Wednesday, January 30, 2013

slippery things

Kevin Drum:
No matter what motivates you—realpolitik, humanitarianism, nationalism, whatever—interventionism doesn't make sense if it doesn't work. And the lesson of the past decade, at the very least, is that interventionism is really, really hard to do well, even if your bar for "well" is really, really low.
The first question for any kind of action in any sphere of human behavior is, will it work? If the answer is yes, then you can move on to arguments about when, whether, and what kind of action might be appropriate. But if the answer is no, all those arguments are moot. In the case of U.S. military interventions, the answer might not quite be an unqualified no, but it sure seems to be pretty damn close. This makes the rest of the argument futile.
This is related to commenter Charles's recent point: arguments for intervention always gravitate towards abstraction, because actual recent history is so resolutely discouraging towards intervening.

I am never surprised that our past failed interventions haven't turned people, particularly liberals, into committed non-interventionists. I am always surprised that our past failed interventions haven't inculcated skepticism and prudence. Peter Beinart wrote a famous reevaluation of Iraq:
It begins with a painful realization about the United States: We can’t be the country those Iraqis wanted us to be. We lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war. That’s why a liberal international order, like a liberal domestic one, restrains the use of force—because it assumes that no nation is governed by angels, including our own. And it's why liberals must be anti-utopian, because the United States cannot be a benign power and a messianic one at the same time.
I have not observed any injections of wisdom and virtue into the American character since then. We are still not that country, not the country which ends suffering thanks to its righteousness and its strength. Recent history suggests that we are in fact still that country that causes suffering thanks to its clumsy and oblivious nature. And that fact is the one I expect people to hold onto, not yet seven years after Beinart wrote this essay. The cruel joke of Beinart and his piece, of course, is that he could only arrive at it after he had said despicable things about those who had opposed the war, and only after untold thousands were dead. That's always the way of things: they rediscover the nature of American power only after the bodies are buried. The unintended consequences reverberate for decades.

I see people latching onto Mali-- yet another good war for people desperate to find them-- and I wonder how much time they spend thinking about just how wrong things can go, just how little it matters that their hearts are pure. They will find themselves surprised to find that they live in the same old fallen world, home to the same old United States.


Brett said...

I'll take the lesser of two evils - Mali's new dictatorial government - over a bunch of Islamists who destroy historical relics and cut off people's heads.

And honestly, we don't have enough context to see whether or not certain interventions will worsen or improve things down the line. The 1954 coup in Iran seemed like a good idea, but decades on and it's led to tons of problems. But the intervention in Korea meant that South Korea ended up eventually as a First World country, while North Korea is hellish. Who knows what the intervention in Iraq will lead to in 20 years?

Rasmus Xera said...

Freddie -

Do you consider your use of "we" in the second-to-last paragraph an acceptable one? If so, I think I might have misunderstood your post on that, because that's exactly the type I was referring to.

@Brett -

Assuming the only options are 'bad' and 'worse' is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not only does that mindset apologize for literally any action taken abroad, it's also why America can never have anything outside of the tiniest spectrum of political representation.

And the coup in Iran seemed like a good idea for who? Certainly not for the people of Iran, not for human progress, and (especially) not for democracy. To the same people, arming the mujahideen "seemed" like a good idea. Breaking up Yugoslavia and backing "Islamists" there was hailed as a great victory. Now there's a mess in Syria, complete with the same monsters American foreign policy created in the first place.

Every conflict radicalizes more and more to the cause, and Mali will certainly be no exception. Worse, US and NATO leaders know this yet continue with the same policies and interventions.

The most important question right now is actually not about Mali, but Syria. Why, given American drone strikes in at least 6 countries against similar forces, has the CIA been actively facilitating the anti-Assad forces in Syria? Why are the US and allies (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar) on the same 'side' as the mujahideen again?

It's interesting that Kevin Drum mentions that this "doesn't make sense if it doesn't work." Personally, I don't think he's looking hard enough into the subject if he thinks that interventionism doesn't 'work'. The question you have to ask yourself is that of who these policies 'work' for. There's something of a curse on liberal punditry that carries with it the endless assumption that American leaders are acting with good intentions, and are just inept, confused, naive, or ill-advised. Time and time again, reality shows this to be untrue, and yet here we are.

Ironically, the point I would make is actually similar in structure to Drum's: If the only rational explanation for US foreign policy is that of pure self-interest (as John Kerry recently put it, "Foreign policy is economic policy"), then discussing whether or not 'humanitarian intervention' works in the first place is a moot point. If American leaders - compulsive liars by nature and necessity - show by their actions that they do not operate with noble goals in mind, why cling longingly to their words as if they do?

Freddie said...

America is still not that country, then.

Don O'Neill said...

Brett, it seems to me like the Korean peninsula provides some of the best evidence in the world against interventionism. It is what it is because of a long history of intervention and military rule by China, Japan, the USSR and the USA. The dictatorial regime in the North was installed by the USSR, an interventionist foreign power. And Kim was chosen by Stalin because of his popularity - which came from his opposition to Japanese intervention.

You say we lack context, but then why ignore all the context that Korean history presents you with? It's a case study in the horrors wrought by interventionism.

Brett said...

@Don O'Neill

I was talking specifically about the US track-record of intervention. I'm sorry if that wasn't more clear.

From a general perspective of interventionism, then yes, Korea is a general example against interventionism. But if we're specifically talking about US interventionism, then I think the intervention in Korea was a good decision in the longer-run.

kris said...

Counterfactuals are a tricky business.

Had the U.S. not intervened in the Korean war, the government in the North would've taken over the whole country But what would've happened for the next few decades?

Might the Kim's have had a harder time controlling a larger country? Maybe. Might you have seen a succesful reform movement from the inside that hasn't happened? Might the government in the North have had a harder time propagandizing its people without the memories of the war with the U.S.? We'll never know.

But revent events in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and to an extent Iran and Syria should remind us that U.S. intervention certainly isn't necessary for domestic revolution that moves the country towards a better state of affairs.