Thursday, January 17, 2013

"liberal interventionists" care about establishment governments except when they don't

A typically charming Twitter exchange:



You see, the requests of status quo governments matter, when they are fighting a civil war against an Islamic insurgency-- unless those status quo governments happen to be those of Syria or Libyan. Then, all that matters is freedooooooooooooooooooooooom.

This Malian-Libyan dichotomy is like something cooked up in a lab to demonstrate the pure hypocrisy and utter lack of consistency among the liberal interventionist worldview. The Libyan and Syrian oppositions both have plainly Islamic characters, and if you're under the impression that the current Malian government is some beacon of Western values in the Saharan world... you should probably reconsider. Not that any of the reconsideration would get you to the truth, exactly; I'm sure your average Malian can't possibly possess the knowledge necessary to really understand the complex and shifting factions, motives, and dynamics of a fluid conflict in their own country. But I'm sure it's possible for Western "policy analysts" who don't speak the language and have never lived in the country to understand what's happening and know what will happen next-- like they did with Iraq, or with reinstalling the Shah, or supporting the Suharto government, or arming the Mujahadeen. They always know everything.

So why are we duty-bound to intervene on behalf of the Malian government and also duty-bound to intervene on the behalf of the Syrian opposition, just like we were duty-bound to intervene on the behalf of the Libyan opposition? The same reason we do anything in foreign policy: the influence of opportunistic ideologues, war profiteers and resource extractors, manipulable idealists, and career militarists, mixing together into a poisonous brew. So we'll contribute to the breaking of Mali like we helped to break Libya, and once it's broken we'll be responsible for nothing, and then Mali's neighbors will be left to deal with the consequences of the brokenness, just as Mali is dealing with the consequences of a broken Libya now. But those are the wages of a child's vision of goodies and baddies, applied without consistency or self-criticism through the deployment of ordnance.

But, you know, Greenwald and Friedersdorf are shrill, and they don't meet at the press club for cocktails or tell funny jokes about Game of Thrones on their Twitter feeds, so feel free to ignore them.

46 comments:

mord said...

Mali and Libya were already broken before anyone put a single troop on the ground. Sure, the Western world could do what we're doing with Syria and just let Islamist radicals and genocidal tyrants massacre local populations. Non-intervention worked so well for Rwanda, after all. Definitely policy we should be pursuing in the west so that the childlike isolationists can feel morally just and internally consistent in their world views.

Freddie said...

So you'd advocate for sending troops into Syria to sort it all out? Let them take out both the repressive autocracy and the Islamist radicals, set up a mini Washington in Damascus, set up our own government?

I can't imagine anything going wrong! And so democratic.

mord said...

Assad is going to lose power eventually - though he'll likely take another 100,000 casualties with him before he goes. What are you recommending? That we just watch and munch on some popcorn as the bodies pile up and UN observers uncover more mass graves because god forbid we transgress the prime directive?

After Assad is removed, and the fractured rebel alliance under the auspices of numerous hostile, terrorist organizations take control and secure the chemical sites, I guess it'll make things more entertaining. Hey, maybe when Turkey and Israel finally get worried enough to invade Syria and split it like Poland in 1939 you can post about how the US should've been more involved to keep the mess from progressing.

The problem w/ Greenwaldism (and I guess by extension you) is that intervention and non-intervention both result in the same critique - the imperial West needs to be morally condemned.

Freddie said...

Right, and your solution is to impose a strongman like Maliki, who is currently imposing a harsh new autocratic regime and stifling dissent, as he works to benefit his own particular sect against the other actors in Iraq, laying the groundwork for another civil war in the coming decades, which will certainly involve an emboldened Islamic fundamentalist movement. And it only took a few hundred thousand dead Iraqis and a few thousand dead Americans to get there! But the oil is flowing.

I believe that Syria belongs to Syrians. I believe that we have no right to attempt to impose our preference on that country, I believe that we have no practical ability to actual arrive that preference, and I believe that any attempts to get there will certainly result in even more death and destruction. I believe those things because history, both distant and recent, demonstrate them again and again. I'm afraid that for me, "hey, we tried!" is not a laurel that can absolve us for complicity in horrific violence and the imposition of our wishes on a foreign, sovereign people.

Anonymous said...

mord - So you're suggesting indefinite military intervention in Mali, Libya and Syria on top of the already-established Iraq and Afghanistan interventions. I think Yemen and Sudan are likely future targets, and I haven't even mentioned the Iran situation. I agree, since our government's fiscal position is rock-solid - so we can easily finance these military efforts - and these are the only Moslem countries in the world. So there's no threat of militant Islamicism moving on to tiny countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh and Egypt.

Lunacy. Just lunacy.

jult52

mord said...

You are either ignorant or psychotic if you believe that Assad's battle w/ radical Islamists in Syria represents the wishes of a sovereign people. And while you're not willing to absolve yourself with "hey, we tried," you are willing to absolve yourself for allowing the murders of millions of people with "hey, it's not my problem."

mord said...

And be clear, while Greenwaldism is always in favor of isolationism no matter what the context, I am not arguing for interventionist no matter what the context. I am just unwilling to turn a blind eye to genocide in order to score political points on a blog, or to feel morally secure and consistent. Some interventions are ill-advised (pretty much anything done to fight Communism, the Iraq war, etc). Some are essential for protecting the lives + human rights of people from radical fundamentalist movements (Mali, Syria, Libya, Kosovo, Rwanda). I do not even argue that those interventions will carry no unexpected consequences - only that we are obligated as human beings to intervene when they occur and we can help.

Freddie said...

Who is allowing anything? You're such a part of your culture you don't even see how ludicrous it is to suggest that I as an American am "allowing" anything at all in a civil war in Syria. We are not the arbiters of the universe. We do not possess the moral right to dictate the future of Syria to Syrians. And even if you're convinced that we do, it's irrelevant, because we've proven that we lack the practical ability to actually get what we want. Libya is executing gay men; Iraq is repressing religious freedom; Afghanistan is still a horrifically sexist culture. But you maintain a belief that America can drop benevolent outcomes like leaflets from an airplane. That's totally contradicted by recent history.

You wouldn't accuse someone in Bhutan of allowing a massacre in Syria. The United States has as little right to dictate the future of Syria as Bhutan.

mord said...

When I pass a burning building, if I am able to go in and save the victims inside, I am morally obligated to do so. That is the only relevant principle here. You can't disavow that obligation by mocking it out as "arbitration over the universe."

Freddie said...

How many people do you have to kill to get in the burning door of that building?

mord said...

A rodef (Hebrew רודף, lit. "pursuer"; pl. רודפים, rodfim), in traditional Jewish law, is one who is "pursuing" another to murder him or her. According to Jewish law, such a person must be killed by any bystander after being warned to stop and refusing.

Anonymous said...

"only that we are obligated as human beings to intervene when they occur and we can help."

In principle I agree with your 1:20 mord, but I don't see any reason to believe the US or European governments have the wisdom or expertise to make consistently accurate judgements about when an application of force can serve humanitarian ends.

Note that Niger, a large and improverished nation bordering Mali and Libya, has been repeatedly cited by impartial sources as suffering from extensive and pervasive human rights' violations, including ethnic cleansing. So you are dealing with an entire region in the grip of genocidal ethnic conflict. (In the vein of black humor, one of Niger's few recent wins was a 2009 peace treaty that ended years of brutal fighting - a treaty brokered by Qaddafi.) Will intervention in Mali save lives? Or will it help destabilize its neighbors and lead to even more violence and famine? Who knows. Certainly not the Pentagon or the State Dept.

jult52

mord said...

I find your attempts to continually characterize Assad's genocide as the will + agency of the Syrian people to be ludicrous and offensive. The people of Syria do not want to murdered. They did not democratically decide to have Assad assail their cities with Russian gunships and chemical weapons.

P.S. I can't understand why you're so upset anyway. Despite claiming that chemical weapons were a red line, the deployment of them hasn't brought Obama any closer to intervention in Syria. Obviously the US doesn't give a shit about what happens to the Syrian people. Just like you!

Freddie said...

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in Iraq as a direct result of our "rescuing people from a burning building." What is your moral obligation to them? Why are they so totally absent from your consideration? How can a moral obligation to prevent preventable death compel you to engage in behaviors that result in deaths that wouldn't happen if you refused to act?

Freddie said...

I find your attempts to continually characterize Assad's genocide as the will + agency of the Syrian people to be ludicrous and offensive.

I have made no such characterization.

The people of Syria do not want to murdered.

Nor do they want the United States to impose a strongman. Neither the pro-Assad loyalists-- who number in the millions-- nor the anti-Assad revolutionaries want the result that you want. So who exactly cares about Syrian desires?

They did not democratically decide to have Assad assail their cities with Russian gunships and chemical weapons.

And the vote to have the Americans invade and dictate policy was... when, exactly?

P.S. I can't understand why you're so upset anyway.

When you are a citizen of a democracy, you are partly responsible for that democracy's actions. And I don't want my country contributing to the destruction of Mali.

mord said...

I don't defend the Iraq invasion.

Freddie, is there a number of people killed in genocide that is sufficient before you believe we should intervene? Is there any historical intervention that you believe was worthwhile? Should we have intervened in Rwanda or were the millions of deaths and refugees not worth getting involved? Was our intervention in WW2 a mistake? I'm inclined to think the US didn't intervene enough in the Holocaust what with FDR deciding that bombing the tracks to the camps was none of his business. How about Kosovo? Should we not have gotten involved because Milosevic was just representing the will of his people?

mord said...

I honestly can't decide who I find more ethically reprehensible, liberal isolationists or right-wing hawks. Both promote rigid, thoughtless politics that sacrifice the nuance on the altar of ideological purity. Both undermine security and human rights. Neither require actually knowing anything about history or geopolitics.

Anonymous said...

mord - OK, based on your principles why was the Iraq invasion a bad idea? Honest question.

"Both promote rigid, thoughtless politics that sacrifice the nuance on the altar of ideological purity."

I think this is attacking a straw man. Virtually everyone agrees that certain military interventions are warranted. The question is where to draw the line. Mali is so far over the line that it inadvertantly parodies the whole intervenionist mindset.

And this is by no means a right/left conflict. Right-wing thought has a prominent strain of isolationism. Post-WWII democratic presidents have a let's say mixed recent record on military decisions.

jult52

mord said...

"Virtually everyone agrees that certain military interventions are warranted." << is this true? From reading Greenwald for years I believe he, and the people who support him, do not believe any military intervention is ever warranted. He certainly believes intervening in Libya and Kosovo were mistakes.

Re: Iraq, I think that Hussein did not represent an immediate threat of genocide to massive numbers of people. (Though I recognize that I probably would feel differently if my family were Kurds.) I also believe that the invasion and occupation were a disastrous decision. Especially done unilaterally.

Zach said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mord said...

"He would have been forcefully arguing against the actions of the regimes to attempt to get those supporting it, both externally and internally, to stop supporting its actions."

I really think this says it all.

Zach said...

Freddie consistently argues that he doesn't want his country killing people. Full stop.

He would definitely have been an isolationist in WW2, but not the fascist sympathizer type. And not the appeaser type. He would have been forcefully arguing against the actions of the regimes to attempt to get those supporting them, both externally and internally, to stop supporting the regimes actions. Or, he would have been Raoul Wallenberg.

Freddie's problem is not lack of courage. It's that his courage is misinterpreted as being uncaring. His courage is arguing that killing bad people is not a solution. It's just a different problem.

Keep on keeping on Freddie. Someone needs to remind us that killing is never the only option.

mord said...

I cannot support any ideology that believes arguments can stop genocides. It's the belief of a child.

Anonymous said...

mord - Thanks for responding. I personally strongly disagreed with the Iraqi invasion before it occurred (note that I am a Repub) but a plausible case could have been made that the invasion was justified on the basis of curbing Saddam's tyranny and allowing for national self-determination.

A military intervention in WWII is one that I think almost everyone would agree with. It's the "Good War." I think a good case can be made for the Korean war, too.

jult52

Freddie said...

On Kosovo:

"It was also a moment of triumph for Bernard Kouchner. He became the head of the interim administration in Kosovo - and he set out to create a new democracy.

Many of his staff were leftist revolutionaries from 1968. Even one of the NATO commanders had fought on the streets of Paris.

But Kouchner quickly discovered that victims could be very bad. There was an extraordinary range of ethnic groups in Kosovo.

There were:
Muslim Albanians
Orthodox Serbs
Roman Catholic Serbs
Serbian-speaking Muslim Egyptians
Albanian-speaking Muslim Gypsies - Ashkalis
Albanian-speaking Christian Gypsies - Goranis
And even - Pro-Serbian Turkish-speaking Turks

They all had vendettas with each other - which meant that they were both victims and horrible victimizers at the same time.

It began to be obvious that getting rid of evil didn't always lead to the simple triumph of goodness....The same truth has become obvious in Kosovo too.

Last year a Swiss prosecutor produced a report for the Council of Europe which alleged that the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci was not only a mafia boss, a murderer and a drug dealer, and alleged that he was also involved with a group that killed Serbian prisoners and then sold their organs for illegal transplants.

Hashim Thaci denies all the allegations

And it has also been alleged that Mr Thaci rigged the recent elections "on an industrial scale""

-http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/2011/03/goodies_and_baddies.html

What's bizarre here, mord, is that you oppose both the despicable Assad government and the reactionary Islamic insurgency that is fighting a civil war with him, while maintaining a commitment to what Syrians actually want. You've declared that both sides of a two-front civil war are unacceptable and want the United States to militarily impose a third option, one that is more to your liking. If you just want to dictate terms to Syria, that's fine, advocate that. But that's just foreign authoritarianism. It can't be justified by reference to the will of the Syrian people. I get it: you wish that there was a force for democracy and personal liberty in Syria that you could root for. That is not in the cards. It does not exist on the ground in Syria. Sorry. And the overwhelming experience of Western intervention tells us that efforts to create them out of whole cloth inevitably fail. They inevitably become power transfers to corrupt actors. It turns out that democracy is by definition a state that can't be imposed from above. It can only develop internally through long, terrible struggle.

When you advocate intervention, you are picking winners and losers. In Libya, the losers happened to be Christians, homosexuals, black Africans, and assorted other groups. Don't like that those people have become oppressed by the new Libyan government? Sorry: in the real world, you don't get to choose the opposition party of a foreign country. Those are the wages of "doing good." That's the moral price you pay when you decide that you're so benevolent and so wise that you can dictate the future.

Freddie said...

Lord knows, the belief that all problems can be solved through righteous violence is the height of maturity.

Zach said...

Mord,
"mord said...
I cannot support any ideology that believes arguments can stop genocides. It's the belief of a child."

As opposed to believing killing all the "bad" men will make everything better? That's obviously a very enlightened argument far above the level of mere children.

mord said...

No magical righteous violence will solve the world's problems. No one is suggesting that, but it is telling that the strawman you've set up is someone who advocates "killing all the bad men." All I advocate is the use of military force to curtail genocide. We can reduce the extraordinary violence in Syria (and the violence yet to come) through steps like imposing no-fly zones, securing the chemical stockpiles, and targeted drone strikes. Precise drone strikes have radically reduced civilian casualties and can dramatically reduce arsenals.

Anonymous said...

"Precise drone strikes have radically reduced civilian casualties"

I'm interested in reading more about this. Can you link to a source?

jult52

mord said...

Look at Israel's recent military excursion in Gaza for an example of how targeted drone strikes backed by intelligence can eradicate a radical terrorist group's ability to wage war with minimal civilian casualties. We don't even have to put a single body on the ground. I recommend we adopt Israel's use of massive flyer dispersal, phone calls to warn civilians of incoming strikes, and door-knocking w/ missiles.

mord said...

jult52, I recommend starting here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilian_casualty_ratio#Israeli_airstrikes_on_militants_in_the_Gaza_Strip

Google around, though. There's plenty of information out there.

Zach said...

You mean like the post-Saddam ethnic cleansing? That took place with International forces on the ground?

Or the sectarian killing going on in Libya right now?

Freddie said...

The notion that Israel's recent incursion into Gaza had no casualties is, well, ludicrous. More to the point, the evergreen notion that you can kill the bad guys without inflicting significant civilian casualties has been disproven again and again and again.

And that's exactly the problem with the conversation, mord: you want to make me responsible for advising inaction and deny any responsibility that falls on yourself for action. That's a bizarre, useless moral theory. It is a fact that innocent people have been killed, tortured, and expelled from their homes as a result of the Libyan revolution. That is a fact. And because we actively participated in the commission of that revolution, we are morally responsible for that inhumanity, that crime. We chose sides. And when you choose sides, there are winners and there are losers, and sad to say they do not track onto some theoretical category of good and bad. So: where is your acknowledgement in your complicity in the killing of gay Libyans? In the killing of black Libyans? Where is your acknowledgment in the killing of Syrian Christians? Of Syrian Alawites? It is absolutely unquestionable that there will be violent reprisals against people who are guilty of no crime other than being born into the wrong group if the Assad government falls. Why am I to blame for Rwandan genocide in 1994 but you are not to blame for your collateral damage?

You occupy you an immature moral universe, one that presumes your own blamelessness and assigns guilt or innocence based on intentions rather than effects. You want to dictate terms to foreign countries but you dislike the optics of imposing your vision on foreign peoples. You think of yourself as a democrat but you give minorities who are sure to be oppressed due to your preferences no voice in their own futures. You accuse me of not caring about the victims of inaction but you refuse to accept any responsibility for the victims of action. This is, to put it mildly, not satisfactory.

dronkmonk said...

mord recommends conducting foreign policy according to the Israeli model. That's really all I need to know about mord.

Alexios said...


If you're' both to take each other as making good faith arguments, perhaps we can agree that you both acknowledge the following:

The consequences of both action & inaction are relevant to the moral calculus, and Mord might make the point that such a calculus is never so obvious so as to always presume inaction is best, whereas Freddie might make the point that the calculus is inherently so complex such that it's arrogant/foolish to assume one can do it at all -- hence his persistent advocacy for inaction as the more humble, prudent, & morally risk-averse default path as against the path of action that also happens to align with the pecuniary interests of powerful corporations & interest groups.

My, that was long winded. Apologies.

mord said...

I would agree w/ that evaluation, Alexios. I'd only like to add that I think a position that allows one to act, or abstain, or fall anywhere along that continuum will always be a more effective and rational approach to world affairs than one that forecloses any possibility of intervention from the outset.

davidly said...

I think a position that allows one to act, or abstain, or fall anywhere along that continuum will always be a more effective and rational approach to world affairs than one that forecloses any possibility of intervention from the outset.

The latter position is one held only by those with no say on the matter. That alone should be telling.

Zach said...

I'm not the pacifist Freddie is. I don't have the courage or wherewithal.

However, pacifism doesn't preclude action. It precludes violent action. Sending aid workers and money to help refugees is an action. Giving threatened groups an escape route is action.

Charles said...

I'd only like to add that I think a position that allows one to act, or abstain, or fall anywhere along that continuum will always be a more effective and rational approach to world affairs than one that forecloses any possibility of intervention from the outset.

Yeah, it sounds perfectly rational when put in the most abstract terms possible.

But actually there are two real, not-abstract options here. 1) A major power half the world away, that doesn't ultimately give a good goddamn about what happens to most of the people in the region being invaded, which has consistently misunderstood the political and social conditions in the places it has invaded over a period of fifty years, can engage in destructive military intervention and almost certainly do more harm than good, or 2) Uhm, not that.

The abstract version doesn't matter. It's pure fantasy. It has nothing to do with anything real. We aren't talking about a position "that allows one to act" or any such nonsense. We're talking about the most powerful military in the world having a consistent track record of reliably fucking up intervention. The only things you can reliably predict with regards to American intervention is that lots of people will die, that most of them will be civilians, and that things won't go the way you hope they will. You can take that to the bank.

Anonymous said...

Charles - Well said. This isn't a philosophically or conceptually difficult issue. But it is a very difficult issue in practice.

jult52

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

"I think this is attacking a straw man. Virtually everyone agrees that certain military interventions are warranted. "

Actually, I don't think Freddie would agree with that at all. He's made very clear that as a pacifist, he believes no military interventions are warranted, full stop. No Rwanda intervention, no bombing of Nazi Germany, no Kosovo invasion, no no-fly zones over Libya, no military action ever. Because the consequences of military action of known to be deadly, and their benefits are often dubious, he believes it is never worth certain killing for uncertain saving of lives.

Freddie, is that an accurate summation?

Anonymous said...

Well, I said "virtually" but I'm certainly interested in hearing Freddie's response.

jult52

Yup said...

Freddie's already done a good job of making clear just how much wishful/magical thinking goes into the liberal interventionist worldview.

I'd just like to add some useful pedantry and point out that---contra the omnipresent "but what about WWII?" refrain---there was never an "intervention" in WWII. The US was attacked by Japan and then Germany declared war on us. From the European perspective, they were being invaded and/or bombed by the Germans. The only ones "intervening" were the Germans (and early on, the Russians).

Anonymous said...

Just as government does not have the same economic constraints as a household, so too does a state military apparatus lack the same straightforward morality of an individual.

bubbloy said...

Mord, will you be signing up to go man the frontlines in Bamako?

BenAP said...

Chomsky, with unusual pith, summed the problem thusly.

"The profession of 'noble intent' is predictable, and therefore carries no information".

What is an "evil doer"? Consider the perspective of the 'doers of evil' across the globe. In their minds, are they doing evil?

Everybody means well. Pol Pot meant well. Barack Obama means well. You and I mean well. And?

Liberals make the same mistake time and time again. Referencing what amounts to a dial tone (intention) as if it carries a signal, as if it was morality in action. What takes real courage is to drop the reference point, to allow the vulnerable truth that you have no control. The desire to control violence with violence is ultimately self interested.