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[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on February 2, 2004
Tags: iraq

I read Paul Berman’s piece in the latest Dissent and was annoyed enough to write Dissent a letter. The chances of their publishing the letter are zero, so I reprint it here, for the edification and amusement of the world:

Who could have guessed that on his telling Paul Berman would be so articulate, and his friend so tongue-tied, in the conversation related in “A Friendly Drink in a Time of War”? Berman gives a nice twist to an old rhetorical trick: Instead of just arguing against a straw man, prop him up in a bar and chew him out. Then tell your friends. Don’t be afraid to embellish.

Well. I admit that Berman comes off looking good in his account of the conversation, but two can play at that game. I was there that night, and I can tell you that Berman leaves out what happened after he finished talking. This is how it really happened.

Berman had been drinking immoderately, and his voice was carrying through the entire bar, to the annoyance of all present. I held my peace until the end, but when he had finished talking I couldn’t resist turning around in my chair to face the pair.

“Excuse me,” I said, addressing myself to Berman. “It seems that your half-wit friend isn’t really holding up his end of the argument very well. Look, did you notice that after castigating him for failing to draw distinctions within the left, you went on to make a number of very broad - and extremely questionable - generalizations yourself? We could save a lot of time if you named names, and even more if you would direct me to specific texts. For example, could you find me a prominent, well-respected representative of the left who actually believes that Arabs are incapable of democracy? (Actually, several, since you’re painting with a roller here.) No points for someone who thinks that the conditions in Iraq make the struggle an uphill one, or who would have preferred to start The Grand Project of Democratization with, say, Egypt. If you can find him or her, I’ll gladly participate in a ritual excommunication of said person from the left, by the powers invested in me as a self-identifying lefty, and move on. Until then, this kind of broad explanation for the left’s resistance the war will continue to strike me as strained and unsatisfying.”

A hush had fallen over the bar. After listening much against their will and at considerable length to Berman pounding the table and berating his friend, everyone was clearly enjoying the solid drubbing I was delivering so effectively. Berman wobbled a little in his chair, took a deep drink from his beer, and started to splutter something about Chomsky. I cut him off.

“Mr. Berman, sir, I hardly think that Chomsky represents the whole of the left, or even that you have represented Chomsky properly. The left has tended to focus on mistakes in U.S. foreign policy partly because they correctly judge themselves to be more deeply responsible for what is done on their behalf than what other governments do on their own initiative and partly because they are alarmed at the hubris and moral arrogance of their own government, with all the dangers which attend hubris and moral arrogance in a country with such tremendous power. They have, at any rate, proposed a great many alterations to U.S. foreign policy which would promote democracy through peaceful means, and their proposals have usually fallen on deaf ears. I mean, would you go on and on about pushing Egypt on human rights - and voicing opposition to 2 billion dollars worth of annual foreign aid so long as the corrupt Egyptian government resists - if you thought Arabs were incapable of democracy? Really, Mr. Berman, you’re as silly as you are tedious.”

Berman slumped in his chair scowling at me drunkenly as I raised my fist above the table to beat my remaining points home. Whereas the bar had been sunk in awkward silence while Berman was raving drunkenly at his friend, a cheering crowd had gathered around us, and they began to whoop as I masterfully delivered point after crushing point.

“You seem to think that calling a person or a state ‘fascist’ relieves you of the obligation to think seriously about consequences. This is pseudo-profound flim-flam, and if anyone took you seriously, it would be very dangerous indeed. Saddam Hussein is profoundly evil. So, for that matter, is Kim Jong-Il (and many others we could easily agree on). I share Mr. Bush’s hatred of them, and don’t hesitate to call them evil. (I only balk at Mr. Bush’s calling them evil, because it usually means he’s about to do something stupid). And in calling them evil, I resolve to resist them. But in resolving to resist them, I do not necessarily commit myself to war. Before I could take that step, I would have to think seriously about [Thump!] the other struggles we’re engaged in, and what the likely effects of a war would be on them; [Thump!] about the peaceful alternatives for spreading democracy in the region; [Thump!] about the democratic costs of selling the war deceptively, since that is likely to be intrinsic to the project; [Thump!] about whether the tremendous resources allocated to this project might be spent to far greater humanitarian effect elsewhere; [Thump!] about the consequences of empowering deeply untrustworthy men like Cheney and Rumsfeld; [Thump!] about the likelihood that such a wicked, incompetent administration has the wisdom, political capital or discipline to realize a democratic vision for Iraq; [Thump!] about whether the massive increases in military spending, and the inevitable deepening of our economic dependence on them, is healthy in the long run; [Thump!] about whether our moral obligations to the Afghans have been sufficiently discharged by the installation of a mayor in Kabul and a general retreat from the rest of the country; and so on, Mr. Berman, and so on.”

“Please remember that after Sept. 11th a great many people on the left supported the war in Afghanistan. Even more, I suspect, now support it in retrospect, or would if it were being waged justly. They supported it because they thought it necessary and justified by the struggle against radical Islamicists, and hoped that the lives of Afghans might be considerably improved by it. Even people who resisted that war treat reports of American casualties there differently from the casualties in Iraq (an implicit concession, perhaps, that whatever the merits of the war in Afghanistan, casualties there are more justifiable than casualties in Iraq). Your hypothesis completely fails to capture why so many people on the left, and indeed, in the center, were willing to accept that war, waged by President Bush, against a country without a history very promising for democracy, and suffering under the lash of an Islamo-Facist government. Given this, why is it so hard for you to imagine that we weighed the considerations I just mentioned in our hearts when we were deciding whether to support the war against Iraq?”

Berman was stunned and obviously had nothing more to say, but I pressed the point home.

“It isn’t Arab culture that now stands in the way of democracy in Iraq. It’s decades of brutalization by Stalinist dictator which has left a very deep mark on the country. Having resisted an invasion, I am now terrified that the Bush administration will cut and run. And a great many on the left agree with me that now that the U.S. has waged this war, and promised what it has promised, it has an obligation to push with all its strength for a fair deal for Iraqis. But forgive me if I didn’t like the odds before the invasion. I resisted the war partly out of fear of a civil war in Iraq and nothing since the end of”major combat operations" has quieted those fears. You had a responsibility to weigh these odds, too, and all things considered I think you have done poorly. It was for all these reasons that I resisted the war, and they’re not bad ones. You might add them to your list the next time you’re puzzling through why so much on the left are unhappy with the war, and so fearful for the future."

At this point the cheering in the bar was so boisterous and unrestrained that it was difficult to be heard. And I was starting to feel sorry for poor Berman, who was clearly staggered by my intellectual superiority. Since his friend had long ago vanished in embarrassment, I bundled Berman in a cab, and made sure that it was headed in the right direction. Back in the bar (and over my protests) they sang half a dozen rounds of “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and then crowned me with laurels. I picked out three lucky sexual partners from a crowd of aspirants and together we made our own way home.

You may not believe me, but that’s the way it happened. At any rate, I think my story is at least as good as Berman’s.