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Because We Like Our Tofu Well Done

2011 April 2
by Matthew Hunte

But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first, and said, “Son, go work today in my vineyard.” He answered, “I will not,” but afterward he changed his mind, and went. He came to the second, and said the same thing. He answered, “I go, sir,” but he didn’t go. Which of the two did the will of his father?

Matthew 21:28-31

It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race. No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution the Jewish race suffered in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy, both for us and for them.

Charles Lindbergh

In On Violence, Hannah Arendt argued that a distinction needs to be made between force and power: “force” refers to acts of nature, which can be mitigated but not controlled; power is a function of  relationships. Recent events have caused me to reflect on these definitions and how they relate to our view of human suffering. In the case of natural disasters there is, if not consolation, at least a forced resignation to fate. With mass killing, there is the nagging feeling that if we only tried, it could have been stopped. The death of  thousands  in an earthquake is tragic; the death of  scores by the hands of megalomaniac is something even darker…

I do not support the intervention in Libya. From my admittedly limited vantage point, there is no a sign of a coherent strategy, a worrying sign given the ambiguity inherent in war. Does the fact that calls were made for Qaddafi to step down then mean that we are explicitly on the side of the rebels? Who are these rebels? Let us not forget that the line between oppressor and oppressed is easily straddled, as Rwanda and Kosovo have revealed.

Despite protestations otherwise, how do we know that intervention would be limited to a no-fly zone? How do we determine when the mission is accomplished? There are all these questions just about the operation. We have not even addressed the fact that the United States is already involved in two other wars, has a growing deficit, is cutting public services throughout the states and just gave massive tax cuts to the richest members of society.

(I should also add that my hesitancy to get involved in the affairs of other countries also explains my ambivalence about the United States taking a public position on the other Arab uprisings earlier this year, regardless of whether the country involved was an American ally.)

To be sure, there is an alluring purity which comes from being a fervent advocate of non-interventionism; the best way to stay safe is to abstain. War, even on the rare occasion it may be justified, is always evil.

But claiming to be concerned about the possibility of genocide while opposed to doing anything substantive about it reveals a certain kind of apathy which could easily be construed as amorality, or more capriciously as immorality. Once personal concern has no effect on the positions taken in the public sphere, it is irrelevant. Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act was more important than the fact that he wasn’t personally racist; Mario Cuomo’s support for reproductive rights was more important than his personal adherence to the Catholic Church’s teachings.

There is a line of thinking claiming that any action which involves self-interest is tainted and that the United States acts primarily in its own self-interest. Certainly, it is impossible to eliminate self-interest from the actions of states. However, it is disingenuous to pretend that the United States is at all unique in this regard—I reject American exceptionalism in all forms—just as it disingenuous to assume that a non-interventionist position is an inherently noble one, even though I consider it eminently preferable.

Many have questioned why aren’t we intervening in Yemen, Bahrain, Ivory Coast, Detroit, etc. The purpose of this is to insinuate that the primary motivation for the intervention is not humanitarian but economic i.e. for Libya’s oil. For those schooled in the dialectic, there is no other possibility;  Christopher Hitchens, in response to similar claims about Iraq, stated “you should never do the right thing, even if you benefit.”

But whatever the true motives behind the attack, the skeptics have unwittingly not only supplied a critique of  the efficacy of humanitarian interventionism but also the very concept of international human rights.

Just after the inception of the postwar human rights movement, Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism :  “No paradox of contemporary politics is filled with more poignant irony than the discrepancy between the efforts of well-meaning idealists who stubbornly insist on regarding as ‘inalienable’ those human rights, which are enjoyed only by citizens of the most prosperous and civilized countries, and the situation of the rightless themselves.”

In a world where most conflict now takes place within borders, any human rights framework which assumes the absolute sovereignty of nation-states will be ineffectual. Why get all worked up about crimes we have no interest in stopping? (It is easier for those who believe only the crimes of the United States, and by extensional Israel, warrant attention.)

David Rieff laid out the implications succinctly, prior to the Iraq War:  “… once you say that sovereignty is not the principle absolute, that the criteria are not that a state is sovereign, but rather what crimes it commits (that will be the human rights view) or what threat it poses (that would be kind of the Rumsfeld view) and that those threats and/or crimes, if you like, trump sovereignty, I think you’ve entered the logic of intervention.”

The essential difference between liberal internationalism and neo-conservatism, as presently constituted, is that the former seeks to strengthen the supranational institutions nominally responsible for securing human rights,  while the latter rejects them.  Not that it matters that much; the U.N. is often seen as a tool of the United States anyway.

A further dilemma once we have accepted the logic of interventionism is how far we go.  How do we avoid try to prevent atrocities without moving straightway into regime change?

The best protections for human rights are legitimate, democratic states. However, we cannot export democracy and thus our ability to protect these rights beyond our borders is limited. I do not seek to discard the ideal of universal rights, but to recognize that they are ultimately based on institutions that are contingent. We need to recognize that not all good things go together and that, yes, sometimes we are forced into binaries: justice vs. peace, imperialism vs. barbarism.

When I oppose the intervention, I do so with no illusions. There would be killing, whether we get involved or not. Is genocide being committed? Not that we know of but if and when such evidence arrives,  it would already be too late.  We have not so much started a war with Libya as we have joined one, where innocents were already being blown up. While I am conscious of the dangers posed in intervention, I cannot help but be conscious of how easy it is for me to say this.

Yet still, a lingering notion : how horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be spending millions and firing cruise missiles because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.


2 Responses
  1. April 3, 2011

    there is the Oil of course. its made us fast friends with Gaddafi over the years! love this article, however, i still think there is a pragmatic concern here. that in the past decade (or SO!), we’ve engaged in military actions that were based pretty much ONLY in our self-interest. either it was Afghanistan as some sort of false equivalent reaction to 9/11 or it was Iraq… for reasons that still elude me, actually. And we basically stayed out of conflicts involving civil wars and genocides.

    now, i totally get the argument that we should leave other sovereign nations up to themselves. i get that in an intellectual and ethical way. however, we now live in an age where 10,000 people getting killed isn’t just something that is happening “over there.” With the internet and 24-news and social media, we are connected to people who may be thousands and thousands of miles away. i’m not sure what ethical or intellectual sense it makes for us to *wait* for genocide to happen and then start raising money for the survivors or whatever. like we did with Darfur.

    does this mean we’re like Dark Wing Duck and whereever there is suffering we shall be there to stop it? no. And is this, as it has been dubbed by the media, The Obama Doctrine? also, no.

    now, is it possible that by taking on Gaddafi — who is abhorred nationally, who has been abhorred historically, who’s people are in large part tired and terrified of him, who’s fellow Arab leaders have united against him — we are demonstrating to other would-be tyrants, self-proclaimed autocrats, and despots that… should it come down to it… should you begin slaughtering your citizens in order to wrest control from the people you SHOULD be serving and should those people cry out for help from the international community — that we will come to their aid. That we may not show up and start a one-to-one war with you, but we’ll even the playing field for, yes, The People. We’ll take out your tanks and rocket launchers and so forth and we’ll make is so that if you want to kill your own people, you’ll have to do it by bloody murder, neck-by-neck, and you may find yourself getting murdered by an uprising populace. Are we demonstrating that in this new and modern world that, indeed, no nation is an island?


    and is this an awkward middle-ground for the world? yes. we’ve only just begun to consider that what we allow to happen or what we try to prevent from happening — altruistically or no — may have immediate ramifications at home. here.

    so while we don’t necessarily know who the rebels are. we know who Gaddafi is . and we know what it is to fight to throw off tyranny, and we know that its actually a messy decades-long process getting to a standing of self-reliance, and we know WE have had the fortune of being there already. do we let a bad situations devolve further? do we insist upon Darwinism in modern politics and warfare? or do we open the door to pluralism? and begin something new and perhaps better than that last failed attempts?

    i mean, we could just stay home. i hear that. i really do. but for some reason, i think it is important that we get involved here.

  2. Colin permalink
    April 3, 2011

    Would you change your mind if there were a guarantee that we would blow their airforce out of the picture and be done with it?

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