Thursday, November 16, 2006

"Realism, not 'realism'"

My God. The New Republic. What a bunch of sociopaths. we pore over the lessons of this misadventure, we do not conclude that our past misjudgments warrant a rush into the cold arms of "realism." Realism, yes; but not "realism." American power may not be capable of transforming ancient cultures or deep hatreds, but that fact does not absolve us of the duty to conduct a foreign policy that takes its moral obligations seriously.
I'm not sure what that last sentence even means. "We acknowledge that killing people's families is a poor method for encouraging tolerance and liberal values - but we just think some people need to be killed!"
As we attempt to undo the damage from a war that we never should have started, our moral obligations will not vanish, and neither will our strategic needs.
I've been trying to write a post about this for a while now, and this is as good a prompting as I'm likely to get. Can we please, please put away this obnoxious, muderous delusion about "moral values" in war? Every army in the history of organized warfare has believed itself to have the moral high ground. Even if the Americans actually did want to go to Iraq to liberate people (an assertion that would need a mountain of evidence) that doesn't change the results - hundreds of thousands of dead with no meaningfully positive results.

Meanwhile, realism - or as TNR puts it, "realism" - offers a perfectly moral prescription for states: don't kill people. That is, all other things being equal, peace is preferable to war, order is preferable to disorder. As with any claim, this can of course be taken too far. But imperial organs like The New Republic, or liberals like Michael Ignatieff, seem to think they can have "humanitarian interventions" that are all humanitarian, no intervention - that is, they try to minimize the apparent violence on which their creed relies. Realism is at least conscious of the fundamentally uncontrollable violence inherent in international war.

Liberalism - as manifested by TNR, Ignatieff, and others - is a philosophy of incredible arrogance, that believes once you unleash a major war you can control where it leads. Realists are under no such pretensions, and openly mocked the claims of liberals going in to the Iraq war.

More broadly, I side with realists on moral grounds for the very simple reason that there are few ways to kill as many people as modern war can. Even small arms are now so cheap and proliferated that once you smash the control that one state has on it's own territory and people you are, by definition, risking incredibly horrific amounts of violence, even if it's purely "sectarian" violence of the kinds we see in Iraq.

When it comes to the international environment, being pro-stability is empirically the proper default position. Even if your only interest is in preserving human life, there needs to be a high threshold for war - much, much higher than pro-war liberals assume. Obviously, Iraq never met this criteria - there was, at the time of the invasion, no mass murder on the scale required to justify that war.

To put it bluntly: Realism is a moral set of theories for international actors contemplating war, liberalism in 2006 is not. Frankly, based solely on its association with the Iraq WWar, I'm tempted to call liberalism immoral until proven otherwise. Realism's basic commandment regarding war is: "Don't." Like any commandment, it's more complicated than that, but clarity is valuable in this day. Realism isn't against war on fuzzy-headed grounds, but simply because realists understand that wars are, even in small doses, devastatingly violent and unpredictable. Therefore, they should be avoided if at all possible.

Liberals who signed on to the Iraq War denied the first premise ("this war will be precise, don't you understand? No innocent people will die!) and thus rejected the conclusion (if you oppose this war, you're objectively pro-Saddam!) The fact that the realists (as well as us dirty hippies) were proven right by events, and the pro-war liberals were proven wrong, should actually mean something. Like - and I'm just spitballing here - maybe the pro-war liberals should stop fucking lecturing us about how much more pious and moral and serious they are than us "realists".

Yes, I'm talking about Michael Ignatieff again.

I don't rule out the moral grounds for humanitarian intervention - despite the tone of this post, I'm not such a drooling fanboy for one camp or the other. But the liberal fantasy we've all been living with since 2002 or so is the idea that war is preferable to peace if there's any substantial human rights abuses going on. A rational person could look at Iraq and say that is simply false (if not insane) based on the historical evidence.

But then, the pro-war Liberals were never rational people, and never will be.


Anonymous said...

Great post, although I think you're making a bit of mess with the labels here (though I admit, they represent complex concepts). The type of liberalism espoused by the TNR is messianic, which I, a liberal, vehemently oppose. And Liberals quite often have little to do with liberalism, as Ignatieff quite clearly shows.

Lastly, the people who write for TNR are vacuous and parochial and seem to derive a lot of satisfaction from sounding important, as opposed to actually saying anything meaningful. I picked up a copy of TNR for the first time back in the 90's (because I heard it was an American 'liberal' magazine). what it contained was trite and nothing I recognised as liberal.

john said...

As much as the labels are hazy, the fact is only liberals - though of course, not all liberals - advocate the "humanitarian intervention" thesis, realists do not.

So much of the debate therefore gets drawn between duelling strawmen, between TNR-style liberalism and Kissingerian realism.

I tried to use "pro-war liberals" as a modifier as much as possible, but the fact is that realists in general - including all of the leading American realists - came out against the Iraq War early.

There's certainly an anti-war liberalism that believes in multilateral institutions and war-avoidance, but that's not the dominant strain of American liberalism today.

I'd call myself a liberal, too, except that I really do think the Iraq War is a definitional issue for these matters.

Anonymous said...

I've got to admit, I never quite understood why the following Winston Churchill Quote didn't get more play, at the time or now:

``Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.''

- Jonathan