So when I came back to this blogging thing I told myself I was going to try to talk about things like literature, culture, and society, and instead I’m rattling off consecutive posts about war and language and torture.  (Which is basically the same thing that happened when I first began.)  But Drezner got all thought-provoking and wants to hear what twenty-somethings think about intervention:

“As I think about it, here are the Millennials’ foundational foreign policy experiences:

1)  An early childhood of peace and prosperity — a.k.a., the Nineties;

2)  The September 11th attacks;

3)  Two Very Long Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq;

4)  One Financial Panic/Great Recession;

5)  The ascent of China under the shadow of U.S. hegemony.

From these experiences, I would have to conclude that this generation should be anti-interventionist to the point of isolationism.”

Since I qualify, and since I think this might help make further sense of why I’ve spent the last 48 hours complaining about the rhetoric of a WSJ op-ed and Commentary blog post, I’ll take a stab at it before moving on to talk about “culture” (whatever that is).

First, though, I have to take issue with the sequence/narrative Drezner is offering.  It’s not quite so simple as (1) interrupted by (2) resulting in (3) followed by/resulting in (take your pick, I suppose) (4) and (5).  (China, in fact, I don’t think is a major consideration for many people my age—at most, it is a subsidiary of economic concerns, distant thoughts about debt and what things will be like when we are our parents’ age.)

(1) “An early childhood of peace and prosperity – a.k.a., the Nineties” did not exist in quite this formulation.  Yes, there was something of “peace and prosperity,” but it wasn’t outright peace, and it wasn’t outright war.  One of my earliest memories if of Peter Jennings announcing, I believe, the end of the Gulf War as we were sitting at the dinner table.  (I asked why we were fighting, and my father told me it was because the bad guys had gone into Kuwait to steal their money and food.  I was three.)  But it was a childhood not of “peace and prosperity,” but of prosperity and more or less successful humanitarian intervention.  I knew the Gulf War, and the Balkans, and saw Clinton take an active role in the Israel-Palestine peace process—and, in the way it was seen by those around me, come within a half-inch of success.  (I didn’t know from Somalia until Black Hawk Down was released.)

(2) “The September 11th attack” – yes, this broke, dispelled, shattered, the relative (albeit semi-militarized) calm of (1).

(3) “Two Very Long Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq”

How are we to understand this not as a misadventure in itself, but in relation to those early foreign policy lessons from (1)?  I opposed the Iraq War, but was a believer in what, for better or worse, we’ll call the Clinton foreign policy.  Iraq and Afghanistan undermined two important premises of both the Clinton and Bush-43 foreign policies: that “winning” can be easily measured, and that the populace of the intervened country want us there, and to win.  (The latter has been shown to not necessarily be the case—certainly some, perhaps many, do want us in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a vocal and sometimes violent segment do not.  How many times did we hear about this in the Balkans?)

But there was a third premise underlying the limited intervention of the 1990s: the feeling of an obligation to intervene, and to win—because, in short, we were The Good Guys.  Iraq and Afghanistan can’t disprove a sense of moral obligation to do something—even if they can indicate that full-on invasion is not the answer.  Let’s go back, briefly, to 2003, even with the hindsight of 2010: does an opposition to invading Iraq also require that one believe we should abandon enforcing no-fly zones, or risk incoherence?  I don’t think we can say this is a clear yes.

And this, perhaps, might explain the number of commenters on Drezner’s post saying that the lesson is not to be anti-intervention, but to be in favor of “smart intervention”—which I take to be something like the Clinton policy, perhaps more cautious.  It might also explain the number of my friends who have adamantly opposed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet have expressed a desire to see American military intervention of some sort in response to Darfur.  The key words in this scenario are generally “air support” without any commitment of American ground troops—that’s what the UN is for.  I’ll admit—at one point, thinking of how we essentially deposed Milosevic using only the Air Force, this was my line of thought.

But why is it no longer my line of thought?  It is not related especially to (4) The Great Recession, because even if you view this as a result of Iraq/Afghanistan/our broader foreign policy, I don’t think it necessitates that you oppose “smart intervention.” Seeing the entanglement of our economic/fiscal future with long-term, large-scale occupations, I think precisely that is what people will tend to oppose—perhaps a wider range of intervention, but judging from my non-scientific friend and peer group, I doubt it.

What has turned me into, in some degree, an anti-interventionist, is the realization of the moral cost of war, especially prolonged war (or war-like states).  And, frankly, the moral cost is lost in schemas like that which Drezner has offered.  But while we could go around in circles in perpetuity on the economic and geopolitical cost-benefit analysis of “Clinton-esque” and “Bush-43” interventionisms, we either are or are not going to agree that war—especially prolonged war—poses a danger to (take your pick) the human soul, psyche, and/or moral core.  (Don’t they teach The Things They Carried to high schoolers and college kids, like, everywhere now?  Are people completely missing the point of Tim O’Brien’s entire literary career?  That it’s an exploration of the implications of war for the ability to be human?)  And denying that there is a moral toll of war—on society as well as on soldiers—is to forget how terrible war is, and to learn to love it too much.

For me, it has been the revelation of the corruption of this Forever War: torture, hollowing of language, subversion of core rights—those are the three key elements for me, in descending order of importance.  Torture is a moral rot distinct from all others.  For the Austrian/French intellectual Jean Amery, whose essay on torture should be required reading by anyone who wants to discuss, let alone debate, the subject, “torture is the most horrible event a human being can retain within himself.”

When arguments are offered defending torture as an essential part of the war effort, when torture and the broader war effort are corrupting our language, and when, over the course of The Forever War, we see a steady increase in the support of torture—until most of the nation, apparently, supports it—the only response I can muster is to say it is too much.  If The Forever War feeds not just moral rot, but this breed of moral rot, then it is time to quit.  One day, I will have children, and I fear for their growing up in a nation that practices and accepts torture more than in a world where Iran has a nuclear weapon.

The revelation of torture and the vehemence of its supporters is the revelation that the United States is not inherently good, but is good only by choice.  We can choose to be bad, to make the world a worse place, and perpetual war leads us in that direction.  Humanitarian intervention may at times be justified, may at times be necessary, but as a course of policy, the “smart intervention” of the 1990s only paved the way for The Forever War of the 2010s and beyond.  I don’t know whether this makes me “anti-interventionist to the point of isolationism.”  I can only hope that my opposition to intervention would crumble in the face of an Auschwitz—it would be my moral failure were it not to.  But even a just war will not leave the soul untouched, and responding with military force to every humanitarian crisis we as a nation witness will change us at our core.  It already has.


The Kobyashi Maru Scenario

November 25, 2008

For questions of morality, I think this is it:

“And from a purely utilitarian standpoint, I think that torture is probably justified under certain carefully prescribed circumstances. If a terrorist suspect possessed critical information about an imminent, large-scale attack, and there was no time to develop alternative sources of intelligence, would liberals really object to torturing someone to extract valuable information?”

Being one of those who, as Will quotes Koestler on, “declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units,” the, “What do you do when you know torture is the only way to save lives?” scenario consists of two options, each of which I find morally abhorrent.  Note that I’m not saying just “wrong” or “objectionable” — both ultimately demand that you treat life as something less sacred than it is.

I have no answer to this dilemma.  I suppose I would imagine my “ideal” interrogator reluctantly being urged by both numbers and group-loyalty to get the information, and then turning himself in and pleading guilty.  But the act itself is still wrong, morally and legally.  As Kirk discovers too late, obstinately declaring, “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario,” isn’t enough when actually faced with it.

Anyway, I’ve decided that finding a solution to this is comparable to and far more important than finding a way to get string theory to work.

More “More Of The Same”

November 11, 2008

Don’t have a good explanation for how I missed this paragraph this morning, other than I was barely awake:

“Mr. Obama said he opposed providing legal immunity to telecommunications companies that aided warrantless surveillance, but ultimately voted for the bill, which included an immunity provision. The new president could take a similar approach to revising the rules for CIA interrogations, said one current government official familiar with the transition. Upon review, Mr. Obama may decide he wants to keep the road open in certain cases for the CIA to use techniques not approved by the military, but with much greater oversight.”

(Italics are Sullivan’s; his post was where I noticed this.)

I’m not going to start launching into Obama for a decision he has yet to make, especially when the source is unnamed and we’re just starting up the transition.  But, if we’re in January and we hear more like this, or later, and nothing’s been done — actually, wait, I’m with Joe Carter on how to avoid waiting until then for an answer:

“Rather than asking silly questions about his hypoallergenic dog, the press should put the question directly to President-elect Obama: Will you sign an executive order prohibiting the use of any techniques that fit this legal definition of torture?”

And when it comes to torture, I’m basically with Andrew (who, no matter what one thinks of him, has undeniably done a damn good job hammering home the the extent of the torture problem in American policy):

“There is no centrism in adhering to the Geneva Conventions. Either we do or we don’t. We haven’t and we now must. There is no middle way here.  [. . .]  No torture ever. No exceptions ever. No separate CIA track. Executive power, allowed to torture, is dangerous regardless of which president is in the White House, of whichever party.”

I don’t have much else to say because I genuinely don’t want to start ranting prematurely.  But let’s be clear: an Obama Administration that meant even a modicum of anything it said on that campaign trail should not be within a flagpole of considering allowing our current torture policies and programs to stay in place.  Any president who does so is abusing his power; any media that refuses to press such a president has failed its responsibility to the public; any public that is complacent in the face of it has failed itself and its republic.

They wrote more, and they’re both more nuanced and thoughtful than the excerpts might make them seem, but it’s worth looking at these two quotations:

Joe Carter:

“If people want to vote for Obama, for whatever reason, that is their decision to make. But let’s not play along with the delusion that their reasons for doing so are because they are attempting to be consistent with their conservative principles.”

Daniel Larison:

“As I said yesterday, the most credible pro-Obama argument that can be made is that the GOP must be held accountable and Obama is not McCain, but I still don’t think that is a persuasive case for casting a vote for Obama, much less urging others to do likewise.”

I don’t really know where I fall on this spectrum, because even before 2006, I wanted Obama to run even if there was no chance he would win—the refresher would be worthwhile. And since it wasn’t until the middle of the primaries that I came to terms with my changing political self-labelling—and since I have some sort of weird republican (note the little-R) principle against Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton, it wasn’t that hard to keep preferring him to her—I was kind of an Obamacon by default.

I also have the ease of being registered in Kentucky, which isn’t going to be within ten points unless the polls are wrong or McCain announces that he preferred Hanoi to Washington, so my vote for Barr put no strain on my conscience. But I’m still technically an Obama supporter, because I’d prefer his victory to McCain’s. This is partly because I trust him more on foreign policy, partly because of other reasons Larison and Carter rattle off, but it does have quite a bit to do with what Andrew, Esquire, and Garry Wills all had to say lately.

I don’t totally trust either candidate on Executive power issues. Let’s be frank—neither candidate is going to shrink the federal government any. The power it claims is probably going to remain about the same in total, just centered in different areas. But I trust McCain less—ever since his vote against banning waterboarding, I’ve been increasingly skeptical of his willingness to take on those parts of the GOP that believe in the acceptability of a “Unitary Executive.”

It’s not that I think McCain favors the Bush-Cheney policy on this. I just don’t think he’s going to be willing to do battle with his own party in such a way to clear it out. Before this election, I thought he could and would; but his actions since have made me skeptical. As much as I may be wary of Obama’s plans for health care, those two words scare me more. And if you ask me, he’s the one more likely to clear it out.  He’s certainly the one more likely to appoint justices who don’t buy into the Yoo’s and Cheney’s and Addington’s reasoning.

(I’ll let it be known, though, that if I had it my way, Ron Paul would be on the GOP line and I’d be voting for him; and that if McCain had done things differently—if he’d voted against the Military Commissions Act, or hadn’t come out against amending the CIA Field Manual to ban torture—my thoughts would probably be much different than they are.)

This might all be on my mind because I’m neurotic and my favorite period of history is the collapse of the Roman Republic. Honestly, I hope so, but I just can’t bring myself to act like that’s the case.

Where I’m Coming From

October 30, 2008

This isn’t meant to be any sort of political autobiography, but a commenter on this post at The Confabulum (part of a longer series between Freddie deBoer and—mostly—Conor Fridersdorf) set me to thinking, and it gives me the chance to salvage a formerly abandoned paragraph I wrote a few months ago. Anyway, on a minor digression, LarryM says:

“[I]ronically, the horror of the Bush administration is another [reason I no longer identify as a liberal] – not that I buy for a second the absurd idea that he governed as a “liberal,” but because his administration did so much to discredit big government generally, of whatever variety.”

It was much the same for me. I’ve gone from being one of a handful of liberals in my high school (not that the non-liberals were all “conservative”—there was a weird authoritarian streak there, I thought) to one of a handful of conservatives among my friends here. And I’d be wrong if I said it didn’t have a lot to do with waking up too many mornings to read Andrew Sullivan linking to and ranting about the Bush Administration’s abuses—torture especially.  (Pictures of dead torture victims coming onto the screen just as Dianne Reeves singing “Who’s Minding the Store?” [the Good Night and Good Luck soundtrack; it’s wonderful] can only set you up for a really cheerful day, you know.)

It was exceptionally shocking and disturbing to see just what abuses centralized power could cause, even in the United States. To be cliché, I guess a little bit of the shine came off; it took the better part of two decades to realize that there was no divine mandate or natural law saying that we were an inherently non-totalitarian state; that Franklin was really, truly right when he said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” My views have always been informed by a need to avoid and halt evil—I think that’s just natural for a modern Jew (though by no means exclusively, but the words “Never Again” have a certain constant insistence, and a level of constant and nervous sadness)—but now there is a distinct flavor of fear: of what, exactly, centralized power can lead to. Not that it will, of course—but for every Cincinnatus, there’s at least one Antony.

So when I’m skeptical of the federal government getting more involved in health care, or telling Northwestern they’re required to spend at least 5% of their endowment a year (though I wish they would spend more on student aid), or prefer decentralization and talk about how federalism is a wonderful experiment–yeah, this is informing it in part.

There’s a good deal more to it, of course. But what I really wanted to do was bring up this discarded sentence I wrote a while back:

“I don’t know whether to say ‘because of’ or ‘in spite of,’ and there isn’t enough room here to fully explain it, but the truth of the matter is that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney turned me into a conservative.”

(And in case you care, I’ll link to the finished column that came from, which has nothing really to do with conservatism anymore, once it’s online.)