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March 30, 2007

Left-Right Alliance Against War?


by Jon Basil Utley

Americans opposed to war are a distinct minority. If the Iraq War were going well, most Americans would support it. Yet the Iraq venture has been such a disaster for America that peace groups have a chance to expose the pro-war interests in the nation and advance an alternative foreign policy based on law and international cooperation. Incredible war costs, a growing police state at home, loss of allies, and tremendous anti-Americanism abroad have given most Americans pause about our foreign policies.

Even so, Washington is on the verge of extending the war with an attack on Iran. To change American policy, we need to understand the differences between the antiwar movements on the Left and the Right before identifying how they might cooperate.

The War Party

The leadership of both parties supports war and empire. The Republican establishment's war promoters include the big conservative foundations, congressional leadership, old-line media such as National Review and the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, and the Religious Right's Armageddonites. The recent Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) meeting suppressed any antiwar debate, while speaker after speaker denounced foreigners, immigrants, and Arabs. Cheers resonated for PATRIOT Act author John Yoo, and John Bolton was a banquet speaker. The current Republican presidential front-runners all favor continuing the wars in the Middle East.

Against the above some lonely libertarians and a very few constitutional conservatives opposed attacking Iraq, both in 2003 and before the first Gulf War in 1990. Although many Republicans opposed the Kosovo war, they did so mainly because a Democrat, Bill Clinton, started it. The rationale for that U.S. intervention, like with Iraq, was also based on falsifications.

Most Democratic congressional leaders also voted for the Iraq war. Outsider Howard Dean, a vocal opponent of the war, was blown away by the Democratic establishment in 2004. In a recent Washington Post analysis, political scientist Tony Smith explains why the Democrats can't put together a successful vote against the Iraq war. Many of the Democrats, according to Smith, are influenced by an ideology of using American military power for Wilsonian ends. They take their cues from "special interests... that want an aggressive policy globalizing corporations, the military-industrial complex, the pro-Israel lobbies, those who covet Middle Eastern oil." The policies of these powerful "neo-liberals," Smith writes, coincide with those of the "neo-conservatives."

War is Washington's big business. The military industrial complex has never been more profitable. Last year, 15,300 earmarks for defense spending went to projects carefully designed to gain adherents in every state. The F-22 fighter plane, for instance, has 1,000 subcontractors in 43 states. Electronic chips and secret superweapons are so complicated that profits can be hidden all along the production line well beyond the scrutiny of outsiders. Even newly planned missiles for Poland to "defend Europe" from Iran may be less about a grand strategic design than simply about selling more arms. Russia's resultant concerns and European dismay are considered inconsequential.

Over and over, Washington's War Party trumps the views of most business interests as well as the foreign policy and academic establishment. The consequences of Washington having made enemies of nearly a quarter of the human race, the Muslims, are only now unfolding. Yet the War Party continues to look for new conflicts, next with China, to justify the vast budget for weaponry mostly irrelevant to the War on Terror. The recent CPAC meeting and much of the conservative media are, for instance, full of dire warnings of a great Chinese military threat to America.

Beyond Left and Right

To change Washington from its cowboy, shoot-first approach to a more cooperative stance with other nations is not just a matter of defeating George Bush. Opposing new wars, whether in Iran or elsewhere, requires cooperation of the Left together with libertarians and constitutional conservatives. There is now a convergence of interests. The Left today is a minority and can't expect to win power alone. The Republicans, because of the war, are splitting apart. Concern for deficits and constitutional freedoms have driven out libertarians, while immigration issues split business interests from the cultural conservatives.

To work together, the Left and Right must first confront their differences. There are past animosities and fundamental divergences in worldviews. Arguments that move one side have little effect on the other. In general the Left is more focused on America's shortcomings and emotional issues, while the Right fears the outside world and looks to simplistic military solutions for most problems.

More specifically, the Left tends to make moral arguments about foreign policy. For instance, the Left's concern over the death of innocent civilians in war collateral damage has little resonance with the Right. But the Right, at least some of it, has a pragmatic concern that such killing makes America even more hated and perhaps less safe. Most on the Right, however, argue that America is hated anyway, so more killing makes little difference. After all, our president has told us that we are hated because we are so good.

Many on the Left also think that it is immoral to make foreign policies based solely on U.S. national interest, a term that for them means business interests. Most conservatives know little and care little about the outside world. Leftists are generally more knowledgeable, but they know and care little about business or economic growth if such conditions cause economic injustice. Then there are the disagreements over how to use resources. Arguing that warfare is intrinsic to capitalism, much of the Left wants to use the war disaster to profoundly change America. The anti-war Right attributes the war to a takeover of foreign policy by former leftists, the neoconservatives, and to an unleashed military industrial complex.

But the categories also are losing their meaning. The Left no longer means confiscatory taxes and welfare state socialism. The Right no longer means balanced budgets, small government, and constitutional freedoms. Today other political divisions are more meaningful, such as between empire and republic, free traders and protectionists, pro- and anti-immigration interests, constitutionalists vs. Big Government. These all transcend Left and Right.

Also, there are common issues that can unite the moderate anti-war movements on both sides of the political spectrum. The common threat of trillions of dollars for unending wars already threatens both tax cuts and social welfare.

The growing police state at home and consequent erosion of civil liberties can also unify the two camps. Police State Republicans now run the party. There is little complaint at the dominant conservative think tanks and foundations, for example, over PATRIOT Act excesses and expanding police powers. But many old-line conservatives have objected, including the American Conservative Union (which sponsors CPAC), the new American Conservative magazine, tax fighter Grover Norquist, Paul Weyrich, former congressman Bob Barr, and a few others. The libertarian institutes have sponsored many speakers and publications, and the Cato Institute has already cooperated with the American Civil Liberties Union on these issues. But the conservative war establishment has overwhelmed these voices. Equally, most of the Religious Right shows little concern for police state measures. After all, millions of them believe the world will end soon, so what does the constitution matter? Notably also, almost all their top leaders (except Chuck Colson and Pat Nolan of Prison Fellowship and author Rick Warren) supported the torture of prisoners of war. Only now, with new leadership, has the National Association of Evangelicals dared to condemn torture.

The Left, being on the outs, now has much more concern for the constitutional rule of law and international law. However the Left also has a long history, when it was in power, of caring little for constitutional niceties, especially on economic matters. Even today, the Left would go to war for Darfur regardless of consequences, as it once decimated Haiti's economy with an economic blockade under Clinton. In attacking Serbia, the Left did not demand any UN resolutions but used NATO for legitimacy, which severely undermined the pro-Western democratic forces in Russia.

Anti-Imperial Coalition

In many ways America has become like Rome, moving inexorably toward empire and a police state. A majority of Americans will always trade away their freedoms for supposed security. A few more terrorist attacks will weaken our constitutional protections even further. Democracies cannot run empires. So, empire will mean losing our democracy. Empire will also mean the constant risk of "mistakes" that can trigger nuclear or biological warfare.

Those of us with similar concerns on both Right and Left need more communication with each other. We need to study how we can work together. Brink Lindsay of the Cato Institute gives us one example with his manifesto on how to bring together libertarians with liberals.

We must also be mindful of the challenges. Christian reconstructionist Gary North argues that Left-Right alliances have rarely worked: witness how the Left, except for figures like Randolph Bourne and Eugene Debs, abandoned its internationalism and went nationalistic in support of U.S. entry into World War I. He argues that "each side should do its best to convince its own followers. We know our own side's accents and hot buttons."

Here, however, are some ways of transcending Left-Right concerns and forging an anti-imperial coalition.

  1. Explain to Americans how other nations also seek security, that negotiation is not "un-American," that Reagan too negotiated.

  2. Work against a U.S. attack on Iran and the spread of war, which could end up wrecking world trade. Work to bring in Japan and South Korea, which depend upon Arabian Gulf oil, to publicly pressure Bush not to attack.

  3. Bring in the business community. Much of it fears blowback from growing anti-Americanism abroad. The hi-tech industries in particular want peace to protect their intellectual property rights. Remember: Andrew Carnegie was a founding member of the Anti-Imperialist League.

  4. The improvements to our civil defense are woefully inadequate and incompetently behind schedule. We all know the prime targets: our big coastal cities, tunnels, reservoirs, and industrial ports such as the Houston Ship Canal. We need biological defense, hospital resources, and fallout shelters much more than we need new submarines. More consciousness about these risks might make more Americans aware of the connection between our bombing of foreigners and their acts of terrorism against us.

  5. Conservatives should join Leftist anti-war demonstrations, but with their own placards and banners. I have seen such at anti-war marches in Washington, and they are effective and draw attention. I wrote about this during the Kosovo war, because only Leftists make big antiwar events.

  6. Each side needs to publicize the other's anti-war resources. On the Right the conservative establishment has been very successful in suppressing anti-war views.

  7. Attend each other's meetings (though this can be counterproductive if the meetings are dominated by the extremist yahoos on the Right or America-haters on the Left).

  8. Promote travel, international conferences, and foreign views, especially for the young.

  9. Secure divided government so that each branch will investigate the other and help restrain its abuses of power.

  10. Work for term limits, still the best way to limit Leviathan, and bring in younger, less compromised congressmen and women.

  11. Remind Republicans that when they provide the president with ever more nearly dictatorial powers, it may well be a Hillary Clinton who enforces them.

There remains much that divides Left and Right. But, particularly as these designations lose their meaning, there is much that unites us as well. Opposition to American empire can serve as the banner that welcomes us into the one big tent of people opposed to war, an Anti-Imperialist League for the 21st century.

Courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus


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  • Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative and Robert A. Taft Fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A former correspondent for Knight Ridder in South America, Utley has written for the Harvard Business Review on foreign nationalism and was for 17 years a commentator on the Voice of America. He is director of Americans Against World Empire.

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