Michael Massing considers Iraq

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 19 19:18:05 MST 2002

Although it is not on the Nation Magazine website, Michael Massing's "The
Moral Quandary vs Humanitarianism" in the current issue is well worth
tracking down. It is a highly nuanced examination of the issues that have
come to a head in the emerging antiwar movement and anti-antiwar movements,
the latter including outspoken supporters of US imperialism like
Christopher Hitchens as well as those at the Nation Magazine whose job it
is apparently to police the left (Liza Featherstone, Marc Cooper and David

I have a lot of respect for Massing. He was a fierce critic of the kind of
media bias in the 1980s that made Reagan's war against the Central American
revolution easier to carry out. Although the current line-up is nothing
like that of 15 years or so ago, the sort of obsessive demonization of
Saddam Hussein was clearly foreshadowed by the propaganda campaign against
Daniel Ortega, whose every move was put under a microscope. Just as Saddam
Hussein is being forced to prove a negative--namely that he has no weapons
of mass destruction--Ortega was constantly being pressured to prove that he
was not a puppet of the Soviet Union.

In a pip of an article that appeared in the June 28, 1987 Washington Post
(of all places!), Massing exposed 3 ex-leftists who were involved in lining
up support for the Nicaraguan contras: Robert Leiken, Penn Kemble and
Bernard Aronson. They were the Christopher Hitchens of their day. Leiken
was a former Maoist and the others were social democrats knew how to throw
around a phrase from the 18th Brumaire when the occasion suited them.

Massing was a skilled investigative journalist who had once been executive
editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. His most recent beat on the "drug
war" resulted in a book titled "The Fix" that has earned strong reviews.

The topic of Massing's article is a meeting at NYU sponsored by the
journalism department that included 5 speakers: Frances Fitzgerald, a
highly respected writer who was on the front lines opposing the war in
Vietnam; Todd Gitlin, a flabby version of Christopher Hitchens; pro-war
Dissent editor Michael Walzer; former Under-Secretary-General of the United
Nations Brian Urquhart; and Kanan Makiya, an ex-Trotskyist of Iraqi descent
also with Dissent Magazine and beating the drum loudly for war against his
former homeland.

Although Massing is obviously uncomfortable with Makiya's blood-curdling
war whoops, he does give credibility to Kenneth Pollack's "The Threatening
Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq". According to Pollack, Saddam Hussein is
one of the most horrible tyrants since Attila the Hun, which should not
come as a complete surprise given Pollack's past employment with the CIA--a
fact missing from Massing.

All in all, Massing approaches the question with good old-fashioned
American pragmatism. In answering the question why Saddam Hussein should be
deposed as opposed to those who rule Saudi Arabia or North Korea, he pretty
much answers: "Because you can get away with it."

Seemingly in a debate with himself, Massing then counters his own impulse
to aggression with the need to "weigh the anticipated benefits against the
expected costs." So, without skipping a beat, he shifts from pragmatism to
a kind of bookkeeper utilitarianism. Mostly, the arguments against a
"regime change" involve nasty side effects like distracting us from the war
on terror or pissing off other Arabs. He quotes Douglas Hurd, the former
British foreign secretary, who notes that a quick imperialist victory would
result in "a sullen and humiliated Arab nation."

Unfortunately, missing from Massing's calculations at this point is any
consideration whether the United States has the *right* to topple the
government of Iraq. Such a discussion would ultimately hinge on questions
of the nature of the US imperialism alluded to in the title of his article,
but given short shrift in the body itself.

Massing's article ends on a strong note. All of the 5 speakers at NYU
accepted the need to go to war if Iraq was in noncompliance with the UN.
Massing half-heartedly agrees with them: "Certainly a war conducted under
the aegis of the UN would be preferable to one urged unilaterally by the
United States; a UN-authorized assault, by embodying the collective will of
the international community, could blunt the anger that might erupt if the
world's lone superpower went it alone."

After articulating this option, Massing turns once again Hamlet-like to
consider the opposite possibility. He warns the "left", presumably the
rather staunch liberal base of the Nation Magazine readership, that the UN
"has become more and more subservient to the United States", a less than
startling revelation. He adds, driving home the point, that "If the
Security Council sanctions a war, does that automatically make it just?"

He urges another way. One alternative would be to bolster the rather
feckless Iraqi opposition by lifting most of the sanctions and by opening
up the country to foreign investment. This position strikes me as utopian
bordering on foolishness. The only foreign investment pending in the USA is
of the same sort that came to Central America after the revolution that
Massing wrote so fair-mindedly about in the 1980s. Over the rubble of
Nicaragua and El Salvador, maquiladoras sprouted up like toxic mushrooms
where desperate former peasants work for near-starvation wages. The model
that the USA has in mind for a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq would look a lot
like Nigeria today or Venezuela, as soon as Chavez gets the boot. To even
consider an alternative scenario given the relationship of class forces in
the world today is an insult to the Nation's readers and worse an insult to
Massing's reputation itself.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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