Friday, October 16, 2009

Gulliver travels

Here is a letter from an Andrew Sullivan reader.

Critics of non-intervention tend to accuse their opponents of cynicism, cruelty, and brutality, as did your most recent correspondent in his caricature of John Derbyshire. But foreign policy realism is essentially grounded in three deeply conservative concepts: first, we do not really know what makes societies successful, second, we do not know how to make these things happen, and, third, as a result we prefer some kind of stability as opposed to chaos; because conservatives will always prefer the orderly known to the disorderly unknown.

The invasion of Iraq was a profoundly anti-conservative project, since the purpose of the invasion -- aside from disarming Iraq from weapons it did not have -- was a revolutionary project meant to rebuild a nation from scratch. At the time, supporters of the effort pointed to the examples of Germany and Japan after World War Two, ignoring the fact that both nations had evolved into fairly cohesive and democratic market economies well before we showed up. Over time it has been shown that the neoconservative perspective -- which is really a revolutionary perspective -- has failed.

Now the argument is being applied to Afghanistan.

We hold elections, we chase guerillas, we destroy opium crops: we expect the Afghanis to calm down and be nice little democrats. No, that isn't going to work, it never works. The only thing we accomplish by invading other countries is provide an easy target to natives who resent our presence, because as any good conservative knows the easiest way to get someone to hate you is to try to force someone to do something they are not ready to do.

At this point the counter-argument is reduced to a querulous "What do you expect then? That we do nothing?" Well, there is one alternative. In historic times, when states fail, they breed chaos which spills over into other states and causes problems. At that point, the more stable state simply takes over the failed state, either as a protectorate, a colony, or via annexation. (I would point to numerous historical examples but that would offend many nationalists.) We could therefore simply take over any number of Arab or Muslim or otherwise failed states, because it is clearly in our national interest to do so, however, to do so, we would have to abide by strict rules of occupation, and not attempt to force a people to be what they are not yet, and not building settlements on their land, and so on. And our mission should be simply for keeping the peace, nothing more, and nothing less, and reducing the exposure of our people to violence.

The problem is that the United States nor any other country in the developed world is prepared to such a project. Our manpower resources are stretched thin as it is -- don't ask me where we're going to get the troops for Afghanistan -- our financial resources are even thinner, the American people have no interest in national sacrifice in terms of a military draft, increased taxes, rationing, or any of the other associations of a broad national effort, and therefore we have to recognize that the project of colonization or quasi-colonization is simply not going to happen.

However, if that's the case, there's really no more reason for us to be in either Afghanistan OR Iraq, because, again, in terms of history, these things work themselves out on their own scale. The best we can do is support dialog, communication, trade, and other benign forms of interaction. Anything more will simply kill people -- theirs and ours -- and will advance the evolution of these societies not one iota.

I agree with this completely except for one and a half things. First, the half; while I am mostly sure that this reader is using the colonization option as the sort of theoretically possible but realistically unacceptable option I would consider it, it's not a hundred percent clear from his tone or phrasing. So let me say that I would have presented the same alternative, but mostly as a means of showing what a limited set of options we have within the realm of acceptable behavior.

The complete thing is that I am so bloody sick of the notion of societies' "advancing" or evolving in a teleological sense that presupposes a goal that the last sentence of the letter comes awfully close to making me want to throw the whole, otherwise well-put, thing in the bin.

I'm not sure why I seem to have adopted a British lexicon in the previous paragraph--probably because I couldn't think of a more American way of avoiding much worse profanity--but that's all I have to say about that.

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