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Winning My Heart, But Losing My Mind

By Alexander Wardwell
April 15, 2003

An American expat friend recently sent me an e-mail, inviting me to join him to protest the war in Iraq at the American Embassy, here in Oslo. To my own shock and awe, I not only failed to answer his email but I didn’t show up at the protest, either. We haven’t spoken since.

For the record, I am against the war and am deeply skeptical of the motives of the current administration. By almost every yardstick, I can be measured as a liberal democrat, and since my move to Europe five years ago, have become increasingly outraged by America’s cynical use of power. So why didn’t I grab a placard, paint a swastika on an American flag and hurl a few paint balls at the Embassy?

I blame the left.

So far, the left here in Europe and what’s left of it in America has failed to convince me to take to the streets. Certainly, my heart tells me that the left is right to call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and that America’s answer to "bin Ladenism" should not be wholesale violence, but to re-imagine ourselves as a kinder, gentler nation devoted to peaceful change in partnership with our international allies. But my mind keeps needling these principled demands with pointed questions and cold, hard facts.

For example, three weeks into the war, David Cortright (among others) writing for the The Nation, has called for the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. My heart cheered, but my mind wondered: Is this a good idea? That is, one can reasonably make the argument that the US shouldn’t be there to begin with and that a troop withdrawal would spare countless lives. But it strikes me as unethical and irresponsible to abandon a country after a three-week bombing and killing spree.

Even if a US troop withdrawal is followed by some kind of UN peacekeeping force, an influx of aid organizations, and a beefed-up weapons inspectors program (hard to imagine the UN policing a country of that size without the US military, but let’s not be picky), how open would Saddam be to having so many foreigners on Iraqi soil? And doesn’t it seem, well, wrong for the UN to prop up a man universally condemned as a brutal dictator? And who would pay for all this? Europe? The US?

In a broader context, the left has failed to come up with a viable and coherent response to 9/11. Indeed, the most influential thinkers on the left have been curiously silent on this subject. Even Noam Chomsky, the great Lion of the Left, has no answers. (He reminds me of Ross Perot: His gift is in describing the problem, not the solution.) Perhaps they are distracted by their contempt for the Bush administration or can’t escape the horrors of US foreign policy during the Cold War, but few have dared tackle the only question Americans care about right now: How do we stop people from piloting passenger jets into our buildings?

Still, a few have floated some vague ideas. As far as I can tell, the left has proposed that America fight terrorism by working more closely with the international community to bring terrorists to justice; preventing further attacks by containing "rogue states" that support terror groups through sanctions and vigorous diplomacy; and securing a lasting peace in the region by committing more of our national resources to tackle the root cause of the problem: poverty. Throw in a state for Palestine, and we’ll all be home for Christmas.

Sounds good, but to my mind anyway, such a plan seems almost as utopian as Bush’s insanely naive plan to democratize the Middle East at the point of a sword. Indeed, until 9/11, the US did treat acts of terrorism as a criminal matter, working closely with our allies to investigate and (in some cases) successfully prosecute the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Towers in 1993, the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the two US embassies in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000, etc. Yet as we saw on 9/11, this approach was unsuccessful.

Likewise, America’s efforts to contain "rogue states" through diplomacy and sanctions has been a component of US foreign policy in the Gulf since the Carter administration. This policy, however, has not only failed to deter terrorism, it has helped entrench the brutal and oppressive oligarchies that gave rise to Islamic fundamentalism to begin with.

As for the "Palestinian question," it should be noted that every president since Kennedy has made a sincere effort to negotiate a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, without success. Maybe, as the left suggests, we haven’t tried hard enough. In any case, I am not convinced that a US-sponsored creation of a Palestinian state will stop terrorism. As with the larger war on global poverty, it would certainly help. But such an effort would take time, and unfortunately, time is one resource America doesn’t have.

Even if the left’s ideas are less than coherent, their cause remains, at least on the surface, moral and principled. And one could argue that it really isn’t the left’s responsibility to offer detailed alternatives to US foreign policy. After all, dissent and protest are acts of criticism, not endorsement. Furthermore, dissenters and protesters perform a great service to America by forcing our leaders to be accountable for their actions. And one could argue that simply doing nothing would be better than invading Iraq. Yet I worry that the left’s warm embrace of what might be described as negative ideology has alienated the American public. I know it has alienated me.

From what I can tell, the American left’s response to 9/11 has been built on three basic assumptions:

  1. That US foreign policy in the region is largely responsible for 9/11

  2. The war in Iraq is about oil, and Bush is cynically exploiting fears of terrorism to gain public support for what amounts to a neo-colonial land-grab

  3. The current administration is corrupt, acting on behalf of "big business"

One can make compelling arguments that support all these assumptions, but I think adopting such a uniformly critical stance will make sure that the left will continue to be ignored by the general public. First, at a time of unprecedented patriotism, convincing the American people that their country is greedy, criminal, barbaric and run by corrupt, dishonest officials doing the bidding of their corporate masters is a hard sell. Second, these assumptions are only partly true; they completely ignore the complexity of the geo-political forces in play right now. Third, the left has made the mistake of aligning itself with the EU and the UN–two institutions Americans view with increasing skepticism and hostility. In short, being French won’t win American hearts and minds.

The fiercely critical stance of the left also puts them in the unenviable position of hoping the war doesn’t go well. (For example, one antiwar website,, posts articles, essays and graphic images that all suggest the war is going badly, as if to say, "We told you so"). By calling attention to the appalling violence in Iraq, the left hopes to shock Americans into dissent. But exploiting civilian and military casualties to serve a political end strikes me as every bit as sleazy and manipulative as Bush’s efforts to tie Iraq with 9/11.

Highlighting the war’s horror might work over time (remember, it took years for the anti-war movement in the 60s to gain support), but it doesn’t seem likely that the war phase in Iraq will take years, but months. The war will end sooner rather than later, and the left will have accomplished nothing but further distancing themselves from that immensely powerful, slow-moving and eminently practical agent of world change known as the American public.

The left's negative ideology also flirts with defeatism—never popular in America. The left blames the pro-war media, docile Democrats and John Ashcroft for not being heard, but perhaps the truth is that so far, their arguments have failed to resonate with most Americans. This is particularly frustrating because a vast number of Americans (like me) are deeply skeptical about the war and the current administration. The audience is there, but so long as the left embraces a negative ideology, no one will listen.

The left might take a page from its own glorious history during the civil rights movement and consider the success of Martin Luther King, Jr. Unlike Malcolm X, who marginalized himself early in his career by referring to white Americans as "blue-eyed devils" and endorsed armed struggle against white oppression, King spoke to all Americans. Not only did he highlight the appalling injustice of segregation, he offered America an irresistible vision for a better country, a better world—a dream that all Americans could share. By contrast, today's left seems angry, cynical, negative and defeatist. Indeed, it seems at the very moment in history when we need them most, the left seems to have given up on America. Thanks for nothing.

As for me, I hope the war ends quickly and that the US—working with the UN and whatever international allies we have left—can give the Iraqi people a chance for a better life. What else is there to hope for? Only if America reneges on its promise, as it has so many times before, will I join the left at the barricades, armed with my paint balls, placards and righteous indignation. Until then, they've lost my mind.