Monday, March 19, 2007

March 2003 and Me

About a week and a half ago, via Crooked Timber, I heard about the challenge: "If you are a blogger who was active in March 2003, link to that month’s archive and write an entry called 'What I was wrong about in March 2003.'" I was planning an anniversary post this weekend anyway, as today is the fourth anniversary of my entry into the blogosphere. And given that the overwhelming majority of my posts when I started blogging were about Iraq, and that tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the war...well, it made sense to respond.

Here are my posts from March 2003; I wrote 17 posts in 12 days, a rate that I'm certain I've never matched since. I wish I could say those posts were filled with informed and prescient commentary about Sunnis and Shi'ites and Baathists and so forth...but they weren't. The best I can say is that I knew my posts supportive of the war weren't constructed out of the latest empirical and predictive scholarship; my thinking about the Iraq war was admittedly driven by theory, as I put it in my very first post:

My assessment of the arguments both for and against an invasion [of Iraq have] never depended, at least not too much, on a solid understanding of the "facts": whether Saddam actually had WMDs, and if so which ones and how many, and what he intend[ed] to do with them or whether that could actually be known, and whether regardless of Saddam's intentions we could be certain that he could be prevented from ever making them available to terrorist organizations, and what his actual relationship with such organizations really is anyway, and for that matter what Bush's relationship with Saddam really is and what his intentions are, etc., etc., etc. I've never attempted to develop anything like any real expertise in these areas; while I'll read with interest reports on U.N. resolutions, the Iraqi opposition, neoconservative ideologues at the Pentagon, al-Qaeda, Bush the First's deals with Saudi Arabia and so forth, I lack confidence in my ability to work out all the contrasting military, strategic, political and conspiratorial claims.

So why have an opinion at all? Because, in the end, the language of the pro-war argument fits well with an intellectual and moral paradigm I find persuasive. It's a theory--usually called "liberal nationalism" by political theorists--which holds that the international order depends upon expressions of national conviction and power. If you're not a fan of the existing "international order" (and I am one, though with some big reservations), you could just as well replace that phrase with "human rights" or "the spread of democracy": either way, the idea is that the accomplishment of certain humane, liberal conditions depends upon national action....Translated to questions of international politics, this attitude suggests that the use of national power to accomplish liberal ends is not necessarily corrupting of those ends; on the contrary, it is possible that without real, specific, national engagements with the liberal project, those ends will never emerge.

In other words, to talk about the United States acting forcefully on behalf of liberal goals, even if such action takes place outside the procedures of the presently-existing international community, even if such action is pre-emptive and not premised upon any sort of immediate threat as has been traditionally recognized, shouldn't be dismissed as incoherent outright. The foundation of liberalism--for the oppressed people of Iraq, or anyone for that matter, anywhere--is the work of liberal nations, not an ungrounded ideology which exists to constrain such nations. Does this mean that asymmetrical--even hegemonic--relations between national actors is not, in itself, an obstacle to liberal ideals: that you could have a "liberal empire"? The answer, as best as I can see it, is "maybe so."

Yes, I was a "liberal hawk," though I disliked calling myself one. Nonetheless, my posts for the remainder of the month were filled with proof of my attitude: I talked about Tony Blair and the "Anglosphere" and Michael Ignatieff and neo-Wilsonianism and "liberal interventionism" and "democratic imperialism" and Islamic fundamentalism and all the rest. The need to create a "decent left" seemed obvious to me; I would have signed the Euston Manifesto in an instant.

What was I wrong about? To the extent that I developed specific predictions about the war (and I didn't develop many), they were almost wholly wrong. As for the war plan itself, it took me a while, but I finally was able to put into words how screwed up my acceptance of Bush's claiming of my preferred theoretical mantle had been here. That leaves the theory itself. Has Iraq disproved to my mind the very possibility of an interventionary (inter)national liberalism?

I always insisted that there was an important difference between the liberal nationalist/internationalist position and the neoconservative one, and despite the depressing track record of many liberal hawks, I still believe that to be the case. The latter group had a tendency to insert "liberalism" and "democracy" into all their supposed conservative calculations in the place of "culture," and thus arrived at descriptions and prescriptions for the development of nations and civilizations that were explicitly ideological. (And they continue to do so, waxing lyrical about the easy intersection of partisan politics and cosmic struggles over the centuries, as this Slate article makes clear.) Whereas the liberal hawks simply wanted to do the right, "liberal," thing, issues of sovereignty be damned--or at least, be trumped by human rights and so forth. By so arguing, the liberal hawks were ironically far more respectful of the cultural--and thus the "conservative"--roots of their subjects than the neoconservatives were: they at least did not delude themselves into thinking that their ideological preferences captured the movement of history through culture, but instead acknowledged that, if they were going to remake the Middle East, they were going to have to muscle their way into doing so. This was the tough, "realistic" aspect of liberal hawk thought that some of us found so appealing...perhaps especially those pseudo-conservative leftists like myself who are really more communitarian than liberal, and who were thus, as I wrote a while ago, delighted to discern in the liberal hawks' worldview a theory of international relations which allowed America, and the liberal nations of Western world, to be acknowledged--in direct contrast to the preferences of Islamic terrorists--as representing "a culture and a way of life...that wasn't a function of, or susceptible to, the abstract forces of globalization...not just a site of media and market exchanges [but] a community worth loving." The prospect of a nation intervening and fighting on behalf of liberal principles gave both "national" and "liberal" a meaning and a force that I desperately wanted them, and still want them, to have.

However, at the time, I couldn't really tell you where my theory ended and where ranting about the imperative of responding militarily to the Islamic fascist challenge to universal human rights began; my biggest intellectual error, complete aside from whatever might be conceptually wrong about all of the above, was that I didn't even really try. Because if I had tried--if I'd really done the work to flesh out my theoretical paradigm, to relate it to what was going on in Washington DC and in Iraq--then I might have realized that it was genuinely stupid to allow myself to believe that just because I could explain the value of seeing certain actions in a certain light, that therefore any such actions thus undertaken would conform to that light, as if my value set (even assuming anyone else held it, and in retrospect it's clear that even fewer people did than I thought) was the only one out there. No, the banal and obvious truth is that there were a million things--things revealed by all those "facts" I failed to pay adequate attention to--which were being valued or pursued or elided in and through the Iraq war, and even if it is the case that one ought not allow the inability account for every possible intention to prevent one from acting on theory and hope when the need is great enough, a better effort could have and should have been made by me and many others who supported this war to least account for some of what was or wasn't being prepared for. Forget prudence--amongst the theory-driven supporters of the war like myself, basic intellectual responsibility was what was needed here.

People like Michael Walzer, who did try to work things out in the light of a worldview very similar to the liberal hawks' and to my own, refused to support the war; they knew, as Peter Beinart has learned, that just because events may arise that allow one to describe the United States differently than the superficialities of our current world system usually allow, that doesn't mean the U.S. is, in fact, a "different country." Not that my blogging four years ago made any kind of difference, but still: I wish I'd learned it sooner too.

5 comments:

Doug said...

Bravo.

I got stampeded, too, and I really should have known better.

Bill Gardner said...

Superb post, Russell.

But how does one go on from here? Your admission that "it was genuinely stupid to allow myself to believe that just because I could explain the value of seeing certain actions in a certain light, that therefore any such actions thus undertaken would conform to that light" is wonderfully honest (and captures my history more eloquently than I can). However, while one can't argue against, "a better effort could have and should have been made by me and many others who supported this war to at least account for some of what was or wasn't being prepared for," unfortunately we do not have a criterion for what a good enough effort would have been. Do you really think that any feasible effort on your part would have given you the facts that would have led to a better decision?

But if we can't count on being able to get sufficient facts, should we revise our principles? I think (please correct me) that Catholic just war theory would have ruled out a pre-emptive war. Is that an argument for those principles?

lee said...

I may be off-base here, but I wonder if there isn't an incipient clash between seeing "America, and the liberal nations of Western world ... as representing 'a culture and a way of life...that wasn't a function of, or susceptible to, the abstract forces of globalization...not just a site of media and market exchanges [but] a community worth loving'" and the idea that "The foundation of liberalism--for the oppressed people of Iraq, or anyone for that matter, anywhere--is the work of liberal nations, not an ungrounded ideology which exists to constrain such nations."

In other words, how well does liberalism as particularism sit with liberalism as missionary faith? The missionary zeal of the neocons and at least some liberal hawks, by contrast, seems driven precisely by the kind of abstract universalism you seem to want to deny.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Bill,

"Do you really think that any feasible effort on your part would have given you the facts that would have led to a better decision?...[I]f we can't count on being able to get sufficient facts, should we revise our principles?"

Two good questions, Bill; I'm not sure I have an answer to either of them. I certainly could have done a better job at paying attention to the details being argued about back in 2003--or those that were not be argued about, but rather were being assumed by the Bush administration. I could have thought harder about the limitations inherent in how I was choosing which authorities to listen to. Still, in the larger sense there's always "more" one could do; if one wants to do anything at all, at some point you have to cut off the introspection, and call what you know sufficient. So I guess if we are always going to be acting, ultimately, with limited information, then maybe we should craft principles that reflect that reality.

Your bring up Catholic just-war theory. I think that might be a good example. That theory is, in essence, a set of principles that primarily act as a break, setting up necessary criteria for knowledge before justifying one's action. While I'm sure there are plenty of just war theorists ready to argue otherwise, I think you're correct that it wouldn't support pre-emptive war, for exactly this reason: there is so much which is unknown and counter-factual in a pre-emptive situation that the necessary knowledge criteria probably couldn't be satisfied. So perhaps we need principles like that to give us some sort of grip on the question of whether or not to act given our own ignorance.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Lee,

"[H]ow well does liberalism as particularism sit with liberalism as missionary faith?"

Interesting question. I think what you're highlighting was a real confusion in my thought then; a confusion that I can't say I've fully resolved yet. There were, on the one hand, straightforward universalists: if democracy is worth fighting for here, then it's worth fighting for there, and the rest is all details. But then you had people--"conservatives," of a sort--who were caught up in the whole national/cultural/civilizational struggle aspect of the debate, because they believed in making a particularist repsonse to globalization, and both the 9/11 attacks as well as the Iraq War could be understood as embodying and advancing such response. That was me; I see that now. The thing is, isolationism would have been an even better example of such particularism, so why did I want this kind of "liberal" response? Well, presumably because I didn't believe we could or should just turn our backs on globalization and the jihadist reactions it inspired; instead we needed to "manage" it, put a specific national/cultural stamp on it. In other words, my liberal nationalism was also an internationalism.

I really don't know, looking back on it all now, if that's even coherent. Maybe I was just another liberal universalist, fooling myself. Maybe I advocated the war out of contrariness, a desire not to be a puerile leftist or blinkered realist. But I'd like to think there is something salvageable in there: a conservatism and particularism that nonetheless allows that it has to express itself in the wider contexts of power which the world today makes incumbent upon us.