A New Generation of Liberal Imperialists Finds its Voice
In the early days after 9/11, the Left, such as it was, was split. One camp, staunch anti-imperialists, opposed U.S. military action from the instant the planes hit the towers, and continued to do so throughout the long, bloody wars that ensued. The other camp, the “sensible,” “realistic,” “nuanced” anti-imperialists, became the favored voice on TV news, rose to prominence in their professions, and reaped the rewards of their “common sense.”
For this second camp, perhaps they had become “Left” through college opposition to the Vietnam War, or through a disdain for the rising Evangelical movement that was in the driver's seat of the right wing. Christopher Hitchens is emblematic of this type: his “Left” bona fides came through a youthful flirtation with Trotskyism while attending Oxford. He protested the Vietnam War, but his opinions flipped during Kosovo, and from that point on he enthusiastically supported most Western intervention, or at least excused its excesses. He bounced between a startling array of nominal political allegiances throughout his life, but always present was the Liberal tendency to seek moral justification for imperialism.
Writing at the time, Phillip Knightely laid out the steps being taken by the media to prepare the nation for war. Preceding from a crisis (9/11) to demonizing leaders (Osama and Saddam and the entire Deck of Cards) to demonizing the populations (“Muslim extremists”, “jihadists,” and even “Islamo-fascists”), to the presentation of alleged atrocities (the baby-killing story, and many others). As the war’s “Left” boosters walked through these steps, they often also used their opposition to past wars as a sign of their seriousness. A common refrain was “this time’s different”; while many of these pro-war “Left” “thinkers” had opposed the wars in Vietnam and elsewhere, they were sophisticated enough to know that not all war was bad, and that not all American intervention was bad; this time, the US would get it right.
Adam Shatz wrote a survey of some of the conflicts at the time which contrasts the “reflexive anti-Americanism” of Chomsky with the rabid militarism of Hitchens, finding both distasteful, but accepting that both represent some genuinely “Left” position. In true liberal fashion, he attempts to chart a middle path. He claims that Chomsky’s naive views prevent him from seeing that other countries (Afghanistan?) can also be imperialist, and complains that they make it “virtually impossible to contemplate the possibility of just American military interventions.”
Dissent, a Social Democratic magazine of some standing, published a scathing critique of “indecent” Left opposition to the war in Afghanistan. Writing in the Spring of 2002, Michael Walzer mocks the Left (of which he is nominally a part) for failing to foresee that the war would be both easily won and welcomed by Afghans. Other Leftists, clinging to the “discredited” Marxist theory of imperialism, failed to envision that America could wage a just war, a liberatory war, and that American military might could improve the lives of the downtrodden. He, too, wanted to address the vulgar anti-Americanism that had blinded his colleagues: their First World Guilt led them to an overly simplistic view of foreign affairs, and denied the agency that the people of Afghanistan and elsewhere had.
The throughline of all this critique is the idea that the commitment by socialists to a “naive” or “unsophisticated” Materialist position leaves them out of touch with the more nuanced conditions of the real world, where religion, nationalism, or other forces can drive conflict, and the mere fact of America’s overwhelming material exploitation of the globe needn’t be the primary factor to consider.
It goes without saying (to anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the socialist anti-imperial canon) that Materialism isn’t limited to merely considering trade balance sheets as the cause of wars, but rather produces a much richer and more predictive analysis by correctly identifying material factors as the origin of powerful cultural and ideological currents. Materialism can answer the question “Why do they hate us?”; Liberalism can only kill them for it.
After 20 years in Afghanistan, America pulled out. By this late stage of America’s adventure in the Middle East, mainstream sentiment had turned decisively against the war: there are very few who still maintain that it was justified in any way, and many who supported it at the time have now retroactively claimed the “Anti-war” mantle. When Biden finally pulled off the band-aid and withdrew the troops, the Taliban quickly reclaimed the country, and the only possible improvement that anyone could claim we’d made was erased. For a week or so, conservative pundits tried to drum up outrage about this, to pin the finale of the war on its 4th generation inheritor. Op-eds claiming that this shameful abandonment of the Afghan people would tarnish his legacy forever were circulated, discussed, and quickly forgotten.
America was burnt out on the Middle East; no one cared that we lost. For a brief moment, it seemed that perhaps living in the shadow of America's longest war had turned a generation anti-imperialist (or at least anti-war). Then, we started hearing about Russia and Ukraine.
America’s preparation for this new conflict has followed Knightley’s formula exactly; a crisis (the border crossing), the demonization of the leader (“Mr. Putin”), the demonization of the people (“barbarians, “orcs”) and the alleging of atrocities (too numerous to recite). As Knightly points out, observing this process in action doesn’t mean that those leaders aren’t bad or that those atrocities haven’t happened, only that when American media starts dwelling on them, the country is starting down the road to war.
Again, the pro-war “Left” is starting its attacks on anti-imperialism: calls for condemnation of Russian aggression and statements of solidarity with Ukraine, mockery of the supposedly one-dimensional, reflexively anti-American analysis of Marxists, claims that “this time it’s different.” Most of those clamoring for more military supplies, more NATO involvement, perhaps actual American troops on the ground, would agree that Afghanistan and Iraq were Imperialist American adventurism. This time though, it’s a richer country! This time, someone else invaded first! This time, America can be an agent of anti-Imperialism! Don’t Tankies realize that Russia is an imperialist country too? In highlighting American meddling in Ukrainian politics, aren’t they just infantilizing Ukrainian people?
Advocates for war are reaching back across nearly a century of disastrous murder at home and overseas to find the last marginally defensible American military action; Crimea was the Anschluss and this is Czechoslovakia, are we going to be Neville Chamberlain? Why look that far back to find analogues for the present war? Look back 20 years, to the last time America was about to free an embattled people.
It may be that Russian forces are committing atrocities, that Ukraine will be left crippled, that war will rage for years. People have died and more will die, predominantly those who have nothing to gain from victory and everything to lose from prolonged war. Despite that, will turning an already embattled country into the stage for a war between nuclear powers mean less death and destruction? America cannot fight a liberatory war; this isn’t a dogmatic assumption, but the logical conclusion of a scientific, Materialist analysis of the forces in play. Decades of evidence bear it out; nothing yet has repudiated it.
In the face of death, injustice, and tragedy, it’s natural to feel the urge to do something, anything. For Americans, that desire to intervene can only end up in one place; support, tacit or otherwise, for our war machine to roll over another batch of victims. Standing on the shoulders of the world-bestriding colossus, it’s certainly more entertaining to cheer for the violence it inflicts than to mourn and powerlessly oppose it. Though it’s not much, I only ask for one thing: when you do, please call yourself an Imperialist.