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Who is the berserker? – yet further Nick Cohen vs “The Left” January 21, 2007

Posted by joemomma in Books, Iraq, The Left.

M’learned colleague smiffy has already waded into the extracts of Nick Cohen’s new book featured in today’s Observer, with specific reference to Cohen’s bizarre claim that Sinn Féin were “in charge of” the Irish anti-war protests in February 2003. That claim certainly jumped off the page at me also, but the extract which puzzled me most was at the end of the article, where Cohen presents two choices that liberals faced after the Iraq war began.

The first was to oppose the war, remain hypercritical of aspects of the Bush administration’s policy, but support Iraqis as they struggled to establish a democracy.

Sounds good to me. In fact, it sounds exactly like the policy pursued by any anti-war activist who retains any degree of credibility and even, to an extent, by the likes of George Galloway. There are those who go out of their way to align themselves with reactionary or theocratic forces, but I dare say that most people who opposed the war would like to see democracy flourish in Iraq. The fact that this hasn’t happened yet is hardly the fault of those opposed to the war. Similarly, based on the experience to date, you can’t really blame the anti-war movement if they continue to think that more troops won’t necessarily secure this objective.

However, the sentence quoted above is not really an accurate summary of the choice presented by Cohen. It seems that to earn absolution from Cohen, the left would have to perform a mea culpa by admitting that the war was actually kind of okay after all:

From the point of view of the liberals, the only grounds they would have had to concede if they had stuck by their principles in Iraq would have been an acknowledgement that the war had a degree of legitimacy. … All they would have had to accept was that the attempt to build a better Iraq was worthwhile and one to which they could and should make a positive commitment.

In other words, it’s not possible to support a peaceful and democratic future for Iraq unless you accept that you were wrong to oppose the war in the first place. Given that most opponents of the war believe that the war itself and the manner of its conduct are important contributory factors in the mess that is Iraq today, its hard to see why they would, or indeed should, accept that supporting it is prerequisite to supporting the resolution of said mess.

In any case why should it matter what liberals think, in retrospect, of their decision to oppose the war? Is it really so important for Cohen to have been right in 2003 that he can’t reconcile himself with anyone who still cleaves to the opposite view? Is it impossible for interventionists like Cohen to make common cause with other leftists who refuse to agree with him on this semi-historical point? Is there no path forward which does not start from a position of support for the decision to go to war, if not for the manner of the war’s prosecution?

Even if so, it seems Cohen is convinced that the left has not taken and will not take such a path. Instead they have decided on his second option, to “go berserk”:

The second choice for the liberals was to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. To look at the Iraqi civilians and the British and American troops who were dying in a war whose central premise had proved to be false, and to go berserk; to allow justifiable anger to propel them into ‘binges of posturing and ultra-radicalism’ as the Sixties liberals had done when they went off the rails. As one critic characterised the position, they would have to pretend that ‘the United States was the problem and Iraq was its problem’. They would have to maintain that the war was not an attempt to break the power of tyranny in a benighted region, but the bloody result of a ‘financially driven mania to control Middle Eastern oil, and the faith-driven crusade to batter the crescent with the cross’.

Again, the question of a way forward is less important than what the left think of the motives of the US in going to war. Cohen could legitimately attack the left for failing to put forward a cohesive analysis of or strategy for the future of Iraq, but again it seems he’s less interested in the future than the past. His disagreements with the left are not on the question of what should be done next, but on the question of whether what has already been done was done for the right reasons. This is not an entirely academic question, but Cohen seems to be allowing it to trump all other considerations in his relationship with the left.

This extract also highlights the other problem with Cohen’s characterisation of the anti-war left, in that he makes no attempt to differentiate between the various tendencies which are therein represented. He ignores the fact that the anti-war movement is a broad church, encompassing a lot of mainstream elements as well as the far left. Cohen aims his attacks at the “liberal left” or just “liberals”, but more often than not those he quotes are not really liberals at all. He accepts at face value the claims of the likes of the SWP to speak for the entire anti-war movement. It’s hard to see why we should take the pronouncements of the micro-left as representative of a movement which also incorporates elected members of the US senate.

In short, I think Cohen is fighting the wrong battle. As a supporter of the war, there are plenty of fronts on which he could engage his erstwhile comrades, for example the question of how the left propose to address sectarian conflict in Iraq, the support expressed by some left figures for reactionary forces in Iraq, or the odd coalition between theocracy and socialism found in the anti-war movement in the UK. However, by fixating on winning the argument from 2003, he just makes it sounds like a personal crusade to be proved right.

Having said all that, another extract from the book demonstrates why it would be perfectly understandable for Cohen to allow his analysis to be coloured by a sense of personal betrayal. It’s not available on the Observer’s web site, but in a “sidebar” extract in the printed paper Cohen describes the extent of anti-semitic attacks he received by email after publishing one of his first pieces critical of the anti-war movement. I can perfectly understand how the experience of sustaining such hate-filled and hypocritical attacks from what should be your own side could provoke a breach which is not easy to subsequently heal. Of course, there is again the fact that many of those sending these emails were no doubt not terribly liberal to begin with, but I can readily believe that some of the attacks of this nature came from people who should know better.


1. WorldbyStorm - January 22, 2007

That has to be it, your identification of Cohen’s over emphasis on the SWP and underemphasis on the broader anti-war movement. It’s a mistake I made at the time, and one which clouded my view I suspect more than I realised. But, what’s really curious is that the Euston Manifesto attempts to bring together both pro-and anti-war progressives and leftists, yet it’s impossible to see any influence on his thinking from the latter camp.


2. Eagle - January 26, 2007

I haven’t read the book or even the extract in question, but it struck me at the time that the vast majority of Irish people who were opposed to the war are near enough to pacifists. “War never solved or changed anything” was probably the most common response I got from those who opposed the war.

I took it that most people didn’t “not care about the Iraqi people”, but they doubted that the war would be of any real benefit to them (looks correct at this point in time). However, there was a certain amount of anti-Americanism mixed in here – “They’re only after the oil” – that really annoyed me.


3. Eagle - January 26, 2007

Oh, and I should add, that there was a not insignificant anti-war movement with regards to the attack on the Taliban. And, these were not just the views of the usual loons. RTE’s nightly news broadcasts were full of subtle anti-war messages even before the war had begun and there were many anti-war columns in the Irish Times, etc.


4. WorldbyStorm - January 26, 2007

Yes, in some respects a mild pacifism was the order of the day. As you say, not unreasonably so in retrospect. Outright anti-Americanism was perhaps restricted to small enough groups. Actually I’ve often wondered about the dynamic in SF who are extremely hard headed about just how important US leverage is, and whether that stifled to some degree a greater anti-US feeling.

On another tack, I may be wrong here, but hasn’t this country been traditionally fairly well-disposed to the US in general?

Re Afghanistan, I have to say I’m actually surprised at how antagonistic people are to that. It always struck me as eminently justifiable in terms of intervention.


5. We'd prefer if you didn't leave by the door on the Right: Or a little bit more on Nick Cohen and that war... « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - March 19, 2007

[…] and ‘What’s Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way’ which has already been dealt with here by […]


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