Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Insurgents, Iraq, and Identity

I haven't written about Iraq in a very long time, partly because I think my past support for the war in Iraq--support that I've come to regret--to a degree disqualifies me from having much to say about how the conflict has proceeded, and partly simply because I don't have anything to say that isn't being said much better by many others. But recently an old friend of mine, Matt Stannard, has been asking some pointed questions about how the fighting in Iraq ought to be understood, and we've discussed the matter some via e-mail. Most would read his challenges--which basically boil down to the provocative claim "I simply fail to see the basis for the arguments necessary for a conscientious person to support U.S. action but not Iraqi counter-action....likewise, I fail to see the basis for any command to close such moral inquiry on the basis of patriotism or nationalism"--as almost a stereotype of the sort of "moral equivalence" talk which so many crudely associate with leftist thought, and from which most pragmatic liberals desperately fled throughout the election season. But the way Matt frames his questions--generally eschewing any tabulation of atrocities or death counts, and focusing on the explicitly Habermasian issue of democratic legitimization--is much more intellectually and morally serious than that which one might hear from some cut-rate Noam Chomsky knock-off.

This is not to say that those other considerations are meaningless, or that accusations of moral equivalence are just a right-wing dodge; there are--as Matt himself is quick to admit--checks on American behavior which don't appear to exist on the other side, and to the degree one can assume that whatever regime results in Iraq will reflect the attitude of the victors, everyone should hope it'll be the U.S. forces (which at least felt embarrassed about Abu Gharib) rather than Sunni thugs. But nonetheless, to simply dismiss all discussion of the "morality" of the insurgents as false or distracting is to ultimately leave oneself philosophically defenseless against a foreign policy premised upon nothing more that raison d'estat. In some ways, this is exactly what Peter Beinart's essay on a "fighting liberalism" left out: the philosophical work that needs to be done if you're ever going take a manifesto against Islamic fascism, and turn it into a policy which can justifiably, on its own democratic terms, carry on that fight. Obviously such justification isn't sufficient; as many of us liberal hawks have learned to our deep dismay over the last year or so, just because an argument exists which justifies a certain potential action--say, a pre-emptive war grounded in liberal principles--doesn't mean that all actual actions taken in accordance with (or, more accurately in the case of the Bush administration's waging of the Iraq war, any actions which can hypothetically, if you are willing to squint a little, be vaguely associated with) that justificatory theory are automatically self-justifying. They aren't, and to content oneself with having worked out a philosophical or moral account doesn't get you to a good policy. But failing to do the prior intellectual work won't get you a good policy either.

Just because I take seriously Matt's questions, however, doesn't mean that I think he frames things properly. Basically, Matt wants to know "why what 'we' are doing is more ethical than what 'they' are doing"--why, for example, we call those killing American soldiers "insurgents" when it is we who are "surging into" their country. (And we have to assume that it is theirs, not ours, because 1) otherwise all our claims and acts in regards to encouraging the development of a democratic Iraq are exposed as lies by our own rhetoric, and 2) because otherwise no coherent psychological account of the current situation is possible, something which Matt Yglesias rightly notes many pro-war writers were in denial about for the longest time.) The complication arises from those very properly placed quotation marks, particularly the latter one: while it is (and must be) indisputable that someone other that the U.S. takes a proprietary position as to the territory called Iraq, just who "they" are isn't clear, and hasn't been clear from the very beginning of this enterprise. Which means that attempts to justify the morally privileging the actions of American troops in Iraq over the actions of the insurgents, or vice versa, have to begin with the very non-Habermasian, affective-aesthetic question of the identity of whomever it is one is talking (or fighting) with, and how their talking (or fighting) is to be understood.

Obviously, identity-based justifications which depend upon an implied and/or condescending racism ("they're Iraqis, they're backward, they've been psychologically traumatized, they worship a strange god, they're uneducated, they don't know what they want," etc.) are can be, and must be, for the most part rooted out and dismissed--and unfortunately, there's more than a little rooting out in our thinking which still remains to be done in that regard. (I say "for the most part" because I don't think psychological or cultural factors should be wholly ignored here; indeed, part of the problem with the original case for the invasion, I eventually realized, was that it didn't include any thinking, or at least not much proper thinking, about cultural factors relevant to any literally "forced" encounter between the U.S. and Iraq.) However, the question of who American troops are fighting, and their motivation for such, remains central. Much of Matt's argument turns on a Habermasian emphasis on deliberative and procedural justification; such deliberation has to begin, however (as many critics of Habermas have forced him to acknowledge), with the pre-political recognition of who one's interlocutors are, and who isn't part of that conversation.

The data on the internal constitution of those opposing American forces can be disputed, to say that least. But let's say Matt is right: for the purpose of examining our own rhetorical and ethical scheme, we should consider those whom American soldiers are killing and being killed by are "Iraqis," citizens of a sovereign (and thus politically defined and legitimated) nation who should count every bit as much in any possible discursive arrangement as those Iraqi expatriates who pushed the invasion, the Kurds who cautiously approved it, the member's of Saddam Hussein's family and inner circle who violently opposed it from the beginning, and everyone in between. What we have, then, is a divided society; through our invasion of Iraq, we have arguably made it legitimate for some segments of that society to take up arms in order to defend themselves and their society to the extent that they see what is properly, "nationally," their own being infringed upon. Of course, their "defense" of that partial, imagined community (to invoke Benedict Anderson) is also an attempt to establish a new social construct, one which is beneficial to their segment of Iraq. In having sundered a (forcibly united, according to most available evidence) sovereign state, how should we think about the justness of attacks on those who did the sundering, when it was the sundering which created the anarchy and thus the arguably legitimate terms of defense in the first place?

Thought experiment: what if, upon the Union's invasion of the Confederacy, former slaves for the most part had embraced the model of Toussaint L'Ouverture in Haiti, and begun a revolt to drive whites from power? Quickly, the Civil War against the southern states would have become a free-for-all, with some former slaves aligning themselves with the Union, others joining with poor whites in a class war upon both the plantation owners and the Yankee carpetbaggers, others embracing out-and-out race war. The last two categories would have waged war on the Union forces, especially given the occupation of the South by Northern troops during the Reconstruction. I wonder--and I honestly have no answer for this--whether it would have been wrong to extend the revolutionary language of "freedom," which guided the Union actions under Lincoln, to whatever "insurgent" forces which might have arisen in the South, had things been a little bit different? Again, I think the whole thing comes down to identity. Who is an American? What is it "American" to fight on behalf of, and what causes are "un-American"? Upon such judgments would any Habermasian legitimate response by the Army of the Potomac depend. I don't think the answer would be easy, and in that case we would be dealing with a conflict which emerged within a more-or-less unified national context.

Paradoxically, it is America's own particular context, and the degree to which it is complicatedly tied up in (I think flawed) arguments about the possibility of a purely civic patriotism or national identity, which makes the application of Habermasian criteria even more difficult in the case of Iraq. We resist the idea that any successful articulation of the identity of Iraq could be primarily, or even significantly, ethnic or religious: we want, instead, Iraq to be a democratic state that will be united around a constitution and a constitutional process. But the act of constitutional formalization always follows a much more fundamental and vague (and, yes, sometimes bloody) process of affective inclusion and exclusion; by making ourselves a part of the conflict in Iraq, we stuck ourselves in that process. We cannot adequately assess our own or anyone else's participation in this struggle on the basis of discourse ethics, because through invasion we removed whatever oppressive boundaries of identity and recognition which cleared a space for discourse in the first place. Of course, it is just as arguable--indeed, I think even more so--that such boundaries as did exist under Hussein were inauthentic anyway, being the result of a tyrant's whim rather than a long, historical, national collective process. Does that mean that Matt's questions are wholly moot? I don't think so. It simply means that philosophically assessing our own and the insurgents' actions--getting to, as Matt put it, "an account of universal ethical responsibility that might forgive conscripts and fighters on both sides"--is going to require a sensitivity to the aesthetic, meaning nationalistic, underpinnings of sovereignty that Habermas alone cannot provide.

Last year, Charles Taylor wrote a thoughtful piece in which he joined together the reconstruction of Iraq and the questions of expansion and democratic legitimacy before the European Union. In both cases, the fundamental question is one of identity, because the idea of democracy, much less ethically justified democratic action (whether one hopes to see such realized or at least conformed to through the EU's bureaucracy or, as in the case of Iraq today, through American troops), is not a free-standing rational principle; it is a basic political principle, and politics comes through the establishment (hopefully peaceably, but often not) of a polity which recognizes itself, and can be recognized by others, as such. "There can be no democracy without a shared identity as participants in a common agency," as Taylor puts it. Exactly right. And infuriating, for those of us who would like to believe that some truly democratic expectations and standards can be established, and be made binding upon, all those caught up in the war in Iraq, most especially ourselves. The ambiguity surrounding the identity of those claiming to fight on behalf of Iraq plays into Bush's "fly-trap" strategy, giving him a certain justificatory cover: as long as terrorism continues in Iraq, then he and those around him anc assert that we're dealing with terrorists, and by definition (well, his definition anyway) you can't "deliberate" with terrorists. Therefore, American troops must be the one's on the side of democracy, because we we're trying to give it to them, only we just haven't been able to get to the point where we can ask them in any legitimate if they like the way we are delivering it or not. (But don't worry, elections are coming soon; no doubt that will solve everything.)

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