Apr 12, 2004: War Hysteria

The world’s eyes are fixed firmly on Iraq as resistance to the occupation grows among the very factions who were to form the basis of the new state being cultivated by the Coalition Provisional Authority. The resistance, once composed of Ba’athist diehards and “foreign fighters” (a curious-sounding phrase to be heard from the American occupiers), is now finding its strength in the aforementioned elements and, more ominously, among Sunni tribesmen and radical Shi’ites, who are averse neither to cooperation with each other nor to the employment of new and more gruesome tactics to evict foreign forces from their country.

There is most certainly an uprising underway, but it is not yet clear that it will become a full-scale revolt, however eager many opponents of the war wish to be proven right. Nevertheless, this has not prevented the namesake of LewRockwell.com from declaring the “superpower defeated” and rejoicing in the admittedly all too possible victory of fanatical and reactionary Iraqis (see “A Superpower Defeated“). As a self-described libertarian, he can only justify this envisioned, but as yet unrealized, event by romanticizing the Iraqi resistance and people as well as American history and culture before Bush.

But, the defeat of Coalition forces at the hands of radical Islamists would not be a glorious victory for freedom in either Iraq or the United States. Now that events in Iraq seem to be reaching a critical juncture, it is necessary for libertarians who have spent so much time and energy in opposing the Iraq War, to justify that opposition. Unfortunately, however, there was no larger strategy or purpose to the forceful opposition they mounted. Their own resistance, although ostensibly grounded in pacifistic and libertarian principles, was never convincingly linked to the collapse of “statism” or the establishment of a free and peaceful order.

As the end grows near and the anti-War libertarians’ most cherished dreams about Iraq grow tantalizingly close, the disconnect between their principles and actions is becoming more evident. However absurd the American administration’s claims were about spurring a democratic revolution in Iraq and the broader Middle East, the claims made by Mr Rockwell about a great blow for worldwide freedom being landed by Islamist radicals in Iraq are equally doubtful.

Indeed, the degree to which Mr Rockwell and his friends, notably Anti-War.com, have mirrored Mr Bush’s mistakes is remarkable. Each man has picked a bogeyman and a poorly thought-out agenda and then wrapped their particular cause in the banner of liberty. In focusing so intently on his opposition to the Bush administration and the Iraq War, Mr Rockwell has confused Bush’s defeat with a victory for the cause of liberty. Notice, for example, after the obligatory statement of regret at the carnage and unconvincing odes to American patriotism, Mr Rockwell “rejoice[s]” at the defeat of Coalition forces and paints the Iraqi resistance with the strokes used to write the Declaration of Independence.

We mourn for the thousands dead and the tens of thousands wounded, and grieve for their families. We can only rejoice as the administration concedes defeat and pulls out of this country, and rejoice even more if this serves to teach a lasting lesson. A defeat of Bush’s war in Iraq is a victory for freedom and for American patriotism. After all, the essential American idea is that society functions best when people govern themselves in liberty, and that “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

However imperialistic the Iraq War is, however clearly it is a war for democratic capitalism (the right-wing’s version of social democratism), it is simply inconceivable to describe the Islamist radicals and Ba’athist throwbacks as fighters with the “impassioned desire for self-government”. These men are neither democrats nor liberals, but a new set of tyrants who will eventually battle over whether to have another Saddam or to try out a new Khomeini. Their interest is merely to tyrannize their fellow countrymen, whatever justifiable rage they may feel towards the occupying powers, in the name of a despotic creed. Can there be but any doubt that if one must choose, as Mr Rockwell seems intent on doing, between an American-established democracy (however disjointed) and a national-socialist or Islamist regime, that the American one is preferable?

This is Mr Rockwell’s quagmire, which we will not be drawn into. We do not accept the choice between American tyranny and Iraqi tyranny. We are liberals, and we advocate the cessation of all violence and insist upon the peaceful destruction of all forms of tyranny. We have absolutely no interest in removing one tyranny only to make room for another. We are interested in opening the path to freedom, not in carrying out vendettas against the democratic capitalist cousins (i.e., neoconservatives) of Mr Rockwell’s “anarcho-capitalists”.

It is remarkable that the admiral, whilst at the helm of the flagship of internet libertarianism, could argue that “on balance, Iraq was better off under Saddam”. In what regard? Can it be argued that the American occupation has been more unjust or restrictive than the rule of the old dictator? More inept perhaps, and this ineptness has undoubtedly poured fuel on to the fire of Iraqi and Arab-Muslim resentment, but by Mr Rockwell’s argument, this is itself a fortunate occurrence, insofar as it has been the cause of the current Iraqi uprising.

If this uprising is not quite a battle for “self-government” as we understand this idea in the West, with all the liberal and democratic implications, it is true that it is a battle for self-determination in the sense that these Iraqis wish to have the right to tyrannize themselves or one another rather than to be governed by a foreign army, particularly a Western one. In this sense, we may indeed be witnessing a momentous step on the long road to democracy and freedom, not unlike the chain of events set off by the Napoleonic invasion of Europe.

But, if this is the case, it is not the vision either the neoconservatives or the libertarians have had. It may rather be a combination of the two, the conception of Middle Eastern democracy and the beginning of a long and bloody series of wars and revolts that may suck in the entire region as well as powers who have heretofore managed to judiciously avoid the conflict. In this sense, we may acknowledge that the all-pervasive drives for truth and liberty are imminent even in lies and oppression, but that does not open the door to the sophistry propounded by Mr Rockwell, that we are witnessing a war of liberation in the American tradition, particularly when that tradition is itself romanticized to Mr Rockwell’s imaginative heights.

“In its founding and history, America represents freedom and peaceful commercial engagement”, he says. This characteristic is, of course, an undeniable element of American history, but it is not precisely representative. Blacks, women, landless whites, draftees, and any number of other social groups and individuals might beg to differ with his interpretation. Indeed, on what basis could libertarianism exist were it not the case that the American tradition has not been firmly and irrevocably on the side of liberty as we desire to practice it?

The reason for this gross distortion of American society and history on the part of Mr Rockwell is to justify the energy and time he has mistakenly spent on opposing the Iraq War (instead of the causes of war and “statism” themselves). In a rather clumsy propagandistic fashion, he has portrayed American history as beyond reproach, except for this uncharacteristically black episode perpetrated by “a junta in control of the White House” engaged in a “maniacal mission”. “The actions of the Bush administration and its disastrous war are not the actions of our country as such. It was a few misguided fanatics who do not have an appreciation for the value of freedom”, he goes on, in a clever if somewhat unconvincing attempt to equate Mr Bush and his clique with Osama bin-Laden and his.

Mr Rockwell’s strategy is simple. He attempts to paint American history in the brightest of colors and to paint Mr Bush and his war as the darkest of aberrations, never mind that, in our system of government, Mr Bush is the properly derived head of state, that ‘his war’ was convincingly backed by Congress, and that American history has been marred by countless sins before this one. By depicting the Iraqi insurgents as freedom fighters and the Bush administration as unequivocal imperialists trampling on pristine American and Iraqi traditions and freedoms, he is able to pretend that a Coalition defeat is a victory for liberty. But, it is not so.

Genuine liberty is actively willed, and it is not chanced upon through a fortunate defeat, which is the logic of Mr Rockwell’s argument. The comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam are now de rigeur, and we will now venture to make our own, as well. The defeat of American forces at the hands of Vietnamese communists was not a victory for liberty either in Vietnam or the United States, and certainly not for the anti-statist vision of “anarcho-capitalism”. The state continued to expand its competence, and vigorously. Just as in Vietnam, defeat in Iraq may create distrust and domestic instability but there is no reason to believe that this will result in a weakening of the authority of the state.

No matter what the outcome of this conflict, there is nothing to indicate that the cause of freedom will be brought demonstrably closer. There is nothing to indicate that libertarians are at all prepared to offer realistic alternatives to the logic that brought us into the war in the first place. Therefore, we must ask these libertarians, what was the purpose of their war against the administration? How did it serve the cause of liberty? What is the plan after they defeat the war effort? Their attempt to gloss over these uncomfortable questions by romanticizing this war’s failure as a victory for liberty rather than what it is, a great and bloody tragedy, indicates that they do not know why they have gone to battle on this occasion and that libertarianism will likely suffer a great blow when the liberty they promised does not magically manifest itself.

If we must pick sides in this war, why should we not pick our own countrymen, our own kin? Why sew dissent at home and go so far as to glorify the opposing fanatics (which they are), if we must choose a side? If we must pick sides, why not that of the grieving Iraqi mother who said, “May God damn the resistance, may God damn the Americans”? This is precisely our point. As liberals, whose interest is and must always be peace and freedom, it is not our business to engage in hateful warfare, either in body or in spirit, in action or in word. It is our business to find and follow the path to peace. By fighting this war, even if only in word–even if only in sentiment–we are failing the cause that adorns the masthead of Mr Rockwell’s site, “property, freedom, and peace”. It is probably too late to simply end the war or to end the libertarian obsession with the war and its outcome. But, it is not too late to prepare for the end of the war and to begin to focus on the shape of post-war liberalism.

April 12, 2004

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