Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Re: Little Americans

Over at the Chronicles AK and Steven have written lengthy responses to my post on The Little American and a Liberating Vision. Also, see Morgans defense of the liberal hawk position. Here are my responses:

A Liberal Hawk Doesn’t Hide Behind the Bushes

AK is correct that there have been many mistakes made by the Bush administration in Iraq, one of the major ones being their total lack of planning or understanding in regards to “post-war” Iraq. I never bought the open-arms rhetoric of the neocons. I think he is also correct in asking tough questions about what Iraq will look like after elections, and expressing concerns over Iran's possible influence of elections. (Today's New York Time's has a detailed analysis of the Shiite power structure developing in Iraq, which concludes that division’s within the Iranian Shiites, both religious and secular, and the historical mistrust between Iraq and Iran make Hakim’s, whose brother was assassinated by Sadr, consolidation of power among the Shiites and Iran’s ability to influence Iraq far from certain.)

However, the Islamo-fascists pose a major threat not only to the US but to many parts of the world, and to confront that threat we need an aggressive approach that involves force, diplomacy, foreign aid, a serious commitment to a resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian crisis and supporting Moderate Muslims. I think the Bush administration has failed on the last four, and liberals, by not presenting a credible alternative to the Bush Doctrine, have failed step in and take up the slack.

Take Iran, prior to the Iraq invasion there was a growing reform movement and promising signs of liberalization. Here was an opportunity to support those movements, and possibly destabilize the conservative regime in Iran. The Bush administration failed to do this, allowing the Mullahs, while we were focused on Iraq, to quash the reform movements and consolidate power. Bush should have both invaded Iraq while applying nonmilitary pressure in Iran and other autocratic regimes in the Middle East. Since Bush failed to do this, the liberals should have seized the opportunity to force Bush’s hand on democratization in the Middle East. Instead, the liberals were unable to form a coherent unifying vision that embraced democratization while also addressing the real security threats of terrorism, thus conceding the battle to Bush and the neocons. Had the liberals not retreated into neoisolationist rhetoric they might have had some ability to influence Iraq policy and may have laid the groundwork for winning the 2004 elections.

My conception of hawkish liberalism does not mean one embraces the Bush doctrine nor believes that democracy in the Middle East will resemble Western democracy. However, it does understand that force, and the credible threat of force, will be necessary in defeating Islamic-fascism.

Universal Relativism???

“In the background of our discussions about Beinart’s piece is the philosophical question of relativism vs. universalism. Morgan, and David at Electric Refrigerator, take it that the belief in the universality of western values requires the active spreading of those values. Here is where it gets tricky however. For our liberal democratic civilization has other norms besides liberal ones, i.e., the republican belief in self-government and self-determination. The belief that every agent has a certain self-defined bundle of rights often come into conflict with the fact that other civilizations have different notions of the good and quite different self-understandings upon which they collectively determine their political lives. These self-understandings can be the result of a warped polity as in the case of Iraq, but they are also something quite real. Indeed, Wilsonianism was based upon respecting this latter norm much more then the norm of spreading liberal democracy by force....Now relativism is not defined as the believe that there are no valid norms, but pertains to those who are skeptical that the radical transformative vision of millenial liberalism is the enlightened way to go. To question this, is, as David at Electric Refrigerator put it, is to show skepticism towards ‘Freedom’. The logic here is impeccable, unfortunately it is also the same logic that Robespierre used during the terror.” -- Steve @ The Chronicles

To be honest I am not sure exactly what Steve is trying to say here. But if I understand him correctly freedom and self-determination might be valid norms, but not in all civilizations, and if it is a norm you don’t do much about it. This strikes me as being more dangerous than a “transformative vision”. Is the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights only valid for those people who live in countries whose leaders accept that those values are good? Oppression, torture, and government-sponsored murder, and invading other countries could be justified as part of a civilizations/states concept of the good, therefore should we simply allow them to go on? Under this concept is there any way, or any need, to establish international law or intervene in a humanitarian crisis? It is late and I might be totally mischaracterizing Steve, but oppression, murder, and torture are just that. I do not believe that freedom will lead to everyone being little Americans but I do believe that self determination for all people is a good thing, as Nelson Mandela, no little American, said during his trial in 1964:

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Side Bar on Wilson

Wilson may have talked about his reluctance to use force but his actions proved otherwise. In 1914, to support of the constitutional forces trying to topple dictator Victoriano Huerta, Wilson sent the Navy to occupy the port city of Veracruz. In 1916, he authorized the use of force against Poncho Villa. He also sent troops to Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Finally, after failing to get the warring parties in WWI to negotiate, he mobilized the US and sent troops to Europe, where approx. 126,000 Americans died and 234,000 were wounded. Wilson had one of the most aggressive foreign policies in US History. I’ll end with these two quotes from Wilson.

The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.

No man can sit down and withhold his hands from the warfare against wrong and get peace from his acquiescence.


At 3:36 PM, Blogger The Iconic Midwesterner said...

David, I think it pretty clear that you are getting by far the better of the exchange so far.

When Steve says: "Now relativism is not defined as the believe [sic] that there are no valid norms, but pertains to those who are skeptical that the radical transformative vision of millenial liberalism is the enlightened way to go."

So relativism is the belief that there ARE valid norms as long as they do not encompass "millenial liberalism?" That doesn't really look like any form of relativism I've ever seen before, or hope to see again.

I love, in the sense of "that which makes me ill", the assumption that the imposition of a brutal theocratic state in which women are deemed sub-human has to be viewed as a legitimate expression of "self determination" and any questioning of it is written off as "millenial liberalism."

Much of these discussions focus around a rather warped view of what is commonly (mis)labled neo-conservatism. In today's parlance it is synonamous with the thin but heady brew of Hegelian liberalism mixed with Nietzschean sensibilities, as found in Francis Fukuyama's "End of History and The Last Man." But Fukuyama's influence is greatly over-estimated, just as the influence of the collective bogeymen "The Straussians" is over-estimated. And all of it serves as a smokescreen so that critic don't have to answer the hard questions David poses about what should be done about systematic repression and murder around the globe. The answer that you are not allowed to do anything because then you are a jacobinite is neither plausible nor credible.

At 4:19 PM, Blogger Steven M. Levine said...

David took from my post this conclusion: 'But if I understand him correctly freedom and self-determination might be valid norms, but not in all civilizations'. I must say that this response seems to be the reset button of liberal hawks. What I am trying to point our is that there are conflicting values in OUR OWN tradition that guide OUR actions. We take both as valid, yet they cannot be both applied in a fully consistent manner. We say we are for the liberty of persons and we also say that we are for the self-determination of peoples. These do not always square. At that point judgment becomes important. As one of your commentors pointed out (and which I acknowledged in my post) one cannot rightly claim that there was any meaningful self-determinsation in Iraq. It was a case of fully malignant and evil social system in which there was not any possibility of liberty or self-determination. That was why the call on Iraq was difficult. I came out against the war
not for normative reasons, but because I thought it was unwise. Wisdom is a very conservative value I know, but I think I have been vidicated by events. In any event, the point I was trying to make is that in more borderline cases then Iraq we have two values that can pull in different directions. Now many liberals do not coutenance self-determination as a value (indeed this value comes from America's tradition of civic-republicanism not liberalism). I, however, do. Indeed, I think this concept, when applied to an individual self, and a collectivity, is the deepest meaning of freedom. In this I am not a liberal so we would have to have a seperate fight about how to best think of this concept.

At 7:58 PM, Blogger Steven M. Levine said...

I would like to respond to the ‘iconic midwesterner’. Let me start by clarifying my un-perspicuous statement that “now relativism is not defined as the belief that there are no valid norms, but pertains to those who are skeptical that the radical transformative vision of millennial liberalism is the enlightened way to go.” Here, I am not defining relativism but the transformation of the term relativism as used by liberal hawks like David. My point is that the term relativism is now used to single out not only those who doubt the possibility of there being absolutely valid moral norms but ALSO those who think there are such norms but who are skeptical about certain policies which aim at forcing the other to accept them. After all, there term ‘transform’ is transitive, there is an object which is transformed and that which transforms. Of course, when the value that is being transmitted in this transformation is freedom we find a paradox: freedom, for it to be freedom, can only be taken over freely. It can be offered, but if it is not taken it is not freedom. (Of course the gesture of not accepting freedom is also an act of freedom).

Now I was accused of entering such dialectics to avoid the hard question of what to do when we are faced with the brutalization of peoples by their governments. This is indeed a hard problem. The first thing to say is that in cases of genocide or ethnic cleansing I support immediate international interventions. It would be nice if those that claim to care so much about this in the Bush administration would do something about Darfur. In cases that don’t come up to this level, one can only take it case by case. Myself, I am in favor of certain forms of cosmopolitan governance to handle many of these in between cases. I know that American neo-nationalists despise this ides, but I hope that all agree that this hatred, in being based upon nationalist sentiment, is not liberal. In the specific case of the Middle East I would be happy to see Bush institute his stated policy concerning democratization. While I am skeptical of marching through the Middle East with our legions we have no obligation to aid and abet corrupt and brutal regimes. I would be very happy for us to make it clear to our allies Egypt, Tunisia, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait that we shall no longer shower then with monies and diplomatic support if they throw dissents into jail or don’t begin to liberalize their political systems. I wonder why we have not already done so? Perhaps the Iconic Midwesterner could shed some light on this.

At 9:26 PM, Blogger Steven M. Levine said...

One more comment on the Wilsonian sidebar. You are write about Wilson. Most of the rhetoric I mentioned was directed teurope. Everywhere else, all bets were off. What is unclear to me however is whether you applaud his actions south of the border or not. If you do, (I said if) then I question whether you don't just have nationalist/imperialist instincts.

At 3:55 PM, Blogger The Iconic Midwesterner said...

Steve: If your intent was to show that you are not a relativist, I missed that intent. Put it is understandable that I missed it. Sentences like,

"In the background of our discussions about Beinart’s piece is the philosophical question of relativism vs. universalism. Morgan, and David at Electric Refrigerator, take it that the belief in the universality of western values requires the active spreading of those values."

are most easily read as coming from a relatisvist perspective. The phrase "universality of western values" is oxymoronic without resorting to relativism. People are assuming you are a relativist because you sound like one.

As for the Bush administration, I don't doubt that they employed some sort of calculus that says in effect, "Dafur isn't as important to the U.S., so we won't use the same standard as with Iraq." But that in no way invalidates the morality of going into Iraq to stop oppression. The fact that you do not do it consistently, or that you let other less morally important factors influence your choice also does not invalidate the morality of Iraq. Now, if you want to use Iraq/Dafur as a basis for criticizing the U.S. ON DAFUR, that is perfectly reasonable. To say that inaction in Dafur invalidates the choice in Iraq is, literally, nonsense.

Steve stated: "I would be very happy for us to make it clear to our allies Egypt, Tunisia, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait that we shall no longer shower then with monies and diplomatic support if they throw dissents into jail or don’t begin to liberalize their political systems. I wonder why we have not already done so? Perhaps the Iconic Midwesterner could shed some light on this."

I'd first point out that, while we have some military bases in Saudi Arabia (very limited these days I believe) and Kuwait, neither country recieves U.S. economic or military aid. I wouldn't be surprised if Kuwait is getting some money because of our increased military usage, but that isn't "aid" as such.

A second point, if you are claiming that the actions of the Saddam Hussein regime is the equivilent morally of present day Jordan or Israel, there may not be much point in continuing a conversation. I'd think you were dangerously out of your mind.

If you are NOT saying that, and really I'm assuming you are not, then the question does become quite different. One variable in the calculus is the fear that a destabilizing Egypt or Saudi Arabia might result in far more extreme regimes that might be impossible to even negotiate with, let alone influence. Two, is you need a carrot to make a carrot & stick approach work--one might argue that we should be using more stick in some countries already, but each case should be evaluated on its merits. And there are hundreds of other considerations that could be thrown in as well, and I'm not an expert on the internal politics of every middle-east regime.

Taken as a whole these types of objections sound like a desire to "get" the Bush admin both coming and going. First, there is the complaint that they are engaging in some sort of ideological crusade (e.g. millenial liberalism), and then the complaint is that they are not dogmatic enough (e.g. why aren't they intervening in Dafur!).

At 5:56 PM, Blogger Steven M. Levine said...

Yes it could seem as if I am being opportunistic in my criticism of the Bush administration. However, I don’t think that this is true because the situation in Darfur and the one in Iraq are totally different. One is an active case of genocide while the other was a case of tyranny. If you made the argument that we should have intervened when Sadddam was perpetrating genocide you would not have had an argument from me. Similarly, its not like I’m calling for us to simply march into the Sudan. I’m calling for sustained attention and international will formation. It would not take that much to stop a whole lot of suffering.

You point that the morality of Darfur does not bear logically on that of Iraq is right. My mod of argumentation does not depend upon pointing our inconsistencies. You may boggle at this considering the fact that I point out our unwillingness to put real pressure on certain allies in the gulf. But my point in doing so is not to say: hah they (the Bushies) are cynical about this so they must have been cynical on Iraq. No my point is simply to show what you yourself point out, namely, that we have other interests besides democracy promotion in the region. We have a mélange of interests, one of which is democracy promotion. This is elementary and not surprising. When this is admitted, however, the picture gets more complicated then you are David want to admit. Sometimes, for example David talks as if foreign policy were simply an exercise of charity. If you think I am being dramatic I here quote David:

My view was not that we would enter Iraq and democracy would suddenly spring up like some newly planted bluebonnets, but that with a brutal and oppressive dictator gone the Iraqi people themselves, with some assistance from the US and one would have hoped the UN and members of the EU (but they have put embarrassing the US ahead of helping the Iraqi people), would have an opportunity to eventually establish a freer society.

Now this is a nice sentiment, and it might be partly right, but it assumes that we are an ‘empire of right’ whose sole interest was freeing the Iraqi people. One does not need to be a cynic to say: you know what, we are grown up people and some pretty tough grown up people run our government. These people are interested in freedom, but there also interested in securing US power. These people are interested in liberty but there also interested in ensuring stability when it suits their strategic vision. (Now since I’m a democratic socialist, I would have some pretty nasty things to say about these people on other fronts, namely that they and their strata have been successfully pursuing a class war against US and global workers since the early seventies. But I shall not dwell on such things.) All I want to point out is that a moralistic language often creeps into our discourse and, in my view, distorts our ability to clearly analyze the forces that govern contemporary history. That is what I am fighting about, not the morality of the Iraq war.

Now let us talk about the Iraq war directly. (You should examine by the way how you took everything I have said in my posts and read them as an argument against this war. This is natural since this is the defining issue of our day. But I have other fish to fry besides Iraq.) I was not against this war because I thought it was ‘immoral’. I was not against it because Rummy went to Iraq in the eighties and oh how hypocritical that is. I was not against this war because I thought we were victimizing the Iraqi people. In my view the war could not be anything but a victory for the Iraqi people. But even so, I opposed the war. I want to be clear so you can know how horrible a person I am: I thought the war would benefit the Iraqi people (I still do) and I still opposed it. How could I? Was it out of a hatred for America? Did I think that the people of Iraq had to be sacrificed on the alter of anti-imperialism? The reason I opposed the war was that I thought it was UNWISE. Now what the hell does that mean? It was my view (and still is) that the Iraq war was on the whole more inimical to the advancement of the policies and trajectories that I would like to see then not having the Iraq war. I am, despite what has been said about my supposed relativism, interested in the advancement of freedom and democracy. I am also interested in brining the Islamic world (or parts of it, we of course would have to get more specific when talking seriously about this block of one billion people) into the stream of modernity in a way that avoids the catastrophes that attended the European process of modernization (the thirty year war of last century). I think the course that the Bush administration has chosen makes this integration more difficult rather then less. (One here would have to discuss the Bush policy in a more holistic fashion. Here we would need to talk economics, the politics surrounding the dollar, etc.). In other words, I think his policy undermines precisely what We say we want for the region. Now, I am willing to argue this in deatail, but it requires getting below the level of ‘intentions’ and morality in general. We would have to argue it on the level of effective history.

I also opposed the war because it was the means by which we have been jettisoned back into a Metternichian state system. You may blame this on the wicked Europeans, and they do bear some blame, but then I ask you, if you have not, to actually read the writing of our leading policy makers. One of their goals has been precisely to destroy the international system that governed the cold war (a system that we ourselves set up) and replace it with an ad hoc system of alliances. This, they thought, was more appropriate to a situation of American Hyper power. Even with all of its many and great deficiencies, I think that the previous system had potentialities for developing into a quasi-cosmopolitan order that are not possible with the reestablishment of a Hobbsian international system. I thin this is more inimical to freedom and liberty then the idiocies of Michael Moore. There is more, but I have already said enough.

At 7:55 PM, Blogger The Iconic Midwesterner said...


Most common law societies don't recognize a statute of limitation on murder, yet you are willing to give Hussein a pass because his genocides are not "ongoing." Interesting take.

As far as I can see promoting democracy has never been an interest that the U.S. has pursued in the middle east, at any level, before the Bush admin. Back at Versailles, Wilson ultimately let the Brits and French do what they wanted. Since that time we have supported the Shah, Hussein and any number of monarchical despots in the name of "stability," but never democracy. And you couldn't look at the middle east 6 years ago and seen may wellsprings of liberalism popping up. I don't think Bush and Co. have done everything correctly, and their dithering in many respects suggests that their approach is neither entirely pragmatic nor entirely ideological. But I at least give them credit for putting democracy on the table.

As for your worldview, i don't have much to say except that the breakdown of the cold war's bipolar international structure was bound to be disorienting. Many people are just casting about looking for a "them" to set themselves up against. Some people find it in China ("a new cold war"), or in Islam ("a new crusade"), or in "global capitalism" ("long live the glorious proletarian revolution"), or the French ("embargo escargot!"), or even a revanchist Russia ("all old cold wars are new again") etc. etc. etc. Its all rather meaningless to me.

For example, the old mid-20t century rationale for NATO was "keep the Russians out, keep the Americans in, and keep the Germans down." It was a pithy slogan, and it expressed something of the truth. Today it is just (obviously) wrong. The old rationales are just that, old. No international system is really ever static, even the cold war had movement of a kind. The notion that Bush has upset some sort of cosmopolitan balance that would have otherwise stayed intact, is simply wrong. Actually, the old system was already long gone before Bush even got into office.

And where is the evidence of this resurgent Hobbesian system? Show me coalitional wars breaking out in Africa, SE Asia or South America and I might believe you. The U.S. taking out two rogue regimes hardly qualifies.

BTW, its been a nice discussion.


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