As a child of politicised parents, Observer columnist Nick Cohen followed in their tradition and became a trenchant voice on the liberal-left in the 1980s and 90s. But the Iraq War changed all that and forced him to rethink. In an exclusive extract from his incendiary new book about the failings of the modern left, he argues that anti-Americanism has left it blind to the evils of militant Islam.
He starts with an anecdote about his childhood, supposed, I imagine, to indicate various things about his parents’ leftist idealism and commitment to anti-fascism, carried perhaps to extreme lengths but essentially good hearted:
In the early Seventies, my mother searched the supermarkets for politically reputable citrus fruit. She couldn’t buy Seville oranges without indirectly subsidising General Francisco Franco, Spain’s fascist dictator. Algarve oranges were no good either, because the slightly less gruesome but equally right-wing dictatorship of Antonio Salazar ruled Portugal. She boycotted the piles of Outspan from South Africa as a protest against apartheid, and although neither America nor Israel was a dictatorship, she wouldn’t have Florida or Jaffa oranges in the house because she had no time for then President Richard Nixon or the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
My sisters and I did not know it, but when Franco fell ill in 1975, we were in a race to the death. Either he died of Parkinson’s disease or we died of scurvy. Luckily for us and the peoples of Spain, the dictator went first, although he took an unconscionably long time about it.
To me it actually indicates either Mr Cohen’s inability either to use a degree of common sense or to draw a simple inference — a moment’s thought should have told him, I would have hoped, that since he and his sisters were spared death from scurvy, his mother was doubtless feeding them a healthy diet, rich in vitamin c from rose hips, tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries and heaven knows what else — or his hope that his readers won’t pause to think too long about a superficially striking but completely fatuous point. Neither bodes well for his analysis.
I can hardly claim to speak for the left in these or any other matters, but it seems to me his analysis — essentially, the left used to be vehemently opposed to fascism (even to the extent, he mistakenly thinks, of endangering the health of poor young Nick and his siblings) but suddenly changed their tune when America pitched in against Saddam at the time of the First Gulf War and are now apologists for all manner of evil-doers so long as it puts them on the opposite side to the Americans.
Well, there’s a bit to unpick here. One point he might have considered, after giving thanks for his not-so remarkable escape from vitamin-C deficiency, is that I very much doubt that, whatever his parents’ objections to the regimes in South Africa, Spain, Portugal, Israel or America (and, I imagine, several Latin American countries and, for a while, Greece — all of which I recall being called upon to boycott at one time or another) few people ever seriously suggested that the unhappy conditions of the peoples of those countries could best be ameliorated by the Soviet Union (or anyone else) getting up a coalition of the willing to liberate them.
That is not, I think, just because the USA might have taken exception to all this — well, obviously if the USSR tried to liberate them, but more generally — but because everyone realised that foreign military intervention is not always a particularly good answer. No one seriously suggested the West should intervene in Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea, no matter how bad things got there — indeed, as I recall, the USA were quite aggrieved when Vietnam, objecting to the carnage going on across the border, stepped in. This was not, I think, caused — at least not wholly — by indifference to the plight of the Cambodians but by a recognition that military intervention would almost certainly succeed only in making a bad situation worse.
Furthermore, since he mentions the way the Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union meant that from then on
you could rely on nearly all of the left – from nice liberals through to the most compromised Marxists – to oppose the tyrannies of the far right,
he might have given some thought to some aspects of the aftermath of the Great Patriotic War. For example, he might well have considered that while the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgarians, inhabitants of the Baltic Republics and the like doubtless welcomed their liberation from fascism by the Soviet Union, many of them did not particularly like either the aftermath or the decades that followed. That is not, of course, to criticise their liberation by Marshal Zhukov and his armies; it is, however, to suggest that the Soviet line that they shouldn’t then complain about their liberators’ efforts to help them build Peoples’ Democracies in their newly liberated countries — and that anyone who did complain must be a fascist sympathiser — was a trifle disingenuous.
He might furthermore have considered the somewhat unsavoury nature of some Western anti-communists during the aftermath of WW2. Yes, people like Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society were pretty much telling the truth about how dreadful were the regimes in Stalin’s Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. That didn’t make them right about much else, though, and it certainly didn’t make them right in suggesting that anyone who disagreed with American foreign policy was, ipso facto, an apologist for Stalinist tyranny or an unwitting dupe of those who might want to introduce it to the West. And they certainly weren’t right in helping to whip up anti-communist hysteria over this, though I don’t think many of them actually went as far as to publish apologias for the torture of communists, real or suspected, at least not by their own governments.
Indeed, he might have considered the way that this supposed clash of civilisations or ideologies between the free world and the communists caused all manner of horrendous ideological compromises and alliances. Since the perfectly legitimate grievances of people in many third-world countries were acknowledged — for their own purposes, to be sure — primarily by the Communist countries, the opposition movements there naturally turned to the Communists for support, not though any particular enthusiasm for Marxism-Leninism, I would suggest, but because that was the only game in town. Meanwhile, that same South African government whose oranges Mr Cohen’s parents were denying him was protesting that it was a bulwark against the spread of communism and pointing — quite correctly — to the political affiliations of many of its opponents.
Something similar, I would, suggest, is happening in many Muslim countries; if you have a corrupt and authoritarian government which you oppose, and that government is supported — in the name of a war against terror — by the USA and opposed by the radical Islamists, well you’re going to take whatever help is going, I would have thought. Nelson Mandela is clearly no communist, much though it suited his gaolers to portray him as one, and his supporters as communist dupes, but that didn’t stop him and the ANC from taking help and support from the communists when it was available. And the communists’ support against oppressive governments doubtless helped convince many locals that the communists couldn’t be as bad as they were made out to be, while the Western democracies’ support for their oppressors doubtless helped give liberal democracy an undeservedly bad name in some quarters.
To my mind, countries should try not to convince themselves they’re engaging in ideological conflicts where they’re on the side of right. They’re not. They should try to act in their own best interests and concentrate on doing as little harm as possible rather than trying to save the world (which never appreciates the favour).
That, unfortunately, frequently means not making a bad situation worse — and it was because it was obvious even to me what was going to happen in Iraq that I, along with a great many other people, ‘opposed the overthrow of a fascist regime,’ as Mr Cohen puts it.
It was because the anarchy that was going to follow was sadly predicatable, as was the rise of God knows how many different factions of heavily-armed extremists of one sort or another, as is the fact that the whole debacle will sooner or later resolve itself by the declaring victory, pulling out and leaving the place in the hands of someone who’s probably almost as bad as Saddam (except that he can presumably be counted on to remain loyal the US, for as long as he lasts, however long or short a time that may be).
If I’d have thought that the enterprise stood a reasonable chance of success, I’d have been all for it, but it didn’t, so I wasn’t.