Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Liberals and American Power

In the leftist British paper, the Guardian this past Sunday, Nick Colson writes regarding the liberal understanding of Islamic terrorism: “the twin vices of willful myopia and bad faith…have disfigured too much liberal thought for too long”. There is much evidence of this in the comments and posts on the Daily Kos, especially in response to the London bombings; but there also is an increasing number of individuals who have begun to break loose from these “liberal” habits who are also active on the Daily Kos.

There are many sources for and reasons why these habits are prominent in liberal circles. They stem from a number of thoughtful insights into America and American power that most conservatives willfully turn a blind eye to: namely, the moral ambiguity that comes with the enormity of America’s power in the world today and the evil that is always unleashed in any violence and especially in any war. One of the basic principles of what passes for conservatism today is that “American power [is] a force for peace and security” (from Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us From Evil, page 277). This phrase is echoed by Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the National Review, and on and on. The point is, many conservatives see American power as a force for good. Democrats, they say, see “American power as a source of arrogance and violence”. This is a simplistic view that works well in a 15 second spot even as it distorts the reality of what many liberals actually think. American power is a source of violence in the world—no one can deny that. It has often been seen as arrogant in the hands of this administration. At the same time, American forces have worked around the world for peace and have historically provided security in a number of troubled regions—from Kosovo to Haiti.

The problem that liberals tend to appreciate that many conservatives are blind to is that even when we intend to do good, any use of power creates unintended consequences. We drive Saddam out of Kuwait leading an enormous coalition and backed by the entire world; Bin Laden is infuriated that the Saudi government did not call of him to expel Saddam and declares jihad on America.

On the other hand, many liberals seem to have a purist attitude towards American power. As a conservative commentator once mimed his impression of liberal foreign policy: America can only use power when it is against our self-interest. Some liberals demand that America’s intentions be pure and unselfish before it acts. Looking back on history, they see how American economic and strategic interests have led us to support tyrants and overthrow democratically elected leaders. They rightfully rail against this rank hypocrisy.

Re-Imagining the Opposition

I believe that we as liberals and progressives need to re-think and then re-formulate our opposition to Bush’s war on terrorism. Because Bush’s war is flawed; his administration’s execution of it has been feckless. The conspiracy theories building up around why we went into Iraq giving Bush and company nefarious motives distract attention from the stupidity of the move: Iraq was a reckless gamble with American lives; but it is one that we must now ensure succeeds—there is no pulling back. It was a war of choice against an evil dictator without whom Iraqis are better off; but Bush did not prepare the American people for a long war; he did not supply our troops adequately for their forthcoming task; he did not commit enough resources to win the peace.

Liberals and progressives should be encouraging Bush’s foreign policy successes. We must praise Bush’s role in the many peaceful democratic revolutions in the Middle East. We should be determined to leave Iraq and Afghanistan firmly in the hands of democratically elected governments. We should applaud when Bush pledges to bring morality back into foreign affairs. We should encourage the use of American power to promote democracy. We cannot attack America for acting in its self interest. We cannot rule our war and other violent means as a last resort. We should not affix blame on our policy-makers for provoking the terrorists by not responding to their blackmail.

This is not what we need to say to be taken seriously on national security. This is what we need to believe, and believe deeply, in order to have any moral authority or coherence in criticizing and eventually running America’s national security policy. If we do not honestly acknowledge the successes of our opponents, then people will believe we exist only to oppose. If we believe a peaceful democratic revolution is tainted by the American government’s influence, then we have no business proposing any government programs at home. If we reject morality in foreign affairs in favor of real-politik, then how can we defend progressive taxation and Medicare at home?

Liberal Responses to Terrorism

I have noticed a number of common threads and assumptions in most liberal arguments against the “war on terrorism”. Though I should have been sourcing these and identifying particular articles, posts, and opinion pieces, I had not before conceived of writing a definite response to them. But I believe many of you will easily recognize these arguments as being basic to a number of liberal arguments attacking Bush’s “war on terror”. I certainly found a number of examples of this in my regular perusing of the Daily Kos.

I am not really sure to what extent these various arguments reflect the opinions of most liberals or progressives. So, let me be clear that I make no claims that these positions represent those that are typical. But they are present and often dominant—in George Galloway’s response to the Madrid bombings, in the writings of Noam Chomsky and Joan Didion, all over the Huffington Post, in the British Guardian, in the Nation magazine, and also in many postings on the Daily Kos. As I mentioned above, I believe these assumptions are often the result of the liberal impulse: to view all people as equals, to believe in the essential good-ness of human beings, to view all actions as the result of environmental pressures and thus often morally exculpable (following from the previous), to see morality as a series of subtle distinctions rather than merely good and evil, and to view an uneasy peace as preferable to war. These are all rather commendable beliefs, and I share them. But they must be balanced with a hard look at the reality of terrorism and Islamic fanaticism. We are reminded that though liberalism has been an inspiration for great positive changes in the world, as well as a source of personal inspiration, it is not complete.

Some other beliefs seem to be more of a result of partisanship than any particular understanding of liberalism.

Seven Theses and Responses
So, here they are, seven responses to various “liberal” arguments against the war on terrorism:

1. Thesis: The “war on terror” is merely a cover for a power grab by Bush and his cronies.

Alternate thesis: Terrorism is a minor problem that we should just ignore; without attention, the problem will go away.

Response: The fight against terrorism is both necessary and just.

Though I do not doubt the Bush administration has used the War on Terror to pursue other strategic goals for America and themselves, and that numerous other people have used it to enrich themselves and their corporations—no reasonable person can deny that terrorism is not a major problem.

First of all, there is the terrible specter of a biological or nuclear attack. This would be a disaster of epic proportions. And the mere possibility of this should be enough to justify the allocation of serious resources and attention to preventing it. Though it is entirely possible this type of disaster may not be able to be prevented, there is no excuse for not trying.

Secondly, terrorism attacks the very basis of any society—the trust that is implicit in leaving one’s fortified home. A society in which people are terrified of terrorism is one which cannot survive indefinitely. This is precisely the understanding that those who wish to ignore it accept. But ignoring an obvious problem will not make the fear of it go away—rather it will become a shadowy force, a secret nightmare passed along as gossip and conspiracy theory. No—free dialogue, an affirmation of the ideals of a civil society—this is the answer to terrorism, both morally and strategically.

Finally, there is the decidedly conservative idea that as terrorism is inevitable we should avoid wasting resources combating it. Though this argument has a certain basic appeal—let me ask this: what liberal would accept an argument concerning racism or poverty based on this principle? Every individual and every government has a moral duty to try to eliminate these evils, whether or not it is possible to actually do so. This is the heart of progressivism. Even when it is unimaginable, progress is possible; the problem is not inherent in the world, but rather in the imagination.

2. Thesis: Terrorism is a legitimate or at least understandable response of people who lack power lashing out against those who are too powerful to be challenged directly. Terrorism may be immoral, but sometimes it is understandable in response to great injustices when there is no alternate course of action.

Response: There are no moral excuses or justifications for these acts of terror.

Terrorism directly targets the defenseless. It violates every fundamental principle of ethics and morality. It does so explicitly and flagrantly. The main purpose of terrorism is to cause fear and destruction. In order to accept terrorism as acceptable or understandable, one must first deny the humanity of fellow human beings. It violates the fundamental principle of liberalism: that all people are created equal. Terrorism explicitly regards the people who are its victims as beneath human care. Islamic terrorism justifies its victims by claiming that they are heathens. They even classify many fellow Muslims as heathens—Shiites, Sufis, and in the most extreme cases, all non-Wahabbi Muslims are considered to be beneath humanity. There is no defense of terrorism. And certainly, there can be no defense based on liberal principles.

3. Thesis: Even if terrorism is morally repugnant, it can be prevented by acceding to the demands of those who use it—it is merely used as a political instrument to gain specific objectives.

Response: Islamic terrorism, as practiced today, is not a course of action taken by rational self-interested individuals.

This point is especially strong and is perhaps the most compelling argument put forth against Bush’s War on Terror. Its appeal is in the fact that it is partially true.

When one considers the many prominent historical examples of terrorism that we have: the Irish Republican Army, the Jewish groups in Palestine before the founding of Israel, and the many disparate groups that threw off European rule in the period between the two world wars. These groups had a specific political goal and were willing to kill innocent people for their goals. The insurgencies and some of the terrorist attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan can be in this fashion, though it does not in any way excuse the use of terrorism.

However, Islamic terrorism today—whether by Palestinians against Israel or by bombers in London—is an entirely different phenomenon. Suicide terrorism especially exemplifies this: these are acts of men and women who wish to define themselves by death and destruction. Their ostensible political goals are a mere fig leaf for their spiritual desperation and self-hatred. These acts of terrorism are an end to themselves.

Look at the everlasting changing of the rationale for these attacks—first, the presence of American troops in the Holy Lands; then when they move from their, for their presence in Afghanistan. When we were attacked on 9/11 it was not because we were free as Bush asserted—it was, at root, because radical extremists like Bin Laden believed that the liberalism and the West were slowly infiltrating their societies. If one reads Sayyid al Qutb and other founders of radical Islam who gave their inspiration to Bin Laden, one sees that these men’s hatred of the West is only eclipsed by their hatred of their fellow Muslims who have embraced the West.

Islamic terrorism is an attempt to reverse history through unjustifiable destruction; it is an attempt to make present in others the hate and impotence the individual terrorists themselves feel. The only possible political purpose that would explain these acts is an attempt to provoke a religious war with the West which would unite and rejuvenate the Muslim world. This is precisely what Bin Laden and other extremists have portrayed Iraq and Afghanistan as the beginning of—and if they have their way, it will be.

Rational self-interested individuals do not kill themselves and as many others as possible in the attempt to start a war that would most likely destroy their native lands. Giving in would only embolden the fanatics.

The “liberal” position holds that if we were able to convince them that America and the West had stopped those practices that they found to be unjust and hurting Muslims—supporting Israel, keeping troops in the region, occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, supporting the totalitarian governments in the region, and a number of other smaller complaints—then we would deflate the causes of terrorism and it would gradually end. But this thesis includes one incredible assumption: that any reasonable person could hold that any of these above factors could drive someone to terrorism and even suicide terrorism.

4. Thesis: Religious conservatives in America are our domestic equivalent of extremist Islamic groups.

Response: Our domestic political opponents share far more values with us than do those who resort to terrorism or who fail to reject it.

This seems obvious when it is stated. Yet there have been dozens of posts about the American Taliban and how the religious right is America’s equivalent to Islamic fanatics. Comparisons like this can always be fun—it’s always good to label your opposition as Nazis, Communists, terrorists, whatever—simplifying a complex situation usually leads to a more reasonable response. But the fact is, we share more with out political enemies—a belief in individual rights, democracy, some form of economic freedom, free speech, the right to assemble, the separation of church and state, and the benefits of science—than we do with any Islamic extremist. There are disagreements, but they have always been a matter of degree. No one debates whether church and state should become one; but we disagree on where the line should be drawn. No one debates whether or not all people have specific rights; but we dispute what those rights are.

5. Thesis: The wars against and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have failed. The War on Terror has failed. In reality terrorism has increased as a result of these attacks.

Response: The attacks in London and other terrorist attacks prove nothing about the Bush and Blair administration’s strategy for fighting terrorism.

6. Thesis: George Bush’s Iraqi adventure is a result of his conservative politics; either he just wants oil and to solidify America’s strategic position in the Middle East or he is seeking to initiate a religious war with Islam.

Response: Bush’s rhetoric and justifications for the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan rest on liberal grounds, even if his methods often clash with liberal sensibilities.

7. Thesis: Our troops are being killed. Our presence in Iraq is provoking the terrorists. We have already handed over official sovereignty. Our presence there is not right—occupations don’t work. We must leave now, or set a timetable to leave soon.

Response: We must stay in Iraq and Afghanistan until the situation is secure. Leaving these countries to civil war and extremism would be far more irresponsible than the invasions themselves were.

(I’ll post explaining my responses later, but I wanted to put it up before it became dated.)

Tomorrow's Republicans

Just read an article in an older copy of the New Yorker. And I realized how dramatically the political landscape was changing. It seemed to me that these young men and women (mainly men) were the future of the Republican party--and that their prominence is something that George Bush will come to regret.

First of all, I have never bought Bush as a religious conservative--despite the Left's attempts to smear him as one and the Right's attempts to claim him as one. He just doesn't have the right profile. I do believe that he has been significantly influenced by his adulthood conversion--and that he believes God has played an important part in his life. More importantly, it seems Bush has accepted most of the "founding myths" of the evangelical movement in America. He believes in a very personal God who acts directly in the world and in his life. He believes that his faith (understood practically to mean his intention) is more important than his works. He believes that evil is plain, and that God directs him to see it. He believes that we all participate in a great battle between Good and Evil. In general, with regard to the more specific aspects of mainstream evangelical beliefs, it seems to me that he accepts them and does not seek to contradict them, though he does not especially believe them. Following that, it seems there are a number of areas in which Bush consistently overlooks or disagrees with aspects of evangelicalism: homosexuality, divorce, the duty to evangelize, and perhaps abortion. Most significantly, the one belief that I see as at the heart of many of the religiously conservative movements of modern times is the belief that we are in the End Times. It does not seem to me that Bush accepts this. All of this is my conjecture, based on reading several biographies of Bush and, by this point, tens of thousands of articles. I think it would prove rather accurate.

At the same time as Bush does not seem especially religious, he has certainly empowered a number of people who are. Though he may not be one himself, he is held up as an example of a "true believer". And his politics have moved politics to favor the true believers over their doubting colleagues. The heart of the modern world is skepticism; and evangelicals are part of a growing worldwide movement to answer skepticism with unyielding belief. When liberal critics equate Islamic extremists to Christian evangelicals, they go too far. But both movements share a common rejection of modern skepticism. And more a rejection of the general ordering of the world today--neither are truly conservative; instead they are radical. They are also the future--not the entire future, but an increasing part of it. Alternatives to accepting uncertainty as a part of life will continue to grow in prominence until a new understanding of human existence and meaning is proposed. Instead, the reaction of those too afraid of uncertainty to try to understand their existence as it is will embrace a radical rejection of it--building elaborate mythologies to explain their particular dilemma.

These believers are of the left and of the right. Sartre once explained that in order to create meaning in one's life, one needed to dedicate one's self to a project. He chose Communism. The evangelical and Islamist movements both grasped this essential truth about the search for meaning in a world founded on skepticism. They chose their religions. And refuse to acknowledge the void which drives them to blind belief exists. But like the desert that the young Kafka must cross in Haruki Murakami's recent novel, Kafka on the Shore, it does exist, even if only in our minds.

These men and women are the new Republicans--who reject progress because progress would indicate that they do not know everything. They are the "true believers".

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A thought-provoking editorial in the Guardian
Nick Cohen writes a powerful editorial in the Guardian today, in many ways echoing Paul Berman's take on Islamic fanaticism in Terror & Liberalism:
Whether you are brown or white, Muslim, Christian, Jew or atheist, it is uncomfortable to face the fact that there is a messianic cult of death which, like European fascism and communism before it, will send you to your grave whatever you do. But I'm afraid that's what the record shows.
And in conclusion:
But the greatest [task in these coming days] is to resolve to see the world for what it is and remove the twin vices of wilful myopia and bad faith which have disfigured too much liberal thought for too long.

Terror & Liberalism
Sometimes, I wonder at the sheer lunacy of it all--in the aftermath of the London bombings, in the wake of every suicide attack in Iraq or Israel, after the shock of the September 11 attacks had worn off, far too many liberal bloggers, editorialists and other commentators on the political scene reacted not with morally justified anger towards the extremists who perpetrated the acts, but instead by blaming their opposition at home. (This happened with conservative commentators as well, but that I'll get to later.)

This is really quite insane. I find it difficult to see how liberals can find themselves in this position--even as I too feel the emotional pull to side with them and feel more justified in an all-consuming anger against the Bush administration. I, too, believe that the Iraq war was a war of choice--a reckless gamble on the part of those in power to change the nature of the Middle East. In the short term, there is almost no grounds to deny that the invasion of Iraq has inspired more terrorism than it has prevented. The so-called "flypaper" theory--that American forces in Iraq would attract the terrorists there so that we would not have to deal with them here--seems rather ill-conceived on so many levels. Terrorists in Iraq are being trained how to conduct urban warfare, how to get around American checkpoints, and how to exploit American weaknesses, while they are able to inflict a heavy loss of life on our troops and drain money from our economy. The Iraqi conflict has proved to be the best recruiting material for Islamic extremism next to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But even as I bemoan our current situation in Iraq, and correctly see how it has aided the cause of Islamic extremists, I cannot understand how anyone--whether they be Noam Chomsky or George Galloway--can blame any of these acts of nihilistic terror on anyone but Islamic fanatics...

Galloway, speaking on July 7, explained:
No one can condone acts of violence aimed at working people going about their daily lives. They have not been a party to, nor are they responsible for, the decisions of their government. They are entirely innocent and we condemn those who have killed or injured them. The loss of innocent lives, whether in this country or Iraq, is precisely the result of a world that has become a less safe and peaceful place in recent years...Tragically Londoners have now paid the price of the government ignoring such warnings. We urge the government to remove people in this country from harms way, as the Spanish government acted to remove its people from harm, by ending the occupation of Iraq and by turning its full attention to the development of a real solution to the wider conflicts in the Middle East.
Is this a liberal statement? How can people who call themselves liberal on sites like the Daily Kos for example, accept this rhetoric? "By George, I think he's got it," one member responded.

But read the statement again, and you begin to fully see the lunacy of the position many on the left have taken: obviously some people can condone, indeed they can carry out, "acts of violence aimed at working people going about their daily lives." These people are the terrorists who Galloway should be focusing on. Galloway then states that these members of a democratic society are in no way responsible for the decisions of the government they elected--again, Osama Bin Laden has explicitly disagreed with this in this pre-presidential election statement to America. And I hate to say it, but Bin Laden has a point--members of a society are responsible for the actions of their government, the content of their culture, and the structure of its society--that is precisely the argument that liberalism is built on. We all have a responsibility to the least among us. We have a responsibility to make sure our justice system is fair and treats all individuals as equals. We have a responsibility to make sure our foreign policy is just. Those are the responsibilities of each citizen living in a democracy.

Following from this, it seems that Galloway believes that his own government is a legitimate target of terrorism--but that instead ordinary Londoners have "paid the price of the government." This is a position that is not entirely indefensible, but is shocking nevertheless--and I am sure it is a position Galloway would deny he has ever embraced. But that is precisely the implicit message of his speech--that the problem with these terrorist attacks is that they were directed at innocents rather than Blair and company.

Moral Acrobatics

What kind of moral acrobatics are needed to justify equating acts of terrorism with a profoundly flawed but necessary temporary occupation of Iraq? There is a world of difference between searching for the roots of Islamic hatred and fanaticism and giving in to the demands of the extremists. While it is important that we deplore the violence in Iraq perpetrated by our own troops--especially when it results in the deaths or injuries of innocents--and that we hold ourselves to a higher standard, we must not lose sight of the depravities of the method of terrorism itself. Have American and British troops killed innocent people--accidentally or recklessly, even in some cases maliciously? Probably. That is the evil of any way. Have American and British troops performed or tried to perform difficult and even impossible tasks with honor and distinction? From almost all reports, it seems so. The situation in Iraq is awful and morally ambiguous for our soldiers: how to tell a friend from a foe; how to balance protecting one's own life with the need to trust people in order to build up a society; how to maintain a sense of professionalism and morality when the enemy is entirely depraved...

But how, in God's name, can any individual confuse this supremely flawed occupation in which innocent people accidentally die with a campaign of terror in which killing innocent people is the sole target? How can some liberals say that because Bush and Blair acted in such a way as to anger the terrorists, the attacks are somehow their responsibility? It's like blaming people who support abortion for the bombing of a clinic. Or more precisely, blaming Gandhi for the violence the British inflicted on his followers. Bush and Blair did not inspire Islamic terrorism; terrorist attacks are not properly understood as a justified or even a direct result of particular actions. Their intent is to be disproportionate; they are acts of nihilistic destruction rooted, in this case, in a perverted vision of Islam.

At worst, the war against Iraq can be seen as a strategic bid by the United States to find a platform to project power from in the Middle East in which too many innocent Iraqis have died. But even in the worst scenario, we have removed a malevolent dictator who oppressed and murdered his own people and are trying to replace him with a representative liberal government. What, on the other hand, was the purpose of the 9/11 attacks? Or the 7/7 attacks? What is the good that these terrorists are trying to accomplish with their power? What is their justification?

A Progressive’s Manifesto

Every world view is built upon a set of shared beliefs, a common ground among a community. This manifesto is my attempt to begin to forge a new “common ground”, a new consensus in America. The liberal ideas that inspired my parents’ generation have now run their course, and today the Democratic party’s politics is, properly understood, reactionary and conservative–they only wish to preserve the advances they have made. The conservative movement that also began in the sixties, but culminated in the Reagan, Gingrich, and Bush revolutions much later, was created in opposition to the liberal ideas that dominated in the sixties. These ideas are fundamentally flawed as they never attempted to reconcile the justness and truth of their liberal antitheses. What is needed is a Third Way, one that unfortunately, Bill Clinton was never able to fully articulate during his presidency. This third way is appropriately labeled, “progressive”.

This is an attempt on my part to combine the best points of the American conservative and liberal movements into a single coherent vision.

I believe...

THAT each individual has a God-given right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, free from the hackles of unnecessary governmental or societal restraints.

THAT each individual has an equal right to satisfy their basic physical needs: to have food, to have shelter, to live in relative safety, and to have access to competent health care.

THAT moreover, each individual has a right to attain those skills that are needed to thrive in a modern economy; and further that providing quality education not only benefits each individual, but also is necessary for any contemporary society to compete.

THAT the free market is the best means of organizing an economy;
THAT global free trade is essential to worldwide progress;
THAT there must be minimal government interference in the markets; but that the government must enforce the “rules of capitalism” and police the market.

THAT the free market is the only economic model compatible with democracy and personal liberty.

THAT America’s relations with other nations must be both moral and pragmatic; but most of all, that America must be humble.
THAT we must never forsake our founding ideals: of democracy, liberty, and equality.

THAT America’s unprecedented power in the world presents a moral quandary, as a government accountable merely to five percent of the global population has direct or indirect control over the lives of every human being;
THAT because of this quandary, America has a responsibility to use its power and vast resources to benefit the rest of the world as well as its own citizens.

THAT there is a collective wisdom to the actions of a healthy society;
THAT a healthy society can only exist where:
high quality education is universally available,
all individuals are equal before the law,
industry only uses sustainable environmental and other practices,
nothing impedes the free flow of information,
poverty has been eliminated,
and where each individual can rise as far as their talents can take them.

THAT the best government is as local as possible, as little as possible.
BUT THAT government can be a powerful force for good in society; and more, that it is our duty to push the government to be a force for the good.

THAT it is morally imperative that we try to end such pernicious evils as poverty and terrorism, even as these problems defy any easy solution.

THAT our politics need not be pure, that our ideas need not be perfect, that our politicians need not be saints, but that always, as we strive to do good and avoid evil, we are honest and humble, pragmatic yet idealistic.

(this is just a rough draft; it lacks poetry, proofreading, and unity, but otherwise, it seems ok--i'll update it periodically...)