Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Enemy of My Enemy is Not Necessarily My Friend

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

-- W. H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

It's such a simple mistake that one wonders that people continue to make it.

Fighting someone or something bad does not make those who oppose it good.

And, of course, a corollary of that truth:

One can oppose one side in a conflict without supporting the other side.

Maybe people are going to deny this, I don't know. But it seems pretty bloody clear to me.

It is a fundamental moral mistake of our times -- maybe of all times -- to think that because you look at a conflict and see that side A is doing something horrific, that must mean that side B is good -- not "defending against something bad at the moment, possibly even in partially illegitimate ways", but actually good. This is most often expressed by using the evil of side A as an argument that side B is not doing something wrong.

Perhaps people will say I'm attacking a straw man here. But it seems to me that you see this sort of thinking all the time:

- America's war against Vietnam was justified because the North Vietnamese government was despicable.
- We should have cheered for North Vietnam to win because America was committing war crimes in Vietnam.
- Bush's attack on Iraq was justified because Saddam Hussein was an evil dictator.
- The insurgents in Iraq are fighting for a good cause because the American occupation is wrong.
- Israel's attack on Lebanon is justified because Hezbollah is an evil organization.
- Hezbollah is a good organization because Israel's attack on Lebanon is brutal.

I won't bother to give citations for most of these; these are paraphrases of common positions, and anyone should be able to find them with a little googling. (Hint on number four: don't only check American media sources.) But just as a sort of existence proof, let me give examples of the final two points. For an example of the first, you can read Martin Perez making a version of the penultimate point here ("any demo against Israel is a demo for Hezbollah"). I won't list more, as they are all over the U.S. media; go have a look. For examples of the second, read the signs of demonstrators in London making a version of the final point here ("we are all Hezbollah"), or check out what George Galloway said at the London demonstration ("I am here to glorify the Lebanese resistance, Hezbollah, and to glorify the resistance leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah"). For that matter, at a New York demonstration, signs included "Allah (swt)* will destroy the terrorist state of Israel" and "Islam will dominate."

Hezbollah is committing war crimes, firing rockets into cities at random. They are also led by Nasrallah, a man who has said "If they (Jews) all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.". Israel, on the other hand, is murdering huge number of civilians, and has lots of commentators calling for more blood than there is already. We don't need to support the other side to say that either is wrong.

Now, my guess is that the first half of this simple truth -- fighting someone or something bad does not make those who oppose it good -- is actually less controversial than its corollary, that one can oppose one side in a conflict without supporting the other side. A lot of people who are willing to agree with the former will deny the latter. They will say that, yes, even if on some ultimate level both sides can have moral problems, ultimately we must pick a side, decide who we wish to win and who we wish to loose. This is how one gets silly statements like the idea that those who opposed the U.S. attack on Iraq were "objectively pro-Saddam" and similar slanders.

But the second half is equally important, I think. To say that we must make a choice forces us to provide active support for evil, one way or another, in far too many situations. It's a terrible idea, and it needs to be opposed.

Why is it not true? Because, very simply, it presents a false dichotomy that denies the possibility of other options -- and, even more destructively, can actually actively prevent the rise of other options. At the very least, it keeps us from being critically supportive of one side -- trying to change the behavior of whichever side we are supporting. But more often it simply blinds us to other alternatives, or even kills them before they can emerge.

The U.S. blocked at various points other outcomes for the Vietnam war -- such as the creation of an independent, neutral South Vietnam with the NLF as part of the government -- because it wasn't sufficiently anti-communist: the U.S. wanted someone to fight the North, not simply not oppress the south. So evil governments were supported -- indeed, imposed -- to fight an evil government.

There are ways to oppose Israel's actions besides supporting Hezbollah; there are ways to increase Israel's safety besides supporting Israel's attack on Hezbollah.

Indeed, as many of these examples suggest, not only is this sort of dichotomous not necessary, it can be actively counterproductive. Israel is currently increasing support for Hezbollah in its attack; to say that one must support Israel's assault because Hezbollah is evil is simply self-defeating. On the flip side, Hezbollah's rocket attacks are increasing support in Israel for its assault; to say that one must support Hezbollah because Israel's assault is evil is likewise self-defeating.

Now, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't say that, at any given moment in time, there might not be one side in a conflict that we have to support, despite evil on both sides. I don't think anyone of good will could help supporting the Soviet Union when it was invaded by Nazi Germany, despite the former's being one of the most viscous dictatorships of the Twentieth Century. But it is a serious mistake to leap to such conclusions; situations like this are extremely rare. Usually, there are other options. We must look long and hard for them before we decide that it's one side or the other.

And, if we do, finally, decide that, at this point, it really is one side or the other, we need to constantly keep in mind that this does not mean the side we are supporting is good. Since one of the problems with not accepting the corollary that one can oppose one side in a conflict without supporting the other side is that a failure to do so can, over time, trick us into forgetting the central point, that fighting someone or something bad does not make those who oppose it good, by giving our support more and more strongly, more and more blindly, until we are supporting evil that is no longer necessary.

After all, which side is right in a conflict in which both sides have plenty of wrong can change on a dime. A defender against aggression can keep going and fight its way into its own aggression.

Indeed, we must be particularly wary of, and critical of, the side we support. "Now is not the time to criticize" is never true: we must always check our moral bearings.

Anyone who responds to this essay by saying that, yes, but Israel/Hezbollah is the real problem here (because Israel's killing more people, because Hezbollah struck first, or whatever) has missed the point. And is, at the least, in danger of loosing their moral bearings -- fighting against evil in such a way that will corrupt you to become evil yourself.

* In case you're curious, as I was, "swt" apparently is an abbreviation for an Arabic phrase meaning "Glorified and Exalted is He".


Leila Abu-Saba said...

Stephen - thank you so much for this and your previous posts. We need your good sense in these terrible times.

Stephen said...

And thank you, Leila, for your comments and encouragement. They mean a great deal to me.

Thanks also for your blogging! Everyone else, I once again urge you to check out Leila's Dove's Eye View.

Leila Abu-Saba said...

I appreciate the plug, Steve. However I'm not posting so much this week. I'm quite frankly disheartened. My dad is dying, we keep getting bad news about the status of his cancer, and the war just doesn't quit.

Your posts this week have been the most comforting thing on the internet. I can't allow myself to look at too much of the rest of it (i.e. news & comment), because it's all too heartbreaking and my heart is already broken.