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Oct 8, 2004 4:42 pm


Changes in the Intellectual Air



I find it interesting that no matter what information comes out with regard to the status of WMDs in Iraq, people on both sides of the divide of this war use that information to bolster their already established positions. I know of maybe one or two people in toto who have changed their positions on the Iraq war; one went from pro to con, the other went from con to pro. That's two people in God-knows-how-many commentators I've read on this war. No doubt there are much deeper concerns that motivate many in this dialogue. I have voiced my own concerns umpteen times. I don't think people's different positions necessarily reveal any inherent intellectual dishonesty; but it does speak to the tenacity of viewpoints on this subject.

And so, it is no surprise that when I picked up the paper yesterday and read that a CIA report agrees in essence with earlier reports from David Kay and the US Senate that there were no WMDs in Iraq, few commentators had changed their positions. The nuclear program was in disarray, post-1991, even if Hussein still had nuclear ambitions. All chemical weapons stockpiles were destroyed in 1991, and no chemical weapons production had been resumed in the years since. The regime may have had the wherewithal to restart a biological weapons program, but its existing stockpiles of such weapons were destroyed in 1991-92.

The Hussein regime was being contained. Sure, there were loopholes in the containment policy: we know all about the cash nexus of the UN"Oil for Food" program; it is quite possible that those who opposed US military action in Iraq would have lobbied for the removal of sanctions, thus freeing Hussein to develop weapons. But in the post-9/11 world, this was not likely to happen. In my view, containment was working, and whatever Hussein's intentions, an increased post-9/11 US military presence in the Persian Gulf, and in Afghanistan, provided an adequate countervailing force.

Yes, Hussein sponsored terrorists (so have US"allies" like the Saudis, but the US never invaded or occupied Saudi Arabia). In any event, how many times do we have to hear that there was no operational relationship between the Hussein regime and Al Qaeda?

The Bush administration is unpersuaded. Big surprise there. And the critics of the administration have only used the most recent report to bolster their case (as I have done).

So what of the people whose positions have shifted, over time? One recent discussion of such an intellectual evolution focuses on Christopher Hitchens, who went from leftist to neocon fan. But that shift long predated the Iraq war. It's interesting, of course, in itself, because the Hitchens switcheroo speaks volumes about the nature of neoconservatism.

Within a year after the 9/11 attacks, Johann Hari explains,"Hitchens was damning his former comrades as 'soft on Islamic fascism', [there's that irritating phrase again!] giving speeches at the Bush White House, and describing himself publicly as 'a recovering ex-Trotskyite.' What happened?"

Well, for one, this"recovering ex-Trotskyite" aims his disgust at the"theocratic fascists" of the Arab world who are among"the most reactionary elements on earth. They stand for liquidating everything the left has fought for: women's rights, democracy?" Even though he's fast and loose with that word"fascism," which he equates simply with"submission and servility," he recognizes that the worst elements in the Arab-Islamic world wish to recreate the Caliphate through a"Grand Muslim Super State," as Juan Cole puts it.

Hitchens now fully opposes the antiwar left and he is equally opposed to"the Barry Goldwater-Pat Buchanan isolationist right." For Hitchens,"neoconservatism is a distinctively new strain of thought, preached by ex-leftists, who believed in using US power to spread democracy." Neoconservatives"were saying - we can't carry on with the approach to the Middle East we have had for the past fifty years. We cannot go on with this proxy rule racket, where we back tyranny in the region for the sake of stability. So we have to take the risk of uncorking it and hoping the more progressive side wins." In other words, Hitchens"has replaced a belief in Marxist revolution with a belief in spreading the American revolution. Thomas Jefferson has displaced Karl Marx."

In this sense, of course, Hitchens is perhaps among the purest of neocons, because he encapsulates the deeply constructivist impulse that unites neoconservative and socialist. Many of the neocons were former leftists and social democrats who shifted rightward; as former leftists, they embraced central planning on behalf of Marxist ideals. As new rightists, they embrace the same kind of planning, applied to global phenomena, on behalf of"liberal" ideals. In the former instance, there are enough Misesian and Hayekian reasons to reject the means and the ends. In the latter instance, Iibertarians might accept the ends... but most of us still reject the means. I'm afraid that, in both instances, the issue of"means" is what concerns me, because serious questions about how to create social change are being swept under the rug. As I have argued over and over again, the neocons, as leftist progeny, are sweeping under the rug the pernicious influence of tribal, religious, and ethnic conflict in indigenous cultures. There was always a tension in left-wing thought between analysis and prescription. Many leftists have offered crucially important analyses of historically specific circumstances. But they prescribe the same old constructivist rationalist solutions: that of imposing constructed designs on such circumstances as if from a position of omniscience. They stand like Archimedes outside the circumstances they seek to alter. Economically, their impositions created calculational chaos. But in a new age of leftist-turned-neocon, there is no limit to the global chaos that such state-guided planning will engender, especially when it is imposed on alien cultures that have never shown any appreciation for the liberal ideals being prescribed.

Interestingly, there is little substantive difference between the means of this imposition and those means preached by traditional fascists. Of course, there is a distinction between those who would destroy individual rights and those who seek to institute the rule of law. But neither regime can be"imposed" without supporting cultural preconditions. Even the Nazis understood this; it's the kind of cultural sociology that informs such studies as Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. I have a lot more to say about the nature of fascism in the next post.

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