…I was willing to gamble, too–partly, I suppose, because, in the era of the all-volunteer military, I wasn’t gambling with my own life. And partly because I didn’t think I was gambling many of my countrymen’s. I had come of age in that surreal period between Panama and Afghanistan, when the United States won wars easily and those wars benefited the people on whose soil they were fought. It’s a truism that American intellectuals have long been seduced by revolution. In the 1930s, some grew intoxicated with the revolutionary potential of the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, some felt the same way about Cuba. In the 1990s, I grew intoxicated with the revolutionary potential of the United States.
Some non-Americans did, too. “All the Iraqi democratic voices that still exist, all the leaders and potential leaders who still survive,” wrote Salman Rushdie in November 2002, “are asking, even pleading for the proposed regime change. Will the American and European left make the mistake of being so eager to oppose Bush that they end up seeming to back Saddam Hussein?”
I couldn’t answer that then. It seemed irrefutable. But there was an answer, and it was the one I heard from that South African many years ago. It begins with a painful realization about the United States: We can’t be the country those Iraqis wanted us to be. We lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war. That’s why a liberal international order, like a liberal domestic one, restrains the use of force–because it assumes that no nation is governed by angels, including our own. And it’s why liberals must be anti-utopian, because the United States cannot be a benign power and a messianic one at the same time. That’s not to say the United States can never intervene to stop aggression or genocide. It’s not even to say that we can’t, in favorable circumstances and with enormous effort, help build democracy once we’re there. But it does mean that, when our fellow democracies largely oppose a war–as they did in Vietnam and Iraq–because they think we’re deluding ourselves about either our capacities or our motives, they’re probably right. Being a liberal, as opposed to a neoconservative, means recognizing that the United States has no monopoly on insight or righteousness. Some Iraqis might have been desperate enough to trust the United States with unconstrained power. But we shouldn’t have trusted ourselves.
I admire Peter Beinart’s willingness to think about what he got wrong, and why. But while I think that he’s right to say that we can’t be the country the Iraqis and South Africans wanted us to be — a country wise enough to liberate other countries by force — there’s another mistake lurking in the train of thought he describes. Namely:
It’s not just that we aren’t the country Beinart wanted to think we were; it’s that war is not the instrument he thought it was.
You can see this pretty clearly when he refers to the “surreal period” when “the United States won wars easily and those wars benefited the people on whose soil they were fought.” That we won all those wars easily was due to a number of different factors. As I understand it, the Gulf War went as well as it did because of superb work by the armed forces, and because we had broad international support and limited objectives. Kosovo went well, at least for us, for the same reasons, and of course because we fought from the air and really paid attention to the follow-up. Ronald Reagan’s wars — the overt ones, at any rate — were all against tiny countries who could not possibly have put up any resistance to our army. (E.g.: Grenada;
Panama.) That was deliberate: the country was traumatized after Vietnam, and while I wished that we could get over it without having to rack up cheap victories against insignificant opponents, Ronald Reagan felt differently.
Even then, though, it would have been worthwhile for Beinart to pay more attention than he seems to have paid to the wars we sponsored in Central America, which were neither easy nor beneficial to the people who lived in the countries where our proxies fought. Thinking about the plight of a farmer who is forced at gunpoint to serve as a guide by one side and then shot as a collaborator by another when all he ever wanted was to work his fields in peace, or of villages burned to the ground after their inhabitants had been massacred, would have been a useful corrective to the idea that wars are easy and painless.
Noting that war is, in fact, hell, and that when it seems easy, that’s generally due to some combination of very hard work, massive military superiority, and sheer blind luck, is an easy lesson to draw — and, frankly, the fact that Beinart had to learn it the hard way, after an error of this magnitude, is as good an example as any I can think of of why I think there’s something badly wrong with the writers of editorials and columns in the mainstream media. But there’s another, deeper problem, which I will approach in a somewhat roundabout way.
Back in 1983, I sat in on a conference on women and social change. There were fascinating people from all over the world, women who had been doing extraordinary things in their own countries, and who had gathered together to talk it through; and I got to be a fly on the wall.
During this conference, there was a recurring disagreement about the role of violence in fighting deeply unjust regimes. On one side were the women from India, who argued against the use of violence, generally on Gandhian grounds. On the other were many of the women who lived under deeply unjust regimes; I recall, in particular, the South Africans arguing that however laudable nonviolence might be, their situation was sufficiently desperate that they could not afford the luxury of waiting for nonviolence to work.
It seemed to me that at the heart of this disagreement was this one fact: that the women from India were from a country that had already achieved independence, and were living with the problems that came afterwards, whereas the women from South Africa were trying to achieve that self-government in the first place. The South Africans seemed to think that the women from India had forgotten what it was like to be subjugated:
We need to win our freedom as quickly as possible, they seemed to say. We realize that it would be preferable to win that freedom in the best possible way. If we could win it just as quickly through non-violent means, we would surely do so. But you would not ask us to wait if you really understood what it is like to live in slavery.
By contrast, many of the arguments made by the Indians turned on the effects that achieving self-government through violence had on one’s own people:
Don’t do this, they seemed to be saying: once you win your freedom, you will find that you and your people have grown accustomed to settling disputes by force and to demonizing your opponents. Think now about how to use the struggle you are waging to teach yourselves how to become citizens and to practice self-government. Do not wait until you win your independence to discover that self-government requires not just political power, but political responsibility.
What made this argument so fascinating and painful to watch was that it was so easy to see both points of view. Who could possibly deny the justice of either side? And yet I thought the Indian women were right. I did not think that they had forgotten what it was like to be oppressed. I thought they were warning the others off a mistake that they knew would be tragic, however comprehensible it might be. And I had just returned from Israel, where I had spent a lot of time thinking about the many, many ways in which completely comprehensible failures can echo down through the generations.
While I was in Israel, I had also wondered what would happen to all those Palestinian kids who had grown up in refugee camps in Lebanon, who had, as best I could tell, been taught a lot about RPGs and nothing whatsoever about how to function in a world in which conflicts are not settled by violence. I found it unforgivable that the Palestinian leadership that ran the camps seemed to have given no thought to the question: how can we bring these children up to be responsible citizens of any future state?
And besides these thoughts, when the Indian women spoke I thought I could see the partition of India, and the attendant massacres in which hundreds of thousands of people died, sitting on the Indian women’s shoulders like a constant silent familiar, casting its shadow over every word.
So one thing I thought that the Indian women saw was this:
Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to.
And another was this:
liberation is not just a matter of removing an oppressive government. It can seem that way when you live under tyranny. Nothing is more comprehensible than people living in apartheid South Africa, or under Saddam, thinking: if only that government were removed from power, things would be better. They would have to be. After all, how could they possibly be worse?
Unfortunately, there are almost always ways in which things could be worse.
Thomas Hobbes, who actually lived through a civil war, believed that to escape from “the war of all against all”, it was necessary to grant a monarch unlimited sovereignty, and that living under such a monarch was preferable to living in a state of war and anarchy. I am not a Hobbesian, in part because I do not believe that those are our only two choices. But I’ve never been sure that if we had to face that choice, his answer wasn’t the right one.
The absolute monarch, according to Hobbes, does more than protect us from all our other enemies. He provides us with a clear answer to the question: whose word is law? Whose will governs? Hobbes thinks that that answer has to be as clear as possible, since if there is any ambiguity about it, even people who agree on the need to live together under the rule of law will end up fighting about its interpretation.
Suppose, for instance, that everyone in some country agreed about the desirability of living under a democracy, and that an election were held. Does it follow that everyone would accept the winner of that election as legitimate? Only if there are no questions about its fairness: about who really won. But there are always questions about the fairness of elections: reasons to wonder whether a ballot box here and there wasn’t stuffed, or voting machines tampered with, or candidates silenced, or voters intimidated.
Hobbes wasn’t considering democracy, of course. But he did think that there would always be similar questions about laws and political structures, and that in any situation like this, people would recognize how much turned on who got political power, and they would be willing to fight to make their interpretation prevail. And the only thing that could prevent them from doing so was a clear and acknowledged sovereign whose word would settle such disputes.
As I said, I think Hobbes was wrong, and that we have more choices than anarchy or tyranny. But to be willing to accept and abide by established procedures for the resolution of conflicts, even when your side loses in ways that you think are unfair, presupposes a lot. In particular, it presupposes both allegiance to those procedures, and the confidence that the price of losing will not be more than you can bear.
Both of these conditions exist in the US, which is why the Democrats did not go to war over the 2000 election. But they are not universal. They are an extraordinary human creation which we too easily take for granted. But we should never forget how astonishing it is that people vying for power are willing to concede even when they believe that the rules have been broken, out of respect for the rule of law and for courts they believe to be profoundly in error.
In many countries, there are no established procedures for resolving conflicts, and certainly none that command the kind of allegiance that would lead people to yield even when they believe that they deserve to have won. In those countries it will always be tempting to think: well, this election was stolen from us, and this year-old Constitution is unfair; why not fight for a better one? Wouldn’t our opponents do the same?
This is especially likely in a country in which the price of losing a political struggle has always been not just being in the minority party in Congress, but death or subjugation. And it takes a long time to learn to trust that losing power will not cost you your life or your freedom, when all your experience to date has taught you the opposite.
When you use force to liberate a country, like Kuwait, that has only been occupied for a short time, you can hope that its people will accept their previous government, and that whatever made that government function in the past will have survived. But when you liberate a country like Iraq, a country whose people have been brutalized, you risk loosing Hobbes’ “war of all against all” on its people. You remove the sovereign who has kept that war in check, without thereby creating any of the political virtues that allow alternate forms of government, like democracy, to function.
This is why, when I read Beinart’s piece, I thought: the South African he quotes — the one who said that “if the United States were a different country, it would help the African National Congress liberate South Africa by force” — was wrong. Force is not just an alternate way of getting to liberation; it changes everything. And liberation is not just a matter of removing an oppressive regime; it is a matter of creating a country populated by citizens who are, by and large, willing to set aside the idea of resolving conflicts by force and to respect the laws, even when they are imperfectly applied.
For this reason, the problem with that South African’s vision is not just that “we lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war.” That’s true, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem, namely: that preventive war is not a way of remaking the world in the ways the South African and Beinart imagine.
Saying that the problem is that we lack the wisdom and virtue to do this is like saying that the problem with the USSR in the 30s was that Stalin was not sufficiently wise and virtuous to really make totalitarianism work for the people of Russia. That Stalin was neither good nor wise is beyond question. But to focus on his personal failings is to miss a broader point: that totalitarianism itself is bound to fail to do right by those who live under it.
(There are other reasons why I think that invading a country in order to create a democracy is bound to fail. I explained some of them here. But these are the two that Beinart’s piece brought to mind.)