Friday, May 27

You Lie Down With Wonks...

Matt Yglesias (who was actually one of the most cogent of the wonks in the aftermath of the nuclear option) quotes Kenny Baer in TNR. This is the reason I will resort to this sort of thing only in cases of national emergency or roiling sex scandal:

Bush and the GOP provide that vision: the terrorists are evil; democracies are good; America will defeat evil and support and spread good. It's simple, but extraordinarily compelling, especially to pro-Israel voters. Strategically, the Democratic answer to Bush's idealism can't be realpolitik...

Matt thinks the problem here is the focus on pro-Israeli voters, who are not that great a problem for national Democratic interests. Fair enough. But then he muses:

Politics and policy aside, I think those of us who'd classify ourselves as being among the more "hawkish" brand of liberals have a media strategy problem. Roughly speaking, a lot of Democratic voters don't like us very much. What we need to do is convince more liberals that they should like us. That means spending more time trying to convince liberals of the merits of our views, and less time re-enforcing the impression that we're just opportunists searching for votes out there in some ill-defined center. Give the people a convincing argument for a plausible hawkish policy (Kosovo, for example) and plenty of liberals will come along for the party.

Was "re-enforcing" a Freudian slip? Just asking.

Grammarians have a wonderful term, praeteritio, for the inclusion of something by pretending to omit it: "I am not here to question my opponent's relationship with his sheep." So, I'm not going to question Matt's support for the invasion of Iraq, or his later (and ongoing) insistence that he still knows better than those of us who opposed it.

Rather, I'd like to point out something that's been re-enforced by my current rereading of Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. It is that however "compelling" this Manichaean struggle between Good and Evil may sound to voters, in practice it has been an unmitigated disaster, with Iraq as merely its latest example. We saw the war against Communism as Good vs. Evil, and Vietnam as its laboratory.

The costs of that war are incalculable. Its history points out the salient feature of seeing the world in black and white: those decisions are made by men who have other motives. Had we kept our word to a WWII ally (Good), or extended the Marshall Plan (Good) to non-whites, or supported popular elections (Good), we never would have been in Vietnam. We backhanded Ho Chi Minh in 1948, and propped up the French, because our notion of Good was driven not by Biblical standards or our love of democracy, but by what the powerful considered in their own best interests. Wilsonian internationalism isn't just about an end to US isolationism in our entry into WWI (itself enough of a blunder), but also our insistence on dictating the results of "democratic" elections throughout Central and South America and across the Pacific.

Yes, I've left out WWII. Yes, there was Evil loose in the world which that war halted. But it is equally true that the Axis powers were bent on world domination. Realpolitik did not dictate appeasement or surrender to Nazi aims. It's a case where those ideas happen to coincide. And as Mark Twain noted, we should be careful to learn only those lessons which are in a thing, and no more, lest we be like the cat who sits on a hot stove lid. She will never again sit on a hot stove lid, which is good. But she will never sit on a cold one again, either.

This is not to say there should be no moral component to US foreign policy. Certainly the intervention in Kosovo had moral arguments in its favor, but it was as much a case of the real threat of disaster in the center of Europe as a fight against the Dark Side. Oddly, we don't often find the proponents of fighting Evil showing equal concern when its victims are Africans or Sri Lankans, or Tibetan monks. Being the world's policeman is an impossible task. Being the arbiter of Right and Wrong is a recipe for continued disaster. Had we been blessed with a real leader on 9/11, and not a gang of crooks and liars with some talent for "compelling" moral excuses for another Crusade, we'd all be better off today. Including the liberal hawks.


Hokie said...

I find that whenever something is boiled down to "Good vs. Evil" or some similar dichotomy like that, it's almost always a false one, leading to all sorts of problems when acted on.

I'm in no way a pacifist, though I myself couldn't actually fight (I would have no problem being in a support position in a just war, however). I think there is certainly a case for humanitarian interventions (and also, that Michael Walzer's an idiot). Take for example Rwanda or Kosovo, where there were clear acts of genocides going on, and we weren't in a fuzzy middle of morality. The key, though, and one of the reasons I didn't support the Iraq War even though a side product of it would have been a humanitarian intervention was that it was clear none of the complexitied of the situation were being taken into account by the planners, which could only lead to disaster.

And on your last point, it's certainly true that there are too many humanitarian situations to be able to police all of them, which is why I don't mind a national interest argument to help justify why we choose a particular one.

It's tough. The problem is that it's so patently obvious that we're not interested in the people we're supposedly helping, which of course is going to make things go over poorly, because nobody likes being condescended to. It's not just that humanitarianism is a false cover for our real agenda, it's that it's so transparently false, making us look like schmucks. One of my neighbors thinks it's a problem of Bush projecting a Western viewpoint onto the rest of the world, but I don't think it's that, since I see Europe and the US as responding the same way and it's not a Bush-only dilemma, as you noted.

Your last sentence is entirely correct, of course. We had a great chance after 9/11 to do many good things with vast support, and we not only squandered all that goodwill, we attempted to advance some antiquated piece of shit agenda based on a number of false dichotomies and a notion of the superiority of Western civilization.

Ray Bridges said...

Well said, Riley. I think your final paragraph, especially the last sentence, is about as perfect an expression of my ennui as ever could be written.