Wednesday, January 23, 2013

the quiet insistence of the real

As happens more often that I'd care to admit, a commenter recently expressed a point better than I could. In a recent post, commenter Charles quoted another commenter saying

"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."

And responded:

"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."

As a pacifist, I am subject to a constant drip of hypotheticals, counterfactuals, and fantasy scenarios that are designed to test the limits of the commitment to nonviolence. ("YOU'VE GOT HITLER IN THE CROSSHAIRS FREDDIE WHADDAYAGONNADO") I can reliably be bullied into answering them, and usually that means providing the answer that allows the questioner to return to the assumption of my unseriousness. But it is very telling that so much of the philosophical architecture of "liberal intervention" is based upon theoretical situations and elaborate setups, or pure theory divested from the history of American foreign policy, Western militarism, or past interventions. It's like arguing with Descartes-- all theory, no history. Beware the intellect that lives in abstraction. And this tendency only exacerbates the profoundly limited time frames in which liberal interventionists work, declaring victory months or weeks into complex and shifting situations. We are still living with the consequences of deposing Mohammed Mossadegh; that happened 60 years ago. I'm sure arming the mujahideen seemed like a great success in 1992.

I don't blame people for dreaming big. I do blame them for letting those dreams overwhelm their critical capacity. I hear liberal interventionists wax idealistic about all the good the good guys could do, and I just want to shake them-- America is not that country, violence is not that instrument, this is not that world.


Anonymous said...

Principles are good but I have little respect for an absolutist of any philosophy. It requires dodging sloppy, difficult real life problems in favor of intellectual neatness.

Charles said...


Just by addressing this post in terms of principles, you're dodging the sloppy, difficult real life problem that the U.S. is a disaster at staging interventions, in favor of the intellectual neatness of "absolute philosophy is unacceptable."

Arguing for continued U.S. interventionist foreign policy requires the kind of blind, idealistic denial of reality that ought to mark anyone as a deeply intellectually unserious person. Seeing this doesn't require you to be a pacifist. (I'm sure as hell not.) Even the most cynical, ruthless statist ought to be able to connect the dots of failed U.S. policy.

Anonymous said...

I am having a hard time seeing how pacifism is any different, practically speaking, from dogmatic interventionism. Both seem to presuppose either the complete disregard of context (when intervention can never be justified, then, Hitler is the same as Franco as Stalin, and the chain goes on) or the erred regard of context (overreaching intervention). Equally dogmatic, pacifism is also predicated on a flattening of history.

Charles said...

"I am having a hard time seeing how pacifism is any different, practically speaking, from dogmatic interventionism."

Maybe I can help with that. As I see it, practically speaking, dogmatic interventionism requires sending people with guns to places where they use the guns to shoot people; on the other hand, practically speaking, pacifism requires not sending people with guns to places where they use the guns to shoot people.

I hope that's a fairly clear statement of at least one important difference between pacifism and dogmatic interventionism.

Beyond clarifying this point, I really have no interest in defending pacifism, since, as I indicated above, I'm not a pacifist.