Tuesday, December 2, 2008

democracy, humanitarian intervention and compassion

ryan pushed back pretty hard in comments yesterday against my position on foreign policy, and he deserves a response, and his question is a sound one: how can a politics of compassion lead to a non-interventionist foreign policy? It's a good question. (If you haven't read James Poulos, Daniel Larison and Scott Payne on this yet, please do so.)

I have myself pointed out what I see as a similar contradiction in mainstream conservatism since the neoconservative coup following 2001: how can people support enormous expense and sacrifice to save the poor people of Iraq, and yet resist much smaller expenses to help the poor people of America? It makes little sense to me for a country to consider humanitarian reasons sufficient to expend the amount of blood and treasure we've spent on Iraq or similar ventures, and yet consider humanitarianism insufficient for passing social programs that could ameliorate suffering of people in our own country. (Perhaps the apotheosis of this is when S-CHIP went down, at a time when we were spending billions a month in Iraq.) This is a simplification, of course; we got into Iraq under (bogus) national security pretenses as well. But the neoconservative line is one that places a great deal of importance in humanitarian ideals, and our extended conversation on Iraq and neoconservatism is often concerned with this principle question: what obligation does the United States have to bring democracy and peace to the oppressed people of the world?

Now, as ryan strongly argued, that's equally a question for me. How can I support social programs designed to reduce hardship for Americans, and not support military/humanitarian intervention in places like Darfur? (And I don't, by the way, support US invasion in Darfur, although the question of a UN intervention would be more complicated.) This appears to be one of those classic "turn it back around" questions in bipolar politics. Well, like many of those questions, both sides aren't, in fact, playing with equal hands. And I hold the ace: the people in America who could benefit from expensive social programs are citizens of my country; the people outside American who could benefit from expensive military intervention are not.

That may seem like a pretty cruel statement, and one of simple jingoism or nationalism. But don't misunderstand. This has nothing to do with compassion. It has everything to do with democracy.

Like many other mushy lefties, I do look forward to a time in human history when the state becomes an unnecessary contrivance. The fact is, though, that for the foreseeable future, we'll have the nation-state, and those states will be the shells for organizations of civic government. As long as that's the case, national self-determination is a prerequisite for democracy. (I made the case here.) I have great sympathy for the beleagured people of the earth, but that doesn't overwhelm the fact that I am a (small-d) democrat. As long as nation states are the organizational tool that we used to divide systems of government, coercive attemtps to change other countries through military projection are antidemocratic, even if it really is for their own good.

This is unsatisfying for some of the people posting in comments. MikeF says
An absolute certainty that hundreds of thousands of Rwandans would have welcomed our assistance during the 1990s, and that those who wouldn't have welcomed us had forfeited a right to have any say in the matter. Same with Sudan. Iraq is a different question of course. But we cannot treat these cases from the standpoint of dogmatic opposition to ever using force. Sometimes there is a clear moral imperative to do so.
But here's the crucial thing: as long as we are the ones determining which countries are and are not longing for American intervention, intervening is antithetical to freedom. It would be of great moral convenience to superpowers if they really knew when the people of a country wanted to be invaded. But as long as the superpower is the one determining the criteria for righteous invasion, it's just more imperial privilege. Suppose MikeF is right, and hundreds of thousands of Rwandans wanted us to come in, guns blazing. Is that fact alone enough to justify an American invasion? Would 200,000 people be enough, or would we need 400,000? Is it a matter of what percentage of the Rwandan population wanted it? Is a majority enough? Two-thirds? Surely, the minority rights that we believe in should include the right not to submit to an armed invasion. I'm particularly disturbed by MikeF's assurance that there are people who have forfeited their right to oppose American invasion. That's a convenient position for any potential occupier to take. Not to harp on Vladimir Putin, but suppose he said simply that the South Ossetians who opposed Russian intervention had forfeited their right to an opinion. I don't believe many in the Western world would have accepted that notion. As long as it's the invader that decides when it's righteous to invade, it's no different from any other justification for invasion.

I'm not trying to be cute. I'm saying that people in foreign countries lack the wisdom, the neutrality or the authority necessary to be arbiters of when it is appropriate or correct to invade other nations for their own good. This is why I would restrict American intervention to times of self-defense, either following an attack on ourselves or our close military allies, or in the specific and limited instance when our country or our allies are in immediate and obvious threat of aggression. I am also sympathetic to the idea that the international community has some say in military intervention, but I am decidely agnostic (maybe confused is the better word) about institutions like the UN having the authority to authorize war. (The problem with international bodies like the UN is that the nations with the least say are precisely the nations most likely to be the subject of "benevolent" intervention.)

What would this mean for American history? It means I supported the invasion of Afghanistan and the removal of the Taliban, though I disagreed with much of the prosecution of that war. It meas I would have supported World War II. It means that I would have been open to a meaningful discussion about Desert Storm, because of the aggression of Saddam and the consensus of the international community, although my impulse is to oppose that intervention. I would have been opposed to World War I. I would have been opposed to Korea, and to Vietnam. I was opposed to Iraq II. I am opposed to intervention in Darfur. This doesn't to me seem like an advocacy of "turtleing".

I am, in fact, sympathetic to the oppressed people of the world, and while I won't beat my breast about it, I hope you believe it. What can be done for them? First, we can use soft power (economic, cultural, diplomatic) to attempt to create change. We can act as an example of democracy and right action to inspire indigenous resistance movements. Most importantly, we can stop supporting so many oppressive regimes in the name of securing American interests, like we are currently doing with the murderous authoritarians in Uzbekistan, or the oppressive House of Saud. First do no harm.

More controversially, I think that if we want more people to be free of oppressive governments, we've got to relax the standards by which we decide what exactly constitutes terrorism. I submit to you that there have been very few successful civil liberation movements that haven't involved some forms of violent resistance to the status quo government. (Even the Indian resistance wasn't free from violence.) While I would love for internal resistance movements to be able to secure control from dictators and autocrats without resorting to violence, if we really have compassion for their plights, I don't think we can condemn them as terrorists for using force to try and gain control of their countries. It's something to think about.

Ultimately, what I find most interesting about this discussion is how it demonstrates the resiliency of neoconservatism. That movement is not as dead in American politics as people seem to think. Surely, I would have though Iraq would have rendered conversations like this one largely irrelevant. We are arguing about "we shoulds" when the real question is the "we cans". Iraq demonstrates that we lack the wisdom and strength necessary to remake the world in the kind of humane way we would want to. There simply are too many variables, too many problems, too many unknowns. I look at people who want to invade Darfur by force, and I can't understand what lessons they've taken from Iraq at all. Getting involved in counter-insurgency in an impoverished Muslim country with many competing factions and a virtual guarantee of armed resistance, in a geopolitically volatile geographical area.... We can't take part in that kind of adventure anymore. We don't have the right, in my opinion, and we certainly lack the ability.

Or consider Iran. It is absolutely not clear that the Iranian people would want us to depose the mullahs. Some would, some wouldn't. The imposition of what we think is right at the behest of some but to the contrary of others is simply inimical to democracy. Meanwhile, you're talking about a vast country, with many more people than Iraq, a far more capable conventional military, and the assurance of a far more organized and deliberately anti-occupation insurgency than the one we saw in Iraq. Invading Iran is just a non-starter, or would be, if we had a foreign policy apparatus in this country that hadn't spun off into madness. Do I want the people of Iran to be ruled by oppressive, anti-Semitic theocrats? Of course not. But what I want, what we want, is not always the only question.

I have compassion for the oppressed people of the world. But while I don't think democracy itself will solve the world's problems, I think that honoring democratic values is the best vehicle for acting in the world with integrity and morality, and spreading democracy or peace by force of arms makes no sense and doesn't work. It's a sad choice, but that is only another way to say that it is the kind of choice we are often forced to make in a cruel world.

32 comments:

  1. Concurrent with all this, there seems to be both a moral and a practical question of simply getting our own house in order before we try to clean up someone else's. If our economy is wobbly, if our school system is in need of reform, if we can't respect the most basic democratic freedoms here, it's pretty absurd to argue that we can, or even have to the right to try to, improve those things somewhere else.

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  2. I heard a dissident Egyptian professor say once... "democracy cannot be forced, but it is highly contagious."
    The osmotic pressure of Western civ will triumph in the end, because it is the better model.
    The application of either military or covert force does not advance the cause of freedom and self-government.

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  3. Intervening in foreign countries, military intervention, should be divorced from Manichean notions. Sure, sure, I know that is impossible. But acting on hard to define, and harder to accomplish, ideals leads to catastrophe. I guess this puts me in the "realists" camp. Wilsonian foreign policy has a piss poor track record. Seems the neocons, they're so erudite, have some how missed this rather glaring fact.

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  4. Okay, I can see where you're going with that. Three things. First, I'd say that I'm sensitive to the tu quoque aspect of the argument. I'd agree that mainstream conservatism, and especially neoconservatism, do exhibit exactly the opposite contradiction. I don't associate myself with either of them though, so this doesn't bother me as much as it might.

    Second, I'd take issue with your characterization of a few historical events--I think I could probably persuade you to support a few wars you've said you wouldn't--but I recognize a quibble when I see one, so I'll let it pass.

    Third, I think it's important that you admit that you're having the nation-state do an incredible amount of work for you. My issue with that is that the concept of the nation-state is fraught with problems, and I'd like to think you'd be among the first to admit that.

    For example, many political boundaries have far more to do with the remnants of European imperialism than with local political/cultural/ethnic boundaries. Who gets to say what constitutes a nation-state? Why should the Kurds not have their own nation state? Because they don't have enough guns? And why is the solution to that problem not simply to give them more? Certainly having no state of their own is a grave obstacle to their self-determination. They're divided amongst three plus different states, and haven't the political clout in any of them which would be necessary for political independence. Ultimately, who gets to exercise political self-determination seems to devolve on a question of who has enough guns to do so. I'm okay with this, but I don't think you should be, and democracy does not appear to be a solution to this problem. You push back against conservatives describing problems without admitting remedies, but that seems to be exactly what you're doing here.

    But I think my most important beef here is that you haven't really dealt with the other side of my question. Yes, you've come up with a argument for why we should resist interventionism abroad. But you haven't come up with an argument for why we should be okay with interventionism at home that doesn't involve the concept of the inviolability of the political nation-state doing a huge amount of heavy lifting, far more than I think you'd be comfortable with.

    Take the American Civil War as an example. Even expanding the issue to include more than just abolitionism, you have a political majority--or what was on the verge of becoming such--saying to a political minority, "You can't do that." The political minority said "Well we have the right to self-determination, so we're going to take our ball and go home." If you value self-determination as much as you say you do, I can't see how you can do anything but argue that the Confederacy was in the right. They objected to the definition of nation-state with which they had been stuck, and had their objection overruled by force of arms. A sizable local majority attempted to exercise self-determination, and in their view, foreign aggressors denied them that right. That war cost upwards of a million American lives, but is anyone here willing to argue that it wasn't the right thing to do. Anyone? Bueller?

    Even more importantly, why should self-determination on the level of the nation-state be more important than self-determination on an individual level? Why should a large group of people have the right to self-determination on a collective level when I, as an individual, do not? Because the large group of people has guns? That's hardly consistent with your ideology. It almost sounds as if you're arguing that individuals are mere creatures of the state, which is unimaginably creepy (though, I contend, ultimately where you, Freddie, have to end up), because our identity as members of a political entity held together by force of arms is more important than our identity as individual human beings. How do you reconcile that with your politics of compassion? Or even better, how do you reconcile that with your "mushy liberal" utopianism about the state ultimately being unnecessary?

    That's the crux of my objection. What you say you believe about the nature of human beings is in tension, if not outright contradiction, with how you think the state ought to behave.

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  5. There's a lot to sort through, ryan, and eventually I will, but in the mean time I have to ask you to consider the reductio of your own position: are you an anarchist?

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  6. One final shot, which is only tangentially related to my all-too-long response above: Freddie, you complain at libertarians--and rightly so--that they simply think that "the market" will magically make everything better.

    How exactly is your take on "democracy" any less magical?

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  7. I'm actually a big skeptic of democracy. I don't think the majority is often right; quite the opposite. But democracy is the only system I've seen that manages to actually protect the rights of the individual, by empowering the individual. Where questions of economic models are inherently questions fit, use or pragmatics-- what works-- questions of civic governance are questions of principle. Libertarian economic models either work or they don't, to reach the ends that they're supposed to. I'm afraid the method for judging the utility of democracy is much more ephemeral and confused. But, again, alot to unpack there. (This happens to be a brutal week for me, schedule-wise.)

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  8. One of the tragedies of the past decade has been the dilution of the word "terrorism". At one point, the word "terrorist" was reserved for those who carried out stealth attacks on civilians or civilian infrastructure. The definition has (unfortunately) excluded attacks on civilians carried out (intentionally or not) by armed forces--hence the old joke about a terrorist being someone who has a bomb but doesn't have an air force to deliver it--but still, the underyling premise was that terrorists deliberately attacked the citizenry with intent to kill and destabilize.

    Over the past decade, the term has grown to include virtually any form of political violence, as well as (occasionally) a few nonviolent acts. In the modern sense of the word, the Weathermen are terrorists (they were never referred to as such during the Vietnam War era), as are groups like Earth Liberation Front--who seek to damage property but avoid putting lives at risk. Rioters and demonstraters-gone-out-of-control have occasionally been tagged as terrorists. In one of the true "D'oh!" moments of the Bush Administration, Education Secretary Rod Paige famously referred to the National Education Association as a "terrorist organization".

    If this were a mere rhetorical device, it would be annoying enough. But coupled with the whole Gitmo fiasco--it has become downright scary.

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  9. As a response to your question: no, not at all. I haven't expressed any of my own political views here, merely attempted to critique yours. The real question for me, tongue-in-cheek at any rate, is "Why aren't you an anarchist?"

    When it comes down to it, I'm actually not inherently opposed to authoritarian regimes on moral grounds because I don't actually believe in human rights. I happen to think that there are reasons related to prudence and efficiency which make representative governments and civil rights desirable, but I don't think they have an inherently positive moral valence.

    I do, however, think that there is something inherently moral about order, however enforced, and that tyranny is just about always better than chaos. If you're interested in my own political perspective, I've written about it here. I doubt you'll be willing to agree with me ultimately, and I don't make any claims to special profundity, but I hope to be at least compelling.

    So yes, I'm playing devil's advocate to your idealist. I don't think there's anything immoral about coercion domestically or internationally, which may not be a particularly attractive view, but I think it does survive the criticisms I've leveled at you.

    Lest someone accuse me of doing otherwise, let me say that I'm asking these questions in good faith, because I believe that you can and will--time and interest permitting--answer them that way. I've got my own scheduling problems and have already spent far more time here this week than I can easily justify, but the productivity and respect of your discourse is truly gratifying.

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  10. To quote your own page, Ryan...

    "You can, however, support a government that can make life better for you and your family. This may sound selfish, but it isn’t any more selfish than any other perspective, it’s just more honest."

    For the vast majority of people living in the US in 2008, the government that they think will make life better for them is not the one advocating laissez-faire economics (which has a tendency to make life better for the wealthy, but doesn't always benefit the rest), but that one which will "share the wealth"--to recall the whole Joe the Plumber meme.

    You cannot demand the right to vote in a way to make life better for yourself, but deny that same right to others. And in either case, they come in conflict.

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  11. I'd like to take a step back and ask ryan a question. Are you equating domestic decisions, Should we finance the library? with foreign decisions, Should we invade Iraq? I take that as your stepping off point. Questions of domestic policy, where generally loss of life is not an issue, pale in comparison to situations where loss of life is assured. There is no equivalence. If government decides to build the library or expand the interstate onto my land I may well be ticked off but likely will not muster relatives, friends, passersby to fend off the foreign invaders. Both questions, library? Iraq? are worthy of debate but in no way equivalent. But, perhaps, I do not understand your concern. Thanks

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  12. When it comes down to it, I'm actually not inherently opposed to authoritarian regimes on moral grounds because I don't actually believe in human rights ... I don't think they have an inherently positive moral valence.

    You mean you don't believe in human rights, existing out there in the ether, existing even in absence of any human practice of them - or you don't believe that the idea of "human rights" is worthwhile because my instinct to not be tortured isn't really distinguishable from my instinct to make $2 instead of $1?

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  13. Scott: You seem to be imputing policy positions to me which I do not necessarily hold. I'm not sure I understand your objection, to be honest. Besides, rendering unto Caesar doesn't entail moral support for the government beyond 1) the affirmation that any government is better than none and 2) deciding that it's in one's best interest to pay up rather than go to jail. I fail to see why either of those requires one to personally support a particular government policy.

    Bob: Don't be silly. There are dozens of purely domestic issues that deal in life and death every day. Funding the library is not one of them, no question there. Funding the Mediplans is. So are, arguably anyways, public housing assistance, unemployment benefits, food stamps, disability, public defenders, etc. All of these involve significant government intervention and the application of at least the threat of violence, as taxation is, after all, essentially taking people's money at gunpoint. I honestly can't see how you couldn't see an equivalence there.

    bcg: I mean that I believe that "rights" must be grounded in sovereign power. So I do believe that civil rights, i.e. rights that a sovereign grants to its subjects, are real, and I think they're a good idea too. But there isn't anything moral about that. I don't believe that human beings have rights just because we're human. I'm not sure I can make heads or tails of your analogy.

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  14. Libertarian economic models either work or they don't, to reach the ends that they're supposed to. I'm afraid the method for judging the utility of democracy is much more ephemeral and confused.

    Not necessarily. A lot of libertarian economic models rely heavily on the hidden costs of policies (i.e. moral hazard, future effects of debt, displaced labor/investment opportunities) that are extraordinarily difficult to untangle (despite libertarians' glib assertions to the contrary).

    But to the bigger question of intervention, I should note that I emphatically don't believe in force as a tool to spread democracy. As matoko notes, democracy is best advanced through osmosis.

    I do, however, believe in using force to disrupt catastrophic attacks on human rights, specifically genocide. You say that "intervening is antithetical to freedom", but antithetical to whose freedom? Certainly not the victims, who have no agency for self-determination. And it's not a question of what percentage of the population want us to come in: it's a question of how many people will be maimed, raped or killed if we don't. In the cases where there is a clear aggressor, a large number of potential victims, and a feasible strategy to end the conflict, I think we are morally justified in intervening. Rwanda exemplifies that scenario: the Hutu militias were obviously the aggressors, backed by radio propaganda. They primarily used machetes, so well-armed US troops would have faced little risk.

    Democracy and the tyranny of the majority only work if there are safeguards that protect those outside of the majority. Belief in the strength of our democracy doesn't require that every majority rule throughout the world be respected. Putin sort of has a point when he compares Iraq with Ossetia. But he would sound a damn fool if that comparison were made not to Iraq, but to protecting innocents in Darfour.

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  15. I would agree with this post if I could find the lines that box in American self interest and security and say with certainty that those lines are in fact our borders. However, this is not the case. American interest and the question of American security inevitably crosses both the Atlantic and the Pacific. It wades across the Rio Grande and down into South America.

    Yes, at times we overreach. Iraq is perhaps the single most glaring example of American ineptitude and pseudo-Imperialism. There are others, and have been for decades.

    Yet to equate this with intervention to stop genocide? I fail to see how this applies. Sans Pearl Harbor were we without cause to stop the Germans and Japanese? Our ally Great Britain was in peril, but is that more of a just cause than the defense of the defenseless? Once upon a time people existed in a more level playing field. When bows and sticks determined the outcome of a battle. Or muskets, even. Now tyrants and mass murderers hoist machine guns and tanks.

    But back to the initial point--where does one draw the lines of American interest and security? In a global world it seems we deal much more often with blur than with border. Isolationism is not quite the same thing as non-interventionism, but it's close, and the closer we draw toward a global society, the less realistic this becomes.

    China operates on the basis of self-interest alone. As such, they help fund the genocide in Darfur. I hope we take the opposite approach, and yes, even deign to once and a while make decisions for those who haven't the capability nor the time to do so for themselves.

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  16. Hate to double post but I wanted to note that I agree entirely with this:

    Most importantly, we can stop supporting so many oppressive regimes in the name of securing American interests, like we are currently doing with the murderous authoritarians in Uzbekistan, or the oppressive House of Saud. First do no harm.

    More controversially, I think that if we want more people to be free of oppressive governments, we've got to relax the standards by which we decide what exactly constitutes terrorism.

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  17. That's funny.. I don't recall the taxman showing up at my house with a gun.

    Even if I were to not pay my taxes, it would be a LONG time before any guns became involved. (Specifically, at the time the sheriff shows up to evict me from the home I no longer own).

    But the same situation applies if I don't pay my mortgage... the banker's rights are ultimately enforced "at gunpoint" should I voluntarily refuse to leave.

    ANY law, or contract backed by law, is ultimately enforced by the threat of force. The whole "taxes are evil because men with guns may show up at your house and kill you if you don't pay them" mantra is nonsense. Why should governments have the moral authority to enforce contracts by threat of violence, but not to collect taxes?

    The difference between enforcement of domestic law (especially the non criminal variety) and foreign invasion is that in the former case, violence is only ever employed as a last resort. When you attack a foreign land, you lead with your armies.

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  18. See, here, this is the comments section I dreamed of having.

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  19. Scott: Umm...

    And you've basically hit on my point: why should the government be able to do this and not intervene, and if it can do this domestically, why shouldn't it be able to do so internationally? Force is always a last resort, and unless you're going to come up with a rigorous argument about how many different hoops you have to jump through before force is permitted, you've got nothing.

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  20. Ryan: There's nothing moral about a right to life, or to property? What's left of the word moral after you eviscerate it like that?

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  21. I'll back up a step to explain a bit of my political philosophy. I'm firmly in the social contract camp--that the whole system of laws and institutions that we refer to as "government" is and ought to be an edifice constructed for the purpose of bringing about peace and prosperity to its members. Some governments meet this ideal, many others do not. And, as Herbert noted in Dune; there is no ideal governmental structure which can preserve this across time. So we make do with what we have and do our best.

    You say above that you "don't believe in human rights"--what do you mean by that exactly? Are you taking a social contracts position as well? Are you observing that there are no "rights" to be found in nature, where dog-eat-dog is the only governing principle? Are you referring instead only to "human rights" as advocated to some on the left (rights to housing, medical care, employment, other forms of sustenance)? Given that you stated that "taxation is, after all, essentially taking people's money at gunpoint."--a statement which carries with it the implication that people are entitled to private property ("people's money")--based on what grounds do you find a right to private property? (In other words--absent natural rights or a social contract, why shouldn't I be able to show up at "your" house, point "my" gun at you, and demand all "your" money--if you don't like it, get a bigger gun).

    You seem to be reducing questions of governance to the issue of "who can project the most force"? While that may be the underlying mechanism; surely we can do better than that as a rationale. One of the things that makes us human is the ability to rise above the law of the jungle.

    Now that we've established my preference for the social contract, we can return to the subject of international politics. Unlike domestic disputes, where the police and courts are ostensibly neutral resources which parties in a dispute have at their disposal--there is no such body at the international level. The UN is far too politically compromised--the US and other great powers can veto any use of force without cause; and politics are found in every cornder of that body. Given that the nations of the world guard their sovereignty jealously; a more powerful UN is unlikely to arise.

    But a body of international law concerning the use of warfare seems to exist just the same--and marching across someone's border without good cause is frowned upon. Given that social contract theory finds peace beneficial on a micro level (it is better that two individuals settle differences with words than fists); it isn't a stretch to make the same observation at the level of nation-states. Warfare is intensely damaging to the international social fabric, as it exists--even if there is no all-powerful body capable of defending that fabric.

    (And I agree that there are circumstances which do demand use of warfare; however it ought to be a high threshold--one which was not crossed in Iraq).

    But--the best answer why "kick ass and take names" is a poor foreign policy is not based on any theory of moral philosophy, but on the observations of time. One needs only to gaze upon the broken remains of many prior empires who had such a policy; overreached and overextended themselves, and collapsed. Whether it be the Greeks, the Romans, the Caliphate, the Mongols, or the British--none endured. Given the present circumstances of hte US economy, it can be argued that we're on the precipice. Whether we in fact are, or not, none of us can tell--such judgements can only be made by historians looking back after the dust has settled.

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  22. Regarding the tax protestors: How long did refuse to pay their taxes before the US Marshals Service got involved? (And are they simply refusing to pay; or are they likely guilty of tax evasion--filing a fraudulent return or refusing to file at all?)

    Would you be cheering the same way if rather than tax protestors, they were mortgagees in default fighting a foreclosure action? Or wayward tenants armed with shotguns resisting eviction? Or a gang of bank robbers, holed up in the premises?

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  23. Scott: Make no mistake, I'm not cheering for the tax "protesters," I think they're idiots who deserve everything they get. But they are exercising their political voice, and they are being met with gunfire. Just so we're clear on the concept here: if you don't pay your taxes, you go to jail, at gunpoint if necessary. Though as a wise man once said, if the police have to come and find you, they're bringing an ass-whuppin' with 'em. I'm not taking a position on the morality of the subject, just pointing out that if that isn't the definition of coercion, I don't know what is.

    Stop trying to critique my position from my comments here. My position is not discussed in any great detail, as ultimately all I'm trying to do is grill Freddie on his post, not set forth an alternative. My own views have nothing to do with whether or not Freddie is being consistent. More to the point, your comments don't go very far towards explaining how he might be.

    Furthermore, you make one of the same mistakes that Freddie seems to. You want to reach a philosophical or moral conclusion using a prudential argument. The latter cannot produce the former. All a prudential argument can conclude is "This is/is not a bad idea." It cannot conclude "This is demanded by morality." What you wind up saying is "My positions don't need philosophical justification, only prudential support, but because I have the moral high ground anyways, disagreeing with me makes you a bad person." Which isn't fair, and I don't intend to let anyone get away with it. I can't do more than point out the inconsistency, but I'm content with that.

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  24. Freddie--

    "See, here, this is the comments section I dreamed of having."

    Heh. Indeed.

    Scott--

    "One needs only to gaze upon the broken remains of many prior empires who had such a policy; overreached and overextended themselves, and collapsed. Whether it be the Greeks, the Romans, the Caliphate, the Mongols, or the British--none endured."

    Exactly. Then again, this in and of itself is no good reason to abandon interventionism. After all, stepping in to stop a genocide in Darfur is not quite the same as attempting to rule India as a colony...

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  25. Well ryan, at the risk of continuing my silly act I think you have answered my question, kind'a. The equivalence is the legal taking of money for public purpose. But you hold that any and all government takings are thefts, armed robbery. Welcome to my silly world, you are much better at it than me. Personally I'm happy to pay taxes. From birth at a tax supported hospital, to education at public schools, to all the impossible ways to count how taxes improve quality of life, yep, don't mind my tax bills at all. I know, I'm just being silly.



    Bob: Don't be silly. There are dozens of purely domestic issues that deal in life and death every day. Funding the library is not one of them, no question there. Funding the Mediplans is. So are, arguably anyways, public housing assistance, unemployment benefits, food stamps, disability, public defenders, etc. All of these involve significant government intervention and the application of at least the threat of violence, as taxation is, after all, essentially taking people's money at gunpoint. I honestly can't see how you couldn't see an equivalence there.

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  26. Ryan...


    I won't speak for Freddie; he is more than capable of doing that himself. But read again...

    A military intervention, by definition, involves use of immediate, overwhelming force. Tax disputes do not; for force to be deployed is unusual; and even then, the level of force employed is escalated slowly.

    If you think that the county sheriff on your doorstep, gun holstered but at the ready should it be needed, serving an eviction notice is the moral equivalent of dropping bombs on someone's head--even if one supposes that the someone in question is a right bastard who deserves it--I can't really help you.

    I think Freddie errs a bit in focusing on the nation-state as a wall of separation between what violence is permissible, and what is not. A rogue government waging war against its own people--as in the Sudan--is no more acceptable than one waging war on its neighbors. Conversely, and especially in the case of failed states; minimal projections of force across international boundaries (such as sending in commandos to a failed state in order to seize and arrest a terrorist harbored there) are regarded far more harshly then perhaps they should be. In my view, warfare is to be avoided because of the level of violence involved, not because of any line on a map being crossed.

    Obviously, a world where no force was ever deployed against a fellow human would be ideal; common sense and thousands of years of recorded history teach us that the utopian goal of No Force Ever is simply not gonna happen. So the question is how to deploy the minimum amount of force to ensure the best result--the answer to that question is "civilization". The means by which civilization is brought about is called "government"; and the means by which government gains the resources it needs to operate are called "taxes". (Or other euphemisms).

    But the false dichotomy of "all force is bad, therefore all force is equivalent" leads to chaos. There are many reasons why we separate the functions of military and police; and don't use the former for domestic law enforcement (or the latter for the waging of war). Taking an anti-war position does NOT require, as a matter of moral consistency, an opposition to all forms of police power, or all forms of (potential) violence, however much we may deplore it. Civilization requires some small amount of violence be meted out against criminals and the like; this is justified by the fact that a) those authorized to mete out violence are constrained in numerous ways, and b) it is the teaching of history that the alternate is more violence; as organized criminals, warlords, and other bad actors swiftly erect their own quasi-governments in place of one which at least ostensibly is charged with the common good.

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  27. Scott

    I think Freddie errs a bit in focusing on the nation-state as a wall of separation between what violence is permissible, and what is not. A rogue government waging war against its own people--as in the Sudan--is no more acceptable than one waging war on its neighbors.

    This is an important point. Freddie wrote this:

    The only grand vision I have for foreign policy is this: that we leave the rest of the world alone, that we act only in instances of immediate and inevitable danger to our country and our close allies...

    So if the Government of Sudan is, as you put it, waging war against its own people, what hope have they of ever resisting? They have no way of forming alliances with other nations. So are they now exempt from any justification of intervention?

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  28. Just so you know where I'm coming from, I would agree with much of your prudential criticism of liberal imperialism. Unintended consequences and all that.

    But I don't think the argument from democracy works. Liberal imperialism is, by definition, inconsistent with democracy for the ostensible beneficiaries (at least while the liberal imperialism is operative). But democracy may just not be an option. Of if it just means majority opinion, it is hard to see why it is entitled to such moral weight.

    So whether the Sudanese want us to stop them murdering Darfurans can't have any moral weight. Maybe it would cost us something to prevent them from doing it. Maybe we don't want to pay that cost. But the dream of a Sudanese liberal democracy can't enter into the picture.

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  29. What was your view of Kosovo?

    'It means I supported the invasion of Afghanistan and the removal of the Taliban, though I disagreed with much of the prosecution of that war.'

    Do you support the war now? I ask because I consider it a mistake to say you support the-idea-of-a-war-as-prosecuted-with-ideal-competence-in-ideal-conditions-for-unimpeachable-reasons but not the reality of it.

    'This is why I would restrict American intervention to times of self-defense, either following an attack on ourselves or our close military allies, or in the specific and limited instance when our country or our allies are in immediate and obvious threat of aggression. I am also sympathetic to the idea that the international community has some say in military intervention, but I am decidely agnostic (maybe confused is the better word) about institutions like the UN having the authority to authorize war.'

    Gedankenexperiment: say we had conclusive evidence that Iran was systematically destroying its Jewish population. What would the principles described in this post enjoin you to advocate as America's response?

    (I realise this is the equivalent of the 24 ticking-bomb scenario in the torture arguments. If I had time I could invent a more plausible one.)

    On the subject of Georgia, I strongly recommend this http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n23/asch01_.html

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  30. And doesn't your theory fall apart in the crucial case of Pakistan? The question of whether Waziristan is or isn't part of Pakistani territory is in terms of international law unambiguous. But the place is controlled by warlords. And this default of the nominally sovereign power is helping America's battlefield enemy, the Taliban.

    This is a case where the claim to self-determination of Pakistan -as a whole- must in practice be treated differently from that of the claim to self-determination of a Pakistani region. No?

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  31. Pardon me for being evasive, but I want to comment on the fact that you use the example of Waziristan. This is grist for my mill. Some Americans are making noise about "pacifying" Waziristan. Warlords have been fighting in Waziristan since before there was a United States. We can apparently learn no lessons about humility, and what we are capable of.

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  32. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/leading_article/article5304057.ece

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