Thursday, January 17, 2013

what are the rights of the disfavored?

Suppose, for a moment, that you're a supporter of the side in a civil conflict that is disfavored by the American foreign policy apparatus. Suppose, in other words, that you are a Malian that supports the insurgency, or a Syrian who supports Assad. Do you have rights? Do you have a right to providing political support for the side that you feel best represents the interests of your country, despite the preferences of the American government? I'm not talking about people actually involved in fighting, members of resistance movements or governments. I'm talking about people who have a preference that cuts against the dictates of America and NATO. Should you have the right to feel that way?

This is not an idle concern. Despite what you have heard in the American media, many millions of Syrians support the Assad regime. Their number include Alawites, Christians, secularists of many stripes, and a good chunk of Syrians who simply prefer the status quo. Do I understand supporting the Assad regime? I confess that I don't. But then, I'm not a Syrian, and the fundamental principle of democracy is that such supporters have a right to that stance irrespective of my disbelief. Western intervention robs them completely of their right to advocate for their political preference. Worse, it exposes them to the threat of violence for holding the political views they do, as every intervention inevitably results in reprisals against those who backed the wrong side-- it happened in Kosovo, in Iraq, in Libya. As Iraq proves, the self-same Western powers that can remove or defend an establishment government can't prevent mass murder of the losing side.

Last year, Vice interviewed a few Syrian skeptics of the insurgency. They rightly question the absurdly distorted Western media narrative, one which has left the average reader completely unaware that opposition to the rebels exists outside of the Syrian government at all. Says a man named Wafa-- who would not consent to having his picture published, on the sensible logic that he would be killed in retaliation for his views-- "Those 'rebels' killed six members of my family and we're not allowed to be mad at them. We're not denying the fact that Syria is a dictatorship or that the regime is far from democratic, but we don’t think that the rebels will ensure a better future for Syria." Given the influence of the Muslim brotherhood in the Syrian uprising, and the various sectarian struggles that are hidden within, well. Such caution is understandable, wouldn't you say?

What interventionists in America believe is that what this person says is not merely unconvincing. They believe that he must be written out of the process entirely, that his voice must be totally removed from the future of Syria. In its place stands... us. The benevolent Americans must dictate terms once again to the rest of the world. I said before that I can't understand supporting the Assad regime. But I also know that the opinion of an American in Indiana is totally irrelevant to the question, on any theory of democracy whatsoever. And yet perversely, in due time the opinions of an American voter like me may make more of a difference for the future of Syria than the opinion of Syrians. That supporters of intervention don't see the profound failure of such a situation speaks volumes.

I often think of what it must be like to live in a part of the world where your future is dictated by the whims of the American government; the imagination fails. That the US supports the government in Mali and the rebels in Syria is a trick of history. It could easily be reversed, and in that reversal hangs the balance of countless lives. To oppose a repressive government is to risk death; to support them is to risk death when the insurgency comes. Those are the stakes for people like Wafa, literal life and death. If you are, say, Ann Marie Slaughter, you believe not just in your own wisdom and benevolence, but that they are so pure that they allow you to dictate who has a voice and who doesn't, who lives and who dies. If you support intervention, you are obligated to answer the question: what rights do such people have? And what principle permits you to curtail those rights with force?

Oh, and-- when disfavored groups actually win elections, well, we know how that goes.

13 comments:

Corey said...

Doesn't this stance presuppose that whatever side being intervened against (Assad, the Malian rebels, whatever) is The Legitimate Side?

I mean, because, the same arguments could be made for anyone that supports the rebellions in those countries.

In any case it seems awfully reductive and dumb to discuss the two as if they were a pair. We can and should make active moral distinctions between warring parties. The Mailian government, whatever its faults, is better (more democratic, more open, more transparent, will deliver better human outcomes) than the Islamic rebels in the north who are actively beheading, beating, cutting off hands, etc.

I'm not accusing you of thinking that the Islamists are "good". I don't think you think that. But I wonder if the moral valence of the actors in a given dispute has any relevance at all.

mord said...

I assume he would abdicate any personal arbitration of morality in this case, possibly suggesting that the residents of a given country are more able and trustworthy to make moral political decisions than an American who may not even speak French or Bambara. Or possibly ask what right it is of his to force others to abide by his own moral judgement.

Freddie said...

I expressed a very simple, direct, and important question, mord. You've evaded and dissembled consistently in this conversation. So: do those people have human rights? Do they have democratic rights?

Corey: the elementary principle of democracy is that each Malian has the right to make the moral distinctions between the relevant agents involved. Now, if you think that those ignorant foreigners have no legitimate right to choose one or the other, that's a stance. I find it flagrantly bigoted and antidemocratic, but it's a stance. The question you have to ask, Corey, is why you have a right to decide which actors are good or bad in Mali, but your average Malian has no right to decide who's going to win the next American presidential election. Of course, the very idea will appear absurd to you. And that is the imperial mindset that too many Americans are incapable of thinking beyond.

mord said...

Did I not represent your thinking fairly?

Freddie said...

You weren't far off. I apologize if I was intemperate.

I'm still interested to know your take on this question!

mord said...

And I think it's absurd that you want to link 'human' and 'democratic' rights to any political process a given person might adopt. You participate in democracy by voting in a democracy. Malians throwing their support in with the insurgency are explicitly denying democratic rights, not expressing their own. "Democracy in our eyes is a regime that is supported by the will of the people," is not a liberal ideology.

mord said...

Ha, now you were polite and I feel bad for still being so stern. Still. Serious questions!

charles said...

...For might makes right,
And till they've seen the light,
They've got to be protected,
All their rights respected,
'Till somebody we like can be elected.

Corey said...

Corey: the elementary principle of democracy is that each Malian has the right to make the moral distinctions between the relevant agents involved.

Of course they do, and I wouldn't deny them that agency. (And I don't see much reason why the average Malian shouldn't have a voice in our presidential election either).

The point I'm trying to make is that in a given foreign conflict the agents involved might not have equal claims to morality.

In any case I agree that the distinction is impossible for an outsider to make in Syria (less so in Mali). I don't want to Godwin the conversation but, as I think mord may have said in another thread, how stark does the moral difference between parties need to be before there is a moral imperative to act? I mean the potential rulers of East Germany in 1944 were the genocidal Nazis or the paranoid, repressive, totalitarian SED, and is there any real argument that the SED was the better of the two choices?

I don't know.

Freddie said...

I'm not sure that's an answer to the question. Think of the specific Syrians I quoted. They have what seems to me to be a very natural and legitimate concern about elements within the Syrian opposition-- an opposition, I will remind you, that certainly contains fundamentalist Islamic elements that want to impose harsh restrictions on Syrian freedom. Is that concern disqualifying, because it might be seen as supportive of the regime? What are their rights, both to political representation and to not being the subject of violent reprisals?

Charles said...

And I think it's absurd that you want to link 'human' and 'democratic' rights to any political process a given person might adopt. You participate in democracy by voting in a democracy. Malians throwing their support in with the insurgency are explicitly denying democratic rights, not expressing their own. "Democracy in our eyes is a regime that is supported by the will of the people," is not a liberal ideology.

Agreed, not a liberal ideology. So what do you do when the culture of a country literally can't support a popular government that espouses a liberal ideology? Invade and install such a government? Support it by force of arms until your country loses interest and gives up, which has been a pillar of American foreign policy at least since Vietnam? That also isn't democracy; that also can't be justified by a liberal ideology. It's just colonialism.

matt said...

The traditional internationalist answer, I think, is that nations have a right to do whatever they want without interference, short of violating international treaty law, which includes provisions about crimes against humanity.

Anonymous said...

"The traditional internationalist answer, I think, is that nations have a right to do whatever they want without interference..."

Yes, and it's a principle that the US now violates not in extreme cases but as a matter of course.

I want to bring up the fact that the wordy but always interesting Mencius Moldbug makes pretty much the exact argument in his "America: vampire of the world" posts. I link to the second one, which I found the most interesting.

http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2008/09/america-vampire-of-world-part-2.html

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