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America’s Left caught between a flag and a hard place

Generals, it is said, are always fighting the last war. Facing a war that is neither World War II nor Vietnam, against an enemy neither Nazi nor Communist, Washington has sometimes sounded blustery and lost since Sept. 11.The same is true of America’s anti-war movement. The movement is a child of the Vietnam era and has viewed every subsequent conflict through that prism. To many liberals, meddling in the world’s business was taboo because when America put its own interests first, other nations suffered.

Now, the left is summoned to show not just foreboding – for which the war in Afghanistan is certainly ripe – but originality. Just as the Bush administration has scrapped its reluctance to intervene abroad and declared its readiness for “nation building,” American liberals need to re-examine their doctrines if they hope to influence events.

Peace activists need to grapple with the difficult questions of whether any war can be justified, or just, and what the practical alternatives are. Then they can decide whether they agree with U.S. military actions or not.

Whether the left will rise to the occasion is questionable.

Consider, first, the fights over the American flag, evident in the days after Sept. 11.

Splits quickly developed between those on the left who felt the unfamiliar passion of patriotism and those who didn’t. Feminist Katha Pollitt, a columnist for the Nation and a veteran of the movement against the Vietnam War, wrote that her teen-age daughter wanted to fly the flag, but Pollitt said no.

As a veteran of the same movement, I felt otherwise. A few days after the World Trade Center massacre, my wife and I hung out a flag on our balcony in Greenwich Village. Our desire was visceral – to express solidarity with the dead, membership in a wounded nation and affection for the community of rescue that affirmed life in the midst of death, springing up to dig through the nearby ashes and ruins.

So why does much of the left look traumatized and dysfunctional? Because anti-war absolutists cannot leave behind the melodramatic imagination of noble white hats in the “Third World” at war with imperial black hats. They have a hard time seeing America as a wounded party and seeing totalitarian Islamist groups like al-Qaida as world-class menaces.

These liberals are still stamped by the awfulness of the Vietnam War, along with ill-conceived American covert and semi-covert interventions in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Angola, El Salvador and Nicaragua. If American policy is – in their minds – forever motivated by nothing but imperial overreach, forever guilty of napalm and death squads, then all American wars must be opposed with an absolute “No.”

One version of liberal dogma – at least a consistent one – is the pacifist’s view that force must never be used. But the fundamentalist left does not oppose the use of force absolutely. Some go so far as to treat the slaughter of thousands at the World Trade Center as an event in the history of revolt by the oppressed against their oppressors. These hard-left supporters act as if Saudi Arabian and Egyptian fundamentalists were entitled, as victims of imperialism, to a touch of vengefulness.

For others on the left, American interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo – on behalf of oppressed Muslims, and against “ethnic cleansing,” concentration camps and massacres – marked a definitive end to the idea that all wars merited an absolute “No.”

Many of these liberals were sufficiently ambivalent about war and American power that they were reluctant to feel patriotic after Sept. 11. But they do. The nation that was grievously wounded is theirs.

In the main, they consider a regime that denies schooling for girls and harbors mass murderers repulsive. They are convinced that patriotism, sanctioned by international law, imparts a right of self-defense. They do not believe that love of country binds them to hot pursuit of the White House’s strategies or tactics. But in the fight at hand, they share the goal of a president who they did not, to put it mildly, support.

Thus, many on the left – myself included – feel varying degrees of queasiness with this war, but still forswear anti-war rallies. When our friends argue that war is unnecessary, and that, instead, Osama bin Laden should be tried by a world court, we have trouble seeing this as a practical alternative.

Like it or not, we live in a new world that we did not choose. Whatever flimsy new world order materialized at the end of the Cold War vaporized with the World Trade Center. We live now in a new world chaos, lacking maps or certitudes. To claim moral authority and political trustworthiness now, we liberals must break up our frozen, encrusted dogmas.

When civil liberty concerns confront security concerns, both have to be taken seriously. On a world scale we need to be, to paraphrase a slogan of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s, tough on terrorism – and tough on the causes of terrorism. This means we need to do more than destroy al-Qaida. It means we need to pursue a long-term foreign policy that doesn’t create more ready recruits for murderous terrorists.

To break habits is desperately hard. If the left is able to face reality, all the mess and danger of it, it will gain standing for the conflicts ahead. To argue effectively for people who need health insurance but have been abandoned by our leaders in Washington, we have to stand with the nation that those same people love.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University.