22 Jan 2007

What’s Left?

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Observer columnist Nick Cohen was a red-diaper baby, but the left’s behavior over Iraq has driven him to write a book, What’s Left:How Liberals Lost Their Way, denouncing the left’s double standards and hypocrisy.

First, they hated Saddam.

Saddam Hussein appalled the liberal left. At leftish meetings in the late Eighties, I heard that Iraq encapsulated all the loathsome hypocrisy of the supposedly ‘democratic’ West. Here was a blighted land ruled by a terrible regime that followed the example of the European dictatorships of the Thirties. And what did the supposed champions of democracy and human rights in Western governments do? Supported Saddam, that’s what they did; sold him arms and covered up his crimes. Fiery socialist MPs denounced Baathism, while playwrights and poets stained the pages of the liberal press with their tears for his victims. Many quoted the words of a brave Iraqi exile called Kanan Makiya. He became a hero of the left because he broke through the previously impenetrable secrecy that covered totalitarian Iraq and described in awful detail how an entire population was compelled to inform on their family and friends or face the consequences. All decent people who wanted to convict the West of subscribing to murderous double standards could justifi ably use his work as evidence for the prosecution.

The apparently sincere commitment to help Iraqis vanished the moment Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and became America’s enemy. At the time, I didn’t think about where the left was going. I could denounce the hypocrisy of a West which made excuses for Saddam one minute and called him a ‘new Hitler’ the next, but I didn’t dwell on the equal and opposite hypocrisy of a left which called Saddam a ‘new Hitler’ one minute and excused him the next.

And when America invaded Iraq in 2003:

Everyone I respected in public life was wildly anti-war, and I was struck by how their concern about Iraq didn’t extend to the common courtesy of talking to Iraqis. They seemed to have airbrushed from their memories all they had once known about Iraq and every principle of mutual respect they had once upheld.

I supposed their furious indifference was reasonable. They had many good arguments that I would have agreed with in other circumstances. I assumed that once the war was over they would back Iraqis trying to build a democracy, while continuing to pursue Bush and Blair to their graves for what they had done. I waited for a majority of the liberal left to off er qualified support for a new Iraq, and I kept on waiting, because it never happened – not just in Britain, but also in the United States, in Europe, in India, in South America, in South Africa … in every part of the world where there was a recognisable liberal left. They didn’t think again when thousands of Iraqis were slaughtered by ‘insurgents’ from the Baath party, which wanted to re-establish the dictatorship, and from al-Qaeda, which wanted a godly global empire to repress the rights of democrats, the independent-minded, women and homosexuals. They didn’t think again when Iraqis defi ed the death threats and went to vote on new constitutions and governments. Eventually, I grew tired of waiting for a change that was never going to come and resolved to find out what had happened to a left whose benevolence I had taken for granted.


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