Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Adam Serwer points out, correctly, that liberal excuses for extrajudicial killing make their opposition to torture nonsensical.

The question, though, is whether there is anything more consistent in Serwer's limited-but-appropriately-ruthless preferences for warmaking. Last year, after bin Laden's killing, he and I argued about the moral status of pacifism, which he equated with that of barbarism, and what the proper amount of bloodlust should be in the liberal imagination. The post-OBL killing period was notable for me in part because of the typical redbaiting and eliminationism that always come when mainstream liberals get annoyed with genuine antiwar sentiment. In the larger perspective, it was just a fascinating time to observe the liberal mind.

The contemporary liberal's foreign policy rests on a tenuous negotiation between principled nonviolence and the need to express sufficiently militarist attitudes to remain politically palatable. This negotiation causes liberals to out-Herod Herod, to dress in the ill-fitting uniform of belligerence, based, I suppose, on the notion that this performance is necessary to win elections. That's folly; you can't out war the GOP. But they try, and they hope to both build a generally restrained military apparatus and simultaneously lionize military efforts they deem worthy.

Serwer believes that you can have both; he thinks that you can kill the bad man and bust out that creepy red white and blue Spiderman suit and party in front of the White House, but also have a foreign policy that isn't aggressive, militaristic, or reckless. And I'm suggesting: no, perhaps you can't have both. Following the death of bin Laden, celebrating liberals assured us that this would be the pretext for ending the war on terror and restraining our military machine. Instead, we have launched more undeclared wars, dramatically expanding the breadth of a program that kills innocent people without accountability or review. We have not slowed the pace of our assault on the Muslim world; we've quickened it. The question that he should ask himself is whether there isn't some connection between so many Good Progressives dancing in the streets because of killing and their tendency to take killing less seriously.

Serwer talks about an "obvious legal and moral bright line" in his post, and this sort of terminology is found throughout his writing on foreign policy. The problem is that politics occurs in the hearts and minds of human beings, and bright lines have a habit of bleeding together within them. People who are told by both sides that it's okay to celebrate killing and war are not going to apply the nuance and discrimination that you might want when the next war rolls around.

 Now, it happens that I too believe in obvious moral bright lines, and as part of a fallen species I could never say that I can maintain mine. And yet I find that they have a simplicity that makes it far easier for me to police them. Don't kill. Do everything possible to avoid war. Never suppose that killing is necessary. Never suppose that such a necessity could excuse such killing. Don't imagine that any killing could ever be simplistically justified. Never celebrate death, under any circumstances. These rules are very difficult to live by, but no more so than Serwer's, and unlike with his it is very easy to know when they have been violated.

Not having any influence, I doubt that good antiwar liberals-- and they are good, and generally antiwar, make no mistake-- I doubt that they'll listen to me. But I suspect that they will continue to be confronted with the  question of whether you can oppose war most of the time and lend it uncomplicated moral support sometimes. They'll be so confronted because they too frequently contribute to the justification of a murderous military apparatus that never needed much justification anyway, and then shudder under the consequences. There will be more bad wars, wars they don't like, that they'll fail to prevent. They'll go on losing and maybe someday that losing will force them to consider whether war is a beast you can feed only when you want to.


Greg Sanders said...

I think the there's a lot more avenues for alliance between pacifists and anti-war liberals (such as myself) if we look at the capabilities side of the equation. The less bellicose nature of Western Europe has many factors behind it, but comparatively weaker military capacities relative to the U.S. is also a key factor.

Similarly, not all capacities are created equal. This gets to a political science question, but I'd suspect that overseas bases that support sustained presence in the field, e.g. Yemen, are probably a key enabler. Given that some of these bases involve obvious devil's bargains, e.g. Bahrain during and after the Arab Spring, that would be a second reason to target them.

In short, it seems like it should be possible to at least move the U.S. to a policy closer to that of our non-pacifist but less war-prone allies.

Probably a good time to mention that I'm speaking for myself and not my employer here.

Afshin said...

This reminds me of a book yet to be released by Richard Seymour titled Liberal Defense of Murder.

Here it is at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Liberal-Defence-Murder-ebook/dp/B007HXFD14/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1338335274&sr=1-2&tag=acleint-20

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm an antiwar liberal and not a pacifist, but the *only* US war I've supported in my lifetime is the Kosovo one -- because it prevented refugees instead of creating them, which is for me a huge criterion of a better-than-not-doing intervention.

That said, I am very startled by how "antiwar" liberals went along at least with Afghanistan (that's when I permanently exited the democratic party) and have continued to go along most of them with perpetual war (yes they were against it when it was Bush's war late in his term, but are for it again now it's Obama's wars).

So I really like your reflections. Although I kind of agree with Greg, you don't have to be a pacifist to be far less belligerent than either of our major parties today and to oppose a worldwide empire of American military bases.

jcapan said...

As Twain famously said, 'God created war so that Americans would learn geography.'

Paul Craig Roberts writing about a new book by Timothy Parsons:

He [Parsons] wonders whether America’s empire is really an empire as the Americans don’t seem to get any extractive benefits from it. After eight years of war and attempted occupation of Iraq, all Washington has for its efforts is several trillion dollars of additional debt and no Iraqi oil. After ten years of trillion dollar struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Washington has nothing to show for it except possibly some part of the drug trade that can be used to fund covert CIA operations. America’s wars are very expensive. Bush and Obama have doubled the national debt, and the American people have no benefits from it. No riches, no bread and circuses flow to Americans from Washington’s wars. So what is it all about?

The answer is that Washington’s empire extracts resources from the American people for the benefit of the few powerful interest groups that rule America … The US Constitution has been extracted in the interests of the Security State, and Americans’ incomes have been redirected to the pockets of the 1 percent. ...

In the New Empire success at war no longer matters. The extraction takes place by being at war. Huge sums of American taxpayers’ money have flowed into the American armaments industries and huge amounts of power into Homeland Security. The American empire works by stripping Americans of wealth and liberty.This is why the wars cannot end, or if one does end another starts … This truth doesn’t mean that the objects of American military aggression have escaped without cost. Large numbers of Muslims have been bombed and murdered and their economies and infrastructure ruined, but not in order to extract resources from them.

It is ironic that under the New Empire the citizens of the empire are extracted of their wealth and liberty in order to extract lives from the targeted foreign populations.


jcapan said...

I’d not call it the “the contemporary liberal's foreign policy” b/c, well, FDR, JFK, LBJ, genuinely liberal blokes, had a nasty penchant for warmongering. We’ll set aside never-a-bomb-dropped–or-bullet-fired Carter, who we can all agree is an emasculated shell of manhood.

However, Clinton and Obama, neoliberals to the core, are another matter. Regarding “MSM-liberal” support for their misadventures in bloodletting, you say:

“But I suspect that they will continue to be confronted with the question of whether you can oppose war most of the time and lend it uncomplicated moral support sometimes.”

IMHO, they’re better identified as partisan (servile, hypocritical?) democrats with a patina of liberalism (mostly in the area of social wedgies). They’re down with whatever their team leader says and if it requires profound contortionism when the other team’s “evil” capitan does the same thing, well, shit, sign them up for the hot yoga. This also applies to offering up social security in grand bargains. Whatever massa says is good enough for me.

Anonymous said...

I would argue that the distinction between civilization and barbarism is precisely the distinction between killing Osama bin Laden and torture. Killing a bin Laden or death row inmates, and for that matter innocent death row inmates, is what civilization does and what it excels at. It's not pretty, but, you know, welcome to life.

Justin said...

America’s wars are very expensive. Bush and Obama have doubled the national debt, and the American people have no benefits from it. No riches, no bread and circuses flow to Americans from Washington’s wars. So what is it all about?

Oh, for heaven's sake. America's wars fit within a broader system of American empire. You don't get to trade IOUs for material goods for decades without end. You also don't get to set and enforce the global political, legal, and economic rules without one. And you sure as shit don't get to use 25-50% of the world's resources with 4% of the population without one. Our wars are part of maintaining the global pattern of relationships that keeps all this moving. Other than that, I guess the American people don't receive much benefit.

Don't be so compartamental.

jcapan said...

Justin, I don’t deny the effects of our dominant position astraddle the globe (markets and resources and Chomsky 101)—but as Parsons says, elites are accruing the overwhelming majority of lucre. The treasure exacted from Americans is far and away exceeding the benefits. A trillion $/year could easily fund a new new deal or an actual green energy revolution. In lieu of that, it’s being funneled to mercenaries, war profiteers and big oil. I know, there’s a lot of pork in there being thrown around—but this is going to a relatively narrow slice of the demographic pie. Not to mention permanent war is unsustainable and will hasten an already looming collapse.

Aulus Gellius said...

I think the third Voice here illustrates precisely the difficulty you're talking about: