Choosing Sides: On Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?

Choosing Sides: On Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?

What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way by Nick Cohen

What’s Left?
How Liberals Lost Their Way
by Nick Cohen
Fourth Estate, 2007 400 pp $26

THE PRO-INVASION left was always a small battalion, made up almost entirely of journalists and intellectuals who believed toppling the Taliban and Saddam Hussein was a good idea—even if the only leader available to lead the charge was George W. Bush. Yet almost since the first statue of Saddam fell to the ground, it has been losing troops—to the antiwar side, to a sullen AWOL silence, or to despair. So far, there have been retractions from Peter Beinart, Norman Geras, David Aaronovitch, and more; only a few lone fighters remain, like Japanese troops hiding in the forest, unaware their war has been lost. Now, with What’s Left?, the most substantial work by a pro-war left intellectual has been published, and we can ask, Did this strange niche in Anglo-American politics—of which I was a part, for a time—produce any enduring insights?

British columnist Nick Cohen was always one of the most gifted—and unexpected—of pro-war polemicists. In 2003 he was the most prominent left-wing critic of Tony Blair in the British press, poaching and filleting Blair’s New Labour love-in with corporations and the super-rich every week from the impeccably liberal pages of the Observer and the New Statesman. His initial reaction to the September 11, 2001, massacres was, he writes now, “that they were a nuisance that got in the way of more pressing concerns. Throughout the Nineties, I had been writing about the overweening power of big business. . . . Attacking Tony Blair was what I liked doing.” So—as anybody who knew him would have predicted—he opposed the invasion of Afghanistan, warning that it could trigger famine and mass death.

But then, an old left-wing value stirred unexpectedly in his conscience. Cohen was raised to believe the moral core of the left lies in its consistent antifascism, an absolute opposition to the far right in all places and at all times. He quips that when he was a child his mother was so scrupulous about never buying oranges from either Franco Spain or apartheid South Africa that if the general had held on for a few more years Cohen would have developed scurvy. He was raised to see Orwell in Catalonia as his moral archetype—the socialist bearing a pack and going abroad to fight fascists. If the pro-war left had any central spine to its thought, it was the unexpected question, what would Orwell do? Could it be, Cohen pondered as the left rallied against the war, that the Taliban and Saddam were also faces of fascism, and if so, did that not place an obligation on the left to support its victims?

Cohen began to pore through the works of Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens, left wingers he had long admired in the world of September 10. They argued there was a jot of racism in the failure of many on the left to realize that, a...