I'm not some Karl Rove inspired meathead. I'm a Canadian!

News & Politics

The following is what our boss, Don Hazen, calls "reader-generated content."

I received it from a gentleman in Vancouver in response to my piece yesterday, in which I made a classic hard-lefty argument about neo-colonialism in Iraq -- an argument I hung on a rather poor choice of words by one Joe Lieberman.

That's right, it looks like I went and pissed off a Canadian, which isn't easy given that I didn't say a word about hockey.

Here's the blast from Michael Hargadon, with his kind permission to reprint and a few annotations:

Sir --
You seem to be confused with respect to your definitions of primitivism and modernity. We live in an age in which political, philosophical and scientific sophistication are not prerequisites for the acquisition of modern weapons. A regime can possess the most complicated destructive implements known to man and still adhere to public ethics and systems of political organization that, when evaluated through the long view of history, are remarkably puerile.
Tyranny is the simplest (and worst) form of government a nation can have foisted upon it, and there can be no doubt that Saddamite Iraq was a tyrannical polity. Do excellent universities and great hospitals matter when individuals are systematically deprived of their freedom and the citizens of a given state can be murdered at the whim of the tyrant? I like to think they don't. A well-fed slave is still a slave, and a state can make use of modern weapons, modern propaganda techniques and, sadly, modern instruments of repression and still remain infantile in terms of its ethics. It's uncouth to say things like this in this day and age, but I will: a state that does not allow its citizens the right to individual and political self-determination is barbarous. It adheres to a moral code whose time has passed.
You also seem to be confused with respect to your imperial history. Britain, France, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Italians, the Russians and all the other houses of Europe neither installed independent governments in the territories they conquered nor allowed for free elections until the locals demanded the return of their sovereignty. The only exceptions were the so-called "domains of settlement," one of which I currently write from. Is it not a facile analogy to compare American ambitions in Iraq to those of the 19th-century European powers? As a student of history, I say it is. The context and circumstances have changed so drastically since then as to make any such juxtaposition ridiculous.
Let me jump in for a sec here. I argued that a specific part of a line of ideologies that justified colonialism was similar -- I called them "earlier iterations" -- to the American exceptionalism that surrounds us today.

Those of us who like to toss a rhetorical bomb or two from the left sometimes talk about "neo-colonialism." This infuriates our interlocutors on the other side, who point to the many differences between the colonial era and our current form of global hegemony.

My response is: that's why it's called neo-colonialism. There are likenesses, but there are also differences. Nobody who writes on the topic seriously is attempting to draw a precise parallel between then and now. As Michael points out, the circumstances have shifted too much in too many ways to argue that modern international arrangements share more than specific traits with good old-fashioned jump-off-the-boat-and-kill-some-wogs European colonialism.

To be fair, Michael acknowledged as much in a subsequent exchange.

Back to his highly articulate rant:
The facts and the philosophy are simple. All human beings have a natural right -- and I mean that precisely in the Platonic sense -- to self-determination. The whole grand movement of human history is the tale of peoples moving from barbarous tyranny to greater and greater heights of individual and collective emancipation. These are not "Western" values per se; they are universal values. They are reflected in the constitution of all civilized nations and the UN charter; they are being fought for in China, in Indonesia, in Syria and Lebanon, in Iran and in Iraq. Have Westerners successfully colonized the minds of all of these people, or is it perhaps possible that all humans desire freedom, equality, political self-determination and dignity?
The real problem with your piece -- and it is well-written and decently argued -- is that it is ahistorical. When the British said "primitive" or "savage" they were referring just as much to dress, cultural practices, systems of family organization, styles of home-building and a thousand other irrelevant things as they were fundamentals like freedom. When the loaded rhetoric of "civilization" versus "barbarism" is used now, it refers only to systems of governance. Are you willing to say that all systems of government are equally just or virtuous? Will you pronounce an ethical judgment on this matter? Was the Ba'ath better or worse for Iraq than the prospect of a democratically-elected government? Perhaps better yet, who benefitted from it? I expect the Shiites and Kurds who were extended the privilege of digging their own grave before they were shot into it might be less than enthusiastic about the health care they never received. Perforation isn't exactly surgery.
Two points here. First, I take issue with his assertion that when a guy like Joe Lieberman, or worse like Tony Blankley of the Washington Times talks about these issues, it is distinctly political. It may not be about dress (towelhead, anyone?), but it is certainly about culture writ large. And its purpose -- then as now -- is to justify political actions. These are, obviously, assertions of over-arching cultural superiority.

Second, I just want to note how adroitly my new friend went from that point to asking me if I can make an ethical judgment about whether Iraq is better off under Saddam then a democratically-elected government. That question is beside the point, as I'll address in a moment.
Free peoples and free nations have a moral obligation to assist other human beings who are struggling to obtain liberty and peace. It's funny that you would turn your attention to the political machinations of the Arab League, an organization representative of some of the most repressive tyrannies that exist in our age, while ignoring the whim of the Government of Iraq. I'll tell you what: if Iraqis boycott the polls in favor of some nebulous Atwa I'll cede the argument to you.
Why is it so impossible to believe that these people are participating in a political process of their own making? The Iraqi constitution was approved by a majority and they're gearing up to form the first sovereign, representative government that country has seen in decades.
Real quick. First, I'm surprised that anyone would argue that there's a "process of their own making" in Iraq. That's clearly not the case. The constitutional development has been somewhat legitimate among Shi'ites and Kurds, although there have been widespread reports of voting shenanigans. The process is wholly illegitimate among Sunnis. Not just "dead-enders" -- whatever that means -- but among this group that makes up a fifth of the population.

Well, screw 'em, you might say. They're only a fifth. That's true, but they're the fifth that's fueling a low-level civil war in Iraq. What's more, our insistence on an overly broad "de-Baathification" of Iraq has legitimately screwed many of these people -- they have real gripes and they're being cut out of the process by the Shiite and Kurdish leaders, as well as staying out of the process because they don't view it as legitimate. This is a very different view than Michael's.
Don't you get it? Democracy is a "made-in-Iraq" solution because Iraqis are participating in it. You have to decide whether or not you want to stand behind the original convictions of the Left, eg. tolerance, pluralism, respect for human rights and representative government (however construed; Marxists would disagree about what is truly representative) or instead go with the Left's descent into the kind of reactionism and isolationism that would make Barry Goldwater proud.
Seriously, what's with the Goldwater isolationism stuff? Why do those on the right have such an awesome love affair with the straw-man? Michael's way too intelligent to honestly believe that there's no point that falls between opposing a war of choice launched without multilateral cover against the wishes of the majority of the people walking this planet and isolationism. Talk about your false dichotomy!
Oh yeah, and so you better know where I'm coming from, I'm not some Karl Rove inspired meathead. I'm a Canadian, and we're dyed-in-the-wool socialists.
It's my nomination for best line of the year: "I'm not some Karl Rove inspired meathead. I'm a Canadian..."
I'm just sick of all this bullshit about the exploitation of the Iraqis and how it's wrong to knock off genocidal tyrants and assist the people of a nation in reasserting control over their own political destiny. If the Iraqi government passes a law requesting American withdrawal from the country and the states refuses to comply, you can be damned sure I'll be protesting in the streets by your side.
All kidding aside, Michael makes a serious moral argument that deserves a serious response. This gets into larger questions of humanitarian intervention and why the "liberal hawks" are wrong about arguing that Iraq was an example of such.

Let me say that if I believed, as Michael clearly does, that we were going to bring a responsive, human-rights respecting self-government to the Iraqi people I would support this war as a moral cause.

I don't think that was our desire, and I don't believe we have the capacity to do it if it were.

Michael may not have read Pratap Chatterjee's Iraq, Inc.: A Profitable Occupation, or Naomi Klein's excellent reporting in the Guardian about how the first thing that was on the minds of those setting up Iraq's government was to create a set of laws -- one that would survive the interim government and be incorporated into the constitution -- that sold off most of the country's state-owned enterprises, threw open the doors to foreign investors, allowed 100% expatriation of profits and kept one, just one law from the Hussein era: a ban on public sector labor organizing.

Ultimately, Iraq, as it's developing, provides a great example of why I think it more relevant to speak of good governance than of democracy. Good governance requires democracy, but not vice-versa. It may well be that the constitutional process is legitimate for 70% of Iraqis. I don't know that's the case because there are conflicting reports, but let's concede the point. There is very little evidence of anything approaching good governance in Iraq, and for very obvious reasons.

Just to refresh: good governance is a useful but nebulous catch-all that involves 1) the rule of law 2) a high standard of human rights 3) democracy and 4) being responsive to the needs of the citizenry.

It's not that hard to create photo-ops of happy Iraqis going to the polls. But follow the links provided on this Wikipedia page about the human rights climate after the fall of Saddam and judge for yourself to what degree it jibes with Michael's view of Iraqi self-governance.

In short, they're voting, but the rest of it is lacking. I agree with Michael when he says, "All human beings have a natural right ... to self-determination." But I disagree vehemently when he portrays our attack of Iraq as a free people helping another people that were struggling to be liberated. That's a propaganda line that bears no resemblance to reality. I am of the belief that democracy must be home-grown -I know it's a cliche -- because it is a more delicate social contract than other forms of government. Michael believes Iraqi participation is evidence that it's a home-grown process. I don't see the basis of that argument -- there are still 160,000 occupation troops on the ground, no?

It comes down to a cost/benefit analysis. Over a hundred thousand innocent Iraqis have died in the past two and a half years. I believe their deaths will ultimately buy either a vaguely pro-Western government that has democratic trappings but rules with an iron hand, or a vaguely pro-Iranian government that has theocratic trappings and rules with an iron hand.

Last point, and I apologize for the 2,000-word blog-post (most unseemly).

Let's be very clear: the United States' decision to attack Iraq in Spring of 2003 was not a humanitarian intervention and can't be simply spun as such after the fact.

It fails the test on every ground. A humanitarian intervention, by definition, is a response to a humanitarian crisis. Not an asshole dictator, a crisis. There have been several humanitarian crises in Iraq under the government of Hussein. None of them have occurred in the last five years. Humanitarian interventions are not punitive; their sole purpose is to stop mass killings. If you wanted to argue for a humanitarian intervention in 1991, that would have been compelling. But, sorry, the U.S. was having none of it at the time as our priority was regional stability.

Humanitarian interventions, again by definition, are multilateral. That's for a reason. It's so aggressors can't claim that an intervention on ideological, economic or other grounds is humanitarian (sound familiar).

Here's the landmark 100-page report from the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty for more details (PDF).

The reason that this invasion was so damaging in the long run -- in addition to the human toll -- is precisely because it undermined that most fragile and most precious of commodities, international law. That's damage that can't be undone, and has consequences that none of us can predict, but that will be with us for generations.

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