Monday, May 12, 2014

Concern-trolling "the left" on foreign policy and war

If you feel the need for a little concern-troll scolding about how "the left" should show their moral integrity by supporting wars all the time, you can check out Michael Walzer's A Foreign Policy for the Left Dissent Spring 2014.

Dissent is a long-time left journal that came out of a Cold War social-democratic position, and it's strengths and weaknesses still show signs of its origin. Walzer is a well-known theorist of the "just war." He opposed the Vietnam War back when, and he did oppose the Iraq War, as well. He stated his position on the latter just before the invasion in What a Little War in Iraq Could Do New York Times 03/07/2014.

But, as Matthew Phillips has observed (War and Michael Walzer Mondoweiss 01/09/2011):

Walzer was careful to square his opposition to the war with what he termed, in the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan, a "decent left" position. An article written in The New York Review of Books on the eve of the 2003 invasion was called "The Right Way". The "rightness” in question was not the invasion, or its execution, or the likely consequences for American soldiers and Iraqis; rather, Walzer was advising liberals to adopt his perfectly measured way of opposing the attack on Iraq — suggesting that the Left should never fail to emphasize the brutality of Saddam (as if that was in question), and even go so far as to concede the menacing nature of the Iraqi regime to its neighbors. Whatever one thinks of Wazler’s formula, it was obviously not conceived by Walzer to galvanize liberals, or to have any significant effect in arresting the drive to war.
So, eat your concern-troll spinach, kids. Walzer:

The last shortcut is simply to support every government that calls itself leftist or anti-imperialist and sets itself against American interests. This is different from the old Stalinist shortcut: support the Soviet Union whatever it does because it is the first proletarian dictatorship and the first workers' paradise. That kind of politics is, I think, definitively finished, though it had a brief afterlife, focused on China and then, with very few believers, on Albania and North Korea. The more recent version celebrates Maximal Leaders like Nasser, Castro, or Hugo Chávez — along with occasional short-lived infatuations, as in the case of Michel Foucault and the future Ayatollah Khomeini. Leftist enthusiasm for populist dictatorships is one of our sad stories, which ends when resources run out, the failure to build the economy is suddenly apparent, and the military takes over. But often the Maximal Leader is a military man himself, and the repressive role of the army simply becomes more obvious over time. In Latin America today, the better left is represented by socialists and social democrats who reject demagogic populism and struggle to produce economic growth, greater equality, and a stronger welfare state — and who attract less enthusiasm from American leftists than they deserve.
This kind of thing does get tiresome after a few decades or so.

So let me just point out here that part of the trick with this kind of concern trolling is that the meaning of "left" is typically left very flexible, so that it could mean everything including: mild liberals who think Social Security is kind of a good idea; the Democratic Party and various affiliated and associated groups and media outlets; labor unions; prominent intellectuals like Paul Krugman; less prominent intellectuals like the quirky Slavoj Žižek; various and sundry social-democratic parties and left parties outside the US; and tiny sects in the US like the Revolutionary Communist Party whose total practical political influence during the entire four decades of its existence has been effectively zero.

Foreign policy in the real world involves a lot of things, with the type of internal regime being and important one but rarely the most important one.

Of course we have to hear about "Munich," too:

The best and last example of leftist pretending is the insistence on the reasonableness of people who give no sign of being reasonable. Paul Berman writes of the large numbers of French socialists who supported the Munich Agreement that "they gazed across the Rhine and simply refused to believe that millions of upstanding Germans had enlisted in a political movement whose animating principles were paranoid conspiracy theories [and] blood-curdling hatreds. ..." In the same spirit, many leftists were eager to describe the Chinese communists as "agrarian reformers." And many today have been quick to grant the legitimacy of Islamist opposition to American bases in Saudi Arabia, say, or to the existence of Israel — and to ignore the demand for a shari'a state and the radical subordination of women. I am fairly sure that most of the people involved in all these cases knew, deep down, that they were pretending.
That last bit is the concern-troll version of trying to be generous. This is all pretty much concern-troll boilerplate.

It can be good clean fun to pick apart some of these specific examples. The Albania reference is a cute one. There was a big split between China and the Soviet Union that started into the sixties. It generally took people who expressed themselves like Walzer does here a long time, as in a decade or more, to recognize the significance of what was happening. During the early 1970s, the Chinese Communist Party promoted a Three Worlds Theory that was largely a vehicle for justifying support for any group or country or movement that was anti-Soviet, like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. At one point the ruling Communist Party of Albania, which was one of the few countries in the socialist world that was closely allied with China during that period when it was tilting so heavily against the USSR, made public criticisms of the Chinese Three Worlds theory. Criticisms that in themselves were actually pretty sound. So some Marxist-Leninist factions at least paid sympathetic attention to Albania's positions, mostly as a way of making polemics against other political irrelevant Marxist-Leninist sects.

But how many American "leftists," particularly in the expansive definition can even find Albania on the map, much less were ever tempted to see it as the leader of world progress or revolution or whatever?

His stock phrases about "Maximal Leaders" and Latin American populism is also pretty tiresome and generally useless for understanding Latin American politics and US Latin American policies. It sounds like sweetness and light, even like the sort of idealism that Walzer finds so contemptible in "the left," to say that in Latin America "the better left is represented by socialists and social democrats." In Argentina, the governments of Cristina Fernández and her predecessor Néstor Kirchner have certainly been struggling and effectively so "to produce economic growth, greater equality, and a stronger welfare state." Yet they are from the Peronist Partida Justicialista, and Juan Perón is generally taken as the archetype of the Latin American populist demagogue. And in Argentina, there are two official social democratic parties, both member of the Socialist International, the Partido Socialista and the Union Cívica Radical(UCR). The UCR is the traditional party of the Argentine "oligarchy," and remains so today. The Socialist Party is generally allied with them in opposing the left Peronism of Fernández and Kirchner. Who is "the better left" is that case? The parties who support the oligarchy? Or the policy that gives the oligarchy fits by working "to produce economic growth, greater equality, and a stronger welfare state"?

I could go on, but this is how it goes with this sort of concern-troll argument from Walzer.

As Matthew Phillips alludes to in the comment quoted above, Walzer takes a purist approach that in the case of Iraq had him scolding fellow critics of the war for not constantly repeating every horror about Saddam's regime that the Cheney-Bush Administration was using for war propaganda. Phillips also writes that "Michael Walzer has — with remarkably few exceptions — supported the many military adventures the United States and Israel have undertaken since Vietnam." And he adds, "In the cases where he has opposed war, moreover, Walzer has basically done to the antiwar position what the Israelis did to the Road Map: entered enough caveats and qualifications as to make it essentially untenable."

Some other aren't smitten with Walzer's Dissent piece, either. Eric Alterman and Jeff Faux take him on in A Foreign Policy for the Left? Defending the "Default Position" Dissent 05/08/2014, including a response by Walzer.

Alterman stresses using the current situation in Syria as an example, that the ability to make sound decisions implies a level of realistic evaluation of situations on the ground that have often proved to be beyond the capability of our foreign policy establishment:

Walzer writes that “The arguments about what to do in Syria have led me to ask these questions, but I am after a more general answer.” But spend a moment on Syria itself and you will see that the situation there is so complicated, so fraught, and, in most respects, sui generis that it cannot possibly lead to a more general answer. True, Bashar al-Assad is a moral monster who may well have gassed his own people. (But then again, according to Seymour Hersh, he may not have.) Moreover, owing in significant measure to the opportunities presented to it by the United States’s foolish and counterproductive intervention in Iraq — one that was supported by many people who consider themselves liberals and leftists and even a few who contribute to Dissent — Syria spent the first decade of the twenty-first century welcoming jihadist fighters from all over the Arab world, who now dominate Assad’s opposition. [my emphasis]
He also asks parenthetically, "In retrospect, was it really such a smart idea to help those Afghan rebels repel the Soviet Union?"

And he adds this sad but accurate observation: "In the past, liberal foreign policy views were dominated by the fear of McCarthyism and appearing 'soft' in the face of allegedly tough-minded critics. Today, the situation may be even worse." (my emphasis)

Faux echoes Alterman's point about the foreign policy establishment's evaluation abilities on foreign conflicts: " Indeed, the U.S. government, with its thousands of smart analysts and vast human and electronic spying apparatus, is notoriously inept at reading the political intelligence it gathers."

And he responds to Walzer's swipe at Venezuela:

Walzer chides the left for its "infatuationv with Hugo Chávez. Yet Chávez was elected twice in votes considered fair by international observers and was the target of an attempted coup encouraged by the U.S. government. Certainly he seems to have done more for Venezuela’s oppressed than the plutocrats Washington openly favors to topple his successor ever did, and probably ever will. One can make a case against the Bolivarian revolution, but dismissing it as a "dictatorship" without reference to "local circumstances and particular histories" seems like the kind of intellectual shortcut the article criticizes. [my emphasis]
Here I would add in conclusion:

  • Wars are horrible things. They're about killing people. They should be avoided whenever possible.
  • War is a failure of diplomacy.
  • War is sometimes a necessary evil, but no one should forget than even then it's a necessary evil.
  • The only legitimate goal for a war is a better peace afterwards.
  • Wars are always justified with high-blown rhetoric; the Other Side is always to blame for the war
  • Wars are always popular the first few weeks; their shelf-life tends to decline rapidly after that.
  • International laws and laws of war are important in minimize wars and limiting the scope of hostilities; Republicans tend to have sneering contempt for the whole concept; there's no good reason why "the left" should do the same.


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