Comments on No alternatives by CK MacLeod

miguel cervantes wrote:

He tells these audiences that the US position is at best thoughtless and at worse, evil,

Whose "US position"? National Review's? It is thoughtless and at worse evil. Not his fault.

You're the kind of person who indicts Imam Faisal for a deftly executed plot "to plant a marker on sacred ground." Your unreasoning hostility towards him has even extended to a willingness not just to pass along whatever latest smear as fact, but to make up new ones. Why should anyone trust your characterizations of his statements?

@ miguel cervantes:
A position that can't afford to be discussed honestly and openly is a very weak and brittle position.

How exactly does that further
our interests abroad.

Our demonstrated willingness to see ourselves as the other sees us, and our success in taking on and honestly confronting the other's point of view, is critical to gaining the other's trust and peaceful cooperation. It must be an authentic seeing of the other's point of view, including appropriate alterations of our language and conduct.

A would-be mediator like Rauf by his very existence as an emissary of the U.S. government affirms such a willingness. By acknowledging and demonstrating an understanding of the other's point of view, he makes it more likely that the other will be open to hearing our point of view. Ideally, in the process of closing the distance between "us" and "them," the points of view will become less characteristic of conflict and division, and more characteristic of common points of reference.

@ Scott Miller:
Politics is a main emphasis here - because politics is a main common arena where moral, historical, economic, and philosophical conflicts come into potentially illuminating relief. Steering into a more wide-ranging discussion would be fine with me, but I suspect that the discussion will continually re-politicize itself. We might start with meditation, or sports, or art, or language, or cute animal tricks, but as soon as a second person is involved, and common interests are at stake, it all turns into "politics" again.

miguel cervantes wrote:

One of my complaints with the good Imam is his surprisingly simplistic analysis, for an Ivy league educated Physicist, of the US war aims, during the time he servedas an outreach coordinator with the Moslem world. His argument seemingly indicated that AQ and not the US was in the right, in this conflict

You'll have to provide a link to the Imam's discussion of "US war aims," and I don't know that a Bachelor's Degree makes you a physicist. You cling to the notion, as ever, despite extensive discussion, that conceding the existence of grievances in the Arab world and other flaws in U.S. policy, and seeing them as helping to explain a phenomenon like AQ and an event like 9/11, is the same as putting AQ "in the right," even if one condemns AQ's actions as crimes against humanity.

Somehow, when Bill Kristol, or W, or Donald Rumsfeld, or Paul Wolfowitz, or David Petraeus does such a thing, it's mature and visionary, and even a justification for making war on regimes that are only indirectly connected, at most, to the events that inspired us to act, but, when the good Imam performs a similar analysis, it's tantamount to treason and a darn good reason to deny him a building permit.

Scott Miller wrote:

At the same time, if the Tsar really did support the Iraq action not in connection with what the US government thought it was doing, but in connection with what it would do for our ability to understand and relate to another culture, then my initial point didn’t apply. He could have just said that. I assumed that his “support” connected with problem solving. It’s how I presented the issue in the first place. I don’t know. Now, he’ll claim something different. In regards to layering on information, he does what he accused Miguel of doing

Please understand that I consider escalation in Iraq to have been overdetermined. The notion that we were there for the sake of a "learning experience" is an open attempt to shift the discussion from "who was right?" to "what happened?," from imaginary moral superiority, based on ideology, to concrete moral understanding based on unprejudiced assessment of important facts in full context.

I'm not sure how important it is, at least to us, to answer the question "who was right?" When I say "I'm not sure," I mean "I'm not sure," not "I doubt it is. If it is useful or important for us to address that question, then I don't think we're going to get very far beyond the familiar recitation of positions unless we do so from a position of concrete moral understanding.

Speaking of a need to "learn about" Iraq is a rough and somewhat metaphorical way of describing the complex imbalances that the war partly, bluntly rectified.

My view begins with the acknowledgment that we have spent several generations greatly influencing the course of life and death in Iraq without bothering to understand Iraq, without even, as a culture, acknowledging a need to understand Iraq. In a very real way, we only just barely seemed to recognize the Iraqis as human beings at all. At best, we treated them in the same way our weapons treat them: 1 American = 25 Iraqis. Except I think that we don't count them even that high. I think they mostly don't count for us at all. We mostly care more about the gophers we clear from our lawns, or the poor starving spiders trapped in our bathrooms, and certainly more about family pets, or even the neighbor's family pet, than we care about Iraqis.

At the time of the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the sanctions regime put in place after Gulf War I was more than a decade old. While we were tooling around in the '90s watching the stock market go up, talking about the end of history with ourselves as victors, worrying about OJ and Monica, the people of Iraq, who never had had a chance to recover from two devastating wars, were still under the thumbs and other appendages of Saddam & Co., a government put in place, armed, and still supported by the Free World's petrodollars.

Depending upon whose numbers you chose to accept, those sanctions were more or less directly responsible for the deaths of 100,000s of Iraqis, mainly children. This was merely the most readily apparent and widely discussed negative aspect of a policy that opponents of the war mainly sought to deepen and extend indefinitely: That was their unity position and represented the main politically feasible alternative to OIF: Indefinite sanctions, indefinite "containment," indefinite rule by Saddam and his sociopathic sons and all their relatives, including the completion of genocide against the Marsh Arabs, all the other very real aspects of the terror state - despair, torture, misery without end, paid for by us, under a continual risk of catastrophe (symbolized by WMD, but WMD only one, probably minor aspect of the larger threat).

The sanctions regime, for the few of us even aware of it an unpleasant abstraction at most, was just the most dramatic example of the way that we go about our OJ and Monica lives without thinking about or taking responsibility for the world system that supports them. No one wants to look at the world that way, as a closed system, just as hardly anyone wants to give up their OJ and Monica lives either.

The invasion of Iraq by our actual armed forces was in this sense something of a redundancy, a concrete realization of a relationship of violence and oppression that already existed, but that, in being concretized, could also finally be addressed and superseded. In this sense, the relative lack of initial resistance was symptomatic: It was as though the tank armies were already there, or were occupying pre-assigned positions. They roved through Baghdad at will, because they already owned Baghdad before they left home.

That is why I wrote in the Iraq Syndrome post of three liberations. It was only by making ourselves targets, and by fixing our attention on Iraq, that we finally gave the Iraqis an opportunity to liberate themselves from us.

That little of this was understood by most of the direct participants, and that the ones who did happen to understand it may often have been the most compromised figures of all, or the most uncompromisingly repellent, isn't very unusual. It sometimes takes an extremist to speak an uncomfortable truth. We like it that way. It makes it much easier to ignore a truth if someone whom we rightfully hate is the one speaking it. Similarly, someone whom we already hate and are trying to kill has nothing to lose by speaking a hateful truth.

One other thing: Hate George W Bush, deride him, criticize his decisions, whatever else, but he strove to see the Iraqis as human beings, capable of freedom and of being recognized as equals. As I've conceded, he had a naive and ignorant understanding of what giving the Iraqis that "gift" really meant, but that's not the same thing as being "wrong."

And none of this has anything remotely to do with miguel's irresponsible and deplorable support for the smear campaign against Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf and his associates.

@ bob:
Shows you what I know: I thought you'd be taking Mr. Miller's side, more or less. I accept that from his point of view, he's an elephant seeking contact with ants - his personal or inward connection to the/a universal inexpressibly, probably frustratingly (apparent in the surface static) more profound than can be externalized and shared. You recall that discussion we had previously about "one-sided universalism"? The 10,000-hour meditator sharing himself would be like trying to channel the world's greatest symphony orchestra over a crappy old walkie-talkie, and there's a similar problem, I suspect, comparing his self-magnified subjectivity to particular aspects of social institutions and decisions, alongside a tendency to discount their complexity and their own modes of connection to the universal.

(thus the old Drill Sergeant/superior officer joke, "If I decide I'm interested in your opinion, I'll let you know what it is.")

(I was going to avoid Hegel, but his insights in relation to modern warfare are too much on point. To summarize: The renunciation of personal opinion on the part of the soldier is as definitional for the modern form and concept of valor, for the essence of being a soldier, as renunciation of personal freedom and morality, and willingness to sacrifice one's life. Soldiers don't fight for policies. They fight for their "country" - for the culture-state that alone gives their external lives meaning - as part of a whole, not as an assemblage of individuals. That also happens to be a critical difference between an effective fighting force and an ineffective one. Hegel notes that numerous philosophical extreme oppositions are brought together in warfare - such as total absence of self next to total presence of self - as well as the "most hostile and hence most personal action against individuals, along with a completely indifferent or even benevolent attitude towards them as individuals." The sudden movement from one to the other attitude, as during a truce, or at the moment that peace is declared, or a particular battle finished, is frequently dramatized in war movies, for ironic effect, presented either as a mystery or as a commentary, from an individualistic perspective, on the supposed absurdity or irrationality of war. That absurdity would be the temporary breakdown of the state; that the war usually goes on anyway reflects the enduring and generally inescapable hold of the state on individuals.)

Scott Miller wrote:

Again, is it really “morally responsible” to advocate sending kids to violently enact policy that they don’t understand?

We - and by "we" I mean "human beings" - haven't ever required soldiers or warriors to understand why they're fighting, or, even less, all to share the identical motivations or rationales. It's not always clear to the people giving them orders "why" they're fighting. You might even say that it's never fully clear: Like everything else we do, but perhaps especially in war, our motivations may remain mysterious to us. We might think we know "why," then only come to understand much later "really why," and then some time after move on to "no, really, really why, maybe" and so on. It's just words, interpretation, of decisions that may have been reached, as you might say, on a different level, or multiple levels, of consciousness. Why Hegel thought Napoleon was fighting his wars seems to have been vastly different from why Napoleon thought he was fighting, and the soldier who at first was fighting for the Revolution might later have decided he was fighting for France and then at another time have decided he was fighting for Napoleon, but, when pressed, have admitted he was fighting for the sake and respect of his immediate comrades.

Among the merely intuited rather than consciously recognized motivations for our sending our people and weapons to the Middle East may even have been, precisely, the need to send relatively large numbers of relatively empty human vessels overseas to take in a concrete and intimate experience of this foreign land and its inhabitants, including by fighting them as well as for and with them - an excellent way get to know someone, and, multiplied out, for one national culture to become much more intimately knowledgeable regarding another national culture - and to learn things that can't be learned any other way, even by meditating intensively. Our culture on its own terms may have needed to spend a decade (or maybe a generation or three) arguing about our relation to the rest of the world, and nothing holds the interest of those capable of being interested better than war. Or maybe we needed to convince ourselves through all that talk and talk that there wasn't really any point in talking, and that this democracy thing isn't what we hoped... Maybe we'll see. Maybe we won't.

But, if your real interest is to argue against the morality of war, or against the morality of organizing and maintaining armed forces in the way that we do, and with our assumptions about what levels of understanding of policy we require of soldiers, that doesn't have anything specifically to do with Iraq.

As for your awareness via meditation of yourself and what's around you, that doesn't have much to do with my point. The odds are very high that the computer you are using to explain your qualifications as a meditating savant was manufactured in large part if not entirely outside the United States. The electricity that powers your computer is likely generated by a power plant running on fuel that arrived in this country by ship. Ditto for the clothes you wear, for the car you drive, and on and on. The lives we all lead are conditioned in obvious and subtle ways by our abiding connections to and situation within a globalized culture that was largely the creation of our democratic capitalist world hegemony, which is in major part defined by and sustained at profound expense by armed forces employing large numbers of men and women (whose understanding of what they're doing and why,incidentally, may vary greatly).

And the differences between our American world and other human worlds is very great. What's normal for us, the way that we seek or claim to value individual lives is an historical peculiarity. It came at great cost, and is maintained at great cost. Because it's natural to us, we tend to lose sight of how very different it is from the human norm for the last 100,000 years, and in much of the rest of the world - to say nothing of the "animal norm."

Finally, on that self-image jab: How you appear to yourself in all of your complexity and simplicity is a different category of self-relationship than the socially mediated moral self-image that you chose initially to protect against the chain of co-responsibility that goes well beyond your tax payments to the federal government.

You invoked an ideal of good people spreading goodness through good contact. I say that people have always done that, but that as soon as intentionality takes on specific content - which it has to do in order to become real to self and others, on the way to having some positive impact of the sort you appear to favor, then it may come into conflict with other intentionalities, as even here you and I come into conflict... and so we fall into time and imperfection, and sooner or later someone would rather fight than switch.

Um, you're welcome! (Really.)

Scott Miller wrote:

An abdication of leadership”?

The leadership in question would be that of the nation in the world system, which you may or may not have looked into in much detail, but which you and your friends would sorely miss: You can begin by taking an inventory of everything in and around you, including the thoughts in your head, and tally how much of it consists of purely "domestic content." The pseudo-monarch who signs the orders and gives the press conferences may or may not embody elements of leadership independently.

The super state of peace and love that you describe already exists, but people still choose to tear it to pieces over and over again. You will also take your turn, over and over again - as you just did when you denied your likely far greater than 1/350,000,000th role in your country's starting and fighting the Iraq Expedition. Your great chain of we-itude breaks down as soon as it becomes inconvenient to your self-image, apparently.

How are we to knit together your happy network when even the best of us refuse moral responsibility? In order to establish something more dependable, we form different kinds of connection, in the spirit of the law and in institutions, the whole culture-state.

I'm called "Tsar" because, when I founded this blog for my fellow refugees, my boss Mr. Obama was busy handing out Czarships. The more conventional term is "Webmaster," which always suggested "spider" to me, not that I have anything against (most) spiders.

@ fuster:
Reads great doesn't it, right down to the charming translation glitches? But you do Saddam a grave disservice, you bad frog, by denying that he played a major role in defining what real existing Baathism meant. There were two Baathisms - the idealistic Pan-Arab vision, and the strong man vision - and each was threatening in its own way, all the more so when they came together, and the West has fought a series of bloody wars with its variants, both directly and by proxy.

@ fuster:
Wasn't anything to be done about that. Hegel and the Hegelians denied, by the way, being "idealists."

They tell you the truth, and you think it's Hell.

And Baathism was designed to be confrontational, and it was said that the very name "Saddam" meant "he who confronts/does not back down." Baathism was, in fact, a very rational political-ideological response to the predicament of the Arab world admist de-colonization and its aftermath. It was rational and powerful enough that we felt we had to knock it down, and so far may have failed despite massive and expensive effort.

You can't be the richest most advanced, and most powerful nation in the history of history, sponsor and protector of a system that requires safe transit through and cheapest possible extraction of finite resources from the most backward, (otherwise, generally) poorest, and least powerful region of the world - without having some major imbalances and frictions to cope with (and those aren't the only inequalities/imbalances). The human material being what it is, the inevitable re-adjustments of forced equilibrium are likely to be uneven, disruptive, and bloody.

@ Scott Miller:
I think we have to distinguish between fatalism of the intellect and fatalism of the act. The collective act of intervening pre-emptively expressed the diametrical opposite of fatalistic passivity in the face of "gathering danger." On that level, it was the opponents of the war who were fatalistic: It's all terrible, let's just keep talking and pretending indefinitely, refusing to take direct responsibility for whatever occurs, refusing to notice how unreal and irrelevant our talking is becoming. For the U.S. to take that position would have been an abdication of leadership, and the effects of such an abdication couldn't have been contained just to the relatively minor question of the fate of Saddam Hussein's government.

Don't know that I have a funny Hegelian outpouring on tap. I've wanted to avoid OD'ing on vulgar Hegelianism for now. I don't expect to be reading Hegel again for around another week, and I fatalistically anticipate difficulty restraining myself when that time comes. However, there was a brief Hegel discussion that I cut from the Iraq Syndrome piece. Its traces are in the relationship noted between violence and freedom - including especially violence/risk of life as proof of freedom. That's what I meant when I said that "Operating Iraqi Freedom" could only have been a willed confrontation with catastrophe. Saying that is to acknowledge that in choosing to act we did so without recognizing what we were getting ourselves and the Iraqis into, but it's not saying that we had any better choice. This is the subject for a more extensive discussion that I'm thinking about promoting to the level of a main post - or three-part series of three-part series of three-part posts, if I choose to expand upon the frog's recent example.

Scott Miller wrote:

@ CK MacLeod:
I was really referring to a couple things in “The Great Set-up.” I realize that your views are maturely tempered compared to most “R’s”, but you do admit to being for the Iraq war initially and the statement “By intervening as we did and how we did, we helped set the timetable of revolutionary violence and put ourselves in place to absorb and channel it” does keep you tied, albeit loosely, to the exact kind of low level solution that inspired Einstein to say what he did.

Well, let's get a coupla thins straight: I'm not now and never have been a member of the R Party. I've only ever been a registered I. Also, you're referring to the Iraq Syndrome piece not the Great Set-Up, and, to the point, the sentence you quote is a neutral description of the facts as I see them: It doesn't take a position as to whether intervening was a good idea - or amounted to a "solution." Intervention of the sort I described can be seen as one option among others, though from another point of view there was no option at all: As the world-historical nation of our era, the carrier of bourgeois revolution ("leader of the Free World") and the guarantor of the world political-economic order, we were bound to be involved in that way.

The position that I've taken all along, even before I decided to lend the Bush Administration my critical support (without which no doubt the plans would never have gone forward, of course), was that the Iraq War doesn't deserve to be considered a "war" all on its own. It can't be understood in isolation. In one important sense, it was the deferred conclusion of the Gulf War, which in turn needs to be seen in the context of the just-concluded Cold War, as does 9/11 - 9/11 standing as a combined aftershock of the Gulf War and of the Afghan War, and also as a byproduct of maintenance of the same "world order" in which the other two conflicts ought to be further contextualized.

Even before 9/11, the situation in and around Iraq was unstable and untenable. We were already engaged, there was no decision we could have made that would have disengaged us (militarily, economically, morally) and have insulated us from the consequences, and it was extremely likely if not inevitable (for all intents and purposes inevitable) that violence would eventually escalate catastrophically. Like many other observers, at the moment I saw the second plane hit on 9/11, I knew that Saddam Hussein's regime would be brought down fairly soon - not because I believed that Saddam had anything directly to do with 9/11, but because I knew we had entered a new historical phase, that things had changed, and that we would respond aggressively, eliminating sources of unpredictability and potential danger.

So my support for the war was based on the sense that it was going to happen anyway, and that the criticisms coming from the other side were weak and misguided. At the time the key decisions had not yet been made, none of the alternative scenarios was credible to me. Not acting - which at any point would have implied reversing course on some level - also would have had consequences, all of which, in my view at the time, risked greatly escalating dangers. (Few of those, incidentally, had anything to do with WMD. Though I had always believed that WMD stockpiles of some kind would be found, I never thought it more likely than not that they'd be very significant militarily, and I always thought that uncertainty about Saddam's WMD program was likely more significant than the actual WMD themselves.) All along, to this day, supporting the war meant supporting particular decisions at particular times as against alternatives, based on whatever available information. I can now look back and wonder whether options I resisted - delaying the initial attack, de-funding the war in 2005-6, fleeing the scene rather than tactically escalating via the Surge, etc. - might not have been as disastrous as I thought they would have been at the time, but I think it's too easy, a mere moral and intellectual evasion, just to rest on "I opposed the war" or "I should have opposed the war" without referring to specific decision points and specific alternatives within the larger context.

Scott Miller wrote:

I find myself wondering how you could continue to think that their are low-level answers to low-level problems.

Well, if you could point to a recent example, or slap me down the next time I appear to think such a thing, it would be helpful to me, as I'm not understanding you as well as I'd like to.

strangely or maybe not so strangely enough I find that I'm sounding like Eugene Robinson:

Scott Miller wrote:

If we play politics from our heart, together, the politicians that we need will come.

If that could happen, it might occur effectively apart from our political system - a New Age harmonic convergence/maturation/whatever in the whole culture that includes the political system and politicians.

Brooks was, I think, trying to imagine a mature politics for a mature nation, and he implicitly faults Obama for not being mature enough/wise enough to guide us toward it. The argument would be that there is or was a golden mean that, in addition to being more practically effective, would also have been more popular and therefore politically successful.

I'm agreeing with you in the sense that I also think we, all of us, determine what's possible for our politicians. Right now, the politicians who are successfully polarizing against Obama are being rewarded, and the ones who, on the terms of our current political system, sought flexibility are being punished. But that's a polar correction whose result will be a kind of balancing overall. However, Brooks is also arguing implicitly that good work wasn't done that should have been done - and that the country remains adrift. So the conclusion would seem to be that we - all of us - weren't ready for a mature politics, and still don't seem to be, and are paying a mounting price for it.

@ Rex Caruthers:
When I read what Jennifer Rubin or some of our old comrades say about Obama, I somewhat agree with you. You're either with them, or you're with the terrorists. But, if he is a moderate leftist, he probably wouldn't have been able to play radical for very long. It would have been a masquerade. If he had gone your route, or could have, I think there might very well have been heightened mass resistance and dislocation, including violence. But that's all speculation: He is what he is and we are who and what we are - blind/self-blinded as we were discussing last week. We are committed to remaining blind. At most, we see certain partial collective fantasies vividly, or grasp around haltingly at particular obstructions, but the world as it is mostly remains well beyond us. Our only chance, for now, is that we manage like my blind dog Annie to bump our way to the water bowl. If someone takes the water bowl away, we will likely die of thirst.