Sunday, June 20, 2004

Humanitarian Interventions

The genocidal events described in this column by Nicholas Kristof (link via Matthew Yglesias), constitute an excellent justification for doing everything -- up to and including war, if necessary -- to stop them.

Trouble is, the events described there are not taking place in Iraq on the eve of our invasion. They are happening right now, somewhere very far away from Persian Gulf oil fields, with no bearing on the Great Game of Middle Eastern geo-strategy.

As is well-known, similar things did happen in Iraq, long before our invasion -- specifically, during the presidencies of Ronald W. Reagan (to the Kurds, for whom we did nothing) and George H. W. Bush (to the Shi'ites, for whom our help was too little too late, and to the Kurds again, for whom we this time managed to help secure a kind of quasi-independence).

Similar things might well have happened again some day, in an Iraq with Saddam Hussein still in control -- if, that is, the world had been cowardly and witless enough to stand by and let him get away with it. Stopping him might or might not have required a war. If it had, that war would have be justified.

Similar things might yet come to pass in post-Saddam Iraq, as the already-tenuous U.S. hold there loosens further, and as long-stifled enmities come to the fore. Should it come to that, it will be instructive to see who among Administration supporters will be found willing to fly to the rescue.

It used to be a virtue of conservative argument to insist that only in truly exceptional circumstances, when bitter necessity allows no other choice, should one risk even temporarily setting aside the normal rules and precedents that govern settled political arrangements -- and then only with the greatest possible attention to restoring those rules and precedents as quickly as possible, and retroactively fitting the necessary departure as much as possible within the pre-existing pattern of order.

What the idea of humanitarian intervention has done, is to broaden our definition of the kinds of necessity that can count as overwhelming enough to justify setting aside the normal rules of international politics -- which obviously forbid unprovoked armed invasion of one state by any other. In a world where everyone needs to live in a political community of some kind, and where states can, at least in principle, enforce that right through collective action, self-defense is no longer the only thing that legitimately triggers the last resort.

That this principle -- what Hannah Arendt once called the right to have rights -- has come to be more broadly recognized, is a very good thing for the world's peoples. Indeed, right now, if you happen to be non-Arab Sudanese, it might well be the only hope you have left.

How sad and astonishing then, that the Bush Administration has managed to make that hope so thin, by having eagerly chosen to do, what it ought to have done only when compelled by direst necessity, and by having tried to make a policy suited for horrible exceptions -- for Sudans -- into its norm of conduct.

Friday, June 18, 2004

It Depends on What the Meaning of the Word "Relationship" Is

The latest Staff Report from the 9-11 Commission -- which concludes, among other things, that there is "no credible evidence" that Iraq played any role in the 9-11 attacks, or indeed had any "collaborative relationship" with Al Qaeda whatsoever -- presented the Bush Administration with a dilemma.

They could admit that their entire campaign (which was very effective) to associate Saddam with 9-11 in the public mind, to provide a causus belli for Gulf War II, was built on falsehoods. Or else they could make a tactical retreat from the most egregious falsehoods, blow a lot of smoke and create a lot of confusion about what they had really been claiming, and then dig in furiously and try to hold the line of deception with a slightly more defensible set of falsehoods. Unsurprisingly, they chose the latter course.

To paraphrase Churchill: They had a choice between political defeat and total dishonor. They have chosen dishonor. They shall have defeat, later.

William Pfaff is right (link via Digby) : It is as if Marx's famous gloss in the 18th Brumaire on Hegel's dictum about historical doublings had been reversed -- history is repeating now as tragedy what was pure farce in the dry run. Pfaff was talking about the controversy over the torture of prisoners in U.S. custody, but this latest upsurge of scandal fits the pattern just as well.

For, not so long ago, the nation was amusing itself with President Clinton's parsing of the meanings of "is" and "sexual relations," as he struggled to extricate himself from the legal trap laid for him by his polticial enemies -- and that he had so obligingly stepped into with his rather pitiful excuse for an extra-marital affair.

And now here is President Bush -- with 837 soldiers' lives lost, and well over a hundred billion dollars sunk in a highly speculative foreign venture, the hope for an even modestly good conclusion of which is looking shakier by the day-- implicitly asking us to parse his and his associates' use of the words "relationship," "ties," and "contacts," that we might be led to discover some sense in which they have not been lying their asses off this entire time.

I, for one, haven't the inclination to bother.

What I do feel, is an unquenchable hatred for this shifting set of deceptions, and what it aims to conceal (namely, a war falsely, foolishly, and unjustly begun), no less than for the still-unfolding torture scandal, and the deeply shameful and destructive cover up associated with that. I shall do my best, for sanity's sake, to hate the sin and not sinners, but I can do nothing against the overwhelming repugnance I feel in contemplating the whole, awful moral mess.

The level at which this sentiment runs in me I find perfectly captured by what Lincoln said about the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in his great Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria:

This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world -- enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites -- causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty -- criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

That speech was given on what, one hundred and ten years later, would happen to be my birthday. It marks the beginning of the major phase of Lincoln's political career -- that great frenzy of eloquence and passion and organization with which he met the mortal challenge to his vision of the Union -- a challenge presented first by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and subsequently by the Dred Scott Decision -- and which led, ultimately, to the White House, the War, the Emancipation, and the assassin's bullet.

Almost a decade into that period, in the midst of that terrible war, he gave the greatest two hundred and fifty word speech in political history, summoning the country to live up to its creed -- its founding dedication to a certain proposition. Almost exactly one hundred years later, a year before my birth, Martin Luther King, jr. stood on the steps of Mr. Lincoln's memorial in Washington and renewed, and simultaneously deepened, that same summons.

When I visited that city over a decade ago, I went to Mr. Jefferson's temple to read there some of the words that Lincoln and King both loved to quote, and then I read those words of Lincoln's carved in stone in his own temple, and finally I came to stand on the same steps on which Dr. King had stood that day. And when I did that, I could just glimpse through the winter-bare trees that wall, on which are carved the names of the nearly 60,000 Americans who paid the full price of the ticket, the last time our nation forgot its creed in the midst of an imperial venture to remake a distant corner of the world in our image.

And so, when I think of the Iraq War, I do not feel guilt. Guilt is for those who have committed, ordered and condoned the crimes of this war -- let them deal with their several consciences as best they may. What I do feel is shame and indignation. Shame for my country, that it has sunk so far below its avowed standard of conduct, fallen into such open war with its deepest and best commitments. Indignation at the political knavery that has brought all this about. Because I have been to Washington, and I know that Jefferson and Lincoln and Dr. King and those 60,000 G.I.s are there too, watching the whole sorry spectacle, and judging us, with more mercy than we deserve.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Presidential Critics and Mental Illness

Al Gore is not the only out-of-control presidential critic out there.

As you can see, the first-term Congressman I quote below is obviously a prize hater too. Not to mention an opportunistic publicity hound who thinks he can make a name for himself by pandering to his party's most radical elements. Just listen to how he rants and raves, attacking the President over the justification of the war, demanding answers from him, passing judgment upon him--practically calling him a liar. And all this while our troops are still out there, fighting to protect the very freedom this guy is using to criticize the Commander-in-Chief! I don't know who the hell he thinks he is, but--as I'm sure Dr. Charles Krauthammer would be the first to agree--he's obviously a little, you know, unstable:
[L]et the President answer the interrogatories, I proposed, as before mentioned, or some other similar ones. Let him answer fully, fairly, and candidly. Let him answer with facts, and not with arguments. Let him remember he sits where Washington sat, and so remembering, let him answer, as Washington would answer. As a nation should not, and the Almighty will not, be evaded, so let him attempt no evasion--no equivocation.
[B]ut if he can not, or will not do this--if on any pretence, or no pretence, he shall refuse or omit it, then I shall be fully convinced, of what I more than suspect already, that he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong--that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him. That originally having some strong motive--what, I will not stop now to give my opinion concerning--to involve the two countries in a war, and trusting to escape scrutiny, by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory--that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood--that serpent's eye, that charms to destroy--he plunged into it, and has swept, on and on, till, disappointed in his calculation of the ease with which [the country] might be subdued, he now finds himself, he knows not where.
Like I say, the guy is a real president-hater, a total party hack, an arrogant elitist, and more than a little nutty. Maybe the mental imbalance means we should forgive him for giving aid and comfort to the enemy, maybe not. In any case, his congressional seat is anything but safe, so I don't think we have to worry about him getting a second term--especially not after word of this shrieking performance gets out. In fact, this will probably spell the end of his political career--if we're lucky, that is.

Oh, yeah, here's the citation:
-- Congressman A. Lincoln, Speech on the Mexican War, January 12, 1848