Wednesday, February 28, 2007

She Bangs the Drums

Back in December, I wrote this of one of my favorite bloggers:

Sometimes you come across a piece that succinctly, and neatly, expresses otherwise amorphous ideas that have been circulating in your muddled consciousness. It's like reading what the resolution of your inner debate would look like if you had been able to achieve such clarity yourself. Or how you would have liked to have formulated a hodgepodge of thoughts if you could have only organized them in such an eloquent, plainspoken manner.

But when it all comes together, reading such a work can be like reading yourself - only better. Even if it's nothing ambitious or grandiose, it resonates.

Many times, those pieces are written by someone named Hilzoy.

Yesterday, her contribution - which addressed Peter Beinart's recent mea culpa regarding his support for the Iraq war - tilted toward ambitious, with her usual mixture of eloquence, common sense and thoughtful insight. Since every electrical device I own (from blackberry, to cell phone to PC) is acting up today (is Mercury retrograde or is some other cosmological conspiracy afoot?), and I fear that anything I write will be swallowed by the avaricious ether, I'll just let her do the talking:

I admire Peter Beinart's willingness to think about what he got wrong, and why. But while I think that he's right to say that we can't be the country the Iraqis and South Africans wanted us to be -- a country wise enough to liberate other countries by force -- there's another mistake lurking in the train of thought he describes. Namely:

It's not just that we aren't the country Beinart wanted to think we were; it's that war is not the instrument he thought it was. [...]

Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to. [...]

This is why, when I read Beinart's piece, I thought: the South African he quotes -- the one who said that "if the United States were a different country, it would help the African National Congress liberate South Africa by force" -- was wrong. Force is not just an alternate way of getting to liberation; it changes everything. And liberation is not just a matter of removing an oppressive regime; it is a matter of creating a country populated by citizens who are, by and large, willing to set aside the idea of resolving conflicts by force and to respect the laws, even when they are imperfectly applied.

For this reason, the problem with that South African's vision is not just that "we lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war." That's true, but it doesn't get to the heart of the problem, namely: that preventive war is not a way of remaking the world in the ways the South African and Beinart imagine.

Saying that the problem is that we lack the wisdom and virtue to do this is like saying that the problem with the USSR in the 30s was that Stalin was not sufficiently wise and virtuous to really make totalitarianism work for the people of Russia. That Stalin was neither good nor wise is beyond question. But to focus on his personal failings is to miss a broader point: that totalitarianism itself is bound to fail to do right by those who live under it.

More than most times this is said, you should read the rest.

[UPDATE: James Joyner offers some criticisms of Hilzoy's piece that mostly miss the mark. For one, Joyner claims that Hilzoy's piece "reads remarkably like an argument against war, period." On the contrary, she specifically describes her non-pacificism - highlighting those instances in which she favored military action in the past, and would so in the future. Then there's this from Joyner:

Indeed, with rare exceptions, [war] is almost always worse in the near term. Surely, life in the American colonies was worse during the War for Independence than under the very modest tyranny of George III; just as surely, the generations that followed are far better off for having won our independence. The French Revolution changed the course not only French but European history; it likely took three generations, though, before the French people were better off than under Louis XVI. The American Civil War sped the end of slavery but at the cost of more than half a million dead; was it worth it? World War II freed the world from fascism but at an incredible price.

Are the Iraqi people better off now than under Saddam? Doubtless, many of them are. At the same time, though, the streets of Baghdad are now undeniably more violent and less safe than ever before with no end in sight. Many would surely vote to turn the clock back if it could end the bloodshed, let alone bring back loved ones who have been murdered by terrorists [ed note: just a guess, but I'd bet many whose loved ones died at the hands of the coalition - not "terrorists" - might also vote to turn back the clock]. The hope is that a free, stable, democratic society will emerge from this mess and that the improved lives of generations to come will compensate for the short-term tragedy.

That such trade-offs are worthwhile apparently has less support than it once did.

There are numerous issues that one could point to in challenging the contentions in these paragraphs. For one, Joyner compares apples to oranges in order to come to a conclusion that is, unfortunately, steeped in a noxious blend of arrogance and paternalism. Joyner uses the American and French Revolutions (and the American Civil War) to argue that in certain situations where an an indigenous group rises up in insurrection, the long term gains can outweigh the negatives that went along with the insurrection itself.

The problem with using these examples to illustrate the point is that there is one obvious way in which those scenarios differ from the experience in Iraq: the Iraqis didn't rise up in revolution, or civil war (a priori), it was America that invaded and imposed regime change from the outside. This rather crucial difference changes the decision making process for determining whether or not the "trade-offs are worthwhile." Namely, shouldn't the Iraqi people get a vote as to whether or not they want to partake in such an experiment? Since it's their lives that are the commodity being exchanged on the trading block, shouldn't they at least be consulted about the going rate?

Further, not only does such an outside-imposed model for "liberation" ignore, rather contemptuously, the population on the receiving end of the foreign power's magnanimity, but it greatly reduces the likelihood that "a free, stable, democratic society will emerge" in the end. Which is the hoped for denouement that is supposed to, at least arguably, justify traveling on the trail of tears. As Michael Lind observed:

The record is clear--most of the democratic transitions that have taken place in the world in the past two centuries have had nothing to do with foreign military intervention or military pressure, while most US military interventions abroad have left dictatorship, not democracy, in their wake....The Soviet bloc democratized itself from within in the 1990s, even though the United States did not bomb Moscow, impose a martial-law governor on the Poles or imprison former Hungarian Communist officials without charges in barbed-wire camps. In Latin America, Mexico became a multiparty democracy instead of a one-party dictatorship without US Marines posing for photos in the presidential mansion in Mexico City, and it was not necessary for American soldiers to kill tens of thousands of Argentines, Chileans and Brazilians for democracy to take root in those countries.

...[It] is likely that, if and when liberal democracy comes to the Muslim world in general and to the Arab world in particular, the gradual, largely bloodless transition will resemble those in Soviet Europe and Latin America and will not be the result of US military action or intimidation. The neocons--and the humanitarian hawks on the left--are simply wrong about how best to spread democracy.

Even if democracy in a given nation/region can only come via bloody revolution, the value of such a "trade-off" would best be judged by the people laying their lives on the line. It is not an outsider's call to make. Especially given the fact that, as history informs us, the people most familiar with the particular culture, history and institutional framework at hand are the most adept at successfully ushering in these paradigmatic transitions.]

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