Monday, March 21, 2011

how perfect is your knowledge?

Humor me for a moment.

Imagine that a friend from a foreign country told you that she wanted to become educated about the 2000 presidential election, its ensuing controversy, and the various consequences and permutations of that entire situation. How would you counsel her? Consider, all in all, the enormity of the question. We're talking about a long, involved, contentious discussion, upon which literally millions of words have be written then and since, concerning deeply intricate and controversial questions of electoral, legal, and political minutiae. You would perhaps set her loose with a few key texts to consider, point her in the direction of some experts, and give her a few ideas about where to focus her research. But you would do so with the understanding that her knowledge on the issue would always be partial and conditional, because the situation is so large and because there are certain elements of context and cultural understanding that only someone who had lived through it could understand. And I say this even though we have the distance of a decade and the resulting work of history to consider the question.

Now consider the average American's knowledge about Yemen. I mean, really.

What interventionists ask of us, constantly, is to be so informed, wise, judicious, and discriminating that we can understand the tangled morass of practical politics, in countries that are thousands of miles from our shores, with cultures that are almost entirely alien to ours, with populaces that don't speak our same native tongue. Feel comfortable with that? I assume that I know a lot more about Egypt or Yemen or Libya than the average American-- I would suggest that the average American almost certainly couldn't find these countries on a map, tell you what languages they speak in those countries, perhaps even on which continents they are found-- but the idea that I can have an informed opinion about the internal politics of these countries is absurd. Absurd. I followed the health care debate, an internal political affair with which I have a great personal stake and a keen personal interest, with something resembling obsession. I can hardly comprehend how many hundreds of thousands of words I read on the subject. And yet in some ways I know so little.

And yet I am supposed to have knowledge enough about the internal politics of Libya? Enough to wager the future of the lives of every citizen of that country? Enough to commit human lives and millions of dollars to engineer the outcome that I think we want in that foreign country? With the fog of war, the law of unintended consequences, and all of those unknown unknowns, floating around out there, waiting to entrap us?

This is folly. It is insanity. There are people within Libya that support Qaddafi. I don't understand them, but then I would be lying if I said that I understand the revolutionaries, really. I don't know who these loyalists are, how many of them there are, how valid their arguments are, how realistic an understanding of the situation they have. And neither do you. But we are in the process of deciding this issue for them, almost all internal political decisions for them, with our actions. Whatever vestiges of democracy and freedom may be preserved following this latest military adventure of ours, minority rights for these people will have been abridged, if a minority they are. That's to say nothing of what might come next, if the revolution succeeds; who will stand with whom, what reprisals will follow, what the tangled, shifting allegiances and temporary alliances will mean for these people and Libya on the whole. The future would be uncertain with or without the United States and its paper coalition raining ordinance down. But without us, we could be sure that whatever else was true, Libyans would be deciding the future of Libya. I would welcome that, as little as my opinion might mean.

A colossal, almost impossible arrogance underpins all interventionist logic. Beneath it all is a preening, self-satisfied belief in the interventionist's own brilliance and understanding. So I ask you, as an individual reader-- are you that wise? Are you that righteous? You understand so much? When was the last time you read a Libyan newspaper? Talked at length with a Libyan? A year ago, what did you know of Libya and its internal struggles? Because what you are saying, when you advocate intervention, is not only that you know so much that you can separate good from evil, but that your knowledge is so great and so benevolent that it is sufficient to completely undermine the self-determination of every man, woman, and child on Libyan soil. Make no mistake. That is your gamble. Those are the stakes you are wagering.

An understanding of the limits of ones own knowledge is the essence of wisdom, and modesty of goals compelled by limited knowledge the essence of good governance. Democracy requires-- requires-- demos, an informed, engaged populace. We have an enormously difficult time figuring out our domestic politics. This is asking too much, even without considering the imposition on the self-determination of Libya. Libya was for Libyans before you all trained your munificent gaze on it. Libya will be for Libyans long after you have turned your righteousness to the next news cycle. The question is what respect and what deference you will show to Libyans now, when absolutely every element of their future hangs in the balance.

Imagine back to Gore v. Bush again. We need not even really concern ourselves with the crazy counterfactual of some foreign country deciding that it was so wise, judicious, and magnanimous that it would sort out our internal conflict through military intervention. This country has no cultural memory whatsoever of foreign countries "intervening" within its borders, and no consideration of what it might be like to live under the constant threat that some superpower might decide to dictate its affairs. Such questions couldn't possibly be serious.

28 comments:

Petey said...

"A colossal, almost impossible arrogance underpins all interventionist logic."

I shall dissent from this sentence.

A non-imperialist American interventionist operation can work, in both logic and practice. I think the Kosovo mission was good on the cost/benefit scale, to give an example.

Of course, we do seem to have a low batting average in the post-cold war era in good vs bad interventions, on the cost/benefit scale. Doing war properly is hard, even it is backed by the correct intentions. And that should certainly lead one to be skeptical about current and future interventions.

But given the correct intentions and the correct skillful means, there exists perfectly sound logic for sometimes using America's hegemonic military for the common good.

Petey said...

Tangentially, the blog post that came closest to my feelings about the Libya operation was Mark Thoma's simple Revealed Preference:

"We have enough money to pay for military action in Libya, but not for job creation?"

Anonymous said...

There is a "colossal, almost impossible arrogance" at work here, but its source is the author of this blog.

Freddie said...

I'll give you a 4 out of 10, friend. And that's a generous score.

Anonymous said...

Last time I looked, Freddie wasn't responsible for killing people, just for asking questions about why we seem so eager to do it without adequate reflection. That sort of arrogance I'll take over the death-dealing kind, thank you very much.

Anonymous said...

One of the things the wikileaks cables document quite nicely is the massive extent to which the US state is always "intervening" in every country in the world, as much as it can manage and finds useful. And while there *is* a difference between dropping bombs in Libya and merely selling a repressive dictator the military hardware he can then use to kill people, that's a difference in extent, not kind. We were already deeply involved in Libya; the tanks that Gaddafi is using to kill Libyans are the spoils of being first a Soviet client then an ally in the “war on terror.”

You know this, of course, but my point is that when the US state department quietly supports friendly repressive dictators like Gaddafi, virtually none of the people who are now condemning the NFZ were saying a word. This is a failing of the left -- that we vigorously condemn the interventions spearheaded by the department of defense, but close our eyes to the much greater violence made possible by the state department’s coziness with dictators. It’s deeply understandable, of course; it's really hard work to keep up with all the dirty business the US is quietly involved in overseas. We're not all Noam Chomsky.

But this is also why you have so much to say about American intervention into Libya and nothing to say about American intervention in Yemen, both of which are happening right now. This pretense that the situation “out there” is so damn complicated, in practice, allows you to condemn one arm of the US empire, but say nothing about the other, because the former is big and loud and the latter is quiet. The former needs our active consent; the latter needs us to have the wisdom to know how little we know, etc.

So I would just say this: condemn the hubris of our DoD hawks. But isolationism is also a deeply attractive and dangerous trap for Americans, and the humble silence of citizens about countries like Yemen -- which you are explicitly encouraging -- is precisely the thing that allows our government to hubristically do things like give Saleh military equipment, diplomatic cover, and money in exchange for the promise that he will fight terrorism on our behalf. And then look the other way while he uses that military equipment to put down rebellions, tortures dissidents, and subverts democracy.

Anonymous said...

ordnance!

Freddie said...

Damn! Ugh sorry. You're right. I've been getting that consistently wrong. Thanks I won't forget the next time I use the term.

le radical galoisien said...
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le radical galoisien said...

dude. We killed 16 soldiers after firing 110 tomahawks.

how many civilians have Gaddafi slaughtered?

Gaddafi's men are using civilians as SHIELDS. That's abhorrable! Still you say, neutrality, neutrality.

It is not by arrogance that we made this intervention. Obama was ridiculously slow to respond -- so much for the idealist we thought he was. The entire international community had been calling for a no-fly zone for weeks.

Also, do you know any South Korean who would have rather preferred that the UN not have intervened that year in 1950? I mean, look at all those North Koreans supporting Kim Jong-Il! How they cheer!

le radical galoisien said...

"But without us, we could be sure that whatever else was true, Libyans would be deciding the future of Libya."

Correction: an insane autocrat whose sons like to run amok in European nightclubs and who has to hire foreigners to stay in power because the loyalty of government troops of Libyan nationality are suspect.

So really it's a guy at the top plus a bunch of people from Chad, deciding the future of Libya. An excellent alternative!

Anonymous said...

The South Korea example: a state attacking another state, not a civil war within a state.

Insane autocrat with foreign mercenaries and sons of low morals: plenty of those around, but we're not intervening in their countries.

Try again.

Anonymous said...

Also, wondering what "non-imperialist" intervention is, since imperialism by definition is the extension of power and/or dominance by one state over another state, often by force. Ponder that one.

le radical galoisien said...

The Korean War was a civil war.

But again, you're American, so you don't know anything about Korea and how Koreans feel about national identity do you?

Of course -- we didn't know anything -- we shouldn't have intervened.



I don't know of many autocrats who has to *rely* on foreign mercenaries to stay in power.

le radical galoisien said...

to this day, btw, South Koreans want to embrace the North Koreans back. Under a free government of course.

My Korean friends participate in an activist group called "There is Hope in North Korea" (THiNK)...

Why would people in the South want to save the people in the North, if the North had merely been a foreign aggressor?

Anonymous said...

The Korean War was not a civil war. The Korean peninsula was occupied by two sovereign governments, one of which decided to invade the territory of the other. The US and its UN allies intervened to repel that invasion. Whatever the feelings of some people there, or yours, those are the facts. And I'm a bit surprised that the concept of autocrats employing foreign mercenaries is a revelation to you.

There's a reason why we have a system going back to the Westphalian peace of 1648, with the principles of the sovereignty of states, the fundamental right of political self determination, and the principle of (legal) equality between states. It's because the Europeans at that time got tired of endless bloody civil wars over religion fueled by foreign intervention. And it's continued to make sense because a world in which I, or you, can routinely decide the affairs of any other state because its insane autocrat annoys my sensibilities, and because we have the brute strength to do so, is likely to be a bloody one. And the blood won't be shed by you, or me, but by the people on whose behalf we're so generously intervening, so I'll pass.

le radical galoisien said...

it is not foreign to me. it is simply a sign that the autocrat has lost the excuse of protecting self-determination. How can it be self-determination if he must use foreign forces to back his power? Disrupting his regime would no longer be violating sovereignty.

The Korean War was de facto, a civil war. That is anthropological and cultural fact.

"The Korean peninsula was occupied by two sovereign governments, one of which decided to invade the territory of the other."

The Confederate government was sovereign too. I guess we shouldn't be calling it the American Civil War?

The only reason why both states were recognised was as a compromise to prevent bloodshed. They were separate states but not separate nations. It is by any reasonable definition, a civil war.


Lastly, I don't really get why Africans or Asians should care about some irrelevant treaty dictated by white Caucasians in the 17th century. Rousseau and Locke are relevant yes.

"And the blood won't be shed by you, or me, but by the people on whose behalf we're so generously intervening, so I'll pass."

We come from different cultural backgrounds I think. You see this as an us-them situation.

of course I shall not generalise you or stereotype you too much. (but it is tempting, since your kind is wont to stereotype us frequently.)


I want to ask you -- do you actually have any friends in North Africa? Any of those medical students or doctors who work on the ground? Any friends with families in Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Egypt? Do you chat with them, facebook with them, write poems with them?

Because if so, I swear your sentiment would much much different.

le radical galoisien said...

"And it's continued to make sense because a world in which I, or you, can routinely decide the affairs of any other state because its insane autocrat annoys my sensibilities, and because we have the brute strength to do so, is likely to be a bloody one. And the blood won't be shed by you, or me, but by the people on whose behalf we're so generously intervening, so I'll pass."

This is a straw man and you know it. As far as I have seen, we have respected the Libyans' wishes to the utmost.

Among the hundreds of civilians and activists in Libya pleading for intervention (in the skies -- not on the ground!)

how many did you see making the case against -- except under government coercion?



"And the blood won't be shed by you, or me, but by the people on whose behalf we're so generously intervening, so I'll pass."


you're not an International Brigades type person, I see. Don't presume to impose your values on me, please. I would be there among my friends in an instant.

le radical galoisien said...

Curious, that you reference Westphalia, completely ignoring examples in any hemisphere outside your culture. How convenient.

You surely must know as well as I that the primary motivations behind these European "treaties" were not humanitarian but cold hard realpolitik. It was not because of the pretence of saving lives but simply because these mutual wars were costly to the princes involved.


The process is not unlike how the European carved up Asia into spheres of influence, noncompetition and non-interference. Ah, that is where the concept of "sovereignty" takes us!

The British only intervened against Taiping when the Taiping rebels threatened their commercial interests.

Don't you remember Asia in the 1930s? You guys didn't care about the slaughter that had been occurring from 1937 to 1941 until your Pearl Harbour got touched. The chaos and bloodshed of the Chinese Civil War was not your problem so long as it didn't touch your precious treaty ports.

of course, foreign forces had already been intervening for a long, long time. Spheres of influence and cultural and economic subjugation often caused their good share of damage and regression. You cannot claim to put up your hands and "not intervene" when you people have been intervening for a long time!


Now we only ask for a little decency and a little humanity... given that you powers supplied many of the weapons that armed Gaddafi. The reasons for airspace intervention are far from trite.

Petey said...

"Also, wondering what "non-imperialist" intervention is, since imperialism by definition is the extension of power and/or dominance by one state over another state, often by force. Ponder that one."

Meh.

By my definition of the word, the Kosovo operation was a "non-imperialist" intervention. The goal of Kosovo wasn't to extend American influence over Kosovo.

Iraq, OTOH, was imperialist, since it always envisioned us having permanent military bases there.

But the word "imperialist" is used by reasonable people with various different meanings, so your mileage may vary.

Adam Ozimek said...

Freddie,

I very much appreciate your skepticism and humility, and I think we all need more of it. But I'd be curious to read you discuss the issue more thoroughly with respect to domestic politics. You reference health care, but what does a demand for self-determination mean with respect to health care laws and markets? More state action, less federal action? More county action? More individual action? Where is more individual self-determination capable of being exercised and where are voters and planners ignorance greater: in health care markets in the U.S., or Libyan governance?

I think yours is a Hayekian argument, but overall I wonder whether you apply it evenly. Maybe you do, I'd love to hear more from you on this.

Anonymous said...

"Oh look, that mugger is trying to take that old lady's purse!"

"Well, how do you know he's a mugger? Are you sure it's not his purse? And even if it is her purse, can you really be sure that she is morally superior to him? How do you know that he won't spend the money in that purse better than she would? She might be on her way to give that money to terrorists."

"Now he's raping her!"

"Wait a minute, do you actually have proof that they are having non-consensual sex?"

"She's screaming!"

"Maybe she likes it rough. The point is, you can't really be sure what either of them is thinking, or what their intentions are. To assume other wise is folly. It is insanity."

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:51 - This is totally full of it. What Freddie is talking about is assessing a complex situation from thousands of miles away with very little info to go on. You're talking about a situation that you would be witnessing in person, up close, and be able to meaningfully intervene in. Why don't you take your half-brained sophistry to RedState?

le radical galoisien said...

"assessing a complex situation from thousands of miles away with very little info to go on"

I don't know why so many Americans like to talk like this. Have you been living in a small town all your life?

It's not like you know, we have videos, texts, feeds, independent journalists -- oh wait, the Libyans happen to be human beings?






I mean, Alabama and Mississippi were thousands of miles away from New York and Maine. Why should a bunch of carpetbagger abolitionists from other states impose upon the sovereign state's rights of this state? Alabama for the Alabamans! Or perhaps, Arizona for the Arizonans!! (who cares what civil rights are being violated? sovereignty and states' rights yo.)

Freddie said...

I generally trust commenters to understand for themselves when they are becoming tiresome and dominating the conversation, but perhaps you need a nudge. Do think it over.

Anonymous said...

@ le radical galoisien "we have videos, texts, feeds, independent journalists"

And the average person doesn't have several hours a day to find and pore over all this info, process it, and form a thoughtful opinion on it. And even if they do, they're still just getting a slice of the overall picture. That, I think, is Freddie's point. But you, apparently, do have a lot of time on your hands, if this comment thread is any indication.

Also, RE: "Alabama for the Alabamans! Or perhaps, Arizona for the Arizonans!!" I don't see the problem here. Why not Alabama for the Alabamans? Or New York for the New Yorkers?

le radical galoisien said...

"And even if they do, they're still just getting a slice of the overall picture."

Interesting -- the information out here is actually overwhelming, isn't it?

The common American would not find that much work to understand the overall complexities of Libya, at least compared to what the average Arab or North African must know -- and surely you must agree they have an investment in the outcome of the Libyan struggle.

But let's talk about Obama et al. since they are the ones making the decisions, not the common citizen. Obama is a third-culture kid with strong family and childhood ties to Southeast Asia. I do not know if you understand third culture kids but he probably knows what self-important foreign influence feels like.


"in countries that are thousands of miles from our shores, with cultures that are almost entirely alien to ours, with populaces that don't speak our same native tongue. Feel comfortable with that?"

Why do you say that these countries have cultures "almost entirely alien" to yours? Why do you assume that anything other than English cannot be an American's native tongue? In fact, why did you use the word "native" at all? (the correct term in linguistics is "L1").

Any cosmopolitan -- African, American, Asian -- should feel invested in the events in Libya. Because a Freer Libya would reinforce a Freer Egypt and Tunisia. They in turn would be allies of the activism of the populations in Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, even Somalia. But if Gaddafi prevails and regains control, his interventionist might would dampen all too quickly the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring has, in turn inspired populations demanding greater say in their own governments, in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Perhaps, one day, these winds of change will come to Singapore and Malaysia.


In Singapore's education system we were taught to be informed, wise, judicious and discriminating of the tangled morass of practical politics and economics in countries that are thousands of miles from our shores, speaking languages other than English, Chinese, Malay or Tamil. Why? We trade with them. We invest in them. They invest in us. We are dependent on them. Any movement they make -- affects us.
From the ages of 6-18 we are indoctrinated with that fact. you can't be complacent. this is a changing world. you must keep running just keep your place.

This is hopefully my final word. I did not mean to dominate the conversation.

Anonymous said...

"This country has no cultural memory whatsoever of foreign countries "intervening" within its borders, and no consideration of what it might be like to live under the constant threat that some superpower might decide to dictate its affairs. Such questions couldn't possibly be serious.

Except, of course, for France's intervention in the Revolutionary War, critical to our victory and survival.

http://people.csail.mit.edu/sfelshin/saintonge/frhist.html