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Drive by smearings on the road to Baghdad

Stephen Gowans

it's a long standing ploy to suggest that anyone who disagrees with how to deal with a common enemy must be secretly working with, or, at best, has naively identified with the enemy. Stalin was well acquainted with this method of silencing critics, as have been thousands of tyrants, dictators, and elected presidents and prime ministers since, to say nothing of authors and senior fellows of think-tanks.

Among the latter is Edward Luttwak, author of Turbo-Capitalism, and a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, a think-tank that specializes in apologia of American foreign policy.

Mr. Luttwak takes aim at critics of American policy toward Iraq, in a clever, roundabout way: By first going after an easy target: the revivified Red Brigade, the self-styled Italian Marxist-Leninist terrorist group.

Many Marxist-Leninists will be having conniptions over the Red Brigade being called Marxist-Leninist, and will cringe over the association of Marxism-Leninism with urban terrorism, many no doubt brandishing quotes from Lenin to prove the Bolshevik leader never would have approved. He wouldn't have (on tactical, not moral, grounds.) But the objections are all in vain, for the connection between Marxists and terrorists serves a useful purpose, as the association of anarchism, with black-clad rioters hell-bent on smashing windows and battling police for the sheer pleasure of creating chaos, is also useful. It paints militant opposition as frightening, irrational and dangerous.

The Brigate Rosse, Luttwak writes, "attack American aggression against the government of Iraq," and so identify "with a cast of characters who cannot possibly be considered as ‘progressive'," including Mr. Hussein who "massacred Iraq's Communists even before he started to massacre Kurds."

You don't need Gingko Biloba to see that the Red Brigade is as objectionable to most people (including many Marxist-Leninists) as botulism, and so, it comes as something of an opportunity for Luttwak and other sophists of the think-tank brigades to be able to make the association. The Red Brigade opposes American policy toward Iraq, the Red Brigade is objectionable, therefore anyone who opposes US foreign policy toward Iraq must be objectionable, or something like that.

Of course, opposing American aggression against Iraq no more amounts to support for Mr. Hussein's murderous regime, than deploring the events of 9/11 amounts to support for the Bush presidency, but the connections are easily -- though erroneously -- made.

How many progressive groups have backed away from criticizing foreign policy for fear of being seen to support tyrants and thugs abroad, and how many who muster the courage to speak out, make sure to emphatically establish their anti-thug credentials before launching into an attack of US foreign policy? There is a legion of critics of US policy in the Balkans who begin each attack with an obligatory reference to Slobodan Milosevic being a thug, but I doubt one in 20 could even begin to say how it is that Milosevic warrants the obloquy. Tactics, they might call it. "I have to make clear that I don't support what Milosevic's accused of, because the tendency is to suppose that if I question American policy, I'm defending Milosevic."

Non anti-Semitic critics of Israel are well acquainted with the necessity of establishing their bona fides. For if Stalin was expert in attributing opposition to treasonous motivations, apologists for Israel have been geniuses in reducing rational criticism of the country's human rights abuses, expansionism, and contempt for international law to irrational anti-Jewish hatred. Neo-Nazis, David Duke followers, and anti-Jewish bigots criticize Israel, therefore, all critics of Israel must be Neo-Nazis, David Duke followers, and anti-Jewish bigots, the reasoning -- or what passes for it -- goes. Were this so, it could be said that since all Lesbians are women, all women are Lesbians.

It is true that anti-Jewish bigots hate Israel. This I know, because some have sent me their vile, putrid garbage. "Stephen," wrote one. "In your quest for the truth, remember that the history of WWII was written from the victor's perspective. The Nazis weren't as bad as you suppose. I've visited the concentration camps, and I can tell you the Holocaust never happened." Others tell me that the US government is really being run from Tel Aviv.

But then I understand Hitler liked potato pancakes. Does that mean that anyone who likes potato pancakes is an iniquitous dictator, driven by hatred of communism and Jews? Or that all women are Lesbians because all Lesbians are women? Of course, not. Among critics of Israel will be those motivated by hatred of Jews, and those motivated by moral concerns over the victims of Israeli policy. It serves Israel's apologists well, however, to miss the distinction.

This kind of kindergarten reasoning suits Luttwak as well as it does Israel's defenders. For if the Red Brigade can be said to identify with a murderous autocracy for opposing American foreign policy, can't the same be said about Washington's other critics? If you open your mouth to lament the sanctions against Iraq, condemn the almost daily sorties by US and British warplanes in the no-fly zones, and speak out vigorously against what seems to be a full-scale war waiting in the wings (for Washington to find a convincing casus belli), aren't you defending Hussein's murderous regime, in the same way critics of the murder of 5,000 Afghan civilians by US bombs were said to be defending the Taliban's repressive theocratic tyranny?

Logically, the implication is wrong on two grounds. Opposing American foreign policy means opposing American foreign policy, not support for autocrats or theocratic tyrants abroad. And sharing some of the same beliefs as the Red Brigade doesn't make one a Red Brigadista, anymore that sharing Hitler's tastes in mountain villas makes one a Hitler.

But the specious arguments will continue to be made, as much on the Left as the Right. It's fashionable among some Leftists to suppose the Left is rife with "conscious or comatose" agents of the CIA, who must be so, for they've failed to find objectionable some particular of the US administration's policy, or because they agree a foreign autocrat billed as a thug by the State Department deserves the name. Government operatives agree with the administration, therefore, anyone who agrees with the administration is a government operative, the hoary solecism goes, proving stupidity is an equal opportunity employer -- as comfortable employing Leftists as Rightists. These Leftists ask, "Which side are you on?," casting themselves as negative images of George Bush Jr., who uttered, if you're not for us, you're against us, the Right's version of the same question. Being Bush's negative suits them fine, for in their minds, whatever is opposite of Bush must be good. Tell them Bush likes fried chicken and they'll boycott KFC and become vegetarians.

But how can one be said to think independently of Washington if one opposes everything the administration supports, on principle? If Washington conspires to oust a foreign leader, branding him a thug and dictator, the reflexive thinking that holds the reviled leader in esteem, for being held in contempt by Washington, is entirely dependent. It's like the concept of the official opposition in British parliamentary tradition. If you say the sky is blue, I'll say it's not. If you claim botulism is bad, I'll say it's good. For whatever you say is bad must be good, and whatever you say is good must be bad.

It's more fitting to argue against Washington's intervention in the affairs of weak countries, and to question its motivations, recognizing that thugs aren't angels simply because they're under attack by Washington, and to be fair, recognizing as well that thugs aren't always thugs because Washington says so.

And the flipside is also true. Deploring policies that cause immense suffering among the innocent doesn't amount to support for the guilty, however much the guilty at home would have it otherwise.

Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at

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