IMPERIALIST WARS like the one that has just been launched against Afghanistan always put the left to the test. It's always possible to find some excuse for supporting imperialist rulers.
In the First World War it was the need to defend democracy against (depending on what side you wanted to support) German militarism or Russian autocracy. Recently it has been the undeniably vile nature of the regimes that the West wanted to fight-those of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic-that has let left wing warmongers off the hook.
So far in the present crisis this kind of reasoning hasn't been very persuasive. This is not because the Taliban are anything but a monstrous regime. It is because the links binding them and Osama Bin Laden to key allies such as the Pakistani military and the Gulf sheikhdoms are so well known.
There are exceptions. US-based British writer Christopher Hitchens has since 11 September appointed himself as one of the chief recruiting sergeants for George W Bush's 'war against terrorism'. I remember Hitchens when he was a revolutionary socialist back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
He had ceased to be a revolutionary by the time he moved to the US in 1980. But he emerged there as one of the most eloquent representatives of the small and embattled American left in the Reagan and Clinton years. Hitchens was especially effective as a critic of US imperialism. His latest book is a powerful indictment of Henry Kissinger as a war criminal.
Hitchens was always a maverick. He supported the Falklands War in 1982 and campaigned for American military intervention against the Serbs during the 1992-5 Bosnian war. Since 11 September he has crossed a line. In a series of ugly rants he has denounced left wing opponents of war as 'soft on crime and soft on fascism'.
These articles have drawn him into a polemic with radical writer Noam Chomsky. Following the debate between them is like watching a patrol boat take on a battleship. Hitchens is a brilliant prose stylist, but in sheer intellectual firepower he is massively outgunned by Chomsky.
Hitchens's arguments really come down to endless reiteration of one point-the attacks on New York and Washington were a wicked crime that can't be explained away or justified. No one disputes this, but Hitchens rails on against the perpetrators as 'fascists with an Islamic face'.
His last piece in the Guardian included a slightly dotty attempt to prove that the hijackers chose for the date of their attack the day on which, in 1683, the Muslim armies of the Ottoman Sultan failed to capture Vienna. The point seems to be that this crime is so evil that we can't compare it with those committed by US imperialism.
More generally, we mustn't try to understand why-if he was indeed responsible-Bin Laden was able to recruit so many dedicated activists, and win such widespread sympathy in the Islamic world.
But this is plain silly. If we want to prevent more horrors like 11 September, we have to understand its causes.
Hitchens also expends much effort trying to show that recent American atrocities-for example, the thousands who died from lack of basic medicines because Cruise missiles destroyed Sudan's main medicine factory in 1998-were the result of negligence rather than the desire to kill.
This is a morally dangerous path to take. Many of the 20th century's greatest atrocities-for example, the famines in the USSR in the early 1930s and in China in the late 1950s-were caused by regimes that weren't (then at least) intent on murder, but nevertheless were pursuing policies that inevitably led to mass deaths.
Finally, Hitchens insists that we should forget about America's role in creating Bin Laden and the Taliban: 'Do 'our' past crimes and sins make it impossible to expiate the offence by determined action? Those of us who were not consulted about, and are not bound by, the previous covert compromises have a special responsibility to say a decisive 'no' to this.'
In other words, Hitchens is saying that we should trust the same gang-the Pentagon, the CIA, MI6, Pakistani military intelligence-who built up the radical Islamist network in the first place to root it out now without creating new monstrous alliances. How naive can you get?
Hitchens's warmongering stance is bringing him into strange company. He reports without a trace of irony that a Bush official agreed with him in worrying there could be too little war when he asked, 'So what you are telling me...is that the only ones apart from me who worry about under-reaction are wholly owned subsidiaries of the Ariel Sharon lobby?' Enough said.