action must be grounded in anti-imperial convictions

For the contemporary American Democrat, the brazen U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has been an epoch-making event. Naturally, liberal politics has made the war its rallying point: Insofar as the catastrophic situation in the region correlates to the incapacities of the Bush coterie, a Democratic alternative is expected in the White House by January 2009, at which point liberals everywhere anticipate a decisive break from the follies of the past.

However, beneath the optimism exuding from these ‘dissidents’ there lurk very sinister premises that call their politics into question. Opposition to the Iraq War, when waged by the Democrats and their allies, has been scarred by its ‘imperiality’: Their activism has refused to recognize the occupation of Iraq as evidence of America’s hegemonic aspirations. In fact, liberal opposition typically enacts at least two imperial premises: first, that American lives and interests matter more than Iraqi ones, and second, that American foreign policy is generally benevolent. What opposition to the invasion of Iraq needs is a reappraisal of its relationship to Empire; unless it rejects explicitly the premises of that project, it will only help reproduce the tragedies that it purports to oppose.

First, the national interest. In its bumbling attempts to legitimize its misdeeds in Iraq, this administration rarely hesitates to claim that “if we weren’t fighting them over there, they’d be fighting us over here.” Setting the argument’s spuriousness aside, it should be self-evident that it cynically appeals to a corrupt ethos; it can only be justified if Americans agree that the fact of mass-slaughter in Iraq is morally less problematic than potential mass-slaughter in the U.S. The obvious corollary of that position is that Iraqi lives matter less than American lives. We can agree that the rhetoric might often prove effective, because it feeds off residual patriotism and a climate of pervasive fear-mongering. But clever tactical ploys do not sound ethical precepts make.

Nationalism of this sort, of course, is foundational to any imperial project, insofar as Empire presumes the moral correctness of its expansive reach. And in its quest for ‘consensus’ (or better polling figures, as today’s tired political climate would have it), it only requires that not too many Americans disagree that their government’s foreign policy be directed by a mandate to secure hegemony. In everyday rhetoric, including—tellingly—among today’s Democratic presidential hopefuls, this often translates into a pledge to protect national interests, come what may.

On our campus, official liberal opposition to the invasion of Iraq reproduces the pitfalls of this patriotism. I think back to the Harvard Democrats’ vigil marking the fourth anniversary of the invasion, whose Facebook invite featured prominently a red-white-and-blue-hued image of an American soldier. Again, even if we recognize that an American group trying to mobilize a (largely) American population will likely be most effective using American symbolism, constructing opposition to the invasion of Iraq on this sentiment will never challenge the entire enterprise fundamentally enough. To call for troop withdrawal on the basis of troop trauma leaves open the possibility of future interventions which might be less traumatic, when what really needs to be reasserted explicitly is the heinousness of Empire. Consider, for example, the comparatively muted response of liberals to the devastation of Afghanistan. Though there, in the words of the heroic Malalai Joya, American support for “fundamentalist warlords… [makes] a mockery of democracy,” fewer troop casualties and lower overall costs allow Democrats to turn a blind eye.

Second, a faith in the good intentions of the American nation spawns two types of arguments about Iraq. The first variant, largely confined to the political Right, connives to apportion blame for the ‘mess’ in Iraq to the Iraqis themselves. Aside from ignoring Coalition troops’ direct hand in Iraqi deaths (according to the Lancet study, 56 percent of all cases where a perpetrator was known, amounting to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis), not to mention their role in fomenting Iraq’s sectarian bloodshed, this claim whitewashes the gross illegality of their presence. In the words of the Nuremberg Tribunal, preemptive aggression of this sort constitutes the “supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Where’s the International Criminal Court when it matters?

A second variant of the belief in American benevolence deserves closer scrutiny. Here the incorrectness of the invasion of Iraq is admitted, but a select cabal of criminals is held responsible. Yet not only does this willfully ignore the bipartisan makings of the occupation itself (from Democrats’ sanctioning the initial invasion to their pithy, insipid “opposition” today), it demonstrates a deep-seated refusal to engage the historical role of the Democratic Party in fashioning imperial policy. In the specific context of Iraq, one only has to point to the murderous regime of sanctions in place from 1991-2003, which were conducted with the active consent of Clinton’s government (and condemned as “genocidal” by the former UN humanitarian coordinator in Baghdad). Or more generally, consider JFK’s misadventures in Vietnam and Cuba, or even reputed “peacenik” Jimmy Carter’s preemptive meddling in Afghanistan.

Agitation against the invasion of Iraq simply must be purged of its imperial premises. As long American liberals neglect to make their opposition to Empire public and prominent, they will only continue to impede efforts to build a peaceful, habitable world.

Adaner Usmani ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears regularly.