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The Left’s Rotten Rallying Cry of Retreat:
Cowardice is Not a Strategy

by M. Junaid Alam
August 17, 2004
First Published in Left Hook

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Bracing against a German assault that swiftly and brutally tore through western Russia in the summer of 1941, Josef Stalin remarked, “In the Soviet army it takes more courage to retreat than advance.” Today many radicals have joined the liberals and chattering classes in imagining themselves as partaking in an equally epic struggle with similar tactics; the Bush regime is Hitlerism reborn, an evil menace that can only be swept away by first retreating from many of the values and causes which they once rallied around in defense of the oppressed and downtrodden.

But whereas the Red Army only ceded ground to reorganize and make a stronger stand around defensible positions, the battle cry of ‘Anybody But Bush’ sends its adherents scurrying towards a candidate and party which have – in no uncertain terms - fully endorsed and vowed to continue perpetrating the two most morally indefensible and politically disastrous tragedies of our time: the occupation of Iraq and Palestine. This hardly concerns our ABB intelligentsia: so entranced by their fanatical fear, zealous hatred, and personal demonization of George Bush, they have decided that removing him from power justifies abandoning any actual political position.

What these champions of capitulation fail to understand, however, is that the Bush program – epitomized by implementation of neoconservative American-Israeli fantasies made realizable by September 11th – is already being resisted by the defiance and courage of those marked as its first targets – the Iraqis and Palestinians. The brazen, arrogant program of quickly conquering Iraq and forcing the Palestinians to submit to a false peace, which was to be the pincer movement in crushing and demoralizing the Arabs, is being challenged and disrupted by the realities of mass resistance on the ground. Against this backdrop of active struggle, the ABB directive to vote pro-war and pro-occupation, far from being any kind of principled or “pragmatic” retreat justifiable in a situation like the summer of 1941, is more akin to engaging in mass desertion during the fall of 1942 - when the crucial defense of Stalingrad was mounted to finally halt the Nazi advance.

The ABB message is perfectly clear: in today’s internationalized Stalingrad that is the “war on terror”, Palestinians can continue getting mowed down protesting the walls that imprison them, Iraqis can continue getting slaughtered in their own cemeteries fighting a foreign invasion, but we – ensconced in our placid, secure, luxurious lives – simply have “no option” but to vote for war and occupation conducted by Kerry as opposed to war and occupation conducted by Bush, because our problem is far more urgent than colonialism: Bush’s “uncouthness” and inability to properly pronounce “adjectival clauses.” (1) That victims of American-made bullets and bombs will be able to appreciate these most noteworthy differences is doubtful.

In reality, the quintessential point about the Bush administration is not that it is uniquely crass or particularly dim-witted, but that its most reactionary maneuvers – unconditional support for rabid Zionism and pre-emptive war against Iraq – have produced a new set of political dynamics dangerous to imperialism which the American ruling elite as a whole has unequivocally decided to contain at any cost. Chief among its goals are destroying the Iraqi insurgency and propping up a stable strong-man regime, continued strangulation and ghetto-ization of the Palestinian masses, and an attempt at containment, in the form of perpetual war, against a growing Islamist movement fueled by the two aforementioned policies, including possible war with Iran (blamed for Iraq quagmire) and Pakistan (with Islamists seizing state power).

To pretend that Kerry operates outside this ruling-class consensus is patently absurd. He helped lead the nation into war with Iraq in his capacity as senator by voting to authorize Bush with war powers and has declared ex-post facto support for the war even absent its original pretexts. The liberal-led stampede to elect Kerry is undoubtedly one of the greatest self-deceptions of all time; so obsessed with the superficial quirks of the Bush persona, it will gladly vote the Bush war agenda into power so long as it is administered by some other – any other - individual. The Bush regime has therefore fulfilled its historical function; it has outlined the path of America’s descent which the good soldier John “reporting for duty” Kerry and his sycophants will lead us down with due diligence. Or as the New Left Review recently editorialized, “[T]he Bush revolution has succeeded; it has produced its heir.” (2)

Given this state of affairs, it is unconscionable for radicals to provide cover fire for the massive liberal deception campaign that is Anybody But Bushism. More than half of all Americans oppose the war in Iraq. Almost the entire world – and especially the Arab world - stands against the occupation. Young American men and women are being forced into virtual military slavery with endless extensions on their tours of duty, fighting in the hundreds of thousands, killing in the tens of thousands, becoming maimed in the thousands, and dying in the hundreds. And we are to support this madness by backing a more “efficient”, more “eloquent” proponent of war? Let us not mince words: adoption of any such program is not only a betrayal of radical tradition and ideas; it is a betrayal of humanity.

Instead of asserting a strong, confident, and politically sharp stance laying out the class realities of the overall ‘war on terror’ and the two-party machine that perpetuates it, many radicals are peddling watered-down versions of ABBism that sow confusion, foster illusions, and rob of us moral clarity and authority. Some of the arguments offered by radicals in the ABB camp are simply untrue or plainly bizarre, completely contradicting historical facts and political realities that should not be so easily lost upon us.

For instance, in a recent interview, discounting the notion that Bush’s “unit[ing] [of] the world against the United States empire,” is “a good thing”, Tariq Ali intoned: “This is an argument you can have from the luxury of your sitting room or kitchen in the United States, but the fact is that this particular regime has taken the lives of at least 37,000 civilians in Iraq as a result of the war…Thirty-seven thousand civilians have died, and for them it's not an abstract question...” Ali then concluded with a rhetorical question quickly seized upon by ABBers everywhere: “Do we defeat a warmonger government or not?”

There can only be one honest answer to that question: replacing one warmonger-in-chief with another does not constitute a “defeat” for a “warmonger government.” Since Kerry has explicitly made clear that he would not have changed his vote to authorize the war against Iraq even in retrospect, and will merely work to recruit more U.S. allies to assist in “stabilizing” Iraq, there is absolutely no basis whatsoever for any thinking person to magically conclude that Iraqi civilians will receive any respite from a Kerry administration. At a time when some radicals have apparently lost some of their senses, they can always look across the barricades for a reality check: Staunch conservative commentator William Buckley Jr. recently wrote (with much satisfaction), “Get from your paper supplier the thinnest sheet in the inventory, and you won't succeed in wedging it between the Republican and the Democratic position on the nature of our strategic objectives in Iraq.” (3) Full stop.

Tariq Ali should also take note of the fact that while upwards of 37,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed under Bush, it was under the Clinton regime that approximately 1,000,000 Iraqis were murdered by sanctions deemed “genocidal” by the very men who were appointed to enforce them. And whereas Ali contends elsewhere in the interview that a Democratic administration would not have gone to war in Iraq in the first place, it should be further noted that he is disputed by no less an authority than Hillary Clinton, who not only avidly supports the war but recently praised it as a continuation of her husband’s past policies. (4) This assessment was also confirmed by Clinton foreign policy adviser Strobe Talbott, who said, “The Bush administration was right to identify Iraq as a major problem. A President Gore…would have ratcheted up the pressure, and sooner or later resorted to force.” (5) The bottom line is that nothing will change for Iraqis by voting for Kerry, and the sooner we stop deluding ourselves and others with false hopes in this or that candidate, the better prepared we can be to launch a genuine antiwar campaign from the ground up.

A more exotic brand of ABBism was recently offered up by Naomi Klein in the pages of The Nation magazine. To her credit, Klein explicitly rejects the standard fare ABB hype about Bush as the epitome of evil and Kerry as the nation’s savior. But her case for joining the Anybody But Bush camp borders on the surreal. Identifying a phenomenon among some progressives she calls “Bush Blindness”, which “causes us to lose sight of everything we know about politics, economics and history and to focus exclusively on the admittedly odd personalities of the people in the White House”, Klein demands, “This madness has to stop, and the fastest way of doing that is to elect John Kerry…Only with a bore like Kerry at the helm will we finally be able to put an end to the presidential pathologizing and focus on the issues again.”

In other words, we should place “at the helm” a man who openly supports continued strangulation of Iraq, deems Israel’s brutality “the cause of America” and personally opposes abortion and gay marriage because some progressives (and what grand progressives they must be!) fail to grasp important and pressing realities that - unlike Bush’s syntax - affect the lives of millions. Perhaps Klein advanced this “vote Kerry because Bush makes leftists silly” thesis as a way to distance herself from the underpinnings of the ABB line while technically accepting it in order to placate the many staunch ABBers associated with The Nation, but in the end this only makes Klein herself look silly. After all, launching political strategies devised around those who conveniently “lose sight of everything we know” at the crucial hour is bound to be as successful as sending Icarus soaring into the sun.

With an air of profound authority and wisdom, professional and reluctant ABBers alike will plead that all of the above is simply beside the point. The crux of the matter, they say, is that at the end of the day Kerry is at least somewhat better than Bush – or in fashionable far-left parlance – “Kerry is horrendous - but Bush is worse.” Therefore, the logic goes, a Kerry outcome will defeat and spare us some of Bush’s policies. The problem is that this is an utterly false and formalistic construction. This kind of logic is no better than that of a man who, when pierced by an arrow, exhorts his friends as they try to pull it out, “Stop! The shaft is horrendous – but the tip is worse!”

Of course the Democratic Party must be marginally better than the Republicans on some issues – if a two-party capitalist system did not contain one party that gave token support to non-elites, the system would collapse overnight from ideological bankruptcy. But this difference does not make the Democrats oppositional to the elite’s program anymore than the seeming harmlessness of an arrow’s shaft makes it oppositional to the dangerous tip it is delivering. Briefly tracing back some of the politics surrounding the current so-called “war on terror” from the present period, we can clearly see this dynamic in motion and elaborate upon it.

No serious person denies that Iraq is the most salient political expression of the world crisis of imperialism. The occupation and resistance in Iraq forms the fulcrum of political fault lines, tensions, and consciousness the world over. The issues which are symbolically and strategically at stake are well-known and call for no elaboration; suffice it to say that the conflict, viewed and fought as the defining battle between conflicting political, religious, national and historical forces, exerts enormous centrifugal tendencies that could ignite the entire region in war, conquest, chaos, and revolution.

In this conflict of such magnitude and importance, it is equally indisputable that the Bush regime’s pretexts for war have all been totally eviscerated. Major scandals surrounding Chalabi, Abu Ghraib, the lack of WMD or Iraq – al-Qaeda links, and emergence of widespread, enduring Sunni and Shiite revolts have mocked the fairy-tale narrative concocted by the Bush administration for months.

All the more interesting it is, then, that the “opposition” candidate of the Democratic Party has absolutely failed to capitalize upon any of this to his own political advantage. In fact, an impossible thing has happened: Bush has been able to effectively ridicule Kerry for “flip-flopping” on the war, charges which have stuck all the more strongly not because Kerry actually ever opposed the war, but because he has nitpicked with this or that aspect or method of it before ultimately declaring he backed the decision to wage it. The point is, Kerry has clearly decided not to make the elections a referendum on the war, even though he could have torn apart his opponent and seized the initiative - and with it, the election. He would rather fall on the sword of the capitalist consensus to march onwards towards further mayhem in the Middle East than betray his class and galvanize the broader public.

The lesson here is simple: the Democratic Party does not act, but only reacts; it merely acquiesces to “facts on the ground” created by right-wing forces. This is equally true in the immediate aftermath of September 11. During that time, there was in America only one political force with a concrete vision, sense of purpose, and the determination to carry out its own agenda without hand wringing and endless vacillation: the Republican Party. It marshaled its forces swiftly and sprung forward with an ideological and political offensive that allowed it to frame the parameters of debate and direct the course of events. The group of ideologues known as neoconservatives, who had been skulking on the outskirts of official opinion for more than twenty years, suddenly thrust its program into the center of national attention and began dominating discourse.

Where were the Democrats during all of this? Where were their heroes and leaders and thinkers? Where was their program and platform in response to this crisis? Since September 11th the party’s members have merely voted for the Republican-backed programs of domestic surveillance (PATRIOT Act), unjustifiable war (Operation Iraqi Freedom), and aggressive pro-Israeli posturing (Syrian Accountability Act). Apparently no leadership, thinking, or program is required when you can simply adopt them from the “opposing” party. And prior to September 11th, what great wall separated Democratic foreign policy from that of the Republicans? Both were equally brutal, unjust, and effective in making their Arab victims fear and hate the US government.

The ineluctable truth is that no “evil cabal” or “particularly reactionary” set of creatures in our government can be blamed for the dangerous and unsafe world we now inhabit. That the Bush administration may be evil or reactionary is not the cause of the present state of affairs but rather one result of a long-running state of affairs in which the nation’s “left-wing” party, (a) enables the agenda launched by their right-wing counterparts through silence and complicity, and then (b) administers this same agenda and oversees all its consequences once the Right has fumbled and blundered its way into unpopularity.

Today, the consequences are particularly deadly. The long reach of Islamic-fundamentalist terrorism has illustrated to us in no uncertain terms the urgency of defeating the joint bipartisan project of outsourcing death and misery to poorer parts of the globe. No longer can the government drop thousands of bombs in a reign of terror in some far off place against innocents without risking – indeed, amplifying – the threat of terror against innocents here at home. What was never conscionable from the moral vantage point has now become – by the measure of any rational person – untenable from the practical vantage point as well.

Unfortunately, the Democratic Party is interested not in what is rational, but rather what is profitable. It is committed to the path of sustained war, which will only aggravate and amplify all the horrors and dangerous we already face.

This leaves the radical left with two options: we can either leave the two-party arrow lodged in our chest because one part is “less horrendous” than the other and bleed to death, or we can remove it completely, concentrate on developing our own movements from below – and fire back.

M. Junaid Alam, 21, is co-editor & webmaster of Left Hook, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at


1. Left Hook contributor Michael Dempsey pointed out in this article’s footnote that “The Harvard Democrats for Kerry have a poster which assails President Bush for his ‘uncouthness.’” Mark Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle spent the first few paragraphs of his anti-Bush tirade complaining about Bush’s grammar, including adjectival clauses. Common Dreams of course, dutifully reprinted it here.

2. New Left Review editorial, July-August 2004 edition.

3. “The New War Hawk”, an op-ed that appeared in Yahoo! News online on August 10th, 2004.

4. NY Observer, August 11, 2004 “On Truman’s Train, Kerry Comes Down On War—He’s For It,” by Robert Sam Anson.

5. See note 2.

Other Articles by M. Junaid Alam


* Torture is Merely the Symptom
* The Enemy Within
* We Are the Barbarians: Consequences of Colonialism in Iraq
* Interview with Jeffrey St. Clair
* Regime Change, Resistance-Style: Iraq's Intifada Begins
* Israel, Suicide Nation
* Are We Waging An Anti-Civilizational War?
* An Interview with Noam Chomsky on Bush and the Left's Strategy for the Elections
* “If You Organize, You Can Win”: Philly School Workers Fight for Fair Contract
* Iraq’s Right to Resist: Outside the Spectacle
* Image and Reality in the Middle East: An Interview with Norman Finkelstein
* The Racism Barrier: Answering William Safire
* The Wolf Who Cried “Wolf” Charging Anti-Semitism—and Extending the Iron Wall

* Why Do They Hate Us? And How to Move Forward