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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Now This Is Discourse



Anti-totalitarianism as a VocationAn Interview with Adam Michnik
by Thomas Cushman

Adam Michnik, a leading force in the Solidarity trade union movement, and the founder and editor of the largest Polish daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, was an outspoken supporter of the war in Iraq. In this interview, which occurred in Warsaw on January 15, 2004, Michnik clarifies his position on the war and discusses the responses of other European intellectuals.

Thomas Cushman: I'd like to focus on the response of Polish intellectuals and former anticommunists and activists to the war in Iraq, Polish relations with America more generally, and how the latter have affected relations between Poland and other European countries, especially those that were against the war. I am an American liberal who supported the war in Iraq on humanitarian grounds. It's somewhat difficult to find such people in the United States, so I've had to come all the way to Poland to find liberals who support the war. In your essay "A View from the Left: We the Traitors" (Gazeta Wyborcza, May 29, 2003, and in English in World Press Review, June 2003), you took a very strong position of support for the war in Iraq and noted that you share that position with other former dissidents. Could you explain this in more detail?
Adam Michnik: I look at the war in Iraq from three points of view. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a totalitarian state. It was a country where people were murdered and tortured. So I'm looking at this through the eyes of the political prisoner in Baghdad, and from this point of view I'm very grateful to those who opened the gates of the prison and who stopped the killing and the torture. Second, Iraq was a country that supported terrorist attacks in the Middle East and all over the world. I consider that 9/11 was the day when war was started against my own work and against myself. Even though we are not sure of the links, Iraq was one of the countries that did not lower its flags in mourning on 9/11. There are those who think this war could have been avoided by democratic and peaceful means. But I think that no negotiations with Saddam Hussein made sense, just as I believe that negotiations with Hitler did not make sense. And there is a third reason. Poland is an ally of the United States of America. It was our duty to show that we are a reliable, loyal, and predictable ally. America needed our help, and we had to give it. This was not only my position. It was also the position of Havel, Konrad, and others.

TC: Yes, you specifically mention that this is a view you share with Vaclav Havel and Gyorgy Konrad.
AM: We take this position because we know what dictatorship is. And in the conflict between totalitarian regimes and democracy you must not hesitate to declare which side you are on. Even if a dictatorship is not an ideal typical one, and even if the democratic countries are ruled by people whom you do not like. I think you can be an enemy of Saddam Hussein even if Donald Rumsfield is also an enemy of Saddam Hussein.

TC: This is a difficult position to find on the left in the United States. It seems as if many people would not support the fight against totalitarianism because it was being waged by a government that they did not like.
AM: Susan Sontag's speech from the Frankfurt Book Fair will be published in Gazeta Wyborcza.* I think that when she hears what I'm saying here, she's no longer going to extend her hand to me.

TC: But unlike Sontag, who has never had any direct experience of totalitarianism, your position seems to be directly related to your experience as a revolutionary, as an antifascist and an anticommunist. Is your view on the war a natural progression from this experience?
AM: It's simply that life has taught me that if someone is being whipped and someone is whipping this person, I am always on the side of those who are being whipped. I've always criticized U.S. foreign policy for forgetting that the United States should defend those who need to be defended. I would object to U.S. policy if it supported Saddam Hussein, and I have always criticized the United States for supporting military regimes in Latin America.

TC: In your writing you often criticize utopian politics. It seems that George W. Bush's vision (or that of his neoconservative advisers) is a utopian vision: destroying totalitarianism and instituting democracy. A large part of the reaction against Bush seems to be focused on his revival of some kind of American messianism. How do you reconcile your criticism of utopian thinking with support of this seeming American utopianism?
AM: Bush has a utopian ideology . . . maybe not Bush, but maybe his circle. Perhaps I'm being naïve, but I don't think it is utopian to want to install democratic rule in Iraq. If it won't be an ideal democracy, let it be a crippled democracy, but let it not be a totalitarian dictatorship. I don't like many things in today's Russia, but we have to say that there is a difference between Putin and Stalin. In my opinion, the religious visions of Bush's circle are anachronistic. I can't believe that John Ashcroft has personal conversations with God every day, who tells him what to do. But if God told him that he should destroy Saddam, then this was the right advice, because a world without Saddam Hussein is better than a world with Saddam Hussein.

TC: This is a fundamental political ideological position.
AM: Yes, but I can imagine that even a bad government guided by a bad ideology can enter into a just war.

TC: In "We the Traitors," you mention that you communicated with Havel and other European intellectuals about the war in Iraq and that there seems to be some solidarity between Eastern European intellectuals and the United States vis-à-vis the war in Iraq. On the other hand, many, if not most, Western European intellectuals, particularly in France, and also left intellectuals in America, took a diametrically different position. Given your longstanding positive relations with American and European intellectuals, have you experienced any backlash against your position?AM: Yes.

TC: And what do they say? I find that when I try to debate the issue with many left intellectuals, they just shut down, refuse to hear the arguments. Many of them simply express a visceral hatred of George Bush, and this seems to block any meaningful discussion of the anti-totalitarian justification of the war. They simply cannot understand, nor do they seem to want to understand how a liberal intellectual could support the war in Iraq.
AM: Well, who was worse, Ronald Reagan or Leonid Brezhnev? If I were American I would never have voted for Reagan, but as a Pole, I liked the tough position of Reagan toward Brezhnev. Perhaps Reagan did not quite understand what he was doing, and maybe Bush doesn't understand either. But the facts are that, suddenly, Libya has begun to speak a different language. Syria has begun to speak a different language. Even North Korea has started to speak a different language. This is not to say that Bush is always right. Of course not. But you must see the hierarchy of threats, of dangers. I asked my French and German friends, Are you afraid that tomorrow Bush will bomb Paris? And can you really be sure that terrorists and fundamentalists will not attack the Louvre? So which side are you on?

TC: So it's either-or . . . you're either with us or against us.
AM: Unfortunately, yes

TC: But this is the attitude of fundamentalists.
AM: No, it's not fundamentalist because I don't believe that there are nations that are, let's say, cursed. I remember that the United States of America, after the bloody war with Germany and Japan and Italy, helped these countries become democracies. When I visit my friends in Spain, who always criticize the United States, I ask them, "In 1945, were you mad at Americans for not overthrowing Franco, or did you expect them to do this?" And they say that it was awful that the United States did not go into Spain and overthrow Franco. In some ways Franco was worse then Saddam Hussein.

TC: But the average left intellectual in the United States won't listen to this argument. If one supports the war on liberal grounds, then antiwar liberals disagree with the prowar position-and, of course, those on the right who support the war don't agree with the liberal justification. AM: Well, we had a similar situation under communism because even though we hated the communists, they fought about the border with Germany, and we anticommunists had exactly the same position as they did.*

TC: How do your friends in Europe reply to this argument?
AM: Well, they say that Americans want to have power over the whole world. They criticize unilateralism. They say that they do not agree that the United States of America should dictate to the whole world. They also say that international law is being abused, that the United Nations did not consent to this. So I simply say that it's not that I want the United States to have all the power in the world, but that I prefer this to Saddam Hussein.

TC: So would it be right to say that you believe that there is a moral imperative that is greater than international law?
AM: Of course.

TC: But this is the paradox, the problem that we face. The moral argument confronts the body of international law and falls flat.
AM: What is international law when you have the human rights commission in Geneva headed by Libya?

TC: In one of your earlier articles in Kritika, called "Three Kinds of Fundamentalism,"* you stress the dangers of fundamentalism: it expresses "the conviction that one possesses a prescription for the organization of the world, a world free of conflicts other than the conflict between good and evil, free of conflicts between interests and different points of view. " This is exactly what many American and European intellectuals say about George Bush.
AM: They're right. They are absolutely right. The only thing they are wrong about is the war in Iraq.

TC: So the war is acceptable in spite of the fact that George W. Bush, with his rhetoric of evil, might be something of a fundamentalist and is engaging in dangerous politics?
AM: I don't think his international policies are dangerous. I think it is the way he justifies these policies.
TC: What about his justifications? AM: I think it's always dangerous to make political arguments in a religiously ideological way. And it's very dangerous to treat as traitors to the American nation those who think differently. I think it's very dangerous to use foreign policy to achieve goals in internal policy. But, still, I think that the decision to overthrow Hussein was right and just. Of course, you can win the war and you can lose the peace, and this is what I'm afraid of now. I'm afraid today that the spirit of triumphalism is ascendant in U.S. policy. So if President Bush asked me, I would advise him to involve the United Nations in Iraq. I would seek reconciliation with the countries in Western Europe that criticized the war in Iraq. I think that it was a mistake not to use NATO structures in this war. It is impossible for the United States to deal with the whole world on its own. The United States must look for allies . . . should reunite their country with Europe. You must not be offended with Europe because the United States has much in common with, say, France. This conflict is a gift for terrorists and fundamentalists.

TC: Throughout your revolutionary period, when you were fighting against communism, you always took a position of nonviolence. Now, in supporting the war you are advocating violence. Can you explain this? I ask this because many people in the United States admired you for your nonviolent stance against communism. But now they say, "Michnik advocates nonviolence, but he's supporting this war." Isn't it paradoxical to advocate the promotion of human rights through violent means? I realize that this is a difficult question
AM: No, it's a very easy one. I can't remember any text of mine where I said that one should fight Hitler without violence; I'm not an idiot. Against [Polish premier Wojciech] Jaruzelski you could fight without violence, even against Brezhnev. This is clear if you look at [Soviet dissidents] Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. But never against Saddam Hussein. In the state of Saddam, the opposition could find a place only in cemeteries.

TC: So some situations call for violence in order to overthrow totalitarianism, fascism?
AM: Of course. I've never been a pacifist.

TC: No, I know that. But I repeat: in the United States, people say that Michnik was for nonviolence, and now he's for violence. This is what people tell me.
AM: There are dictatorships against which you can fight without violence; for example, the British Empire in India. But in the Third Reich of Hitler, there was no possibility of this.

TC: Let me ask you about the role of Israel. Given your Jewish background, are you ever subjected to accusations of serving Israeli interests?
AM: Not even in Poland have I ever been accused of this! We have the whole universe of anti-Semitic dispositions in Poland, but I've never been accused of serving Israeli interests. I'm not even accused of being pro-American, because most Poles are pro-American. You can say that I look at Israel and the Middle East from the point of view of a Polish intellectual who likes the country, but does not like Ariel Sharon. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where Arabs can be elected to the parliament in a democratic election. We invited several Iraqi journalists to our newspaper, to Gazeta Wyborcza, for a roundtable. What they said about Saddam Hussein's regime, well, you can't imagine. I would advise my critical friends in the United States to talk to the Iraqi people. Let them talk to Iraqi journalists who suffered in silence for so many years. In relation to Iraq, critics of the war only hear the voices of the neoconservatives.

TC: Why are Western European intellectuals deaf to this moral argument?
AM: Well, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Bernard Kuchner, and others aren't deaf. It's related to why so many Western European intellectuals did not want to hear about Stalin's crimes for so many years.

TC: It's an interesting problem for the sociology of intellectuals and ideology. There is some continuity in the deafness to moral argument, some relation between past and present.
AM: It's a sociological and historical problem. Look at France. France can never accept that it is no longer a dominating power in the world of culture. This is true both of the French right and the French left. They keep thinking that Americans are primitive cowboys or farmers who do not understand anything. If Americans do not understand the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, what do they know about the world? But this doesn't change the method. Americans could never understand the difference between the right and the left in Germany, but they knew that Hitler should be defeated!

TC: Now we have a situation in which Polish troops are involved actively in Iraq. How do you feel about the fact that there are Polish troops supporting what many see as an American imperial venture? For many years the Poles were put down by empires, by Russia, by Austria-Hungary, by Germany, and all of a sudden the Poles are the allies of the new American Empire. AM: No, we are not in Iraq as part of the empire, we are there for freedom. If America were to occupy a foreign country only because it's not friendly toward the United States, we would be against it.

TC: This does not represent some kind of will to power on the part of Poland?
AM: Oh sure, the Polish people dream about Baghdad being our colony!

TC: But still, in all seriousness, here are the Poles, the Americans, the Australians, the British, and they're occupying this country, and so the rest of the world looks at Poland, and the perception is that it's part of the imperial project of America.
AM: Did they criticize the fact that four countries-the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union-occupied Germany after the Second World War?
TC: In my discussions with some other Polish intellectuals, who are critical of the war, they claim that Iraq is not the same kind of situation. AM: It's never the same.

TC: They say that the intellectuals who support the war in Iraq don't understand that Saddam Hussein is not Adolf Hitler, and so on. I interviewed Jacek Kuron the other day and, as you know, he was against the war. He was critical of the idea that the fight against Saddam Hussein is the same thing as the fight against Hitler.
AM: Well, it's obvious that Saddam is not Hitler. Pol Pot was not Hitler either. My fundamental question is, What would Saddam Hussein have to do for my dear friend Jacek to agree that he's as bad as Hitler? What more would he have had to do? Invade Poland and build gas chambers in Auschwitz one more time?

TC: Have you changed your position at all on the war in Iraq now that it's over?
AM: No. But I wonder whether America is not making mistakes after the victory. Regarding the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein, I have no doubts. Still, I don't know if the policy of stabilization is optimal. Here, I'm afraid of American arrogance, the lack of sensitivity to the culture in Iraq, to the Iraqi people. The State Department should get Americans of Iraqi background more involved in Iraq and so far as I know they are not doing this.

TC: So are you more negative about the post-war situation than you were about the war itself? AM: The war was just and fair. But what's happening now requires different methods. It's not enough that we have technology, we must help the people there. And I'm afraid of the ignorance and arrogance of the Americans.

TC: What do you mean by American arrogance? How do you define it?
AM: They do not understand the sense of Iraqi dignity, the dignity of Saddam's enemies. If you're powerful, you are much more likely to be blind and deaf to signals from outside.
The interviewer would like to thank the U.S. ambassador to Poland, Christopher Hill, and Patricia Hill for arranging this interview. Helena Luczywo served as the translator for the interview. Thomas Cushman is editor of the Journal of Human Rights and a professor of sociology at Wellesley College.

*Ed.note: In this speech, published as "The Fragile Alliance" in the Guardian of October 18, 2003, Sontag focused on the rift between American and European civilization. She offered distinct criticism of the polarizing rhetoric that has been at the base of much of the Bush administration's war against terrorism and of American unilateralism as principal causes of the current U.S.-European tensions. Her position stands in contrast to Michnik's focus on anti-totalitariansim and the perils of Saddam Hussein and terrorism. She made virtually no mention of internal European politics as a source of tension between the United States and Europe.

*Ed. note: The issue of the Polish-German border was a matter of dispute throughout the twentieth century. In 1950, the Oder-Neisse line was established at the border, but was not initially accepted by West Germany, because many Germans were displaced from Polish lands without being granted the right of return and because of concerns over the rights of the German minority in Poland. Eventually, the Federal Republic of Germany accepted the border as a condition of reunification, but throughout the process, it was a contentious issue around which dissidents and communists in Poland tended to unite.

*This essay appears in Letters from Freedom: Post-Cold War Realities and Perspectives (University of California Press, 1998), pp. 253-259.


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