Tuesday, March 22, 2011

left-wing non-interventionism

It is a statement of the late American empire's status as a fundamental moral failure that many commentators divide the world of opinion between liberal hawks, neoconservatives, and realists. All three of these dispositions take it for granted that the United States maintains the privilege to meddle ceaselessly in the affairs of foreign countries, including killing their citizens at whatever time and with whatever means our military and intelligence services decide. The only difference is what means they endorse, what kind of conflicts they prefer, and what rhetoric they use.

For myself, I believe in the flawed but indispensable values of human liberty and democracy, and for this reason I am opposed to the world's superpower enforcing its privilege on the poor and powerless of the world. The greatest impediment to democracy and liberty in the history of the world is the power of foreign countries. That is what this country is doing openly in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and doing more quietly in countless other countries. Please, have the courtesy to admit: if you support this intervention in Libya you are supporting the willful imposition of our preferences on the Libyan people. You are undermining their self-determination and their liberty. Perhaps, someday, the cognitive dissonance will overwhelm your ability to deny that.

Since I began writing about this, I have been buffeted with the patient yet aggrieved teachings of decent liberals who are far too certain of their own decency. They have lectured me about many things, but at the heart of it is the same dynamic: the insistence that they are so wise and so well-meaning that they are able to be stewards of the Libyan people. That such a situation is literally unimaginable to them-- that the idea that a foreign power might occupy this country and dictate terms is so foreign that it can hardly be rationally countenanced-- is a large part of why they can so glibly advocate such a course of action. For all the talk of humanitarianism (and never forget, war itself is a humanitarian crisis), lurking and stomping in the lizard brain of liberal interventionism is a failure to see those who we are "helping" as fully human. You would not forcibly choose the color of a friend's curtains; you would forcibly choose the government for millions of people you have never met. You can dress up what we are doing in any way you want but that is the reality. Perhaps this contradiction should provoke contemplation.

Many in the elite media are publicly wrestling with whether to support the war in Libya or not. At issue, for most of them, is whether or not a good outcome is achieved, and again for most of them, a good outcome is one which most flatters English-speaking Western intellectuals. That the very meaning of democracy renders their opinion irrelevant to the question of whether the outcome is desirable seems to go unconsidered. Support for democracy that extends only insofar as we support the outcomes of that democracy is a sham. Whatever the outcome of the imposition of American desires on the Libyan people through force of arms, we will have committed a moral error.

Elite opinion will eventually turn in favor of the Libyan intervention. Elite opinion creates and enforces elite consensus, and the limitless projection of American power on people who can't defend themselves has become a cherished dynamic in our power centers. Taking the Very Serious attitude to its apotheosis, many are now saying that there is literally no alternative to dictating policy to the world through the deployment of soldiers and ordnance.

I am willing to concede my critics frequent references to my piety, moralizing, etc. etc. etc.-- I don't much care. I am willing to risk it. If I am wrong, I am wrong on the side of people taking control of their own lives and of refusing to try to take control for them. I will make that gamble. In this refusal to dictate terms to the rest of the world, I am in a smaller minority than I am regarding any other issue. It has taken a long time, and it has come with a kind of horror, but I have come to realize that almost all Americans are quiet Americans.

I'm not the kind to believe in the inevitability of progress. I think Martin Luther King was wrong; I think the arc of history is long, and it bends in directions we can't possibly have perspective enough to understand. But perhaps there is reason to believe that someday more people will decide that they have had enough of enforcing their whims on people they don't know. It may be possible for all the talk of freedom and democracy to finally run aground against the reality of military projection. Until then, I will remain committed to these principles and in earnest. For me, the stakes are low; I'm just some jerk on the Internet, one who is perfectly willing to be shrill or preachy or whatever else. Meanwhile, Americans in jet planes dictate the future of Libya.


Anonymous said...

What do you say to the Libyans who have been demanding action from the international community?

Adam Ozimek said...


Your argument seems to rely on the premise that the status quo is reflects at all the self-determination and liberty of the Libyans. To take an extreme example, does the status quo in North Korea reflect the self-determination and liberty of North Koreans? Instances of slavery are an even more extreme examples.

Does your logic lead you to extreme non-interventionism? When, if ever, is it right to intervene?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you could outline the conditions under which you might support a military presence in Libya? Is such a presence absolutely incompatible with your values as stated?

"For myself, I believe in the flawed but indispensable values of human liberty and democracy..."

john newman said...

Excellent post! And the comments are already missing the point!

Our political process does not at present even adequately address the opinions and interests of the majority of Americans, people it manages to ignore systematically despite whatever remains of our checks and balances.

The idea that that same system is going to do a better job representing the interests of people it has even less interest in, and that it will do this by military intervention, is a bit optimistic, or blind.

Yglesias is more on point with his supply induced intervention post:


Anonymous said...

What would your answer to the Libyans who have been demanding UN intervention be? Would you lecture them on how they're missing the point?

Elia Isquire said...

I have a question that doesn't relate to Libya specifically and, although it might look like a rhetorical trap, I promise it's not: What would you say about a situation like Rwanda?

Again--not trying to paint you as a monster or say that Libya is comparable. It's just that reading your posts the last week or so, it's a nagging question and I haven't yet stumbled upon what would be your answer.

Anonymous said...

My biggest issue with your position is that you equate an American intervention to stop an abhorrent regime with dictating to the Libyan people the future course of their government. It is not at all clear to me that there is a reason to think the US has an interest in doing anything more than stopping MQ.

Has the west shown an unfortunate propensity to go too far in the past with other countries? Yes. Does that mean it will happen this time? Not necessarily.

Also, I’d be interested to know what revolutions you consider to be entirely self-determined? I'm grateful the French intervened at Yorktown in 1781 and I doubt many feel as though it somehow usurped our ability to self-determine.

Anonymous said...

I have not yet come to a conclusion on the action in Libya, but I do think that you take the "Libyan people" as a unit in a way that is a bit problematic. The nation-state system is very real in the world, absolutely, but it is not the only axis upon which violence is inflicted. Again, this is not to say that military intervention is warranted, here or ever, but. I was uncomfortable with the absolutist way you phrased some of your comments.

dryruminant said...

and fuck the international brigade in the spanish civil war while we're at it

aboulian said...

Arc? History doesn't even have a shape.

aboulian said...

Arc? History doesn't even have a shape.

aboulian said...

Arc? History doesn't even have a shape.

Anonymous said...

Wow. People really do seem to have a problem with the idea that the fate of a particular set of people ought to be decided by the people themselves and not by others who want to dictate to them. Given our horrific record of intervention, you might think it would be a vanilla position (especially after how well our most recent ones have gone) to say that we should give the rest of the world a rest from our benevolent but badly executed intentions. But no. It's not rocket science - if you decide to intervene, you've made the decision (1) that the fate of these folks is yours to decide and (2) you understand as well or better than they do how to fix their problems, with cruise missiles, bombs, and bullets, no less. I think people who want to support those propositions have a helluva lot to prove, much more than those who say that we ought to be more clear-eyed and humble about these issues. But I guess I'm Not Serious, either.

Anonymous said...

Read Digby as well for an open-minded but ultimately skeptical read about why our high-minded liberal humanitarian impulses have descended on Libya to the exclusion of all other possible places. This isn't about the goodness of our hearts.


Greg Sanders said...

This isn't especially original, but I think it might be more accurate to say we are willfully imposing our preference to determine faction of Libyans gets to invoke their self-determination.

However, rebels throughout history have sought foreign intervention and in many cases have been satisfied with the outcome. Notably, the U.S. declaration of independence felt that a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." And those rebels did have their fate dictated by monarchical France. Obviously, the U.S. government felt quite different about possible intervention in our Civil War. Nonetheless, President Lincoln did acknowledge humanitarian factors in England's consideration of whether to intervene in his reply to the support from the people of Manchester.

"I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working people of Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis. It has been often and studiously represented that the attempt to overthrow this Government which was built on the foundation of human rights, and to substitute for it one which should rest exclusively on the basis of slavery, was unlikely to obtain the favour of Europe..."

This is not to say that the Libyan government is morally equivalent to the confederacy, just that, when it suited our purposes, American rebels and American governments have appealed to humanitarian ground to prompt other nations to intervene or fail to intervene in our affairs. Thus, I do not think your charge that intervention implies that Libyans are sub-human holds.

More directly, I think you have an effective case against colonialism and occupation. I am unaware of any occasion when a group of Americans called for occupation/colonialism as a necessary evil that was not an oppressed minority group.

Liberal nationalism is not the only form of liberalism and while it is often appealed to by the U.S. it has never been the sole moral pillar. I think there are many cases to be made against this war. I think that you make an effective argument against occupying Libya (notably, the Libyan rebels have been quoted as opposing American ground troops). However, I think you are wrong on the historical record unless you believe the Continental Congress, flawed and only providing liberty to white male landholders though it was, believed themselves to be sub-human when they sought out the help of France.

Skye said...

"What do you say to the Libyans who have been demanding action from the international community?"

I, for one, would tell them that the United States has severe domestic problems and that we just can't afford to spend billions on military intervention that is far from guaranteed to achieve what they want.

Phil K. said...

You write as if war were being imposed on Libya, as if it weren't already in a state of war.

Anonymous said...

To my good liberal interventionist friends, I ask: On what fine calculation do you advocate military intervention in a foreign civil war? Why is bombing Ghaddafi good, but ignoring Yemen equally so? Why have you not taken sides in the Congo civil war?

And to the first poster, I ask: "What do you say to South Vietnamese expatriots who demand we return to Viet Nam?"

john newman said...

What would your answer to the Libyans who have been demanding UN intervention be? Would you lecture them on how they're missing the point?"

Forty five years ago the CIA supported Saddam Hussein in a bloodless coup in Iraq. We know little about the present, we know less about the future. To the extent that rebels in Libya are fighting for human rights and individual liberties, I support them. I do not however have much of a picture of what they are fighting for.

There is no doubt that MQ is a disaster. Soviet rule of Afghanistan was a disaster. The Taliban we ushered in were worse. Military force is a blunt tool, I hope our government and military use it wisely. Occasionally they have, more often they have created more blow back than success.

Thus far the administration's handling of Egypt and Tunisia seem to me pretty wise. With the UN and Arab League as cover maybe Libya will be too. But the knee jerk interventionism misses the history of our very low success rate at this kind of thing. And our mistakes cost other people their lives.

Afshin said...

It's a bit fascinating how bloggers have the idea that if the people want war they should have it. I wonder how such an idea would fair in domestic politics if the same line of argument was used, i.e. "I want the government to support me in my war against anything and everything that gets in the way of liberty and democracy." As if the government is absolutely in all instances after the protection of liberty and democracy of all its citizens.

The past decade has shown that governments have their own "individualistic" roles that are dictated by many (not so idealistic) interests. So to say just because the people of some impoverished country wish for military help of the West, that doesn't mean that military help is the only thing they're going to get.

This idea of militarily intervening for "humanitarian" basis just because the West has a strong military assumes an absurd paradoxical assertion of imperialistic exceptionalism. It's one thing to assert that Western political values are better than those experienced by Libyans under Qaddafi rule. It's another thing to believe that our values can be transposed with bombs destroying whatever form of institutions were in place before the West intervened.

And to add another line of thought for the exceptionalist: Remember that answer President Obama gave after his NATO press conference when Edward Luce of the Financial Times asked whether he, President Obama, still clung to the idea of American exceptionalism? He said, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks in Greek exceptionalism." It seems to me that thinking exceptionally of others only extends to the West. What did President Obama, President Sarkozy, and Prime Minister Cameron find exceptional in the [url=http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/24/world/africa/24minister.html?_r=2&partner=rss&emc=rss]1,000 trained rebels to support their idealistic endeavor to overthrow Qaddafi?[/url]