Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Review of George Scialabba's "For the Republic": Part Two

II.  Foreign Policy

Virtually alone among the left-wing intelligentsia, George Scialabba came around early to the right ideas on U.S. foreign policy and stuck by them, through fair weather and foul.  This involved not only emancipating himself from the militarist and interventionist assumptions of both political parties (achieved no doubt through a reading of Chomsky and I.F. Stone), but also, (let us admit with a grudging nod toward the wisdom of the Euston Manifesto crowd), guarding against a common tendency among anti-imperialists to apologize for the crimes of whatever regime happens to be arrayed against the United States in a given geopolitical imbroglio.  This passion for moral consistency Scialabba picked up from the small number of courageous Cold War intellectuals-- Orwell, Silone, Dwight MacDonald-- who strove not to take sides in that conflict or to swallow any of the pious hypocrisies of either the "Worker's Paradise" or the "countries of the free world" (you know-- like Franco's Spain and apartheid South Africa).  Scialabba has held to their principles admirably.

If this tight-rope were not already thin enough, Scialabba has also had to watch out for a third pitfall, and has done so-- the belief that the United States always intends to do good around the world and therefore its only fault is that it tries to help too many people too fast.  This sighing Niebuhrian realism can only be carried off by the true Protestant sage who, in paternal fashion, recalls us from the path of youthful idealism to reflect upon our fallen nature and the sins of Adam.  It is what is known as "responsible" criticism of America's interventions overseas, and it is deemed such by interested parties, of course, because it is not really criticism at all, or likely to bring about a change in attitudes and behavior.  You find me the child who resents being told she is too smart or pretty or well-intentioned for her own good and I will find you the nation that dislikes hearing that its one moral failing is an excess of altruism.

Does Scialabba always keep his balance between these three temptations, or does he occasionally slip and fall?  I must say that he is uniquely successful at walking this tightrope in general, compared with the rest of our chattering classes, but he does leave himself vulnerable to one criticism: that is, in his disgust for the "responsible" criticism of American foreign policy which seeks to chastise it for being too good and too noble, he falls into the opposite trap: that of taking on a Marxist or left-realist framework for explaining all geopolitics and squeezing the facts into its mold.  He argues, for instance, that "It is perfectly clear that the overriding goal of American policy [has been] to integrate the postwar world economy under U.S. leadership, severely restricting, if necessary, the ability of foreign governments to control U.S. business activities within their borders or to set economic objectives incompatible with U.S. priorities. [... W]e needed docile, business-friendly governments everywhere.  These, overwhelmingly, were the preoccupations of postwar American planners, not 'to serve the peoples of the world.'"

This line of attack, which Scialabba shares in common with Noam Chomsky and many others on the anti-imperialist left, is not baseless.  There is that notorious George Kennan memo, for instance, which will stand forever as a testament to our policy elite's moral barbarism: "[W]e have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3 of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. 
[...] We should cease to talk about vague — and for the Far East — unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better."  On the other hand, it is not clear to me that George Kennan's view was representative.  His tone suggests that he finds himself at odds with his contemporaries on these subjects, after all, which would accord better with the conventional wisdom about realists and idealists in U.S. foreign policy circles.

What bothers me most, however, about this Chomsky-ite interpretation of the underlying motives of American foreign policy is not just that it is too neat and too pat, but rather that it seems to de-fang the anti-imperialist and anti-interventionist argument in its very attempt to make it more thoroughgoing.  It grants to its opponents, in short, that what matters most in moral decision-making is the underlying intent behind an action.  When Norman Podhoretz writes in an instance of "responsible" criticism, for instance, that the Vietnam war was "naive" in the depth of its altruism but not "immoral" in any "rationally defensible way," the Chomsky/Scialabba line of attack deprives itself of the most obvious moral objections by accepting Podhoretz's distinction between act and intention and simply begging to differ with him about why were were in Vietnam to begin with.

If anti-interventionism rests merely on a psychological claim about motivation, then it is already dead in the water.  Human motives are, let's face it, complex-- and ultimately unknowable.  Bald statements of moral insensibility like that of Kennan are not everyday occurrences-- at least outside of TV shows where the villain always explains to the captive hero the particulars of his pathology.  Relying on a claim about U.S. motives in order to critique its actions is a dead end, and a pernicious one.  It allows Neocons and Liberal hawks, etc. to retain their smugness unsullied when they are able to plausibly refute any realist or Marxist explanation for a given intervention and to go on regarding themselves as moral even as the death tolls mount higher from their various acts of kindness.  In short, it let's them get away with constructing an intellectual debate in which they cannot lose, morally speaking.  The more they are proven incorrect by facts and events, the more they are confirmed in their belief that they and their country are just too beautiful and pure for this rotten world.

No one, apart from Wendell Berry or others far outside of the mainstream, seems likely to challenge this fallacious distinction between act and intent.  The Neocons accept it, the "responsible" and "serious" critics accept it, and even the irresponsible and unserious critics (who seem, like the holy fool, to always end up proven right while their "wise" contemporaries are left with egg on their faces) accept it.  Yet no other nation-state would regard this as a relevant consideration, and we ourselves do not consistently apply it when we discuss affairs overseas.  When the Soviet Union sent tanks into Czechoslovakia in 1968, we will never know whether Brezhnev ordered the invasion out of a desire to exploit Czech resources, a sincere belief in the superiority of the Soviet model, a need to appease some hidden constituency in the Politburo, or sheer wounded pride and excess testosterone.  And more relevant here than our ignorance: why should we care to know?  The thing was wrong in itself regardless.

The belief that we must somehow be able to "prove" selfish motives to criticize something hampers us unfairly.  It overlooks the fact that human beings, even when they are acting selfishly, have an extraordinary ability to rationalize their actions, even to the extent of convincing themselves of their own moral rectitude.  The members of the business community who influence our foreign policy in the way Scialabba and Chomsky deplore no doubt sincerely believe that "what's good for the country is good for General Motors and vice versa."  The authors of the Project for a New American Century no doubt really and truly think that American military dominance around the globe is the best thing that could happen for democracy and human rights.  The point is, however, that this will not save them from the judgment of history.  The moral status of an action depends not just on whether one sincerely believes it will eventually bring about positive consequences "in the long run", but on its immediate, foreseeable effects as well.  The question we should always ask about America's interventions is not "why are they doing it?" but rather, "whom will it harm?"  At the other end of that question mark are usually women, men, and children who couldn't care less whether they are being napalmed or incinerated for the sake of spreading democracy or to gain access to a rubber market-- the crime for them is the same.

I suspect that America's attachment to this form of "double effect" casuistry has something to do with our Protestant (and hence, ultimately Augustinian) intellectual heritage.  It was Augustine who, in one of the most influential apologetics for violence in Western history, first put forward the notion that the moral evil in war does not lie in the destruction it causes, but in its effect on the "inward disposition" of the one who visits this destruction on the innocent.  As he puts it, "the wars of Moses will not excite surprise or abhorrence, for in wars carried on by divine command, he showed not ferocity but obedience; and God, in giving the command, acted not in cruelty, but in righteous retribution [....] What is the evil in war?  Is it the death of some who will soon die in any case, that others may live in peaceful subjection?  This is mere cowardly dislike, not any religious feeling.  The real evils in war are love of violence [...] and such like."

Augustine was not wholly ignorant of the content of the New Testament, but he found Christ's injunction to turn the other cheek an easy one to dismiss: "what is here required is not a bodily action," he writes, "but an inward disposition."

This focus on disposition and intent rather than the consequences of actions for one's victims could, and did, serve as a justification for virtually any form of brutality, including torture.  While Augustine was more alive to the fact that torture is a very poor instrument for getting at the truth than many of our good Christians are today, he thought it was necessary, however imperfect, as a means of determining the guilt or innocence of a criminal (Western law wouldn't come around to the extraordinary idea of "gathering evidence" for another millennium.)  Augustine again: "These numerous and important evils [of judicial torture] he does not consider sins; for the wise judge does these things, not with any intention of doing harm, but because his ignorance compels him [...]" (Trans. by R. Stothert, War and Christian Ethics, Holmes ed.).

This doctrine, while it compares favorably, I suppose, with the worldview of the Bush administration, does not compare favorably with the worldview of the victim of torture or war.  This person is likely to see little difference between being incinerated or water-boarded by someone who wishes to do her harm and suffering the same fate at the hands of a "wise judge" who grimaces pityingly all the while.  The act/intent distinction may follow logically from Augustine's bleak view of humanity, but it is irreconcilable to any notion of the inherent worth of human life.

It is perhaps obvious why Neoconservatives would find this Augustinian ideology appealing.  It means that our government bears no moral responsibility for its crimes abroad so long as it commits them with a Wilsonian spring in its step and the flag of freedom in its lapel.  It is also clear why the "responsible" Niebuhrian critics would admire its tragic ethos.  But it is utterly bizarre that the anti-imperialist left would also accept its categories, and argue the case against American foreign policy from an analysis of "inward disposition" rather than from the perspective of war's victims.  Why does it do this?

I can think of one disturbing but not wholly implausible explanation.  Perhaps the anti-imperialist left, or segments of it, has not entirely outgrown the notion that titanic acts of violence are sometimes justified in the pursuit of higher objectives.  Perhaps it has not yet learned that there is no objective higher than refraining from such acts of violence.  Perhaps it still believes that the true crime of U.S. foreign policy is not that it does sinister things, but that it aims at sinister things, whereas if people were napalmed or eviscerated for the sake of social equality rather than for the sake of American hegemony there would be no relevant moral comparison.

If any sections of the anti-imperialist left still believe this, or something like it, it is probably only some of the time, and only in some dark reptilian sector of its collective psyche.  But it would seem that even the best and the noblest of the anti-imperialist left has succumbed to something like it on occasion.  George Orwell probably never read Augustine and would have been appalled by him if he did, but still, when he attempts to justify the fire-bombing of German civilians, the resemblance between the pair is uncanny:

"Obviously, one does not want to inflict death and wounds if it can be avoided, but I cannot feel that mere killing is all-important.  We shall all be dead in less than a hundred years [....] War damages the fabric of civilization not by the destruction it causes [...] nor even by the slaughter of human beings, but by stimulating hatred and dishonesty." (Quoted in Scialabba, 131).

My fear is that the anti-imperialist left doesn't want to admit that the destruction visited upon Iraq or Vietnam or Western Pakistan etc. is wrong regardless of whether it was inflicted for some democratic ideal or for a cynical profit motive, because then it would have to admit that the violence committed by the left for the sake of its own ideals, past or future, in reality or in imagination, is similarly unconscionable.  I hope to be proven wrong in this.  But in the meantime, I think "anti-war" is a label I will wear more proudly than "anti-imperialist."

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