Friday, May 16, 2008

When All You Have is Maxwell's Silver Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Head

The basic point here isn't that the idea is nuts, it's how the fact that people are suggesting it shows how terribly, terribly broken our national discourse is.

Some of our national pundits want to invade Burma.

Including some -- get this! -- who believe themselves to be on the left. (In particular George Packer* -- who, IIRC, was one of those leftists who supported the aggressive war against Iraq, but who thought it was okay because they did it with really pained looks on their faces and with a lot of constipated agonizing about how hard a choice it was. And who, despite having written a book which reportedly excoriates the Bush administration's incompetence in carrying out his previously desired aggressive war, now wants them to do another one. ("If it’s going to be done, it should be done quickly" he says -- hence, by Bush.))

The TAPPED post by gets the issue right, I think, in saying this:
the take-home point is that few in the opinion-generating business are really serious about re-evaluating the wisdom of invading and occupying other countries. It's always going to be premised on either our national "interest" or security from the right, and always going to be premised on humanitarianism from the left. During the dark days of the run-up to the Iraq War it really became clear that the only daylight between a neocon hawk and a liberal interventionist was the labels. Now that that war has exposed the folly of using the blunt instrument of the military for whatever purpose suits our political zeitgeist, it's a race to differentiate the liberals from the neocons, without ever seriously taking stock of the unprecedented decline in American moral authority in the world, not to mention our increasing inability to actually carry out and fund these foreign policy adventures.
However, the following sentence -- " Like it or not, idealism is dead in American foreign policy, and apparently only the pundits didn't get memo." -- is only right if by "idealism" you mean "a willingness to travel a long distance to kill foreigners at great expense" (cite) -- not, it must be admitted, the standard definition -- at least outside of the American political classes; amongst them, it's probably a common if not absolutely universal one.

But Dinauer if anything understates the case: we can't do it because the entire world, not to mention the saner two-thirds or so of our own citizens, wouldn't trust us, because of Iraq; we don't have the capacity, because of Iraq. American humanitarian interventions are another casualty of the Iraqi war -- not much compared to more than 4000 Americans and probably more than a million Iraqis who have so far died in the war (and still more injured or turned into refugees), but throw it into the mix.

Which is one reason why people supposedly on the left shouldn't endorse immoral imperialist adventures masquerading as humanitarian missions: it harms the possibility of achieving whatever justice there is in real humanitarian missions.

But even more screwed up is the bizarre twists and turns of American hawkish "liberalism" that has brought it to the point where the question of "humanitarianism" is more or less reduced to the question of "should we invade or not"?

Look, I don't know anything, really, about Burma -- in general, or the calamities it is suffering right now -- nothing more than I read in the papers. So if there is anything the US can do to help that doesn't involve invading another foreign country, I'm all ears. But I do think the positive view of war (which is what we're talking about, an invasion) in this country -- even by those who claim to be on the left -- is nothing short of nuts (not to mention immoral and massively destructive).

How deep does it go? This is how deep. In response to the first of these "should we invade Burma?" speculations, Josh Marshall quite reasonably wrote
But I have an even simpler idea. Why don't we not invade any more countries for a while?
-- And then felt it necessary to go on to explain that this didn't mean he was an isolationist. Even an expressed desire not to invade random foreign countries has become an automatically suspicious position in our culture.

Marshall does make a point that Dinauer misses, namely, that not only is this an absurd idea, but that even suggesting it is, in the current environment, unbelievably toxic. The US has earned itself a reputation as a warmongering power in the last decade**. People in other countries -- particularly ones that American pundits are speculating about invading -- don't tend to make fine distinctions between the various branches of the various American ideological positions; they just hear voices in the world's strongest military power calling for the invasion of their homes.

The point being, if (say) Canada were to consider some sort of intervention in Burma, it might at least get a hearing; if the US did it -- even under a new president, even with genuinely good intentions -- it would be suspected almost universally. And rightly so.

So I'd like to go farther than Dr. Marshall. I'd agree, of course, that we shouldn't invade any more countries for a while. But I'd like to further suggest that anyone who is openly speculating about the merits of invading other countries is, at best, irresponsible, and most likely a warmonger; and that such people should not be paid the least attention to -- should not, for example, be given op-ed slots in major national newspapers or blogs in major national magazines.

America, and the world, have a lot of problems right now. A lot of dialogue and idea are needed on how to solve them. But suggesting starting new wars just isn't among them.

Militarism must be eliminated from the American mind.

Update: Matt Yglesias is right about the reasons for this trend, I think:'s the very absurdity of the idea that makes it such an appealing op-ed thesis. It's self-righteousness without responsibility. Advocate an invasion of a country you don't know anything about and have it happen and, well, all kinds of things might go awry in a way that's embarrassing. But since everyone knows there's not going to be an invasion of Burma, you can say there ought to be one and then make up a nice story about how well it hypothetically went.
-- But I think this just goes to prove my point: the fact that the idea of starting a war is now a pleasant thing to muse about as a hypothetical, an act of self-righteousness, just shows how broken our discourse is.

(In the meantime, I suppose you could read his final sentence -- "You can even show your thoughtful seriousness about matters of war and peace by chalking up the tragic failure to invade as yet another disastrous consequence of the war in Iraq" -- as a zinger which hits me; but in my defense, I don't think that the failure to invade is "yet another disastrous consequence of the war in Iraq", since I think it's totally nutty idea rather than a "tragic failure". I do cop to the idea that the general death of humanitarian invention as a possibility is a consequence of the war in Iraq; I remain agnostic, however, about whether this is a bad thing, or whether not invading Iraq would simply have meant a different disastrous, aggressive war later on down the road. At any rate, if Iraq has scared Americans off from traveling a long distance to kill foreigners at great expense, so much the better; but then, everyone thought that about Vietnam, too, until the tag-team of Osama bin Laden and George Bush got to work on us.***)

* FWIW, I read Packer's 2000 book Blood of the Liberals soon after it came out -- i.e. before his born-again militarism -- and thought it was excellent.

** Some will say it had, or should have had, that reputation before, but whatever the truth of that, it has it now.

*** Update: As Nell correctly points out in comments here, this last bit is far too flip: the so-called "Vietnam Syndrome" was being chipped away at, by both Democrats and Republicans, for several decades. You can make distinctions (e.g. Iraq 2 is the first time an American administration has tried to sustain a long oversees conflict since Vietnam (perhaps not their original intent, but still) -- at least from the US's point of view (our conquerees tend to experience these conflicts as longer than we do.)), but the basic point is right.

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