Monday, August 26, 2013

Blaming the Victims

Nothing is more likely to turn me into a foreign policy hawk than to learn that Thomas Friedman is not one-- at least not any longer.  And indeed, it would appear from his more recent columns that he has been deeply chastened by the events that have unfolded in the Middle East over the last decade and a half.  True, Thomas Friedman supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Yes, he was firmly within the ranks of the "liberal hawk" Establishment.  But no longer.  He stands before you now as a man profoundly humbled and altered by his experiences.  And what is this lesson he has learned at such great cost to human life and international security?  It is this: If the people of the Middle East are the victims of civil war and social collapse, it's their own fault in the first place, so there's nothing we can do about it:

"People of the region often blame us, because they either will not or cannot accept their own responsibility for putting things right. Or, if they do, they don’t see a way to forge the necessary societal compromises, because their rival factions take the view either that 'I am weak, how can I compromise?' or 'I am strong, why should I compromise?' [...]
"As for blaming Obama — for leaving Iraq too soon or not going more deeply into Libya or Syria — it grows out of the same problem. Some liberals want to 'do something' in places like Libya and Syria; they just don’t want to do what is necessary, which would be a long-term occupation to remake the culture and politics of both places. And conservative hawks who want to intervene just don’t understand how hard it is to remake the culture and politics in such places, where freedom, equality and justice for all are not universal priorities, because some people want to be 'free' to be more Islamist or more sectarian."

Boy, just reading it puts me in the mood to sign up for the ROTC and start looking for open positions at the Project for the New American Century.  One thing that can be said for Neo-Conservatism, at least as compared to this sort of rubbish, is its unapologetically universal concern, and, as an extension of that, its full-throated conviction that people suffering under dictatorship and sectarian regimes and the tyranny of local warlords didn't meaningfully "choose" that fate.  Thomas Friedman, meanwhile, seems to think that the big problem in Syria is that all those parents and children being incinerated or machine-gunned by their own government simply "will not or cannot accept their own responsibility for putting things right."

Once we have finished choking on our bile, however, it does appear that Thomas Friedman has come around to a position I sort of agree with, if only by the most condescending and paternalistic path available.  The people who might have been killed in future American invasions or sectarian conflicts escalated by the Pentagon have reason to be glad that Friedman is no longer such a gung-ho interventionist, no matter the road by which he got there.  If you are facing down an assailant, you may feel a little humiliated if he eventually waves his hand dismissively and stalks off muttering that "you ain't worth the trouble anyways"-- but you will still be glad he did it.

More seriously, it seems Friedman has basically learned the most important single lesson of the last decade of American foreign policy: namely, that to rid the Middle East (or any other region) of dictatorship, human rights abuses, sectarian and ethnic conflict, and political instability would require a level of such pervasive social control as to effectively amount to dictatorship in its own right.  This is an inefficient use of resources, Friedman seems to have realized.  Good for him.  One wishes he had seen that in addition to being inefficient and costly, it requires so great an exercise of power that it will invariably entail tremendous evils-- evils to rival if not exceed the human rights abuses that it was supposedly intended to eradicate-- but it's a start.

Friedman also seems to think that the only problem with the effort to "remake the culture and politics" of other nations is that it is harder to do so than it sounds to conservatives and that liberals don't have the gumption and stick-to-itiveness one would need to carry it off.  There is no suggestion that the effort in question might be intrinsically suspect, as well as pragmatically misguided.  After all, precisely how much power would you need to exercise over a person to "remake" her "culture and politics"?  Rather more than gentle suasion, I should think.  The religious and musical history of African Americans suggests that even centuries of enslavement of mind and body is not enough to do it-- there are still cultural survivals from Africa in black communities today which generations of slaves valued all the more for their masters' attempts to stamp them out.  None of this is to even mention the more obvious point: that Middle Eastern "culture" is not somehow uniquely repellent, but that it too, like any other culture, has elements which can be used to critique injustice from within and could be enlisted in support of universal human rights.

But none of this critique has done justice as of yet to the most fundamental irony and cruelty of Friedman's argument: the fact that it white-washes the role our own nation has played in creating intractable conflicts in the Middle East in the first place.  I am not saying that role has been the decisive or determinate one.  Blaming the United States for Al-Qaeda or the Taliban or the dungeons of the Islamic Republic of Iran or the atrocities of a Saddam Hussein or a Bashar al-Assad can start to sound like apologetics for all of those things, in addition to being unfair transferences of blame.  In the final analysis, it is individual members of Al-Qaeda who choose to detonate themselves or fly planes into buildings; it is government officials who choose to drop chemical weapons on their own citizens or torture political dissidents, etc.  No one ever deserves more blame for those deeds than the people who actually commit them.  But neither is it any good to have a hand in destabilizing a region and empowering groups with conflicting sectarian agendas and then marvel at the fact that the people of the region don't seem to "accept responsibility."

This is all especially rich coming from one of our country's most cosseted public commentators who took such a prominent role in cheerleading its most recent and egregious act of destabilization.  On the other hand, it should not surprise us.  It is extremely difficult, on a psychological level, to accept that people who are in pain suffer unjustly-- more still that they may suffer unjustly at our own hands.  It is so much easier to blame the victim.  Nor is this tendency a recent development in human civilization.  Sir Thomas More, writing in the 16th century, noted that the English government of his day was effectively forcing poor farmers into vagrancy and thievery by enclosing public lands, yet it wondered why it needed to ratchet of the severity of punishments of such crimes to deter them.  As More put it:
“ If you do not find a remedy to these evils it is a vain thing to boast of your severity in punishing theft, which, though it may have the appearance of justice, yet in itself is neither just nor convenient; for if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this but that you first make thieves and then punish them?'"

To Friedman in our own era, we might well say: "If you do not stop escalating conflicts and arming sectarian groups and toppling governments (however deplorable), what else is to be concluded from this but that you first engender tyranny and then wonder why its victims allow it to persist?"

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