Sunday, May 30, 2004

Democratizing Iraq? The Intellectual Failures of the Intellectuals

As we enter the endgame of our catastrophic intervention into Iraq, it is helpful to remind ourselves how we got into this shameful mess. In earlier posts, I have been examining some of the errors that informed the pro-war left. I now want to say something about the pro-war right.

Under this rubric, there are two interesting--and any number of plain loony--arguments: one, a geopolitical argument; and two, a Leninist (or democratic) argument. (These, please remember, are the non-loony arguments.)

The geopolitical argument--apparently believed, if not openly proclaimed, by Cheney (our de facto President)--was premised on the need to secure "our" oil supplies and bolster "our" Middle Eastern military bases. The underlying assumption of this argument--again never openly proclaimed--is that Saudi Arabia is an unstable regime likely soon to implode. There are two aspects of this argument worth mentioning. First, this geopolitical argument is but one of a number of different arguments put forward (and probably believed) by the architects of the war. It would, however, be difficult, in advance of further interviews and archival investigation, to gauge the precise causal significance of this argument. Those, like the omniscient Noam Chomsky, who believe that these geopolitical considerations were the principal reasons for the war have yet to prove their case. Second, the geopolitical argument might actually have some prima facie merit. In other words, (and contra Chomsky et al ) there might conceivably be a case for ensuring, through military means, a stable supply of oil. The geopolitical argument certainly merits some debate.

Yet while I think we ought to debate the geopolitical argument, it faces, what I believe, are two overwhelming problems. First, this argument requires an open commitment to Realpolitik: our interests are more important than others merely because they are ours; and might makes right. No one I know-with the possible exception of Niall Ferguson--has made this argument in justification of the Iraq War. No one, I think, seriously wishes to live in such a world. Second, this argument rests on the assumption that a stable supply of oil requires foreign direct intervention. It is not, however, obvious why we in the west cannot buy our oil from whatever regimes takes shape in the Middle East. Even Mullahs need mullah.

If the geopolitical argument for the Iraq war thus fails, this leaves the Leninist" argument (a term and argument I have borrowed from Ken Jowett). For much of the 1990s, the US government pursued a Marxist policy towards the rest of the world. It thought that the spread of global capitalism would lead to a global convergence around "Western" values. Tom Friedman's writings offered a vulgar, simple-mided version of this optimistic position. 9/11 rang the death knell for the Marxist strategy and the birth (following Jowett's terminology) of a Leninist strategy. From this perspective, the US decided, post 9/11, to set itself up as a revolutionary vanguard and spread democratic capitalism by military force. The neoconservatives are in this respect all Leninists. These Leninists drew ideological support from a number of intellectuals on the right (most New Republic contributors) and the left (Christopher Hitchens and Michael Ignatieff amongst others) who saw a democratic Iraq as the precondition for stability and order in the Middle East.

How sensible is this Leninist strategy of constructing a democratic Iraq? Many observers in 2002 and 2003 always argued that this strategy would never work. And yet a number of politically-connected Middle Eastern experts--including Fouad Ajami, Kanan Makiya, and Bernard Lewis--promised us that a democratic Iraq was fully within our grasp. A number of these alleged Middle Eastern experts have now issued embarrassing and shameful mea culpas telling us that they didn't really know much about Iraq.

Oddly, a number of intelligent and thoughtful right wingers--including Dan Drezner and Andrew Sullivan--still believe that a democratic Iraq remains a viable (and perhaps even the best) current policy option. I believe that they are wrong. The arguments recently, for instance, put forward by Dan Drezner in support of democratizing Iraq are nearly all specious. (In a later post, I will carefully explain why.)

There are five arguments that suggest that the USA and its allies cannot transform Iraq into a democracy. If these arguments are valid, then the current mess in Iraq is less a failure of implementation (as Drezner, Sullivan, and others maintain)than a failure of conception. I will name these five arguments as follows:

(i) The Millian argument: John Stuart Mill (last seen on a lawnmower) once argued that multinational states could not support representative institutions. The clamor of the Kurds for their own independent sovereign state suggests that he is right. Unless a state possesses a fairly substantial conception of nationality (or "we-feeling"), democracy does not work. (This is not to say, however, that democracy cannot work in a multi-ethnic state like Canada, Britain, or India. It is simply that multi-ethnic states need some overarching conception of nationality.)

(ii) The Tocquevillean argument: democracy presupposes a period of social leveling, a period that destroys tribal and feudal hierarchies. The so-called Middle Eastern experts (cited above) told us that Iraq was a modern secular state--quite unlike Afghanistan--we now know this not to be the case. Saddam, as it now turns out, was no Stalin, no Louis XIV--he simply bought off without transforming the tribal leaders. It is extraordinarily difficult to democratize a tribal society.

(iii) The Miltonian Argument. Milton's Satan (in Paradise Lost) says that he would prefer to rule in hell than serve in heaven. There are, it would now seem, enough Miltonian Satanists in Iraq to suggest that they will never accept a form of government that is perceived as foreign. To accept such a form of government would be to accept that there is something deeply flawed in their own religion, customs and traditions. This line of thinking informs all nationalism, a political ideology that remains, for better or worse, the most potent in the modern age.

(iv) The Moqtadr al Sadr argument. One of the most naive beliefs of the pro-democratizers--evident in Drezner's articles, for instance--is that "an open society" will in Iraq yield a democratic regime that is not anti-American and not anti-Israel. The problem with this argument is that if most Iraqis hate America and Israel--as now seems to be the case--then an open society will yield a democratic Iraqi government run by people with views not too different from those of al Sadr. Anyone under any illusions about the "enlightened" views of the more moderate Ayatollah Sistani should take a look at his webpage. This leads to the question (put poignantly by Cheney's hapless underling): "Why do they hate us?" And this in turn leads us to argument number (v).

(v) The Chuck Graner argument. The torture, humiliation, and brutality of Abu Ghraib are not, as Don Rumsfeld protested, "Un-American." They are quintessentially American, as today's FT reports. Chuck Graner and Ivan Fredericks are standard issue US Prison Guards. We brought our particular form of homegrown horror to the Middle East. And there's plenty more where that came from. While we Americans like to pretend that we are a force for good in the world, there are many features of our society--features that we don't like to discuss--that are sick. We remain, in many ways, a violent, vulgar nation of religious bigots. It is hardly surprising that other peoples do not wish to be occupied by us.

Democratize Iraq? It's enough to make one weep. Yes, America has been failed by its incompetent leaders. But it has been failed too by its intellectuals. All who supported the war on the grounds of democratizing Iraq should apologize to the world for their hubris.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Failures of British Multicultural Education

There is noone more tiresome than The American Abroad. Well, actually, there is. The American Abroad Who Criticizes Host Country's Customs. Ever since I've been here (now almost two weeks), I have been extraordinarily careful not to utter a word of such criticisms (apart from the tipping issue). I have been especially reticent when it comes to passing judgments on British higher educational practices. Let a man spend a sabbatical in your college, the least you can expect is that he carry himself with a certain grace and gratitude. Who wants a belly-acher on their corridor? One educational matter does, however, merit, not so much criticism, but at least comment. Some people in higher education--whatever they might know of dead socialists and country singers--do not appear to know their Celtic mythology. The shape-shifting abilities of my ancestor Gwydion mab Don, descendant of Math, are not, so it would seem, part of the British educational canon. I think that this is a hole that warrants plugging.

On "Brits," Tipping, and Tipping Points

Britain--London at least--has changed so much since I last lived here. It seems so much more affluent now than back then. It has also somehow managed to become both more American and more European while remaining distinctively itself. Still, there are a lots of things about the place I just don't get. Take tipping. My British friends are always happy to explain their customs to an outsider. Except when it comes to tipping. No one can explain tipping. If you ask Brits how it works, they always look embarrassed, change the subject,or just plain refuse to answer. Do you or don't you? And how much?

On the face of it, there would seem to be two stable equilibrium positions: (i) always tip; and (ii) never tip. The US has adopted stable equilibrium position (i). Continental Europe has gone for (ii). Thus in the US everyone tips 15% for every service delivered by a non-salaried employee. It's simple. On continental Europe, in contrast, no one ever tips anyone. Thus waiters (I know I used to be one) get a percentage in their weekly salary of their sales . Sometimes customers will leave their loose change or a little extra if the waiter has exceeded role expectations. But if the customer does not tip, no conventions are broken, no feelings hurt. It's simple.

In Britain, in contrast, there does not seem to be a clear and settled convention. Sometimes the menu will say--often in suspiciously small 8 point print--"service included." But even then, the credit card slip the waiter brings to the table invariably has a line for "gratuities." Up until now, whenever I was presented with one of these credit card slips, I dutifully tacked on 15%. Just recently a Brit broke ranks and told me that I'd been double tipping. I was pissed. I suggested to my friend that in future we ask the waiter to tell us whether service is included. He looked shocked. I got the sense that asking waiters would not be the done thing at all.

I've decided that from now on, I'm not going to tip. Ever.

I suspect that I'm not the only one confused and resentful about British tipping practices and if enough of us stand up and stop, we can achieve, what Malcolm Gladwell has called, "a tipping point". Although in our case, it will be a tipping point that terminates tipping. Await further news on how this campaign unfolds. I'm having lunch tomorrow with a former student in Leicester Square. I'm going to try it out.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Of Thresholds, Thought Experiments, and Lawnmowers: A Provisional Reply to Norman Geras

In a delightfully spirited response to some fellow 2002ers, the always thoughtful and wise Norman Geras has clarified his position on the Iraq War. I agree wholeheartedly with his reply to Michael Fisher: the civilian deaths, torture, and the other Goya-like miseries of war do not themselves undermine the case for intervention. Indeed, if they did humanitarian intervention would always be a non-starter. Both Norm and I saw the war, first and foremost, as a project to remove a genocidal ruler. We based our justification for the war partly on the facts of his slaughter and partly on a probabilistic calculus that the regime that emerged after the war would be beneficial to Iraqis, their neighbors, and the world at large. I, unlike him, now fear we might have got the probabilistic calculus wrong.

Consider the following counterfactuals:

(i) It is May 2004. The invasion of Iraq in April 2003 is, as is now clear, a surprising success. True, no WMDs were ever discovered; no one could turn up any reliable information that Saddam had been in cahoots with Al Qaeda; and the whole thing cost the US taxpayer a boat-load more money than initially suggested. But we discovered lots of mass graves—more than we had thought—and the Iraqis were overwhelmingly, if begrudgingly, grateful for our intervention. Putting together a post-intervention government proved more difficult than we imagined, but under the astute leadership skills of Viceroy Clinton a government was cobbled together out of old Baathists, army officers, Kurds, Sunni tribal leaders, and Shiite clerics. By the end of the month, plans had been laid for elections, which were to take place under UN supervision sometime within the next five years. Furthermore, George Bush and Tony Blair were enjoying record approval ratings in the polls. Those people who opposed the war in 2002 and 2003 felt like damn fools.

(ii) It is May 2005. The US and Britain declared "Mission Accomplished (Really)" at the end of 2004 and then packed up. But now there is a civil war raging throughout Iraq, fought, in part, by armed proxies of Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The numbers of Iraqis killed this month exceeded the number killed in any single month under Saddam Hussein. Elsewhere in the world, things are not much better. The Taliban have taken over again in Afghanistan. The world was recently shocked at the beheading--carried live on Al-Jazeera--of the late President Karzai. The US and Britain have now embraced a form of splendid isolationism. They would not even stir in the face of the humanitarian catastrophe in the Sudan, where the people of Southern and Western Sudan are dying in the hundreds of thousands at the hands of the Janjaweed.

I'll come back to these two counterfactuals. But first back to Norm's argument. One of the most helpful features of Norm's pro-war argument was that he recognized that the case for humanitarian intervention (whether in Iraq or elsewhere) had to meet a very high moral threshold. While I agree that his proposed moral threshold is a necessary condition of any justified case for military intervention, this threshold is not itself, at least in the form he has stated it, a sufficient condition. The threshold must be supplemented by a further threshold: a probabilistic threshold of success. For military intervention to be justified, it must be the case that there is a reasonable probability that the intervention will bring about the desired outcome. Did the pro-war camp of 2002 think hard enough about the prospects of ending up in something akin to situation(ii)? Did they fail to take into consideration evidence (already available in 2002) that suggested that situation (i) was never an option?

These are, of course, very tricky questions. They take us into the difficult conceptual terrain of decisions, judgments, and justifications that take place under conditions of "risk" and "uncertainty." But let me just say, for the moment, that it is possible to make political judgments that, no matter how pure one's intentions, can be (to quote Norm) "shameful," "dishonest" and "reckless." He does not believe that 2002ers have anything to answer for. I'm not so sure. But to take this argument any further, I need to say something more about "reckless" decisions. I will return to this in a later post. But what's that I see coming down the road? Four elderly buggers on a lawnmower? Two wearing frock coats, by the looks of it. Crazy. And what's that fucking awful music they're playing?

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

The Logic of Narrative Blogs

A Free Man in Preston recently posted something very clever:


It’s been one of those non-linear days.
I drove to work bleary eyed, got up and had a shower. At lunchtime I thought about going for a jog, but it was raining by the time I got back so I didn’t bother.

On the whiteboard in Neil’s office there was a graph depicting next year’s disappointed figures. It resembled a craggy mountain range. The outlook was positively downhill. The graph staggered down from the whiteboard and onto the wall, round the back of a filing cabinet, out of the room and with one final jaunty squiggle, hung a right up the corridor.
I said to Mike “Hard times are just around the corner.”

When I eventually got home there was a note saying “You look tired. I’ve ran you a bath.”
I said “I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.”

Neil came sliding into the room in his socks and said “How much do you have left to give?”
Mike said “Are you two on fucking drugs?”

Neil said “We need to turn these figures on their head.”
He’s trying to rope us into some inter-departmentalist bash in the Peak District. They’re going dis-orienteering.

Not only is this a wonderful piece of writing, but it captures a point that will have occurred immediately to anyone--except me, because I've just noticed it--who reads or writes narrative in the form of a blog. The narrative proceeds (if that's the right word) backwards. To follow a story, the reader must scroll down. Characters undevelop rather than develop. All narrative blogs must, in this respect, follow the form of Harold Pinter's wonderful play about adultery Betrayal.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Norman Geras and the Case for the Iraq War

In a series of typically thoughtful and intelligent posts, Norman Geras has restated the case for military intervention in Iraq. Like me, Geras is a 2002er: someone who favored war in 2002 and 2003. Unlike me, he does not seem to recognize that the Iraq intervention has proved to be a catastrophe and anyone who had earlier favored intervention ought to apologize to the world. Geras's recent posts suggest that he is still clinging to the illusion that intervention was the right thing to do. But any argument that appeals, as his does, to the desirability of removing Saddam and the institutions that sustained a genocidal policy has also to weigh the prospects that military intervention will ultimately lead, whether directly or proximately, to even greater loss of life. If the United States simply declares victory on June 30 2004 and "cuts and run"--as I think is now a very likely outcome--then there is a very real prospect of civil war in Iraq, military interventions from both Turkey and Iran, and the wider disintegration of Muslim-Non-Muslim relations throughout the world. Of course, none of these dire outcomes can be predicted with any degree of confidence. But since the Bush administration has shown itself to be utterly incapable of formulating or implementing even minimally adequate policies for Iraq, there is no good reason to think that the situation in Iraq can go anywhere than further to hell. Intellectual honesty demands that the pro-war camp admit that they were wrong in supporting the war. No arguments about "the moral threshold" for intervention make sense in the absence of a competent intervening agency capable of securing a desirable post-intervention outcome. The Bush administration, as we all know now--and as we all had good reason to know before--certainly does not qualify.

'I love to make a grown man piss himself.' "

The Washington Post brings fresh news of America's favorite couple. Specialists (in what? one wants to ask) Charles A. Graner Jr and Lynndie England. The Becks and Posh of Abu Ghraib. Asked whether he had any qualms about his brutality, Graner--a Prison Guard in Pennsylvania State Prisons--replied:

"The Christian in me says it's wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, 'I love to make a grown man piss himself.'"

(I will definitely be using this line when I teach my next class on role morality and professional ethics.)

Update: Ron Davis has more on Graner here

In 1996, he took a job at State Correctional Institution Greene, a new maximum-security prison near West Virginia that housed some of the most hardened criminals in Pennsylvania. Within a year, the state had investigated accusations that guards at the prison routinely beat handcuffed inmates, used crude racial slurs and falsified reports of inmate misconduct.

Specialist Graner, who worked the overnight shift, was not implicated in the investigation. But in 1999, he was sued in federal court by a Greene inmate who accused Specialist Graner of beating him on at least two occasions.

The lawsuit, filed by Horatio Nimley, who was serving a five-year sentence for burglary, claimed that Specialist Graner and three other guards had slipped a razor blade into his potatoes in June 1998 and then beat him when he complained about not being allowed to see a nurse.

Specialist Graner and three other guards "picked me up and slammed me to the floor head first and then started hitting me in the (my) face and head with their closed fists, giving me black eyes, bloody nose and worsening the razor injury I was already suffering in my mouth," Mr. Nimley wrote.

A federal magistrate in Pittsburgh found that the complaint "has a reasonable opportunity to prevail on the merits."

But Graner's military lawyer says that's not the client he knows. Maybe Graner could have abused Iraqi prisoners, his lawyer says, but only if someone had ordered Graner to do so.

Graner actually sounds more like the sort of guy who enjoys his work:

The soldiers pulled seven Iraqi detainees from their cells, "tossed them in the middle of the floor" and then one soldier [Graner] ran across the room and lunged into the pile of detainees, according to sworn statements given to investigators by one of the soldiers now charged with abuse. He did it again, jumping into the group like it was a pile of autumn leaves, and another soldier called for others to join in. The detainees were ordered to strip and masturbate, their heads covered with plastic sandbags. One soldier stomped on their fingers and toes.

"Graner put the detainee's head into a cradle position with Graner's arm, and Graner punched the detainee with a lot of force, in the temple," Specialist Jeremy C. Sivits said in his statements to investigators, referring to another soldier charged, Specialist Charles A. Graner Jr. "Graner punched the detainee with a closed fist so hard in the temple that it knocked the detainee unconscious."

"He was joking, laughing," Specialist Sivits said. "Like he was enjoying it."

When he wasn't allegedly busting heads, Graner was busy with his girlfriend, Lynndie England. Sometimes they allegedly got busy in front of Iraqi detainees. Or in front of other troops:

Sex and alcohol were commonplace, and soldiers frequently set up candlelit rooms for voyeuristic sex shows, said a soldier who served at the notorious prison.

"There were lots of affairs. There was all kinds of adultery and alcoholism and all kinds of crap going on," said Dave Bischel, a National Guardsman with the 870th Military Police unit, who returned home from Abu Ghraib last month.

"There was a bed found in one of the abandoned buildings. There was a mattress on the ground. They had chairs all circled around it and candles all over the place," said Bischel, adding the chairs were "obviously for an audience."

England says she's not good for such horrible things as committing an indecent act; assaulting Iraqi detainees on multiple occasions; conspiring with Spc. Charles Graner to "maltreat Iraqi detainees" and committing acts "prejudicial to good order and discipline and were of nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces through her mistreatment of Iraqi detainees."

She says she acted on orders from civilian intelligence officials and persons up her chain-of-command. Graner, as a corporal, outranked Pvt. England.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Humanitarianism, Sudan, and Private Military Contractors

Chris Bertram over at the excellent Crooked Timber has noticed that the Muslims in the North of Sudan are butchering the non-Muslims in the South and West. In the aftermath of the Iraq debacle, we cannot expect that any western state will intervene militarily to put an end to this particular chapter of human misery. Nor can we count on any form of non-military multilateralism to be of much help. Sanctions, anyone? Soft power? (What a crock that concept is.)

My suggestion is that we rely upon private military contractors. While PMC's have been controversial in Iraq, not least because of their role in Abu Ghraib, their is no reason to think that, if properly controlled, they cannot be used for humanitarian purposes. Why don't liberal humanitarian interventionists simply club together, raise the cash, and send a bunch of PMCs over to Darfur to protect women and children from the Janjaweed currently butchering them? Doubtless the wishy-washy liberals will object. But in the future PMCs will probably be our only option for projecting power abroad for humanitarian purposes. The Iraq debacle certainly brings to an end the brief period in the 1990s when humanitarian intervention was advertised as a central component of a new global order.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

The Iraq War--A Rueful 2002 Perspective

Every reasonable observer must now conclude that the Iraq War is a catastrophe. Polls show that 90% of Iraqis consider the US occupiers. Had we known in 2002 and the early months of 2003 what we know now, very few of us--zealots apart--would have supported this war. It is thus surprising that some intelligent people that I respect still seem to think that going to war in Iraq was a good idea. Things we know now, but did not know then: there was no stock of ready to hand WMD; Saddam Hussein was not about to attack us or his neighbors; Saddam Hussein had no significant links to Al Qaeda; the Iraqis do not wish to be governed by the USA or its puppets; and--hardest of all to fathom--the US Defense Department (Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith et al) had no plausible plan for governing post-war Iraq. Taken together, these things now make the decision to invade Iraq an act of reckless folly. The 2002 pro-war camp--of which I unfortunately was a member--can at least console itself that these were things that could not then have been known. Knowledgeable experts had assured us that the possession of WMDs was a slam-dunk case. The 2002ers must still, however, answer for neglecting facts that were already known in 2002: the incompetence, arrogance, and venality of the Bush war-camp; the failures in Afghanistan; the lack of either UN or NATO support; the refusal of the Bush administration to discuss in any detail the post war plans for Iraq; the fractious nature of domestic groups in Iraq; the desire of the Kurds for self-government; Rumsfeld's "war-lite" plans; and the Bush administration's craven deference to Prime Minister Sharon. Given these facts, we 2002ers have every reason to feel foolish. The 2002 anti-war camp has every reason to gloat. We 2002ers ought to join with the anti-war camp in ridding ourselves of the political leaders who got us into this fucking mess. The difficulty here for us 2002ers is that the Democratic candidate is one of our own. Like all of us, Kerry ought to come clean and identify where exactly--and why--he got it so disastrously wrong.

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