Friday, July 31, 2015

The Tension Liberals Can't Avoid

It is gratifying to see Glenn Greenwald - one of President Obama's harshest critics from the left - write in support of the Iran nuclear deal against neocons who are trying to sabotage it.
As usual with neocons, they are being deceitful about their actual intent. They don’t want a “better deal”: at least not one that’s plausible. They want to keep Iran isolated and demonized and ultimately to depose its leadership through war or other means of aggression. They hate the Iran deal precisely because it’s likely to avert that aggression and normalize the world’s relations with that country, making the war they’ve long craved much less likely.
That bolded phrase is probably the closest you're going to get to a Greenwald statement in support of an Obama foreign policy position. So it's worth noting.

But paying attention to what Greenwald has to say about the Iran deal is instructive for the bigger picture as well. That's because almost three years ago he wrote a scathing critique of the strategy that was used to get Iran to the negotiating table in the first place: sanctions.
So horrific is the human suffering brought about by such sanctions regimes that some are beginning to argue that killing Iranians with an air attack would be more humane. That was the argument advanced several days ago by the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, Blake Hounsehll, who mused that he was "beginning to wonder if limited airstrikes on Iran may actually be the more morally sound course of action."...

In essence, the same mentality that drives Democratic support for drones sustains Democratic support for sanctions: they tacitly embrace the unexamined assumption that the US is inevitably going to engage in aggression and kill Muslims, and then pat themselves on the back for cheering for the way that kills the fewest (I support drones because they're better than full-scale invasions; I support sanctions because they're better than air strikes). They are seemingly incapable of conceiving of a third alternative: that the US could or should refrain from killing innocent people in predominantly Muslim countries...

Even if it were true that sanctions produces less civilian harm than all-out air strikes on Iran, that would not justify sanctions. But as evidence of the sanctions-caused human suffering in Iran mounts, even the premise of that claim, irrelevant though it is, seems less and less convincing.
It would be interesting to hear Greenwald's thoughts on that today.

But I'd like to take this farther than simply pointing out the inconsistency of Greenwald's position. That's because his earlier critique, as measured by the final result, is something that all liberals must grapple with when we confront real world challenges.

The question we must face is whether a deal with Iran that "normalizes the world's relations with that country, making war much less likely" would have come about without the sanctions. I can't imagine anyone making the argument that it would. And so we get into the messy reality of justifying one form of human suffering in order to avoid much worse human suffering (an argument Greenwald casually dismissed in the middle paragraph up above).

A few years ago I wrote that I'd like to introduce Greenwald to Reinhold Niebuhr - the philosopher who is most commonly known for suggesting that we have to live in the world as it is, rather than as we want it to be. Here's how I ended that article.
Niebuhr would tell us that facing the world as it is involves giving up the comfort of surety and learning to live with the tension, doubt and collateral damages of our choices...all while remaining resolute in our commitment to our ideals.
Considering actions that lead to human suffering as a way to avoid worse human suffering is exactly where the tension and doubt enter...as they must. It's an awful prospect to have to consider. But ultimately the only way to escape it is to retreat from engagement and cling to pure ideals while the world rages on. In the face of fascism, Niebuhr was unable to do that - and so he ultimately gave up his commitment to nonviolence.

Here is how President Obama addressed this tension in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another -- that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.
I believe that this is why Obama reveres Abraham Lincoln as our greatest president...because he struggled so deeply with the tension between the horror of slavery and the horror of war. There was no path of purity available to him. He had to make a call - knowing that it would mean human suffering on a massive scale with no guarantees of success. That's what it means to lead in the world as it is. And that's the tension that liberals can't avoid.

1 comment:

  1. "In essence, the same mentality that drives Democratic support for drones sustains Democratic support for sanctions: they tacitly embrace the unexamined assumption that the US is inevitably going to engage in aggression and kill Muslims, and then pat themselves on the back for cheering for the way that kills the fewest (I support drones because they're better than full-scale invasions; I support sanctions because they're better than air strikes). "

    Then there is of course the third option that Greenwald doesn't consider: once in a while, US military does more overall good than harm, even for the locals in whatever corner of the world. Let's take the much-hated drones. It is considered a matter of fact, at least in the Leftiesphere anyway, that drones cause vast indiscriminate suffering to Pakistan, Yemen, and so on as the US blindly lashes out in vain to strike at terrorists. But actually take a look at the statistics produced by those governments and you will find that the overwhelming majority of those who died were al Qaeda, Taliban, or some other group that is not very friendly to the civilians. The US does kill some civilians, true, but nowhere near as many as dedicated terrorist/militant organizations do.

    The Taliban is a great example of that. Most Lefties seem to forget that the Taliban became news in the mid 1990s, when they took over Afghanistan and imposed their brutal way of life on the country, at the cost of thousands of innocent people. And like we normally do, we responded by Feeling Very Bad. The Taliban is one of the groups we had been going after in Pakistan, and there is convincing evidence that our efforts were making it difficult for them to carry out attacks. See the following paper:

    http://www.academia.edu/6397212/The_Effectiveness_of_the_Drone_Campaign_against_Al_Qaeda_Central_A_Case_Study

    Cut to December 2014, after the US had all but ceased its drone strikes in Pakistan, when the Taliban went on a murder spree through a Pakistani school; they killed 132 kids that day, vastly more than the children killed in the entirety of the US drone program in Pakistan. And the Taliban forces killed those kids deliberately, just to send a message to the Pakistani government.

    Now, there's no way to know whether that attack would have happened anyway, or might have been replaced by some comparable attack, had we kept up with the drone program. But I tend to think that, if we're targeting mass-murderers precisely because they are mass-murderers, odds are that fewer civilians are going to die. All evidence is that we try to keep civilians out of harm's way, which is the exact opposite strategy of the people we're going after.

    I have not even mentioned US security yet, but let's go there. Knowing what we know now, can anyone really object to Clinton sending Tomahawk missiles after bin Laden (the infamous "wag the dog" moment)? Knowing what we know now, does anyone wish Bush had sent missiles after al Zarqawi (who later went on to found ISIS)? I bet most people here forgot about that, so a reminder:

    http://www.nbcnews.com/id/4431601

    In both cases, a few well-targeted Hellfire missiles could have saved the world a lot of trouble. I'd rather spend 9/11 with four-column headlines saying "NOTHING PARTICULARLY INTERESTING HAPPENED TODAY". I'd like do a Google search for "Isis" and find pictures of Joanna Cameron instead of dismembered Iraqi corpses.

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