Black and white . . .

Nick Cohen accuses the liberal left of abandoning democracy. But his pro-war allies have much in com

What's Left? How liberals lost their way

Nick Cohen Fourth Estate, 405pp, £12.99

ISBN 0007229690

In writing this furious polemic against the anti-war lobby, Nick Cohen may inadvertently have done it a favour. In May 2003, I wrote a cover piece for the NS in which I sought to explain how a small group of British politicians and journalists, who counted themselves as still of the left, had more in common with the US neoconservatives than they cared to admit. My non-polemical article produced howls of anger, and demands for recantation, from some whom I named. I did not name Cohen, although I could have done.

My thesis was endorsed by many in subsequent months, but as far as I am aware, Cohen is the first war-proselytiser to confirm it. He recalls in his book a press briefing he attended in 2004 with Paul Wolfowitz, then the US deputy defence secretary and perhaps the most eloquent proponent of the school of thought driving the Bush administration. Cohen describes the occasion as initially "disconcerting", only to note: "It was hard not to be impressed by his seriousness." Wolfowitz, "and the other neoconservatives who were to take up the anti-Saddam cause, were hated because of their espousal of causes the liberal left had once owned, but no longer had the moral self-confidence to defend".

It matters that Cohen, like his fellow pro-war cheerleaders, comes from a far-left background. It was a part of the far left that brooked no dissent. They do not come from the mainstream left, which I would loosely define as social democratic or democratic socialist or liberal. They come from a tradition where politics is about black and white, and where opponents (even those who diverge slightly) are heretics. Polemic comes easily to them.

In one important area, however, Cohen differs from his comrades. He supported Iraq in spite of Tony Blair, not because of him. For that he merits respect. He was for years a staunch critic of the Prime Minister, combining good old-fashioned reporting with wit, mischief and passion. His early newspaper writing and his first books attest to that. The events of 9/11 changed him. Cohen became an ardent advocate of regime change as the main reason for war in Iraq. He was also driven by a fierce concern about the suffering of the Kurds at the hands of Saddam Hussein. He has pursued this cause with admirable doggedness, but he has failed to address a broader context. What are the benchmarks for going to war for one people and not another? In other words, why Kurdistan and not Tibet? (Because we're frightened stiff of the Chinese.) Why not Burma? Why not Uzbekistan? (Because a regime that, literally, boils dissidents alive became our ally in the "war on terror".) Politically and intellectually, it is not good enough, when confronted with questions of consistency and hypocrisy, to espouse the line "doing something is better than nothing".

Cohen's brush is so broad it does him a dis service. The million anti-war marchers of Feb ruary 2003 all succumb, apparently, to Islamo- fascism. "Stalinism, Castroism, Islamism, Ba'athism, the old distinctions no longer held. Any ism would do as an alternative to democracy," Cohen writes. Excuse me? Anybody who was on that march must admit that a small part of the crowd did consist of unsavoury characters. They were a very small proportion, perhaps 1 per cent at a guess, but such were the numbers overall that their militant banners made for good television footage. However, the overwhelming majority of war critics were - and remain - decent men and women who were not impervious to the sufferings of Americans in 9/11. They were not chanting for sharia law; they did not believe Saddam was a good man. Nor were they cowards who feared the trouble that a war with Iraq would bring to their streets. They saw instead a British Prime Minister, through hubris and naivety, deceive a country into a conflict that would have catastrophic consequences, many of which were predicted at the time.

To recap: this war has produced a link between terrorism and a failing state that did not exist before 2003; it has bolstered the power of Iran, the country that the US and UK governments always believed constituted a greater threat; it has killed tens of thousands of people; and it has all but destroyed the principles of humanitarian intervention on which Cohen and many of us originally agreed. I spent a month as a reporter in Rwanda in 1994, amid the cholera and genocide, seeing people macheted to death as international troops looked on. Many in the mainstream left supported Kosovo and Sierra Leone and, with reservations, the war in Afghanistan. We need no lectures about the merits of intervention. For most people in the broad labour movement, a better path was set by Robin Cook - a man with great flaws, but who tried to address the ethical dimension of foreign policy and who put his cabinet colleagues to shame by examining the case for war with Iraq forensically. To lump Cook in the same camp as George Galloway is to compare Bill Hicks with Bernard Manning.

Cohen writes convincingly about the need for the left to abide by higher standards. His tour d'horizon of the left through the 20th century includes some telling points about snobbery and appeasement. He marshals his objects of ire: Virginia Woolf, Betjeman, Foucault. He continues through Baudrillard to Chomsky (lots of him) and, via the Redgraves, the Workers Revolutionary Party - only people with a communist heritage would bother expending so much energy on such groups - and finally the anti-globalisation movement. Cohen says the left, in its default mode against fascism and, latterly, the US, is always on the side of totalitarian communist states. Where was he when we demonstrated for the Solidarity trade union against General Jaruzelski? Did he miss the hundreds of thousands carrying out non-violent protest against the communist government in East Germany?

If I talk repeatedly about the anti-war mainstream left, it is because that's just what we are - mainstream. The two opposing factions - those who Cohen rightly identifies as aligning themselves with militant Islam in its hatred of America, and the Manichaeans around Blair - are the fringe cults. They despise each other with such a passion because they can identify with each other. They share similar characteristics. They rarely let the facts get in the way of their preconceived notions. One wishes polemicists on both sides would get out more and see the world, with all its complexities.

The book makes no attempt to explain how Iraq went so terribly wrong. It could have done, and could have carried even more weight coming from someone who sincerely backed it. But Cohen ducks this. The closest he gets, in one short paragraph, is when he notes that "the protesters were right to feel that Bush and Blair were manipulating them into war".

Instead, finding himself in a hole, Cohen cannot stop digging. He flails around at bizarre targets - the entire left, all civil liberties lawyers, and that perennial bogey, the BBC. He speaks of his group as somehow beleaguered. And yet the newspapers, the Times and the Observer in particular, give commentators like him a profile far greater than their salience among public opinion. Cohen himself writes for three publications, including a monthly column in the NS that for most of the past two years he has dedicated to tirades against "the left". I am happy to publish these thoughts, as magazines such as ours should be a broad church. My decision to publish the Euston Manifesto (which Cohen very properly notes) was designed to challenge the easy assumptions of some readers.

I wish Cohen's book well. It has provoked debate, which is healthy. It has been greeted by British neo-cons as a great catharsis and has enjoyed a relatively indulgent press so far. This is not surprising given the modern commentariat's preference for contrarianism and controversy over calm reflection.

The book does not provide a coherent or credible critique of the left. But it does provide a telling lament from those who - with the best intentions - found themselves supporting the worst foreign policy decision in decades, and perhaps still struggle to come to terms with it. Always blame someone else. It may help you sleep better at night. We in the mainstream don't do vitriol. We do not require recantation. But a little contrition would do no harm.

Read Nick Cohen's excerpt from last week's issue

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia