October 1, 1999


The middle-aged conversion of former New Left radicals from peaceniks to “human rights” interventionists is truly an appalling sight. What is particularly sickening is not their complete betrayal, and reversal, of the once-sacred principle of “anti-imperialism” – for this is nothing new on the Left. The history of American leftism is replete with figures like Max Shachtman, one of the founders of American Trotskyism. Shachtman split with Trotsky in 1940, and went on to found his own movement, which was small in numbers but influential among intellectuals. (Irving Kristol, the neoconservative guru, once belonged to Shachtman’s grouplet, as did a number of his neocon co-thinkers.) A legendary debater who skewered his opponents with his needle-sharp wit, Shachtman once turned to an opponent and declared with a flourish: “I will support American imperialism when I grow hairs on the palm of my hand!” Thirty years later, as the leader of the tiny-but-influential Independent Socialist League, he was urging his followers in the AFL-CIO to support the Vietnam war. The antics of our latter-day Shachtmans, however, put even old Max to shame.


As to whether or not his palms ever got a little fuzzy, no record exists. But the record of the Left’s betrayal of its self-conception as generally opposed to U.S. military intervention is long and well known. It was therefore no surprise when a whole bevy of ex-peaceniks jumped on the CNN-driven bandwagon and cheered Clinton’s “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo. It was a war, after all, initiated by a President who, as a college student, had protested the Vietnam war and artfully avoided the draft. Once he made it to the Oval Office, however, this same man set a new record for intervening overseas: Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq, Sudan, Kosovo, East Timor, the list goes on and on. And there is no end in sight, with Colombia now high on the Administration’s agenda, and indications of a new U.S. plan to attack Iraq. How do we explain this strange phenomenon, the evolution of yesterday’s “doves” for peace into the War Doves of the new millennium?


While the case of President Clinton would no doubt be an interesting topic for a column, we will leave that one to the presidential scholars who have the leisure and the grants to pursue and document such a weighty subject. At any rate, the case of Clinton is less interesting than those of the more intellectual and self-reflective ex-radicals: while the President’s chameleon-like stance was dictated by sheer pragmatism, the leftist ideologues of yesterday seek to justify their stance in moral and political terms, all the while protesting that they haven’t betrayed anything. Having once chanted “long live the victory of people’s war!” at leftist demonstrations, these people see nothing inconsistent in their joining the chorus of “long live the victory of NATO’s war!” And you know what? They are right – although not for any reason they would recognize or acknowledge.


The War Doves have not been shy about proclaiming their newfound adherence to the slogan “give war a chance.” But the whiniest and certainly the most obnoxious recantation apologia has flowed naturally from the pen of Todd Gitlin, whose career as a chronicler of the New Left – and its chief apologist – makes his case emblematic of a larger betrayal.


Gitlin’s piece, “The End of the Absolute No” – which naturally appeared in Mother Jones magazine, that left-Yuppie organ of crunchy granola political correctness – is a model of touchy-feely “I feel your pain” left-Clintonian rationalization. Combined with mawkish and irrelevant personal anecdotes and a mushy, sloganeering self-righteousness, Gitlin retains the style if not the letter of his New Left politics. He describes traveling around the country last spring, and having the same conversation with “comrades with whom I shared obsessions and convictions for the better part of decade, and no conviction more passionate than our common hatred for the Vietnam War. In subsequent years we had kept opposing American military involvement hither and yon, whether in Nicaragua, Chile, Guatemala, Grenada, El Salvador, or Panama. Most of us had deplored the Persian Gulf War, too. Now, in 1999, we would gingerly feel each other out: So, what do you think about this war?”


Now, notice that this proud record of noninterventionism mostly involved supporting leftist guerrilla movements in struggle against the capitalist U.S. Gitlin and his “comrades” did not oppose the Viet Cong’s war against the Vietnamese people, or the depredations against democracy committed by the Sandinista dictatorship. They were unfazed by the Stalinist leadership of the Chilean Popular Front, endorsed the tyrannical regime of Grenadian strongman Maurice Bishop, and cheered on the El Salvadoran guerrillas, who were conducting a ruthless war not only against the government but also against each other. But never mind all that: young Gitlin didn’t start to get a conscience until way past his fortieth birthday, when it become not only convenient but distinctly fashionable.


In the case of the Persian Gulf War, they could still point to the Iraqis’ Third World credentials as a reason to oppose the devastation wrought by the West. But there was something different about the Kosovo war, and comrade Gitlin and his old New Left friends sensed it at once: this was a popular war, at least with the media, and it was being waged, after all, by one of their own. Gitlin’s description of he and his fellow War Doves “coming out” to each other reads like a scene from some tiresome “coming of age” novel about a bunch of graying hippies-turned-yuppies sitting around comparing their middle-aged spread:


“With relief, pleasure, some awkwardness, even surprise we discovered that we still agreed. Some felt unequivocal, others agonized and bewildered, but most of us supported the NATO war over Kosovo. We supported it in fear and trembling--because what NATO was doing was, after all, war. But still we supported the war, if not its every tactic. We were certain it started not too soon but much too late, and then was botched. A few of my old friends even opposed this particular war, the air war, because they wanted a ground war instead.”


Oh yes, all that “fear and trembling” – the melodramatic and relentlessly self-referential spirit of the New Left is alive and well in Gitlin, a former president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the leading organization of the sixties student movement. How does this compare to the fear and trembling felt by the Yugoslavians as NATO’s warplanes rained death from the skies? How dare Gitlin speak of his own alleged “agony,” even as he endorses a murderous and cowardly assault on a people from 30,000 feet. And notice how Gitlin squirms around trying to avoid responsibility for NATO’s “tactics” – as if one could separate the abstract idea of a war from the waging of it. And what about those ex-peacenik friends of his who couldn’t wait for the ground war to start – what’s up with that? Here we see the ugly consequences of Gitlin and his draft-dodging Commie friends finally getting in touch with their “inner warrior” after all these years – a decidedly dangerous development.


Gitlin traces the evolution of his own thinking back to the (first) Gulf War, in which one of his friends “after a long back-and-forth, decided that we were six inches apart, I coming out against the war and he in favor.” But what can this possibly mean? In any ordinary sense, the issue of war and peace pits opponents and supporters of armed conflict on different sides of the barricades. But not for Gitlin, who, it turns out, is not so much against war as for “human rights,” which is the only rationale he gives for supporting the war on Serbia. Oh, and, by the way, forget about opposing the Persian Gulf War (or any other future U.S. attacks in the region): Gitlin writes that “if I had known now what I know then” he would not have been against the carpet-bombing of Iraq, either. After all, according to Gitlin, it turns out that Iraq was just weeks away from launching “a surprise attack” with anthrax-tipped missiles. An attack on whom? Gitlin does not say. But one presumes he does not mean Brooklyn.


In cutting through the thickets of autobiographical conceits and elaborate self-justifications, we find that Gitlin’s case for intervention is pathetically weak. He argues by implication, rather than by making a logical argument, calling principled opponents of intervention “Rejectionists” and striking a pose of middle-aged faux-wisdom, with the sage and somewhat condescending advice that There Are No Easy Answers. “After the fall of Communism,” he writes, “the left stumbled around trying to find traction. Still, for all the muddle, anti-interventionism remained in place, a kind of Cheshire politics--a unifying No in the absence of a compelling Yes.” Huh? What is so “Cheshire” about opposing the idea of the U.S. as the instrument of “human rights” worldwide – or, indeed, of opposing any global authority that presumes to dictate to the peoples of the world how to fix their borders or decide their internal political arrangements? In the Cheshire politics of our New Left globalists, the right to national self-determination, invoked so often during the Vietnam war and the regional conflicts of the Cold War era, has disappeared completely, to be replaced by a woozy internationalism that has the capacity to turn deadly.


Disillusioned with the death of socialism as a moral and political ideal, Gitlin and his pinko brethren looked around in vain for a “compelling Yes,” something they could be for. After all, they didn’t want to be negative, and just be against everything – somebody might think they were actually challenging the status quo, or, worse yet, accuse them of being "extremists." But what could they be for? Not for capitalism, of course, or the growing worldwide realization that the centralized state is a stultifyingly oppressive force – how could Gitlin give up his radical egalitarianism and devotion to class warfare and still consider himself a man of the Left? No, it was much easier to cut corners on the question of war, and take the path trod by so many others before him. Gitlin may not be growing hair on his palms, but certainly his weak and even half-hearted attempts to justify a war that even many of its initial supporters are beginning to regret seem oddly unconvincing, even a little embarrassing, as if he does not even care what his readers think of the conspicuous lack of arguments. Boiled down to its essence, his case amounts to this:

”Those who condemned the NATO war categorically never posed a serious answer to the key questions: What else was to be done for the human rights of a systematically persecuted population?”


Now, hold on a minute: Why don’t we apply this standard retroactively to the people of Vietnam? The ethnic cleansing of the Montagnards and other Southeast Asian minorities, as well as the grisly fate of hundreds of thousands of pro-government South Vietnamese, is well known. If Gitlin is willing to reconsider his opposition to the Persian Gulf War on the basis of a few alleged missiles aimed at Israel, then what about the several million Cambodians exterminated by the Khmer Rouge? If the Kosovars needed to be protected from Slobodan Milosevic, then why wasn't it ok to protect the Montagnards (and the Vietnamese) from Ho Chi Minh? Why doesn’t Gitlin admit he was wrong and retroactively support U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia in the sacred name of “human rights”?


The answer to this question, which Gitlin can no longer answer – if he ever could – is that nothing on the land mass of Asia is a vital or legitimate interest of the United States government. The answer is that the Founders did not foresee and would have abhorred a global empire run by vaunting moralists: they expressly forbade us from going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” But since Gitlin and his “revolutionary” comrades never looked to their own revolution for inspiration, but always looked abroad, to the Third World, they overlooked John Quincy Adams in favor of Che Guevara.


Gitlin complains that, during the Kosovo war, he “could hear Rejectionists shrieking that we had become the warmongers our younger selves had despised.” Well, hadn’t he? Oh, of course not, because, you see, he and his friends went through all kinds of “twinges and qualms – agonies even.” Oh, you poor dears! Never mind those innocent Serbians killed by NATO’s bombs – the real question is, how will Gitlin and his friends endure the sight of it, not to mention the sight of their own hypocrisy? Considering his own status as a moral paragon, it was a terrible dilemma for Gitlin – “but not for long,” as he puts it, because “backing down, it felt to me, would be succumbing to yet another purity fetish.”


A purity fetish, indeed: Gitlin’s problem, and the problem he shares with his fellow War Doves, is that his fetish involves a fascination with the mystique of State power. Having failed to establish socialism via revolution from the outside, Gitlin and his fellow New Leftists long ago began the Long March through the institutions. Today, academia, the media, and government are all dominated by the left-leaning exemplars of Gitlin’s generation, and their moralism over the years has not abated but only become more entrenched, and more empowered. The militant internationalism of the Third Way combines the worst of both the old Left and the cold war Right: the radical egalitarianism and messianism of the former is here married to the Great Power chauvinism and outright militarism of the latter. The War Dove is a singularly unattractive hybrid, who bears, at least in Gitlin’s case, a rather strong resemblance to the vulture – a cowardly creature, who only attacks the weak and the dying, and comes swooping in long after the battle is over.


Long after the Cold War is over, and there exists no credible military threat to the United States – long after anyone could possibly make the case for committing the nation’s military resources to a series of regional wars on a world scale – Gitlin and his much-vaunted “friends” are beating the war drums. Their capacity for moral outrage and “revolution” has now become a global appetite, and the United States Army, once their enemy, is now their instrument. But has anything really changed? Gitlin and his crowd were never against the Vietnam war in the sense that they sided with the North Vietnamese. SDS made a hero out of Ho Chi Minh, chanting in unison at one memorable SDS convention “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! The NLF is gonna win!” War as an instrument of securing “social justice” is not something they opposed in principle, insofar as they had any principles. Just as they ignored Communist atrocities back then so today they ignore the methods and motives of NATO – or convince themselves that their own “agonizing” is sufficient penance for any moral ambivalence on their part. Which just goes to prove, once again, the veracity of that immortal bromide: the more things change, the more they remain the same.


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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (forthcoming from Prometheus Books).

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