The pro-war Left

2009 12 09
Walzer on Afghanistan


The other day, Commenter DC mentioned this Michael Walzer piece on Afghanistan. One line in it was irritating enough to rouse me to write a letter to Dissent this morning:

Re: Is Obama’s War in Afghanistan Just?

In support of his position on Afghanistan, Michael Walzer remarks, “I also think that most of these people [that is, Afghans] would agree (they should be asked).” I would like to second Walzer’s proposal that Afghans be asked what they think. If any organization had bothered to conduct opinion polling in Afghanistan, Walzer might have been able to discover its results with a search engine, thirty seconds of spare time, and just a smidgen of curiosity. It is a shame that Walzer was forced instead to speculate about a matter of real importance to his position.


Howls of outrage (7)

2007 07 27
Solidarity


Norm writes:

A question I have put several times and have not heard an answer to is this: why did not more people who felt they couldn’t support the war in Iraq also not oppose it – in view of the plain fact that opposition meant leaving Saddam’s regime in power, free to continue torturing and murdering Iraqis? OK, they judged the consequences of the war would be worse than the consequences of leaving Saddam in power. But too many of them in doing that, even without taking the side of Saddam’s regime or of the subsequent Iraqi ‘resistance’, were rather more focused and vehement in their animus against the war effort and those prosecuting it than they were in expressing solidarity with democratic forces in Iraq or expressing anything much at all about the enemies of democracy there.

I don’t see what’s wrong with the answer he supplies here himself, which, contrary to what he suggests, he must have heard all over the place, if he was listening: that we opposed the war because we thought even worse things would come of it than Saddam Hussein in power – something we were right about, as Norm now accepts. As for the rest of it, I think we’re back to the argument from silence again. But here’s how it seems to me to work: Norm can construe rhetorical emphasis in opponents of the war in ways that are deeply unflattering to them, but when fairly obvious and problematic issues of rhetorical emphasis are pointed out in his own work, it’s not supposed to be an issue worth worrying about.

Anyway, at this point we’ve whittled down the charge against the bulk of the anti-war types to the fact that we put too much emphasis on our criticisms of the war and not enough on expressing solidarity with Iraqis. Prior to the war, I think the following suffices: we had our hands full. We were trying to stop a disaster, and although it’s hardly the most pressing issue, it’s hard not to be ticked off at people who made a silly game of pretending that trying to avert this disaster meant we had some sort of defective moral sensibilities.

The more important point is that after the war, the criticisms of corruption in the so-called reconstruction were in significant part expressions of solidarity with Iraqis. Criticisms of long-term basing ambitions in Iraq were also in significant part expressions of solidarity with Iraqis. So too were criticisms of many of the other decisions, large and small, that forced Iraqis into a bitter choice between collaboration with a corrupt neo-colonialist invading force with long-term designs on the country and a wretched sectarian insurgency. And, again, Norm had very little to say about these aspects of the occupation (beyond the issue of torture), perhaps distracted by the moral idiocy of the critics of the war, which I suppose is just one more reason to think them naughty.

I’m pretty sure the occupation was doomed anyway, and that no amount of complaining from critics could have saved it. But as long as there was hope we really did need as much focussed criticism as possible of precisely those aspects of the occupation that exacerbated a bad situation. Ritualistic denunciations of the insurgency – people who were widely understood to be wicked, who weren’t listening anyway, and who weren’t accountable to voters – just weren’t a priority.


Howls of outrage (2)

2006 10 29
Invective


This post by Daniel Davies seems uncharacteristically weak. My main beef with it is his casual assertion that for the “Decents” (left wing supporters of the Iraq War for humanitarian reasons) it “was never about the Iraqis,” so we should not give them “the benefit of the doubt when it comes to questioning the sincerity of their concern for the Iraqis.”

It’s not the nastiness here I object to. Good political invective ought to wound. It ought to make us imagine a target with even a modest amount of self-awareness grimacing. Davies’ invective falls flat because the claim here is so obviously false. Of course there must be some supporters of the war for humanitarian reasons who really couldn’t care less about Iraqis, and for whom it’s all about the posturing. But so what? There are clearly many who really do care.

Having said that, I think there are a range of ways to respond to a position that has had absolutely wretched effects: careful argument, satire, ridicule, invective. All of these seem appropriate depending on the target. But broad denunciations of the sincerity of this group as a whole seems different from any of these styles of response at their best.

Davies defends his post in the comments as follows:

It would of course be possible to make the same points without gloating at the Decents, but to be frank I have given up on trying to be nice after Brian Brivati wrote that piece of crap earlier this week accusing people like me of being complicit in genocide. As far as I’m concerned, if that’s their attitude then they can wear it; this disaster has their name on it, not mine, and I am no longer inclined to be either quiet or polite about that fact.

But Brivati is just one person, and he doesn’t speak for all the people swept up in Davies’ comment.

There are surely some people in the anti-war camp who don’t really give a shit about human lives either, and who say stupid or outrageous things, but that wouldn’t justify a broad and ill-focused smear on the anti-war crowd. That’s exactly the kind of nonsense that drives me bonkers from right-wingers.


Howls of outrage (9)

2006 10 28
Addendum to “A quick response”


DC points out in the comments to this post that Norm pretty clearly misunderstands one of the main points I was trying to make earlier. I noticed this when I first read Norm’s response, but got distracted by the other point I was trying to make, and then got too busy to bother with yet another follow up. Still, I probably should object to the misunderstanding since a) not objecting might falsely give the impression that I think Norm has got my view right; and b) there really is a substantive issue here that isn’t being addressed because of the misreading.


Comments Off

2006 10 04
Iraq and Afghanistan: Responses


[Second update: Update: Having slept on it and thought about it some more, I see that this post is seriously muddled. Here is all that I should have said:

Thanks to Norm for the response. Norm is right that my post was broad and ill-focused, whereas his was focused on a single point of comparison between Iraq and Afghanistan. I wrote the original post because I thought that Norm's response to the Guardian piece was exasperating. I still find it so. You would think from reading Norm's posts that pro-war voices weren't incessantly claiming that the war has made us safer. You would think that the same reasons weren't being advanced for future wars. You would think this because Norm writes as though there is something unreasonable in the Guardian's bringing up, again, the claim that the war made us less safe. What is the problem with it? It is supposed to be: The Guardian includes Afghanistan in a list of Muslim grievances, along with the Iraq War, but only seems to accept that this gives a reason against the Iraq War. Gotcha!

In response to this, I want to say two things:

a) First, even if Norm is correct in his interpretation of the Guardian argument, it doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to see how to make sense of it: The Iraq War was much, much more polarizing than Afghanistan. Even if safety were our sole concern, it is perfectly reasonable given this fact to accept the one war and reject the other. And if you want to be fancy, you can even point out that the Iraq War made the war on Afghanistan more polarizing in retrospect, by fixing it within a troubling narrative of U.S. misbehaviour.

b) But in any case, Norm gets the Guardian argument wrong, and with it a significant part of most reasonable anti-war positions, which was the main point of my post, and which Norm does not seem to dispute. The real argument is much better than the one Norm criticizes. It is that on top of everything else, the war made us less safe. As for Norm's response to this, I confess that it simply makes no sense to me. Of course, if that's the argument, then it may not be decisive for him. But that was my point. The process of argument will involve going through lots of considerations that by themselves are not decisive. But it is nevertheless important. It is nevertheless very much worth saying.

I'm still unclear on what is wrong with pointing out that it is false to say that the war made us safer. The evidence for this grows stronger every day, but many proponents of the war - and future wars - deny it. What, I wonder is an appropriate response to all this? It would really help if Norm gave some hint as to what that might be. Without so much as a hint, it is reasonable to take both posts as suggesting that there is not much of a concern here. Surely the dismissive tone in Norm's rejection of the Guardian piece suggests this. But surely this part of the anti-war argument deserves better and more thoughtful treatment.]

Many thanks to Norm for responding to this post. Let me just say a few quick things about his response. First, Norm writes (see original for hyperlinks):

(A) In saying he finds my repeated comparison of the two countries odd, Chris gives the impression that I have compared them in ways that I haven’t. Thus he writes:
[1] Whatever you think of Afghanistan, there was at least a clear casus belli… [2] Moreover, once the U.S. and allies were into Afghanistan, they had a commitment to the country, a commitment which the adventure in Iraq made much, much harder to fulfil. Indeed, even if the case for invading Iraq had been as strong as the case for invading Afghanistan, a supporter of the war in Afghanistan could have consistently rejected the war on Iraq on the grounds that the second mission would endanger the first. [3] Finally, far from providing a “gotcha!” moment for Norm, the fact that so many people supported the first war and rejected the second might be better taken as a tip-off that these people are not actually raving pacificists or knee-jerk anti-Americans.

The problem with all of the three points in this paragraph is that my comparisons of Iraq and Afghanistan have not concerned them – not any of them, and not in any shape or form. I have used the comparison to make the same single point – and repeatedly. This point is that Muslim anger, as a root cause of terrorism, comes from the invasion of Afghanistan as well as from the Iraq war. This creates a difficulty for those who emphasize the second anger but ignore the first.

Wait a minute. Let’s back up. Here’s the problem: The leaders of the U.S. and Britain sold a war on Iraq on the grounds that it would make us safer. Set aside when and how the humanitarian arguments came into it. The main argument from these people was that it would make us safer. And, whadda ya know, it did not. Rather, borrowing numerous scenes from the Complete Wet Dream Fantasies of O. bin Laden, Volumes 1 through 15, the U.S. proceded to wage a war that was regarded, not unreasonably, as an aggressive attempt to consolodate U.S. hegemony in the region, and then clinched the impression with a regime of massive detention and a torture scandal. We are not amused. Indeed, we are by turns enraged and depressed. And to be honest, this accounts for some of the emotion in my response to Norm. But damn it, this matters. This matters to anyone – supporter of the war or not – who thinks that part of the so-called War on Terror involves an appeal to ideas and ideals, and who wants to avoid handing radicals propaganda victories that they can use to further radicalize people still on the sidelines.

Now enter the CIA, which adds its voice to the chorus of people claiming that the Iraq War made us less safe. This becomes the subject of a piece in the Guardian, which also mentions Afghanistan among the causes of discontent among Muslims. If Norm thinks that there is anything reasonable in this complaint, he does not say. What he does say is this:

The Guardian yet once more today plays upon the ‘rage and fury that has been generated by Iraq’ (not only rage, also fury); and yet once more it fails to follow through on its own thought. For, including Afghanistan as well as Iraq amongst the ingredients of the ‘poisonous brew’ (one ‘heavily spiced by anger and resentment’) with which we are now faced, the paper omits to say what we’re supposed to do with this information.

It’s hard to avoid the inference that we’re being told that the war in Iraq should not have happened, not only for all the other reasons the Guardian thinks it indeed shouldn’t have, but specifically because it has made the democracies more vulnerable to terrorist attack. But, as I’ve pointed out before, the same reasoning then applies to the intervention in Afghanistan; and the Guardian seems unable to handle this idea. More generally, are we supposed to conclude that no nation should ever enter a conflict when by doing so it might provoke some form of retaliation from those inimical to its aims? That a country should never engage in a war it can’t win in short order? It’s hard to think the editor of the Guardian could explicitly sign up to this conclusion, and that maybe is why the paper’s leader today doesn’t follow through on the thought which it nonetheless gestures towards.

[Update: You're better off just skipping the next paragraph.]

Far from allowing anything reasonable in the Guardian’s position, Norm mocks the language in the piece, implying (?) that the position is in fact unbalanced and drammatic. And it looks – it still looks after I’ve reread it a number of times – as though Norm thinks that he’s really got ‘em. Now Norm says that it was a “limited comparison,” and that I’ve read too much into it. Well, read the post for yourself and decide whether I’ve read too much into it. In response to a reasonable Guardian piece worrying about the cumulative effects on Muslim opinion of various policies, and in particular Iraq, his main response was to make this point about Afghanistan. Since the piece seemed eminently reasonable, and since Norm seemed mainly interested in dismissing it, I took what he said to carry the burden of the response to the Guardian’s position. Norm does not actually say, “I, Norm Geras, reject the Guardian’s position on this issue for this reason, and that’s that.” But he certainly seems to imply that he’s found the real defect in the Guardian’s position. At any rate, this partly accounts, I think, for the breadth of my criticisms.

[Update: Rereading this last paragraph I wonder if I've misunderstood what Norm means by "limited comparison." I took it to mean "limited in ambition," but Norm must mean "limited in scope." I still think, though, that he's a) misreading the Guardian argument; and b) employing a terrible argument against it himself; and c) being unclear about how much his argument is supposed to show. But I do apologize for getting this bit wrong, if that's what I've done.]

As for the comparison, Norm is right that he has repeatedly made the point. But how much is it supposed to show? He still does not say, beyond the point that it is limited. To be fair, the Guardian piece Norm is specifically responding to here does not get into the business of saying how much worse Iraq was compared to Afghanistan on the issue of provoking anger among Muslims – it is, after all, mainly concerned with Iraq. But the question is entirely relevant to Norm’s point, which is, I think, vitiated by the vast space ellided by the phrase “as well as” in his claim that “Muslim anger . . . comes from the invasion of Afghanistan as well as from the Iraq War.” The Iraq War was enormously more controversial and polarizing than the War on Afghanistan. (If Norm denies this, he should say so, and we can look together at global opinion surveys to try to test my claim.) It was so because the casus belli was so different for each, which is why I mentioned this. Indeed, the Iraq War was so polarizing that it is easy to see how it might have a serious impact on how the War on Afghanistan is viewed by many people, both currently and retrospectively. So as for the difficulty created, it’s hard to see much of one. Muslim anger about the War in Afghanistan was real, but by itself the war surely radicalized few. Seen as part of a larger story in which a dominant Western military power is occupying countries with substantial Muslim populations, I think it’s more problematic, and worth mentioning. But all of this pales in comparison to the kind of anger aroused by the Iraq War. It is this massive discontent about the Iraq War which makes it so alarming to people who care about this sort of thing.

How relevant is this sort of consideration any way? Recall that I wrote:

I think the key here is in the phrase “not only” which I’ve put in bold. Critics of the war seem to me for the most part think that on top of the fact that the war was an unjustified aggressive war with terrible consequences, it has also made us less safe. Norm is right that by itself the fact that the war has made us less safe isn’t a decisive argument against it. (Of course, if the war had made us more safe, that wouldn’t have been a decisive argument for it. Other considerations might have outweighed it.) I think that sometimes he’s right to imply that critics are the war aren’t sufficiently clear about the logical structure of the argument. But put properly the point is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, it’s one reason I’m so very bitter about this war.

In other words, I thought that Norm missed the logical structure of the anti-war argument. Indeed, I thought that Norm’s criticisms missed the logical structure of the argument, even though the “not only” in his own account of the argument captured that logical structure. Indeed, the main point was that Norm misread the argument, in a way that made it look weaker than it is. Still awake? OK, in response, Norm skips over what the Guardian actually meant and moves to the claim that if I am right about the Guardian’s position, he blocked the argument in a post a year ago. Turning to the post in question, I do in fact remember it, but I’ve read these lines about 15 times and they still makes no sense to me:

However, it can be urged on behalf of those emphasizing the increased terrorist threat as a reason against Britain’s role in Iraq that they aren’t – not most of them, anyway – operating on the premise that that threat to British lives is the sole, or even a sufficient, reason against British participation in the Iraq war. What they believe, instead, is that it is one among the many compelling reasons there were against the war. But, of course, this is just what is disputed by people who supported the war, and who think that the balance of reasons was in the other direction. For us the combination of reasons against the war proferred by its opponents isn’t going to work, indeed it hasn’t worked; and so throwing in the increased terrorist threat as just one among many, or at least several, reasons also won’t work unless it is itself being given as a decisive reason.

First of all, please do recall that it was the Bush/Blair administrations that put this issue at the very centre of the Iraq War debate. Since it is false, it calls for a response. But beyond that, I just can’t follow Norm’s point. If lots of people, as so many did, supported the war, in part, because they thought it would make them safer, why can’t we try to counter that impression? Why can’t we urge people to reassess the effects of the war on their safety? If this is admitted by all to be one reason we take into consideration, why can’t we argue that it seems stronger and stronger as more evidence accumulates in its favour? These matters are still in dispute, which is why they’re worth discussing. All by itself, as I say, this might not be a decisive consideration. But so what? Norm doesn’t argue for his position all at once, so why does he expect the Guardian to do so?


Howls of outrage (2)

2006 10 01
Blog, blog, metablog, Normblog


Update: Thanks to Norm for the link. I’ve put up a brief response here.

Norm Geras responds to a critical post by Timothy Burke. I thought I’d say something (quick and partial) since I just recently posted something critical of Norm. When I first saw Burke’s post, I thought some of the points went a bit far; Norm points out a few of the places where it does so.
Continue Reading »


Howls of outrage (4)

2006 09 28
On top of everything else


Update: Thanks to Norm for the response. I’ve responded to his response here.

Norm writes (See original for hyperlinks; emphasis mine):

It’s hard to avoid the inference that we’re being told that the war in Iraq should not have happened, not only for all the other reasons the Guardian thinks it indeed shouldn’t have, but specifically because it has made the democracies more vulnerable to terrorist attack. But, as I’ve pointed out before, the same reasoning then applies to the intervention in Afghanistan; and the Guardian seems unable to handle this idea. More generally, are we supposed to conclude that no nation should ever enter a conflict when by doing so it might provoke some form of retaliation from those inimical to its aims? That a country should never engage in a war it can’t win in short order? It’s hard to think the editor of the Guardian could explicitly sign up to this conclusion, and that maybe is why the paper’s leader today doesn’t follow through on the thought which it nonetheless gestures towards.

I find Norm’s frequent comparison of Iraq with Afghanistan very odd. Whatever you think of Afghanistan, there was at least a clear casus belli. (This appears to be one reason that Afghanistan failed to inspire the same sort of massive backlash in the Middle East that the Iraq War did.) Moreover, once the U.S. and allies were into Afghanistan, they had a commitment to the country, a commitment which the adventure in Iraq made much, much harder to fulfil. Indeed, even if the case for invading Iraq had been as strong as the case for invading Afghanistan, a supporter of the war in Afghanistan could have consistently rejected the war on Iraq on the grounds that the second mission would endanger the first. Finally, far from providing a “gotcha!” moment for Norm, the fact that so many people supported the first war and rejected the second might be better taken as a tip-off that these people are not actually raving pacificists or knee-jerk anti-Americans.

But set that aside. I think the key here is in the phrase “not only” which I’ve put in bold. Critics of the war seem to me for the most part think that on top of the fact that the war was an unjustified aggressive war with terrible consequences, it has also made us less safe. Norm is right that by itself the fact that the war has made us less safe isn’t a decisive argument against it. (Of course, if the war had made us more safe, that wouldn’t have been a decisive argument for it. Other considerations might have outweighed it.) I think that sometimes he’s right to imply that critics are the war aren’t sufficiently clear about the logical structure of the argument. But put properly the point is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, it’s one reason I’m so very bitter about this war.

I understand that Norm is reluctant, as am I, to rehash all the old arguments for the war. But there is nonetheless something increasingly dislocated about expressions of support for the war and occupation without some sort of renewed examination of the reasons for it. Iraq has been occupied for some time now. Things have gotten steadily worse in spite of it. A vast majority of Iraqis appear to want the U.S. to leave. The arguments have been made before, but the ground keeps moving from beneath them. The onus is on supporters of the war to explain how a continued presence, unpopular as it is in Iraq, will improve things, and to make some attempt to set conditions on a withdrawal to allay fears that the mission is ill-focused and open-ended.

How long, and what manner of occupation, then? With what conditions and goals? When do you decide that the mission is over? When do you give up? And what, while we’re at it, about war crimes committed by the U.S. in the course of the occupation, for example, in the second seige of Fallujah? And, looking back, has any of this bloodshed and violence made us any safer as many supporters of the war continue to claim? If Norm wants to convince anyone of anything surely this would be the place to focus his arguments.


Howls of outrage (2)

2006 06 01
Rhetoric and Sympathy


I think Yglesias makes a point in this post that could also be directed at the Euston Manifesto folks. The latter tend to treat left-wing rhetoric as though it were issued into a vacuum, free of any particular political context. I’ve complained about this before.

Update: Many thanks to Norm for his comments.

Let me try to clarify, since this was an awfully brief post. I’m not trying to say that we ought to refrain from all criticism of Iran simply because the Bush administration would love the chance to attack it. And I’m also (obviously?) not trying to say that we should limit our criticisms to our own governments. As a Canadian living the States, I’ve been both very critical of the U.S. government, and also of a lot of other countries (including Iran) in the course of my blogging. And rightly so.

Rather, I meant to make the modest point that context really does matter sometimes. It does matter that the U.S. would love a war with Iran now, that if war gets closer there will be a mounting propaganda campaign to highlight abuses in Iran, that the abuses will be cited as reasons in favour of war. In such a political context, statements about the badness of the regime in Iran will tend to play a role in political discourse that they would not otherwise play.

Now, Norm points out that they needn’t play that role. He’s right. Part of my point was simply that a responsible critic will want to be careful about this.

So if you want to slag Iran, by all means, go ahead. In case anyone is wondering what a secular, atheist, hedonist, feminist like myself thinks of Iran, well, I think it sounds like a horrifying place to live. From the start the regime has been bent on imposing a lifestyle which is, I think, objectively inferior to the one I prefer. It is as a feminist that I find the set of values imposed especially revolting. And anyway, even if the values imposed were reasonable, the manner in which they’re imposed on Iranian citizens seems to me to treat adults as if they were children.

Fair enough. So slag away, with no more than a gentle reminder from me about the political context in which you’re doing it. Let me just insist a bit more firmly on a distinct point, and one which I was really aiming at the Euston Manifesto folks. Remember that lots of people (especially on the left) will be nervous about the possibility of a war with Iran, and they will be especially sensitive to the kinds of considerations I mentioned above about political context. They have good reason to be sensitive, especially after the cynical use the Bush administration made of humanitarian concerns about Iraq. If war with Iran becomes more likely, they may reasonably consider that their hands are already full trying to prevent the war – too full to go on and on about the wretchedness of the regime. If you actually want to understand, engage with, and learn from these people, you’ll do well to consider that their silence or relative silence on the barbarities of the Iranian regime stems from these sorts of reasonable anxieties, rather than from indifference, parochialism, anti-American hysteria, self-hatred, or moral relativism.

I aimed this point at the EM folks not because I wanted them to stop talking about evil regimes that the U.S. also considers evil so much as that I think that as a group they tend to systematically misinterpret a lot of left wing discourse. They’ve done this repeatedly in the case of the debate over Iraq, so I thought it would be nice to avoid it if we’re going to have a debate over Iran. That’s really the point I was trying to make: I’ve nothing against slagging Iran. It’s all the inevitable pissing and moaning about how evil [edited: large parts of] the rest of the left is for not joining in that gets my back up.

Hope that’s clearer that what I originally wrote.


Howls of outrage (6)

2006 05 10
The Euston Manifesto on humanitarian intervention


I wanted to write something long and thoughtful here about the Euston Manifesto, but I keep running out of time, so perhaps it’s best just to go at it piecemeal when the mood strikes.

Today, Norm responds to the criticism that the Manifesto is crypto-imperialist and crypto-colonialist:

The support for the aforementioned interventions [i.e., in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq] by the people Wheatcroft is talking about was based on human rights and just war considerations, not on empire-building ones. Indeed, the very principles informing that support rule out support for imperialism, even a putatively ‘progressive’ imperialism. Self-determination and political independence for all peoples is one of the basic rights we Eustonians defend.

[. . .]

There’s a difference between an imperial project that seeks to build an empire ruled by a superpower, and an internationalist politics that regards human rights as universal and inviolable – and, beyond a certain threshold of human suffering, as rendering the claim to national sovereignty forfeit and justifying outside intervention.

I think a lot of the criticism (and defence) of the Euston Manifesto has been heated in an unproductive way, so I’ll try to stick to being heated in productive ways.

Whatever the merits of Wheatcroft’s argument, I think there is something to the worry that the Euston Manifesto, and the larger political movement it’s a part of (the so-called Decent left), plays unwittingly into an imperialist project. The movement would be stronger, and its defence of its core principles far more convincing, if it took more care to avoid that, or at least its appearance.

For now, just let me illustrate that with the Euston Manifesto’s position on humanitarian intervention:

Humanitarian intervention, when necessary, is not a matter of disregarding sovereignty, but of lodging this properly within the “common life” of all peoples. If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a “responsibility to protect”.

I think this is easily read as a very strong, or even absolute, claim about the necessity to intervene in such circumstances, but Norm later clarified the point that, on his understanding at least, this paragraph identifies only a prima facie duty to intervene.

Either way, two things seem to be missing here. First, it seems to me that the main theoretical challenge facing a proponent of military humanitarian intervention today is to specify restrictions on the parties who may legitimately intervene in such circumstances. The document vaguely gestures at the international community as the relevant actors, but in practice, of course, it’s rarely that simple. It’s typically powerful, and highly imperfect, actors with agendas of their own – agendas which may well conflict with the very goals set by the humanitarian intervention. This was the point of my repeatedly asking, back in the day, whether Iran would be justified in invading Iraq on a humanitarian pretext (the obvious answer being “no”). Failing to address this problem in any serious way really helps provide ideological window dressing to an imperialist project in retrospect (Iraq), and to God only knows what imperialist projects in prospect (Syria? Iran?).

The second (related) thing missing is some recognition that the view of humanitarian intervention set down here was very recently cynically misused by the U.S. to defend it’s imperialist project in Iraq. This does not mean that there is necessarily anything wrong with the principles articulated in the EM. But it seems to me that the practical problem currently facing any defender of these principles is to try to detach in some way what is valuable in the principles from their recent and very cynical abuse in the defence of an imperialist project. Failing to address this problem in any serious way really does contribute to the appearance that what is going on here is a sly defence of an imperialist project.

Now look. I accept that this is just a manifesto, that it doesn’t have time to spell out every little point, and that it was formulated very broadly at some points in an attempt to find common ground among very different views. But still. The bloody thing has room for a paragraph on open source software (which is great!!!), so it should damn well have made room for these points. At least, if I were interested in trying to reach out to the rest of the left in defence of this view of humanitarian intervention, I would be very anxious to a) demonstrate some recognition that the issue of intervention requires serious thought about interveners as well as intervenees, and b) distinguish myself very clearly from people who have given some of my views a very bad name. Cause there are lots of decent, well-intentioned people here on the left who get awfully jumpy now when we hear this stuff.

Now you could deny that the U.S. project in Iraq was an imperialist project. But you’d be wrong, and that would be another way you could be accused of supporting an imperialist project. At any rate, there’s more to be said on this point, particularly the way that the EM frames the occupation of Iraq. But I’m really tired now, and this post is sloppy enough as it is.


Howls of outrage (10)

2006 04 17
Round up (risen from the dead edition)


Have I mentioned that the stomach flu isn’t any fun? I’m getting better, but I still feel like I have a shot put in my stomach after eating even the blandest foods. Luckily I can make a fine feast of self-pity in any situation. Anyway . . .

— Make sure to update your Mozilla products. Now.

— I used the time I was vomiting and then recovering from vomiting to reflect on my recent Iran predictions. One thing missing from it is a sense of grim foreboding, which I somehow neglected to include. You might get the false impression from my predictions that I’m more or less sanguine about the Iran situation, since I don’t think the U.S. is going to do the stupidest thing possible out of the range of alternatives they’re considering (tactical nuclear strikes, or even air strikes). But no. Of course it sucks that Iran will get nuclear weapons sooner or later, and U.S. bungling on the issue probably makes it sooner. Also, although I strongly suspect that Hersh makes too much of the contingency plans being drawn up by the U.S., if the plans do include a tactical nuclear strike, the wisest words I’ve read so far will have to be Henley’s:

Whether or not nukes get used, the whispering campaign still tends to normalize discourse advocating the first use of tactical nuclear weapons as a policy option.

That is a tremendous cost, a cost already incurred as a result of the debate so far. Matters aren’t helped when supposedly centrist commentators like Joe Klein speed that process along. A serious counterproliferation efforts requires, among many other things the U.S. has failed to do, a principled and highly public commitment to refrain from first-strike use of nuclear weapons.

— Speaking of that Hersh article, I think Umansky has the right instincts. It’s far too much “I spoke with the friend of a first cousin of a civilian who lives next door to a retired general who once met Bush at a luncheon when he was governor who has a great intuitive sense of the man’s next move, and he gave me this awesome tough guy quote that I pull out whenever I drink whiskey with someone I’m trying to impress about Bush thinking the stakes are really high on this one.” E.g.,

A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon said that Bush was �absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb� if it is not stopped. He said that the President believes that he must do �what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do,� and �that saving Iran is going to be his legacy.�

How the fuck does he know? What, did he have a heart-to-heart with the Prez? Or with someone who had a heart-to-heart with the Prez? How many heart-to-hearts, exactly, is he removed from this insight? And how do the various and conflicting interests hidden in these hearts twist the original message? After all, in Washington, power is often very much a function of proximity to the President, and influence is very much a matter of how that proximity is represented to others. I know Hersh does some great reporting, but he also does lousy reporting. I just don’t know. But neither do you, chump.

— A lot of the British lefties have their knickers in a knot over the Euston Manifesto. It’s a pity I’m really fucking busy over the next month. It’s just the sort of thing I used to love to blog about.


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2006 03 01
Guessing game


Go ahead and try to guess who said this before clicking the link:

The first requirement of anyone engaging in an intellectual or academic debate is that he or she be able to give a proper account of the opposing position(s) . . .

I think that’s just awesome.


Howls of outrage (7)

2006 02 10
The damning silence of the left


Susan Sontag styles herself an engaged left-wing intellectual. But why has she fallen silent at a time like this? How typical of the left.


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2005 12 18
Praise and blame


I have an enormous backlog of comments to make about Normblog, but no time or energy to do much about it. Plus, I have a pretty serious conflict of interest since Norm bought me a coffee on his last trip to NYC and I’m angling for another if he ever returns. Still, here’s a quick point about this:

Through gritted teeth:
Opponents of the war in Iraq may be irritated at the triumphal notes emanating from Washington and London after Thursday’s peaceful election. George Bush – who mentioned the word “victory” no less than 15 times in a recent speech – called the event “historic”. Tony Blair went for “extraordinary and inspiring”. The adjectives are not incorrect.

Not incorrect. Naturally, however, amongst the many qualifications that follow there’s one to the effect that if there were to be a good outcome not much credit would be due to those who cleared the way for it by removing the Baathist regime. Funny how the discredit for everything that has gone wrong does seem to be wholly theirs. It’s called making a balance sheet, you know.

I’m not sure if I understand Norm correctly here. For one thing, the “wholly” makes the position that Norm is arguing against quite extreme, and obviously indefensible. Indeed, I doubt very much that many people actually believe that the Bush/Blair crew is literally wholly responsible for everything that has happened, even if they tend for various reasons to save most of their energy and scorn for the Bush/Blair crew. So perhaps the position I want to defend isn’t a position that Norm is trying to argue against.

But anyway, what I’m interested in here is the idea – if Norm means to suggest it – that we ought to give Bush credit for positive results of the invasion as much as blame for the negative results, since by being responsible for the invasion he’s responsible for both sets of consequences. Sometimes we do indeed hold people equally to the good and bad consequences of their actions. But if there’s a valid general principle lurking somewhere around here, it’s application is going to be tricky business.

Suppose I maliciously shove John, and he accidentally falls into the path of Jane, putting her attempted bank robbery to an end*. In that case we’re not likely to heap praise on me for stopping Jane but blame me for maliciously shoving John. That’s because, whether we’re thinking about my character or about the character of the action, our praise and blame typically take into consideration my intentions, as well as the consequences of my action.

Pragmatic considerations may also guide our decisions about praise and blame, apart from any considerations about character or intention. Suppose that I am a well-meaning guy, but also so clumsy that my attempts to help others often end in their injury or death. Suppose that this leads to my having a reputation. Bystanders have seen me guide a little old lady unwittingly into the path of a bus while attempting to help her across the street; they have seen me drop a baby down the stairs in the subway while attempting the good deed of carrying a baby cart for someone; etc. But one day, although I am growing discouraged with my good samaritanism, I actually succeed in helping someone across the street without his being injured. Now, in this case, it would be reasonable for people to be cautious about praising me much at all. Everyone can see that I’ve finally managed to do something right, no one regrets it, and everyone can see that my intentions have been good all along. But given my track-record it would be reckless to praise me: praise at this point might encourage and empower me to “help” even more people, and it’s probably best for everyone, or almost everyone, in the long run if I just stop trying.

Now, I’m trying to make a few really basic and general points about the logic of praise and blame here. I’m not going to bother to tie them back again to the question of Iraq and the Bush/Blair crew. To do that, I would need to say a lot about the relevant characters, intentions and effects. But of course I do think that a clear view of the relevant characters, intentions and effects would support our giving no, or very little, credit to the Bush/Blair crew for any good that comes of the Iraq war, and an awful lot of blame for the bad effects. And there’s nothing necessarily inconsistent about that. Moreover, while I would try to give credit where it’s due if I thought much credit were due to Bush, I wouldn’t want to dwell on it much. He’s done so much harm already, and the last thing I would want to do is encourage him to “help” even more people.

* Assume for the sake of argument that robbing a bank is morally wrong.

UPDATE: Norm is not convinced that the cases I’ve given apply to the Iraq War. That’s understandable, since I haven’t given him any reason to think that they do. My only ambition in this post was to make the point that it isn’t necessarily inconsistent or incoherent to withhold praise for the good consequences of an act or policy while laying on the blame thick – as I thought Norm might be suggesting, and as I thought Norm might have suggested in the past but couldn’t be bothered to double-check. At any rate, I think the point I’ve made in the post was worth making since it blocks any quick and easy criticism of the Bush/Blair critics who do this, since the quick and easy criticism seems to rest on the (false) general principle. Of course, the Bush/Blair critics have their work to do too, since sometimes it is inconsistent to withhold praise and direct blame in this way.


Howls of outrage (2)

2004 12 23
“Terrorist attack” revisited


Eric the Unread is ticked off at me for raising the question of whether the attack in Mosul was appropriately called a “terrorist attack” (I’m too lazy to put the hyperlinks in):
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Howls of outrage (2)

2004 12 22
“Terrorist attack”


David Adesnik refers to the recent attack on American troops in Mosul as a “terrorist attack.”

Given the goals of the (fragmented) insurgency (insurgencies?), the availability of alternatives to violent resistance, and the nature of the group claiming responsibility for the attack, I would say that the attack was awful, immoral, pointless and unjustified. But was it a terrorist attack? It’s true that the soldiers were in a mess hall, not on the field of combat. But as a tactic, how does this compare to the U.S. practice at Fallujah of forcing all military age males fleeing a war zone back into the war zone and then killing anything that moves, armed or not?

Is Adesnik working with a consistent definition of terrorism? Or is this a slip of the tongue? If it’s a slip of the tongue, is it a revealing slip of the tongue?

Update: A response to Eric the Unread’s criticisms is here.


Howls of outrage (13)