An interesting lead Talk of the Town editorial in this week’s New Yorker by George Packer on idealism: He says “The [Bush] Administration has given idealism a bad name, and it will now take years to rescue Vaclev Havel from Paul Wolfowitz. American power has received a bloody come-uppance, but there’s no happiness in that for Iraqis. They can’t afford to give up on idealism, because they can’t leave on June 30th.”

As an incorrigible idealist, I found this quite alarming. What happens when we lose, or give up, our idealism? Packer says:

With the liberation of Eastern Europe, the tragedies of Bosnia and Rwanda, and the qualified success of Kosovo, a new conviction began to stir in certain quarters of the liberal democracies — that regimes don’t have an absolute right to slaughter their own citizens, that the democratic powers should intervene when it’s feasible to stop the worst atrocities and create the kind of security in which democracy has a chance to grow. This was always a fragile minority view, and it has become a significant piece of the collateral damage inflicted by the [Bush] Administration’s blunders in Iraq.

So what is our responsibility to the people of other nations, when things get bad?

In my view, this idealism has never been limited to a ‘fragile minority’, and I think Packer is to some extent muddling several things together. I believe deeply, as I’ve written on these pages, that we have an absolute responsibility to every person, and to every living creature on this planet. We are an inexorable part of a whole organism, and when part of the organism is diseased or damaged we feel, intuitively, naturally, the imperative to act, to heal it. When so many turn the channel, or a deaf ear, to suffering, it is not so much that they feel no responsibility as that they feel helpless to discharge it — they see the situation as hopeless, and if there’s nothing that can be done, what is the point in subjecting oneself to the grim images and stories about it? Pragmatists tend to use a healthcare analogy rather than an organic analogy to rationalize their sense of global commitment and responsibility: the physician’s oath to “at least, do no harm”.

How do I reconcile my sense of responsibility with my vehement belief that the bombing and occupation of Iraq was a grievous error? I believe there are three ways in which one can discharge responsibility to a suffering people outside one’s own country: Through humanitarian aid, peacemaking aid, and military aid. On humanitarian and peacemaking aid, I believe we must do all that we can do to reduce suffering of all creatures on this planet. Cynics say that feeding starving people merely allows them to produce more babies, but that suggests that they are both colossally stupid and the cause of their own misfortune, which is fallacious, and besides I don’t believe this cop-out is supported by the facts. Peacemaking is a very difficult task, as anyone trying to separate combatants in a schoolyard or bar can attest, and requires consensus-building skills and tact that many politicians lack. And sometimes both humanitarian and peacemaking aid aren’t enough. But we have to try. The waffling and delays in helping the people in Sudan, after the lessons of Rwanda a decade ago, are inexcusable. I would go so far as to say our knowing failure to even try seriously to help these people, who are facing both famine and genocide, is a crime against humanity, one that should expose the world’s leaders to criminal charges.

On military aid to people suffering from an oppressive government I am more ambivalent. Too often the effect of military aid has been to kill the patient we’re trying to heal. If the oppression is producing humanitarian disaster or civil unrest I think we should offer humanitarian and peacemaking aid. I certainly think blockades and sanctions are foolish, even criminal, because they punish the victims not the perpetrators. But what if the oppressive government is the cause of the humanitarian disaster or civil unrest, and resists offers of humanitarian or negotiation aid, or intercepts the humanitarian aid for selfish use? This is the current situation in both Sudan and North Korea. In both cases I believe we have a responsibility to keep trying, never give up, do everything we can to get the oppressive administrations to accept our aid in dealing with the humanitarian crisis and trying to broker a just and lasting peace. The cost of giving up trying is just too high.

What if that doesn’t work? At what point does the suffering become so morally intolerable that military intervention is justified? Is it different if the oppressive government is in power in the aggrieved country or invading the aggrieved country from outside? We allowed Mao to starve eighty million of his countrymen to death and did nothing. But we invaded, and largely destroyed, two Arab nations whose people were dying as much from the complications of our imposed sanctions on their government as from the actions of their government itself. If military invasion and occupation are too great an intervention, how about providing weapons and advice to the opposition? How about simply assassinating the oppressive government’s leader(s) and hoping that the next regime will be more reasonable?

At this stage we’re into an ‘ends justify the means’ argument, and it’s a slippery slope from there. While every situation must be judged on its own merits, I have seen no evidence that offensive military intervention of any kind ‘works’ as a solution to civil conflict or localized war i.e. leaves the people markedly better off as a result of it. I think even Bush’s strategists know this, which is why they were so desperate to justify the invasion of Iraq as a defensive act (the fabled WMD) rather than a humanitarian one. In the absence of such evidence, my tentative opinion is that military intervention in such situations is just not supportable. I tend to think the two world wars were a different matter, but then where and how do you draw the line? Looking at the total suffering inflicted, the only thing that clearly differentiates Hitler from Stalin or Mao is that the latter two despots committed most of their atrocities in their ‘own’ country. Does that difference alone justify the dramatic difference in our military response to these three madmen?

If we can help rebuild infrastructure, deal with famine, or negotiate peace, we should, almost to the point of obsession, but if we’re not welcome to do so, I fear we should in most cases wait until we are. If the people would welcome us but the government would not, it’s up to the people to change the government. That may be a strangely pragmatic conclusion for an idealist, but then the world we live in is far from ideal.

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  1. “I believe deeply, as I’ve written on these pages, that we have an absolute responsibility to every person, and to every living creature on this planet.”I take a somewhat different view of things, although in the end result in many ways may be somewhat similar. I don’t believe we necessarily have any responsibility to people in other nations. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t, but I find that a difficult argument to win. The easier arguement, for me at least, is that if we help others then we indirectly help outselves. If I treat my neighbor nicely, lend him a tool or shovel his driveway when he is away, then when I can use his help he will be willing to help me. If I don’t steal from my neighbors, my neighbors won’t try to steal from me, or worse, try to put me in jail. It is a mutual benefit to be friendly to others.When it comes to international issues I think the same philosophy holds. Be nice to your neighbors and they will be nice to you. I do believe that there are times when military intervention is a necessity and Iraq may well have been one of them. I think an argument could have been made for it but the Bush administration didn’t make that argument. They only made the self-interest arguement of being a part of the war against terrorism. They went into the war with a selfish goal and as a result it has backfired and they now are in a mess. Had the arguement for the war been to liberate Iraq, create a secure and stable place for Iraqi’s live which would lead to the development of a peaceful and stable government then the war in Iraq might have worked. The military plan would have been different because the goal was completely different and if done right the war probably would have worked and Iraq might be a substantially more peaceful place today and one where the citizens feel indebted to the Americans (and others). Instead Iraq is a crime filled (far beyond the car bombings) trouble spot where the citizens are becomming more and more resentfulto the Americans (52% now think the war wasn’t worth it).Here are my conditions for military intervention.1. It must be absolutely necessary meaning sanctions and humanitarian aid haven’t or wouldn’t work or we are in a situation of mass genocide.2. Must have strong international backing preferably from a international organization such as UN or NATO. Otherwise the operation lacks some credibility which can have a negative effect on how it is viewed from inside the country.3. It must occur with overwhelming force. I am not talking shock and awe by bombing the place to smitherines, I am talking the Powell doctrine when means more troops than would ever be needed, just in case. Had the American gone into Iraq with 400,000+ troops (as John McCain has asked for) they could have quickly stopped the looting and general crime and provided general security for the people. So, instead of people locking themselves up in their homes because the murder rate is now 4x the rate of Washington, DC, and women constantly have to worry about getting raped they can get out and build schools and hospitals and support the formation of a new government. Instead of hating Americans for making the place more unsafe they can be working with Americans to make it a better place.4. Be willing to commit yourself to the cause for a long long time. Think maybe even 20+ years. It can take a generation or more for hatred between groups to fully die down. How long have troops been in Cyrpus. The lack of a long term committment in Haiti has meant every decade that country has seen uprisings resulting in a humanitatian disaster.Getting back to the main point. Are we responsible for people in other countries? I don’t necessarily believe that but I think that by helping them we in turn help outselves somewhere down the road. Had the American gotten Iraq right (and done it for the right reasons) the world would be a safer place and maybe, just maybe, the middle east would be one step closer to peace. Instead it looked like it was done for selfish reasons (if they really cared they would have done a better job).We are much better being in a cycle of peace than a cycle of violence because at some point it will be our turn in the cycle.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    David: I think your list of preconditions for military intervention is reasonable, though it’s so onerous that I wonder when it would ever be used. I’m not sure there would have been sufficient will for #3 and #4 even in the case of Rwanda. At the same time I don’t think there was any valid case for military action in Iraq, following your criteria. There were and are many countries in the world as bad or worse from a humanitarian standpoint than Iraq, including most of Africa and the Mideast and much of Asia. As for trusting the UN — their track record, in Rwanda and with the deplorable Iraq sanctions, has been poor. Let’s see how the UN handles Sudan.

  3. I tend to agree on Iraq but I can guarantee that there would have been more international support had the American tried to sell it in a different manner and it would have cost them much less in the credibility department.As for #3 and #4 they are strict but that is only to indicate the seriousness of military action. Had Bush been honest with the Americans about possibly having to stay in Iraq at significant force levels for 3 years (let alone 5, 10 or more) Iraq wouldn’t be the mess it is today.Bosnia/Kosovo was done closer to the right way. It had strong international support and nations are still committed to being there. It still isn’t clear sailing but things are kind of on the right track. The best thing about a true international coalition is that everyone has a stake and no one can play the blame game. When everyone works together things can get done.

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