Our Lesser Evil

Reviled by some for supporting the Iraq War, Michael Ignatieff (who now teaches at the University of Toronto) wrote an often overlooked book during the mid-oughts, called The Lesser Evil. Tackling an ambitious question –how can a state address the threat of terrorism– the book outlines the weakness of democratic institutions in the face of asymmetric (and illegal) wars.

Ignatieff argues that democracies are liable to tear themselves apart by destroying their own systems of justice, curtailing their prized liberties, eroding their support for transparency, and morphing questions of criminality into forever wars against ideology –all in an effort to fight the ghostly others. Long story short, in responding to terrorists eager to harm their country, democratic leaders begin to do the terrorist’s work themselves.

This week, The Atlantic published the latest “recap” on some of the liberties the United States has lost in the fight against Al Qaeda (or other enemies unknown). While few will be shocked by the claims made, or the nefarious future that appears ever-closer, Ignatieff’s initial book is notable for its prescience, even if the man wasn’t with respect to Iraq. Today, The Lesser Evil might be worth a second (or first) look.

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Resisting Resistance: Why Syria isn’t Rwanda…. Or Iraq.

Either way, the distinction in approach should prod a reader towards the ultimate question: On what grounds should the international community (or even The United States) risk the lives of their own for others?

In an op-ed penned last week, Prof. Anne-Marie Slaughter took square aim at President Obama regarding his administration’s reaction (or lack thereof) to new evidence that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against it’s own people.

Invoking memories of Former President Clinton’s ill-handled response to reports of genocide in Rwanda, Slaughter is quick to warn readers about the cost of inaction:

The reason the Obama administration does not want to recognize that chemical weapons are being used in Syria is because Obama warned the Syrian regime clearly and sharply in August against using such weapons. “There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical-weapons front or the use of chemical weapons,” he said. “That would change my calculations significantly.”

But while I would like to (and often do) agree that action is not only necessary, but also required in situations of human suffering, the 10-year anniversary of George Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech —and a reflection written by James Wright, yesterday— suggests that the situation presents something more akin to a ‘do and die’ situation

Unabashedly, Wright is quick to note that when a country chooses to fight in war, that country must also accept that they will die in that war. Wright’s suggestion, then, is that the true cost of conflict is not only greater that anticipated, but it is also exacerbated when the mission or outcome (these “goalposts” as Wright calls them) morph over time:

President Bush is correct that it will take time for history to judge the consequences for Iraq of the American military involvement. It is not too soon to acknowledge the costs of that involvement. Nor is it premature to recognize that wars with shifting objectives, wars that pursue values rather than tangible targets, are far harder to reconcile against the costs.

But that is why dualities (to intervene or not) posed by Slaughter should strike the reader as too simplified, too… hell… Hawkish.

In a country like Syria, we’re only just beginning to understand the ways the impact of conflict has deformed our measures of right and wrong, how long-term hostilities, and the people who suffer them, only complicate our understanding of enemy and ally, and how instability that threatens one actor is liable to compel responses from another (i.e. Iran).

To avoid repeated (error-ridden) forays internationally, Wright calls for cooler heads, rational and tested analysis, and clear objectives when intervention is necessary. In this light, it is difficult to adopt (blindly) the clarion call of Slaughter.

In fact, in Slaughter’s own words, intervention should take place regardless of challenges that could create even further complexity and suffering in the long term:

The world does not see the complex calculations inside the White House — the difficulty of achieving any positive outcomes in Syria even with intervention, the possible harm to Obama’s domestic agenda if he plunges into the morass of another conflict in the Middle East.

Opting to challenge Obama’s administration on the basis of populism:

The world would see Syrian civilians rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, dying by the thousands while the United States stands by.

With there respective pedigrees, both academics surely understand the immense cost and consequence of the issues they tackle. But behind their arguments, are two radically different assumptions; assumptions that —if correct, and by this I mean in-keeping with the personal philosophies of each academic— follow logically from their worldviews.

For Wright, acts of war or intervention must be informed, or perhaps even derived from, accounting of costs and benefits: providing force for the purpose of principle may well jeopardize any positive “end game.”

For Slaughter, the act of intervention appears as American duty, owed to others given the values espoused by the United States. While Slaughter is not agnostic about the cost of intervention, “the decision to do nothing” violates a far more essential moral code.  [It may also have to do with Slaughter’s privileging of US “soft power,” but that is a story for another post].

Thus, the challenge is overcoming a “level of analysis” problem: the granularities of why war is ‘bad’ are tough to reconcile with an ideological argument that asserts  wars of justice, or on principle, as necessary for their own sake.  Either way, the distinction in approach should prod a reader towards the ultimate question: On what grounds should the international community (or even The United States) risk the lives of their own for others?

If the answer to that question is limited, our expectations for success should be too.

As Americans vote, a need for patience.

In the darker corners of campaign headquarters, in the holding areas where both candidates take deep breaths before mounting another stage, shaking another hand, one has to believe the sense of melancholy —of promises impossibly proffered— must be overwhelming. If 2008 was the year for change, 2012 is certainly the year for patience

I am only a spectator for today’s United States election. As a Canadian, I can merely suggest how I, were I given the responsibility, might vote in what some have called the “election of a generation.”

For the past few months I’ve listened to arguments —the forthright, the ill-informed, the wistful, the impassioned and the politically naive— about whether this country should be run by a black, former community organizer from Chicago who once stridently preached “Change,” or a white, corporate juggernaut, with a (self-professed) business acumen superior to the current, and aforementioned, Commander-in-Chief, who wants to make America great (again?).

In the land of perpetual political campaign, these two men have set out across the 50 states hoping to capture, if only for a moment and a ballot, the essence of what Americans want.

But behind the scenes, in the darker corners of campaign headquarters, in the holding areas where both candidates take deep breaths before mounting another stage, shaking another hand, one has to believe the sense of melancholy —of promises impossibly proffered— must be overwhelming. If 2008 was the year for change, 2012 is certainly the year for patience.

Back in November 2008, in a dusty beige-walled business office at a six-room hostel in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, I watched Obama accept what appeared to be the world’s worst job offer —President-elect of the United States.

As the global economy teetered in response (at least in part) to the economic stress created by runaway banks and the “toxic debt” amassed over years with insufficient financial regulation, President Obama had to take the reins of a country at war (two, actually) that also sported an ailing international reputation.

Yet somehow, as I sat on that worn couch, talking politics with other curious and engaged non-Americans, there was a sense that the United States would be stronger, smarter, more productive and more worthy of respect with Obama in charge.

Four years later, I still think we were right. Unfortunately, without a vote that doesn’t matter much.

In world where I can watch breaking news on my phone and scroll through countless 140-character Tweets that wash over my computer screen, citizens (and importantly voters) have come to demand a government so responsive that even a reasonably timely solution is open for critique. And it was that very Obama-inspired “Hope” —plastered on campaign materials, stencilled on the country’s crumbling highway overpasses, and graffitied on public spaces across a nation— that has become Obama’s stiffest opponent during the 2012 campaign.

Obama hasn’t made good on every promise, but one has to think it’s because there was so much to fix. To solve a decade-long crisis of leadership, he was going to need more than four years.

Even as the viciousness of the 2012 campaign reached crescendo, the country was still climbing back to pre-crash conditions; a country stewarded out of the spiral by economic bandaids and political emergency measures, despite continued obstruction from the Red side of the aisle —a fact apparently forgotten among Republicans/Tea Party-ites. (Sidenote: I wonder how many Democrats from the Cold War era imagined the most significant threat to America’s future would be the “Reds” at home?)

In fairness, Obama has made his mistakes. His vision —or at least his voiced opinions— have not always been followed by the necessary conviction to make good on those promises. He knows perhaps more clearly than his critics that rhetoric alone cannot create policies, and that promises rarely look the same after they’ve been fed through the political machine.

But a vote for Romney (or worse, simply against Obama) is not just a rejection of the “new America” —that near-utopian, post-partisan political playground of compromise and cooperation. It is vote in favor of the tired, broken, polarized, ‘winner-take-all’ political environment that breeds the very animosity seen in the vitriol of this campaign. It is a vote in favor of an American political landscape imbued with a simple and destructive creed: humiliate-or-destroy-thy-opponent-at-all-cost.

This ethos praises political victory over tolerance and personal privilege over pragmatic politicking. The system it spawns is neither reflective of democratic ideals nor the oft-voiced principles that Americans believe make their country so strong. Instead, it is a system based on division, of special interest couched in an American narrative. It is a political system destined to leave the many behind.

While this post comes late on election day, it shouldn’t be construed as a last-minute appeal to sway the fervent and stiff-necked from their positions. This piece is merely intended as record:

Four years ago, on this day, I made a bet: that the impatience our generation would limit Obama’s time in office to a single term, that the real cost of “Change” was patience our generation didn’t have.

Today —despite the money on the line— I desperately hope I lose that bet.