Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Finally caught up with that "See No Evil" article at Salon, in which Edward W. Lempinen says the Left should support the war because Saddam is a tyrant and liberals should be against tyrants. His article is the best portrayal I've seen of this case, which is usually presented in the degenerate "Why don't you go protest Saddam" form by the warbloggers.

Lempinen has a good point if he's talking about the wider mission of the international (or even internationalist) Left. As an old-fashioned Yankee liberal, I am sensible to the plight of the world's Amina Lawals. And in terms which for want of a better word I'll call humanitarian, it seems from that perspective anti-American not to help these people.

But I have to also take up another point raised by Lempinen at the outset: in pursuing liberal democracy worldwide, where do you start, and where do you stop? If your only motivation is "to help people," you'll never answer those questions -- you'll be too busy do-gooding. I'm a little more selfish, and directed, about it -- my first interest is in the health and survival of America -- as nation, and as idea. I also think that, in the long run, making sure that America sticks with the Founders' program would also be the best thing for the world's oppressed peoples, too. After all, we've done great things for millions of refugees from countries that we didn't even invade.

Lempinen, echoing Christopher Hitchens, says we must liberate Iraq even though we screwed up the region in the first place -- maybe even especially since we screwed it up, because that makes it all the more our responsibility. A noble sentiment, and if Bush and his administration were also saying this, I'm sure a lot of us would have more faith in the current enterprise.

But they aren't. And here's the sticking point. The common plaint is, if you're against the war, it's just because you hate Bush, and that blinds you to the humanitarian benefits of the invasion.

OK, pal, ya got me: I do think the President is a very bad leader with sinister objectives. But I don't see why that should be irrelevant to this argument. The reasons why Bush is doing this are relevant, not for vague philosophical reasons, but because it will affect his follow-through.

To put it in an analogy, there have been any number of wealthy benefactors who found young guttersnipes on the street, took them into their homes, cleaned them up, fed them, and gave them nice clothes. Some of these benefactors were motivated by Christian charity to improve troubled youths. Some, though, just wanted to fuck them.

I see the removal of Saddam's tyranny as a large and potentially wonderful collateral benefit for the people of Iraq. But though they will benefit, I'm afraid we may not -- not when the cost of national-rebuilding and region-restabilizing becomes an onerous burden.

I really think it has been a bad mistake to cut ourselves loose of the world community -- and not for sentimental one-worlder reasons. The U.N. disarmament dance was in many ways silly and corrupt -- but so is most diplomacy, even much of U.S. diplomacy. And it still gets things done. It even boxed the Soviets into a corner, eventually. Non-war options work more slowly and less spectacularly than wars, of course. But I will take a Council, a Diet, or a Joint Resolution over a war pretty much any day of the week.

I read an item today -- where, I can't recall -- in which someone argued that Truman was wrong not to take out Russia right after the Second World War, since the Soviets didn't have the bomb yet. The author says that millions of lives would have been spared by this single, audacious act -- in the gulags, in the satellite states, etc. Perhaps. But do you think Truman, of all people, was being soft-hearted? Or did he tote up the potential costs of empire and find it unsustainable? Truman read a lot of history and loved to talk about it. Perhaps his vision of the future was a little more expansive than that of today's author. Perhaps he knew that if America kept a little humility, it could eventually change the course of history for the better -- but if it lost that humility, it would end up as just another imperial contender that perished in overreach.

I think Truman was right and Bush is wrong. I'm happy the Iraqis will soon be free of a tyrant's grip. Maybe that'll be the end of that -- dictator gone, case closed, let's go home. But I doubt it.

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