Michael Massing Considers Iraq


(posted to www.marxmail.org on December 19, 2002)


Although it is not on the Nation Magazine website, Michael Massing's "The Moral Quandary: Anti-Imperialism 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 Corn.)


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.