Saturday, March 15, 2003

The Bush administration's talk of bringing democracy to Iraq would be much more convincing if we were doing something about the militias still terrorizing much of Afghanistan.
At OxBlog, Josh asks why we aren't. I'm afraid the answer is, because we -- i.e. the Bush administration -- just don't care.

Add to the list of pro-war individuals and groups I wouldn't be ashamed to find myself in the company of: the Social Democrats USA (a candidate of whose I once voted for. Heck, I was young and foolish then, and the Democratic candidate was both really sleazy and doomed) have come out in support of the war. My world continues to turn upside down and inside out. It's quite a view one gets of the world, sitting here on the fence, with Michael Walzer and Tim Garton Ash and -- um ... (Thanks to OxBlog for the link.)

Liberals for war with Iraq: ah, the sad plight of ambivalently pro-war American liberals! Think of the agony -- the disbelieving, horrified looks, the exclamations of disapproval and disagreement, the allegations of delusion, dementia and betrayal, at all of those dinner parties on the Upper West Side or Cambridge or Georgetown! The self-esteem puncturing experience of looking at the other side and seeing all the idealistic kids marching against the war -- the sort of people one once was, and still would like to think of oneself as being. And the stomach churning experience of sharing a boat with Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Dubya, and a bunch of Straussians! (And Chris Hitchens, but, really, was one ever quite comfortable being on his side?)
Ok, I mock, but I feel their pain. I mean, these are good people (especially Paul Berman and Michael Ignatieff and Michael Walser, any of whom I'd be very proud to find myself in the same boat as) -- that is, people like me (of course). In the past few days I've managed to encounter two anti-war rallies (during one of which I walked down the street in the opposite direction as a swarm of what seemed to be schoolchildren on a field trip -- talk about going against the current [turns out I was lucky -- despite my defiance of the flow of the kiddie-rabble, I didn't get pelted with stones, as some others did who encountered the demonstration. Of course, violence is never the answer -- when its the US gov't proposing to use force. But kids throwing rocks indiscriminately -- that's courageous civil disobedience]), both of them, of course, repetitive, self-righteous, utterly contentless, utterly questionless exercises in self-gratifying street theater. And I have, as usual, encountered many people -- good people, smart people, people I greatly like and who are important to me -- who have either said, or clearly conveyed without saying, that they think the pro-war position is just beyond the pale, the preserve of dumb or bad rightists -- and that my sympathy for it is, well, one of those strange delusive proto-reactionary little quirks of mine which they affectionarley tolerate, but which they also disapprove of and worry about.
Ok, let's see, I think I've mocked most of the sides here -- except for the Bushies. And the French. But I don't really care about them.
Seriously, though -- but wait; I wasn't entirely joking before. There is a tremendous amount of social pressure here in Europe, and in intellectual/academic circles in America and everywhere else, on those who depart from what, rightly or wrongly, is taken to be the right, decent, intelligent line -- that is, opposition to the war. I'm not sure that I DON'T oppose the war, in part; but even in my ambivalence I feel a certain amount of the pressure -- and, frankly, it more than anything has pushed me towards the pro-war side, where at least people display some social courage in voicing their convictions, and are forced to articulate them in the face of considerable contempt (and, more importantly, actually have a proposal, however flawed and risky, for liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam. Still haven't found a more viable alternative to war from the anti-war forces. Anyone reading this who can suggest one, please drop an e-mail to joshua.cherniss@balliol.ox.ac.uk -- I'd love to hear it.) (Of course, when I then get enough exposure to proponents of the war who are convinced they can bring democracy to the soon to be grateful people of the Middle East, no problem, and in turn pour contempt on the anti-war movement, I get uncomfortable and start shifting back towards the anti-war side.)
So, I do think that moral and intellectual arrogance are a problem on both sides -- and I think that both sides, in their certainty, are far too impatient with doubters and waverers. Yes, this is self-justifying. But I do think my position justified, even if I'm highly disatisfied with it. Because both going to war, and leaving a dangerous despot in power, are terrible responsibilities to take on. Either way, we can't avoid having blood on our hands; and what position one takes must, ultimately, be based on assumptions about which option will be less bloody, or more succesful in promoting democracy and security in the long run, which is not something any of us can know. So a certain humility, and thus a certain hesitancy and, yes, doubt about one's own position and own rectitude, is necessary. And I don't see much of it around.
The other semi-joking, semi-serious, point is, on the other hand, a self-accusing one: I do feel the urge to say to agonizing, beleagured-feeling liberal intellectuals -- myself included: snap out of it, people! I mean, unless you're religious and believe that the fate of your immortal soul is at stake, such a position of scrupulous doubt is rather a luxury. Self-pity -- unless accompanied by a self-inflicted pie in the face -- is just unacceptable in the face of the suffering of the Iraqi people. And I hope that, the next time I start to feel sorry for myself in the face of my friends' and neighbors' disapproval and even condemnation, such as it may be, I have the decency to remember that. And I hope that my disapproving friends and neighbors, whatever side they may be on, have the decency to remember that as well.

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Bob Herbert has a very moving, and very frustrating, anti-war column in today's NY Times. It's main message: war does terrible things to people, and many innocent Iraqis will die, and we ought not to be so callous about it. All of which are certainly true, and need to be recognized.
But war isn't the only terrible thing, and it's not the only horror to which innocent Iraqis have been exposed. Tyranny and terror are also horrible, and are taking their toll. The US will kill many Iraqis in an invasion; it may be killing them in order to liberate them. It is a terrible thing to say -- it carries echoes of the old claim of crusaders and religious fanatics that their burning of their fellow men and women's flesh was for the sake of the victims' souls. But it is nevertheless a harsh, tragic, truth: the death of many may be the price of the liberation of still more. Saddam, on the other hand, if left in power, will also kill many Iraqis; and it won't be for the sake of liberation.
Herbert's argument would seem to be one for pacifism -- after all, war is always horrible. Yet most of us believe that it is sometimes necessary, and sometimes preferable to defeat, or surrender to forces whose sway will be more horrible than war. What would Herbert say about World War Two? That was surely a brutal war, with massive civilian deaths. And, to the extent that the Allies inflicted more civilian deaths than were necessary to win the war, they should be justly condemned. Yet few today would argue that it would have been better not to fight. Or the Civil War, which did more damage to the population of the US than any other war in history? Yet surely that price, horrible as it was, which many still rightly lament, was worth paying for the emancipation of America's slaves?
Herbert also mentions the current suffering of Iraqi children. This is a muddled argument: it isn't a reason for going to war at all -- it is an argument either for ending Saddam Hussein's grip on his people, or by lifting the sanctions currently in place. But, if we're not to use force -- that is, kill innocent people -- and we're not to impose sanctions -- that is, also kill innocent people, less directly -- how are we to contain Saddam? Herbert, I think, needs to offer an alternative which can avoid causing innocent suffering. If he could and would, I'd certainly leap at it.
(Herbert also warns of a massive humanitarian crisis in the wake of war. This is indeed a very serious problem, which we must do something about -- and I'm not as confident in the US's ability or will to deal with it as I'd like to be. On the other hand, let's remember that there was similar talk during the early days of the war with Afghanistan; and, as Dave Adesnik has shown, that war actually helped avert humanitarian disaster. Many thanks to Dave and Josh as well for this valuable column on 'collateral damage' (which, I agree with Herbert, is an awful term that ought not to be used -- though the civil libertarian in me blanches at his proposal to ban it. And the issue of Iraqi casualties is treated elsewhere on OxDem's informative links-sheet on the war.) (Why do I keep citing OxBlog and OxDem on this site, when they are in fact the only ones likely to see this? Well, two reasons. One is I need to keep up the fiction that I'm actually writing for readers other than myself and possibly Josh Chafetz to give my blogging life the illusion of meaning. The other is, well, it's always nice to know one's efforts are appreciated.)

Blair the political martyr? A moving, if racy, portrait of the PM facing down political disaster with ascetic determination, from the Times. Whatever happens, I believe that Blair will be the only world leader to emerge from this pre-war period with his standing in history enhanced, and his character shining with the light of political courage -- even if his career, and in the short-term his reputation, suffer.
One could do worse. Most other leaders around the world are.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

News flash: Serbian PM shot dead by asassin.
Proof that the road to democracy is seldom smooth.

This wins the prize for silliest thing I've read today. Paul Theroux has issues (and completely misses the point of The Graduate, which is of course one of the best movies of all time.)

The Oxford Democracy Forum's panel on the looming war with Iraq took place today, and two of the people behind the names behind this blog were there (but I suspect that only one of them will post on it).
I was in the uncomfortable situation of partly agreeing, and partly disagreeing, with everyone who spoke (I'm used to it, though). A few brief thoughts:
Josh and David of OxDem: ok, Josh and (maybe) David are the only people who ever read this blog. I'm not about to bite the hand that feeds me. No, wait, actually, I am. My heart was with the guys -- I mean, come on, democracy -- who can object to that? But I didn't find their attempts to addres questions (including one I posed, thank you very much) about how likely the US was to actually effectively promote democracy, and how the US gov't might be encouraged to actually try to do so. Josh did make an effective point about the limitations of containment in dealing with Saddam, and David about the likelihood of civilian casualties and the reality of Iraqi suffering under Saddam. But they did not, I think, make a convincing case that their own noble intentions would be upheld by the US, or win out against the complexity, unpredictability, and volatility of unknowable events (and, yes, Josh, I know you said that we can't know what will happen and need to go on our perceptions of what is likely. Well, maybe your perceptions are just different than mine; but I think that a convincing case for perceiving war as being an effective means of promoting both US security and democracy in Iraq and throughout the rest of the region still needs to be made, and you didn't quite convince me today. ) Dave also criticized an analogy I suggested between the neocons advocating a war in the name of democratization with the architects of the Vietnam war. It is indeed true that the US has learnt and changed since then, but the second Bush administration has in the past displayed, to my eyes, a preference for secrecy which I find ominous; and I think that there is an idealistic, virtuous arrogance about many proponents of war within (and without) the administration that reminds me of the Cold War liberals in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (and let me just say that some of my favorite thinkers were Cold War liberals ...) On the other hand, I thought Dave's closing statement was terrific -- nice job! And Josh was, as always, cute.
On the other side, there was also a mixture of good points, and nonsense. Seth Green made an impassioned case against war; and his points that the Bush administration couldn't be trusted to act responsibly, and that war was likely to have unforeseen and unintended -- but not unforseeable -- consequences struck a chord with me. His, how shall I put this, displays also had considerable entertainment value (it put me in mind of a portrayal of Mario Savio by the actor Jonathan Silverman, after having inhaled helium). However, he didn't make a very strong or detailed case about how one might promote democracy in Iraq and elsewhere without the use of force, nor about how to deal with Saddam's WMDs. He also, in my view, both misinterpreted, or at least simplified, the thought and practice of the Eastern European dissidents (a cardinal sin; I don't mind Seth making fun of Bush's invocation of Jehovah, though as a rhetorical technique it was already wearing thin the first time, nevermind the 3rd or 4th; but taking the name of Havel in vain -- that costs you points.) And his concluding point about the people of Iraq not wanting a war was, I thought, unsubstantiated, and mildly offensive. That said, I do think he made a powerful case for being very, very afraid. But while fear -- both fear of possible attacks on the US, and fear of US imperial power, and fear of the impact of the US' s actions on others -- is a good, indeed a fundamental, consideration to take into account in thinking about foreign policy, it can't be the only one.
Ingrid Barnsley made a good case against the argument that the upholding of international law requires going to war, and in support of the argument that going to war would actually pose a greater danger to US security than seeking to contain Saddam would. However, her case for containment was I thought seriously undermined by Josh's point that, while containment might work while Saddam only has biological and chemical weapons, it might not work so well if he ever got nukes. I also think I may be rather more skeptical about the efficacy of the UN, and the importance of upholding its authority, than Ingrid.
Adeel Malik made, I think, one of the wisest points of the evening in calling for humility on the part of the US. I also agreed with his contention that the US just isn't trusted by many people around the world because it habitually behaves in an untrustworthy way; and that democracy can only come from within, and be built from the bottom up (a point eloquently reiterated by Seth). On the other hand, Adeel lost me a bit by repeatedly declaring 'no peace without justice,' or words to that effect. In that case, I fear, there'll never be any peace. It also seems to me that, when the US has, by its earlier actions, created a situation in which dissidents within a society can't overthrow the tyrannical regime under which they live -- as seems to me the case in Iraq -- it has a responsibility to undo the damage its done to those pro-democracy forces, by removing the (previously US-backed) dictator who's torturing them in dungeons, from which they will probably have a hard time fostering 'civil society' (note: civil society was invoked several times. But this rather complicated concept was never really explored very much. This may, alas, be an unintended influence of the writings of Havel et al -- or of an overly hasty reading of those writings)
Finally, Elizabeth Angell made a very good case for supposing that a war would reinforce anti-American feeling in the Middle East, and, again, that the imposition of democracy from without is not likely to be really succesful. However, she, too, was somewhat vague in her proposals about what to actually do to promote democracy, aside from urging a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Now, I agree that the US should seek to achieve a solution to this conflict; and if it doesn't do so before going to war with Iraq (which, obviously, it won't), must do so shortly afterwards. However, while that might help dampen anti-American feeling in the region, I doubt the argument that democracy will spread throughout the region from a democratic Palestine as much as the argument that it will spread from a democratic Iraq (and I don't have more faith in the potential for democracy to grow in a Palestine divided between Arafat's kleptocracy and the religious terrorists of Hamas). So, I think that a two-state resolution to the Palestine-Israel conflict is necessary to promote, I don't think it'll do the poor people of Iraq any good -- nor those of other nations in the region.
And that brings me to a point made by a member of the audience, more or less, which is -- what about the Iraqis? Questions about the impact of the war on the Middle East as a whole, and on America's security, and on the international order, are all of central importance, and need to be addressed -- and the panelists all made good cases about these (and also failed to answer other questions about all of these). But it will ultimately be the people of Iraq (including the Kurds in the north) whose fate will, I suspect, be most directly, dramatically, and lastingly affected by this war. The question then becomes, whether Josh and David's picture of light Iraqi civilian casualties and a hopeful, democratic future for Iraq, or Seth, Elizabeth, and Adeel's (I think) picture of the Iraqi people first bombed into the stone age, and then betrayed, by the US, is more accurate. That is certainly not something I can answer; and, whatever each of them may think and know, after today I'm still doubtful whether any of them really can.
In that sense, the panel didn't, and couldn't, succeed. But, in another sense, I think it was a smashing success: it saw a civil, intelligent, sincere exchange of views, with different permutations of both basic sides being presented capably, intelligently, persuasively. Whether anyone's mind was changed, I'm not sure; but it did, I think, provoke thought, and foster democratic exchange and engagement. For that, three cheers for everyone all around.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Ok, I'm no fan of France's stance on how to deal with Iraq, but this is just really, really stupid. And it's the sort of thing that makes many Europeans who aren't in the grips of ideological anti-Americanism to perceive America as arrogant, irritable, and dumb. Sadly, they aren't always wrong.

What sort of student foodie are you? asks the Guardian. A funny quiz.

Monday, March 10, 2003

Balliol men in the news: Today's Times (of London) carries two comment pieces on graduates of a certain Oxford college. William Rees-Mogg -- himself a Balliol man -- declares the college 'disgraced' by having elected the man who, he believes, was responsible for his winning Balliol's most prestigious history scholarship, and who acted as an 'excellent' tutor to the cocky young conservative -- Christopher Hill.
Now, given recent revelations that Hill may well have been a Soviet Agent during his wartime service in the Foreign Office, it's fair to condemn him and say that he reflected poorly on Balliol. However, Rees-Mogg -- to his credit, although he seems to wave away the complexities of his own experiences -- himself reveals that Hill was a dedicated teacher (while the man was working for the FO, and possibly seeking to covertly serve the Soviet Union, he was also willing to travel to Oxford to interview prospective students), who 'warmly encouraged' his young charge -- and respected him enough to argue with him (and if Rees-Mogg was as opinionated then as he is now, that must have taken some patience!) He also thinks Hill too decent to have been an effective spy.
So, a warm, decent, dedicated personally tolerant college tutor -- and a defender of Stalin's genocidal regime. Was Balliol right to elect him Master? I'm less sure than Rees-Mogg is. Rees-Mogg asks if Balliol would've elected an unrepentant ex-Nazi. I accept the equivalence between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia; I don't accept that between Nazi sympathizers and Communists in the Western democracies. Both were, of course, wrong, and were devoted to evil regimes. But most supporters of Nazism, certainly after 1939 or so, were motivated at least in part, often in large part, but viciously racist beliefs; many Communists and fellow-travelers made the colosal and shameful mistake of supporting the slaughter-state of the Soviet Union out of a commitment to human equality and, yes, dignity, a compassion for the victims of insitutional injustice and mismanagement around the world. Do their noble ideals and good intentions excuse their blindness and, in some cases, misdeeds? No. Do they matter not at all as extenuating factors, in comparison to supporters of Nazism? I think so.
Less contentious and thought-provoking, and more entertaining, is an article on the Oxford Chancellor's race (which is, I think, a bit unfair in describing Sandi Toksvig -- the black-horse candidate in the race, whom I don't support and hope won't win -- as a 'comedian'; she's more than that, though how much more I can't say). It's very disappointing to learn that Oxford, in a fit of modernization, has declared that the electors -- everyone who has an Oxford MA and chooses to come into town to vote -- won't be required to wear their black MA robes; I was really looking forward to seeing that! Ah well. Progress (sniff). (The article also likens British lawyers to Hitler. What is WRONG with the Times today, with all of these Nazi analogies? I fear all the Munich analogies flying about have utterly infected their collective brain. Ah well. At least the Times columnist winds up endorsing Chris Patten -- a Balliol man.
I have to say, even I -- even I -- find the fact that the Times devotes two out of four of its op-ed columns of today to Oxford -- and indeed, largely to Balliol -- a bit unnerving. Rupert Murdoch or no, it makes one realize the resilience of the declining, but un-dead, British establishment.

The world is complicated -- and other simplistic statements: The NY Times week in review has an article that makes the excellent points that democracy isn't always such a good thing -- it can lead to some pretty bad guys gaining power -- and that the US doesn't consistently support democracy. These are, of course, good points, which are especially important for advocates of democratization to recognize and grapple with. They are also pretty blatantly obvious -- or so one would think; then again, judging from much of the official rhetoric that's come out of the US in the past decades, maybe not.
However, the article displays a (to me) annoying tendency of much good, decent, even-handed political journalism: it states complex and unpleasant truths in a simplistic way, and avoids critical engagement with most of its own claims. The result, it seems to me, is to induce a shaking of heads, and sighs of 'oh, it's all so complicated.' Well, it IS very complicated -- both more, and less, complicated than the article allows.
First of all, there are some statements that are just plain misleading. For instance, early on the article declares that 'Such a gap between preachment and practice is common to all powerful democracies. Only tyrannies can be entirely consistent.' Well, um -- no. Tyrannies are, as a general rule, rather inconsistent -- if by inconsistent one means hypocritical and disimulating, which is what I think the article is actually going for (tyrannies are indeed sometimes more consistent than democracies in that the same person or persons retain total control, rather than different groups succeeding one another in power or sharing it, and thus pulling the nation in different directions. However, if this is so, it is far from evident that consistency is a good thing.) Hitler and Stalin, and the current rulers of China and North Korea, as well as Saddam Hussein (for example) engage in lies the extent of which few democratic politicians (even Nixon or Reagan, who gave the tyrants a run for their money in the mendacity department) have quite equalled. This is because tyrants don't have to deal with a little thing called a free press.
The article points out the US is inconsistent in promoting democracy. But it fails to distinguish between good inconsistency, and bad inconsistency. It's probably a good thing that the US props up relatively permissive despots in, for instance, Pakistan. It is deeply regretable, but possibly preferable to the alternative, when the US props up less permissive regimes in some cases -- though I'm not sure about this (I have to wonder whether keeping te Sauds in power has done us more good than harm; certainly, we would probably have been better off if we had let the South Korean autocracy fall to the North Vietnamese. In the case of Egypt, it may be best to support Mubarak, although I'm not very happy about that, and am not convinced that we ought or need do so indefinitely.) In these cases, the US's inconsistency, even hypocrisy, is probably better than the alternative, since supporting democracy would indeed lead to fundamentalist or expansionist or deeply repressive plebiscites. On the other hand, when the US toppled non-expansionist, non-totalitarian, democratic socialist regimes in South America -- that's unpardonable, and we ought to be ashamed of doing so, and work to support emerging democracies that are having to deal with the aftermaths of our pro-totalitarian adventurism.
What the US should say, and what the article might have pointed to as a more defensible position, but didn't, is this: we believe in democracy. But democracy, defined as representative government combined with the rule of law, is not the only political value. We also believe in human rights -- defined primarily as individual liberty, but also as some decent level of equality and substinence -- as well as stability and peace. All of these values have to be juggled in foreign policy. When democracy will support the causes of human rights and stability, it should of course be pursued, even at great cost and with great difficulty. However, if democracy will conflict with those other goals -- if it will lead to the election of a government that will try to invade its neighbors, or lead to the oppression of minorities (or non-minority, but disadvantaged, groups -- such as women, say) within the country itself, then we should be less eager to promote it, and will have to engage in difficult reckonings of what the best -- that is, the least bad -- policy is in each particular case.
In other words, our commitment should be not to democracy tout court, but to LIBERAL democracy. If we cannot attain liberal democracy -- that is, democracy that respects the rights both of its own citizens, and of other (peaceful and law-abiding) nations -- then we need to figure out what alternative will get us closest to a liberal-democratic ideal. Sometimes that will mean not only tolerating, but supporting, democracies that are deeply hostile to our own interests (I'd much rather France remain a democracy, whatever its policies, than see Chirac replaced by a pro-US, pro-human-rights, pro-democratization [elsewhere] despot -- as much fun as that might be to see; ditto Turkey, etc. etc.) In other cases, it will mean not only tolerating, but supporting, regimes which suspend democratic processes in order to keep deeply illiberal groups out of power -- as, at least avowedly, the current government of Pakistan does (though I'm not entirely sure that the only alternative to Musharraf is a Fundamentalist Islamic state. But if it is, we'll have to accept Musharraf).
This is why, despite including both in the 'axis of evil', and despite the fact that both support anti-Israel terrorism and seem to be in pursuit of nuclear capabilities, the US government is -- rightly -- going after the Stalinoid, fascist Iraqi regime rather than the theocratic, but partially democratic and thus reformable Iranian one. And this, in my opinion, is why the US has a responsibility to institute democracy in a post-Saddam Iraq -- but to do so properly, keeping a US (or, preferably, international) military presence in Iraq while a democratic infrastructure -- including a federated system, and constitutional protections of individual rights, as well as a functioning judciary and democratic military and police force, as well as civil institutions independent of the state -- are in place.
Will we actually do so? I doubt it. But that's no reason to refrain from clamouring for our leaders to do so.
And one of the great things about living in a democracy is, we can do that.

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