Naomi Klein’s "Courage"

Naomi Klein, in a recent article posted on In These Times, tells us “How to end the war”. She says we need to know the reasons for it, that these are exposed by the US’ pursuit of military bases and Iraqi oil wealth. She says that we should struggle for what the Iraqis themselves want, meaningful self-determination and real democracy, buttressed by respect of international law. Her essay pretty well collects in one place everything that is wrong with so much left-wing thinking right now.

What’s wrong?

First, to end the war, we do not need to know the real reasons for it. That’s historical research, not political planning. It’s like saying that, for the allies to win World War II, they needed to know Hitler’s real reasons for making it. These reasons are still debated–A.J.P.Taylor introduced major competition to the naked aggression thesis–yet the war is long won. This is not nit-picking; it exemplifies the left’s obsession with pointless, endless, fruitless analysis.

Second, Klein’s claims about what counts as evidence for what are feeble. Of course, when one country invades another on a shoestring budget–and the whole point of Rumsfeld’s policies was to make war on the cheap–then its first priorities will be to:

(1) make the place safe for your own forces, so that the political and economic cost of the war doesn’t spiral out of control, and

(2) use the country’s assets–in this case oil–to pay your way. So the invasion’s activities were dictated by the invasion’s budget, and are no indication of any ultimate objectives.(*) As for making the place safe for foreign investment, that is a third, more long-term priority along the same lines: get the private sector to do the reconstruction, which would otherwise cost far more than the US could ever afford. This is classic creepy-Republican wishful thinking and again has nothing to do with any ultimate objectives.

Third, Klein makes much of the insincerity of US democracy-rhetoric about Iraq. Well, duh. What has this to do with anything? Everyone but some few Americans know this, and those few Americans are either too steeped in their prejudices to be moved, or don’t really give a damn whether the US is out to make Iraq into a democracy. They are far more concerned about kicking terrorist butt and generally showing the world that America is boss. Their motives are pure 9-11 reaction.

Fourth, Klein tells us we should have the courage to be serious, and then recommends what might as well be frivolity. She tells us that “the core fight is over respect for international law”. Nope, international law is a non-starter, because there is no overriding, neutral sovereign to enforce it. What Klein is asking us to respect is in reality no more than a bunch of sentences expressing good wishes, articulated by courts and lawyers without the slightest authority because, in the real world, authority rests on naked power. No, the core fight is to get the US out of Iraq, isn’t it? Which would be preferable: the US leaving Iraq tomorrow, and remaining completely contemptuous of international law, or leaving in five years, imbued with the deepest respect for international law? Klein’s priorities are just a case of political ADD.

Fifth, Klein’s position is drawn and quartered by the tug-of-war between her wish to avoid Bush’s nation-building and her embrace of that very doctrine. First she says: “The future of the anti-war movement requires that it become a pro-democracy movement. Our marching orders have been given to us by the people of Iraq… We need to take our direction from them.”

Then she says: “We need to support the people of Iraq and their clear demands for an end to both military and corporate occupation. …It doesn’t mean blindly cheerleading for “the resistance.” Because there isn’t just one resistance in Iraq… Not everyone fighting the U.S. occupation is fighting for the freedom of all Iraqis; some are fighting for their own elite power. That’s why we need to stay focused on supporting the demands for self-determination, not cheering any setback for U.S. empire.”

Then she says: “Anybody who says Iraqis don’t want democracy should be deeply ashamed of themselves. Iraqis are clamoring for democracy and had risked their lives for it long before this invasion-in the 1991 uprising against Saddam, for example, when they were left to be slaughtered. The elections in January took place only because of tremendous pressure from Iraqi Shia communities that insisted on getting the freedom they were promised.”

It’s confusing, but I get it: getting the US out of Iraq is not really our first priority. It’s getting the US out of Iraq *on our terms*. Who’s ‘we’? Well, ‘we’ support democracy, which means supporting, not all Iraqis, but the Iraqis who support democracy. The other Iraqis are bad: they just want to support ‘their own [now conspicuously absent] élite power.’ Worse, “Some elements of the armed resistance are targeting Iraqi civilians as they pray in Shia mosques-barbaric acts that serve the interests of the Bush administration by feeding the perception that the country is on the brink of civil war and therefore U.S. forces must remain in Iraq.” So we support the people who want democracy, and who don’t attack the Shia. We support the people who really want democracy, namely the nice Shia (not any nasty ones who want a theocracy) and, though she does not mention them, the Kurds. In other words, we support exactly the elements of the population Bush supports, and whatever other nice people we can find. It’s all very well for Klein to talk of a ‘responsible agenda’ for withdrawal and even reparations, but if she’s really committed to democracy in Iraq, she is committed to large parts of the US government’s current policies.

This is pure bone-headed American ideology all over again. Of course the Shia communities wanted elections–wouldn’t you, if that was your gateway to power? Sure they revolted in 1991–we are told they wanted Saddam Hussein off their backs, and thought they saw their chance. None of this shows that Iraqis have the American left’s infantile commitment to a system of government which, in America itself, has been a miserable failure. Democracy, if it works anywhere, seems to work best in very settled, very prosperous countries–like those of Western Europe, at least before it got riled up about its immigrants. Iraq is no such place.

There’s more. If Klein were not as arrogant as Bush, she would be the first to stress that she knows nothing about Iraq or what the Iraqis want, rather than trumpeting her great certainty on that subject. She would not produce embarrassing nonsense like “Now Iraqis are struggling for the tools that will make self-determination meaningful…”. For one thing, ‘self-determination’ is comical: do the Iraqi Kurds want it in the same sense that the other Iraqis do? It is like the joke (yes, joke) that Kant reports: Two kings, Francis I of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, both want Milan. Francis proclaims a harmonious convergence of interest: “what my brother Charles wants, I want too.” For another thing, in our ignorance of Iraq, shouldn’t we tend to go with the obvious? Savage resistance to an invasion is usually taken to mean that the resisters want the invaders out of there. It is usually taken, not as a struggle to make self-determination meaningful, but as a struggle for self-determination.

Quite possibly Iraqis do want what Klein apparently considers the prerequisites of meaningfulness: “freedom from debt for Iraq, a total abandonment of Bremer’s illegal economic laws, full Iraqi control over the reconstruction budget”. Quite possibly they want many other things. But haven’t quite a few Iraqis been telling and showing us that, first and foremost, they want the Americans out, period, not only if the departure is meaningful? Doesn’t their first priority seem to be, not some search for meaning, but the killing of America’s soldiers and lackeys? Is there something unclear about this message, or something I missed? Have the Iraqis expressed passionate longings for the American left to pick and choose among the factions in their country?

Throughout, Klein lacks precisely what she says we should have: the courage to be serious. What sort of courage does it take to demonstrate for True Democracy? Klein has not even asked the hard question. If she wants democracy so much–because, just like Bush and Blair, she absolutely knows those pitiful little Iraqis are pining for democracy–just when and how should the US withdraw its troops? Presumably the answer must be: once they have made Iraq safe for democracy. This would mean withdrawing once the ‘democratic Iraqis’ are strong enough to prevail over the undemocratic Iraqis, who seem to be quite powerful and well-organized. This would certainly require US military assistance, perhaps for years, or the introduction of other military forces to do the same thing, e.g. getting the UN or NATO to spell off the American invaders. (If Klein thinks that, somewhere in the universe, there are decorous, respectful, virtually nonviolent troops ready to somehow neutralize Klein’s and Bush’s ‘bad guys’; this is another fantasy.) So Klein’s courage consists in asking for pretty much what Bush is giving her.

Yes, Klein is sincere, she wants real democracy, she supports the truly democratic elements, and Bush is insincere. But in the end it is a difference that makes no difference. If you insist on bringing democracy to Iraq–always protesting that this is what the Iraqis themselves want–you will have to beat the anti-democratic elements you both deplore, and this will mean US bases and American soldiers shedding Iraqi blood. Any sincerity infusing these policies, and their ultimate objectives, is so much posturing over the same vicious meddling.

Getting Serious

The courage to be serious would mean something quite different. It would mean, not this bloodless, venti-decaf-latte substitute for passion, but real hatred of America’s actions and single-minded, furious determination to get every last ‘coalition’ soldier off Iraqi soil, as soon as possible, by any means necessary. No ifs ands or buts about democracy, just get them out. Anyone who really believed in the Iraqis’ right to their own damn country would not be fussing about whether their projected form of government or mode of self-determination matched American leftist ideals. This in none of our business, not least because it is mere insolence to presume that we know what the Iraqis want or how they should get it. It takes years to know a country, and, if one doesn’t live there, at least long study, bolstered by fluency in the country’s language. Only American yahoos, of all political stripes, would think otherwise.

“How to end the war?” Neither I nor Klein know how, but trying involves real, angry, nasty opposition, something a government might be concerned about. It cannot be built on a demand for withdrawal hedged with cherrypicking among which Iraqis ‘give us our marching orders’. Real opposition requires something beyond reasoned persuasion; the utter impotence of the utterly reasonable left has shown as much. It is not a matter of discovering what documents which neocon produced in 1990. It is not a matter of billions and billions of emails, insulating us from the world like so much pink fiberglass. It is not a matter of blandly ‘building constituencies’, but of using the constituency that we already have, that we are. It is a couse of action which demonstrates that this war disgusts us, that we will stop at nothing to end it, and that we couldn’t care less if it tears our country apart. The US should just leave, now, and we should all just shut up about democracy in Iraq. Decisions about policing belong to Iraqis and perhaps international agencies, whether or not these agencies have the slightest commitment to a democracy, and not to Americans of any political stripe. That’s a clear message on which clear, resolute, all-out opposition can be built.

The courage to be serious also means not ‘supporting our troops’. This support really has become obnoxious. We have just been treated to dozens of Vietnam commemorative pieces. The best of them make some mention of the three million Vietnamese we killed, and perhaps the Vietnamese children who, thanks to Agent Orange, must live some sort of life in hideous deformity. But on the left as on the right, it is all too common for the piece to be built around some loveable Vietnam vet. A recent Nation article, for instance, we meet

“Mike Sulsona, a former Marine… just back from his first trip to Vietnam since the war. He was excited because he surprised himself by liking it there this time and because he was pleased with the research he did for a play he wants to write about an Army tank driver.”

We learn that

‘Back in Ho Chi Minh City, the old Saigon, Sulsona was rolling his chair down a crowded sidewalk before his return to New York. He almost collided with a Vietnamese man, also in a wheelchair, rolling in the opposite direction, trying to sell lottery tickets. Recognizing each other by their differentness from everyone else and similarity to each other, the two paraplegics stopped rolling. The Vietnam veteran and the Vietnamese veteran wheeled their chairs to face each other as they might once have done with weapons.

‘Neither knew many words in the other’s language, but they spoke briefly, haltingly, enough for Sulsona to determine the other man had also been in the war. “Suddenly, we began laughing,” Sulsona said. “Heavy belly laughs. I have no idea if he was in the South Vietnamese Army fighting for our side, or in the Viet Cong, or had come down with the North Vietnamese Army… Does it make a difference? We were laughing and laughing and couldn’t stop, couldn’t help ourselves, just a couple of guys who got fucked up in the war. …Neither of us could stop laughing. I mean, what was all that about, anyway?”‘

Heck, that sure is a nice send-off for bathing a country in fire and poison: let’s pause and reflect on how gosh-darn crazy war is. It’s exactly the slimy, war-is-hell-and-we’re-just-human cop-out that endears so many to the Korean-war wackiness of M*A*S*H, which first aired three years before the fall of Saigon.

This is not compassion; it is cowardice. Unless you are a third force, with decisive power to affect the world situation, in a war you must take one side or the other. The left is no such third force. We are for the American invasion of Iraq, and the troops that effect it, or we are against it. To be serious is to acknowledge that one can’t always pick and choose. We could not have seriously said, “we support the war against Hitler, but oppose Stalin”, because that, taken seriously, would have been silly. Are you going to fight Stalin? Then you help Hitler. Are you not going to fight Stalin? Then who gives a damn what you ‘oppose’?

If we support the troops, that means we don’t want them to be killed, and we support their efforts to protect themselves, at least until such time–months, years?–as they can withdraw. In other words, we are against the Iraqis who attack them. We are for the deaths of the attackers, and anyone else who gets caught in crossfire as American troops fight back. If not, how is our support ‘meaningful’?

We make patronizing excuses for ‘our’ soldiers: they are poor, ignorant, oppressed, deceived by recruiters, they are canon-fodder, they are everything that has formed the backbone of evil armies since the dawn of history. They are everything, that is, but adults, responsible for their decisions. As a consequence of these decisions, they have come thousands of miles to kill and mutilate people who did them no harm. If we–to use Klein’s idiom–‘meaningfully’ support ‘our’ troops, we ‘meaningfully’ support the rape of Iraq, however much we bleat about the right and proper, partisan and time-consuming way to bring the boys home. The courage to be serious means the courage to make hard choices. Do we have it?

* * *

(*) Yes, some of the bases look permanent. Sure, the US government would like to have them forever, who wouldn’t? Countries like to be powerful, and seize on the opportunity to extend their power. But it is quite a stretch to suppose that the US invaded Iraq for these bases when, at far less cost of every kind, they could have built them elsewhere in the region.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. In September 2005, CounterPunch/AK Press will publish Neumann’s new book, The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at:

Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at