July 21, 2006

War Fair: THE ETHICS OF BATTLE (Michael Walzer, 07.19.06, New Republic)

It is an important principle of just war theory that justice, though it rules out many ways of fighting, cannot rule out fighting itself–since fighting is sometimes morally and politically necessary. A military response to the capture of the three Israeli soldiers wasn’t, literally, necessary; in the past, Israel has negotiated instead of fighting and then exchanged prisoners. But, since Hamas and Hezbollah describe the captures as legitimate military operations–acts of war–they can hardly claim that further acts of war, in response, are illegitimate. The further acts have to be proportional, but Israel’s goal is to prevent future raids, as well as to rescue the soldiers, so proportionality must be measured not only against what Hamas and Hezbollah have already done, but also against what they are (and what they say they are) trying to do.

The most important Israeli goal in both the north and the south is to prevent rocket attacks on its civilian population, and, here, its response clearly meets the requirements of necessity. The first purpose of any state is to defend the lives of its citizens; no state can tolerate random rocket attacks on its cities and towns. Some 700 rockets have been fired from northern Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal a year ago–imagine the U.S. response if a similar number were fired at Buffalo and Detroit from some Canadian no-man’s-land. It doesn’t matter that, so far, the Gazan rockets have done minimal damage; the intention every time one is fired is to hit a home or a school, and, sooner or later, that intention will be realized. Israel has waited a long time for the Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese government to deal with the rocket fire from Gaza and the rocket build-up on the Lebanese border. In the latter case, it has also waited for the United Nations, which has a force in southern Lebanon that is mandated to “restore international peace and security” but has nonetheless watched the positioning of thousands of rockets and has done nothing. A couple of years ago, the Security Council passed a resolution calling for the disarming of Hezbollah; its troops, presumably, have noticed that this didn’t happen. Now Israel has rightly decided that it has no choice except to take out the rockets itself. But, again, how can it do that?

The crucial argument is about the Palestinian use of civilians as shields. Academic philosophers have written at great length about “innocent shields,” since these radically exploited (but sometimes, perhaps, compliant) men and women pose a dilemma that tests the philosophers’ dialectical skills. Israeli soldiers are not required to have dialectical skills, but, on the one hand, they are expected to do everything they can to prevent civilian deaths, and, on the other hand, they are expected to fight against an enemy that hides behind civilians. So (to quote a famous line from Trotsky), they may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in them.

There is no neat solution to their dilemma. When Palestinian militants launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are themselves responsible–and no one else is–for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli counterfire. But (the dialectical argument continues) Israeli soldiers are required to aim as precisely as they can at the militants, to take risks in order to do that, and to call off counterattacks that would kill large numbers of civilians. That last requirement means that, sometimes, the Palestinian use of civilian shields, though it is a cruel and immoral way of fighting, is also an effective way of fighting. It works, because it is both morally right and politically intelligent for the Israelis to minimize–and to be seen trying to minimize–civilian casualties. Still, minimizing does not mean avoiding entirely: Civilians will suffer so long as no one on the Palestinian side (or the Lebanese side) takes action to stop rocket attacks. From that side, though not from the Israeli side, what needs to be done could probably be done without harm to civilians. […]

Until there is an effective Lebanese army and a Palestinian government that believes in co-existence, Israel is entitled to act, within the dialectical limits, on its own behalf.

Too bad we couldn’t get Mr. Walzer for yesterday’s discussion, but we were fortunate enough to get to use one of his essays in the book.



November 17, 2005

The Limits of Sovereignty; The Legitimacy of Collective Action (Carroll Andrew Morse, 11/17/05, Tech Central Station)

[G]iven reasonable certainty that the Bush administration is not making high-profile noises against Syria without preparing to follow through, what happens next? The answer will depend, in large part, on the usual critics of Bush administration foreign policy. Syria’s crude use of political violence provides an opportunity to unify a number of American foreign policy strains that have recently been estranged from one another. Syria’s assassination of a political leader is frowned upon not only by hawks of various stripes, but also by process-oriented liberal internationalists — who do not like one state interfering with another through the use of violence — and by realists who view the assassination of leaders as dangerously destabilizing. Add in the growing contingent who believes that the United States should more skillfully combine participation in international institutions with the pursuit of American interests, and there should be a wide constituency for meaningful action against Syria.

In the best case outcome, America bootstraps the world towards a meaningful act of collective security. The liberal internationalists take the lead on the political left. They help forge an agreement between America’s different foreign policy elites on a plan for dealing with Syria that has tangible goals, realistic deadlines, and an enforcement mechanism. Confronted with a united America, nations not always inclined to support US foreign policy decide that sacrificing one clumsy dictator is more prudent than spending — perhaps overspending — the political capital of the United Nations to protect assassins harbored by the Syrian government. Syria, lacking any meaningful international support, is forced to turn over its government officials and nationals involved in the al-Hariri assassination. The growing spectacle of weakness and incompetence undermines Syria’s government, setting Syria on a path to political modernization.

And in the worst case? The liberal internationalists succumb to their own worst tradition. Instead of leading, they follow the lead of the visceral anti-Bush partisans and join tortured arguments that at best ignore, and at worst justify, state-sponsored political assassination. Sensing a divided America, the UN is never compelled to move beyond approving resolutions that do nothing more than threaten other resolutions. The Bush administration — strongly committed to the idea that not acting once engaged shows dangerous weakness — assembles a coalition outside of the UN to act against Syria. A divided Congress either barely supports or barely rejects action outside of the UN and future political assassins are emboldened during a debate where many members of Congress declare that no one should act against political assassination without UN permission.

Not everyone believes that action outside of the UN following a UN non-response qualifies as a “worst case scenario”. A United Nations that refuses to act against cross-border assassination — an offensive act of war by any reasonable standard — serves no purpose and should be allowed to continue its slide into irrelevance. Will the liberal internationalists and the further leftward skeptics of George W. Bush’s foreign policy take this opportunity to demand that international institutions take a stand against anarchy? Or will they continue to undermine the legitimacy of those institutions by using them as justification for surrendering to anarchy?

Sadly, the reality is that there are only a handful of liberal interventionists around–Michael Walzer, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, Paul Berman, George Packer, Ed Koch, Joe Lieberman, and a very few others–and even several of them go wobbly any time the rest of the Left criticizes George Bush loudly enough. we do well to recall Mr. Walzer’s question after we toppled the Taliban, and his sad answer:

[C]an there be a decent left in a superpower? Or more accurately, in the only superpower? Maybe the guilt produced by living in such a country and enjoying its privileges makes it impossible to sustain a decent (intelligent, responsible, morally nuanced) politics. Maybe festering resentment, ingrown anger, and self-hate are the inevitable result of the long years spent in fruitless opposition to the global reach of American power.

Given that American power has been used over the last ninety years to defeat colonialism, Communism, Nazism, and now Islamicism, the opposition to that reach must be called indecent.


April 12, 2005

Passion plea (Drake Bennett, April 10, 2005, Boston Globe)

MICHAEL WALZER is a liberal who has spent much of his career unsettling the opinions of other liberals. The political philosopher’s enormously influential 1977 book ”Just and Unjust Wars,” an effort to outline the demands and limits of morality in war, was read by many as a challenge to an American left that, in the wake of the Vietnam War, had become increasingly pacifist. Twenty-five years later, in a widely read essay for Dissent magazine (of which he is co-editor) pointedly titled ”Can There Be a Decent Left?,” he took liberal thinkers to task for refusing to acknowledge and appropriately denounce the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalist terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. […]

IDEAS: What’s wrong with what you call ”liberal reasonableness”?

WALZER: One example is the love of the courtroom, and a general antipathy to old-fashioned political struggle…. In the literature of liberalism today, there’s a great dislike of bargaining. When political scientists talk about ”deliberative democracy,” they mean to describe a process in which people talk through very complex issues and eventually reach a consensus. But, in fact, in politics that’s very rare. People have very strong positions and interests, and what usually happens in democratic politics is a bargaining process, a negotiation process that ends in a compromise, not a verdict. It’s not a deliberative outcome, it’s a negotiated outcome.

IDEAS: You also argue that the liberal idea of the autonomous individual is a bit of a myth. Why is this a problem?

WALZER: The most intractable forms of inequality in the United States are connected to the collective disqualification of the members of pariah groups, and that requires a different kind of remedy, which addresses the problem of the group, rather than just the problem of this or that unlucky individual.

One way of doing that is to strengthen the organizations of the group, the mutual aid organizations, the philanthropic and welfare societies. We have a lot of those mutual aid organizations in the United States and some of them are very, very successful, particularly [those created by] groups like the Catholics and Lutherans and the Jews. I think it would make a big difference in American life if black churches, for example, or Hispanic churches, were providing services of this sort for their members.

IDEAS: Wouldn’t this just create a more fragmented public sphere?

WALZER: That certainly has not been the experience of groups like the Catholics, the Lutherans, and the Jews, whose members don’t seem to be isolated or withdrawn from public life. In fact it’s the weaker groups, which are not able to provide these sorts of services to their members, that tend to be isolated and withdrawn in our society.

I’m not proposing that the state help in any way to defend the boundaries of these groups, I think that there would be a lot of coming and going. One of the motivating factors in my argument is the discovery by political scientists that people who are active in the kinds of [mutual aid organizations] I’m describing are also active participants in the larger polity.

IDEAS: What you’re describing looks a bit like President Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Is that something you’d support?

WALZER: ”Faith-based” is their term. I was thinking more of community-based.

Fine, we can change the name.


April 9, 2005

All God’s Children Got Values (Michael Walzer, Spring 20905, Dissent)

Liberals and leftists are engaged on many fronts, but we are not coherently engaged. No one on the left has succeeded in telling a story that brings together the different values to which we are committed and connects them to some general picture of what the modern world is like and what our country should be like. The right, by contrast, has a general picture. I don’t think that its parts actually fit together in a coherent way, but they appear to do so. And in politics, despite the common view that all politicians pander to their constituencies, saying one thing here and its opposite there, the appearance of coherence is the name of the game.

Scattershot doesn’t work, not in arguments and not in campaigns; you need a coordinated barrage. And somehow, right-wing intellectuals and activists have managed to convince themselves and a lot of other people that the free market, individual self-reliance, the crusade for democracy, the war against terrorism, heterosexual marriage, conventional sex and gender roles, religious faith, and patriotic sentimentality all hang together. They are a coherent set, and together they constitute the American Way. And then the defense of “values,” even if it’s narrowly and weirdly focused-say, on sexual license in Hollywood movies-calls to mind everything else. Well, I guess it’s not entirely weird; there is a recognizable picture of America here, even if it’s a nostalgic picture, and even if a lot of Americans (maybe, today, most Americans) are left out of it.

Much of this essay is quite sensible, typical of Mr. Walzer, but his confusion here is strange. The entire set of values that conservatism defends–the American Way–derives from the recognition that men are Created beings endowed with human dignity. All else follows.


November 29, 2003

Is There an American Empire? (Michael Walzer, Fall 2003, Dissent)

When Rudyard Kipling called empire “the White Man’s burden,” he was stating, in the ideological idiom of his time, a simple fact: power brings responsibility with it. But the burdens of hegemony can’t be borne alone; they have to be shared. A rationally governed hegemonic power doesn’t act unilaterally to repel aggression or stop massacres or take on the (very difficult) work of nation building; it marshals coalitions. These will be coalitions of the willing, obviously, but the willingness has to be won by consultation, persuasion, and compromise. In recent years, our government has sought to avoid any serious version of these three necessary processes, as if its leaders want to manage the world all by themselves. That ambition is probably a better explanation of the Iraq War than any provided by the theory of imperialism. But America’s leaders can’t manage the world. In the aftermath of what has turned out to be a very incomplete victory in the war against Saddam, they obviously need help managing a single country. As I write, they are looking for help, but still without committing themselves to consultation, persuasion, and compromise. It is hard to gauge the learning curve of the Bush administration. But it will learn sooner or later that hegemony, unlike empire, rests on consent.

What kind of left politics follows from this understanding of American power? We need a long response to this question, and right now I have only a short one. In Britain, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, leftists were “little Englanders,” that is, they advocated independence for the colonies. The United States is already committed to independence-even Bush & Co. are against “microadministration”!-and also, rhetorically, at least, to democracy. One thing the left can do is to insist that this commitment be honored not only in words but also in performance, even when the performance compromises hegemonic power. Is the United States prepared, for example, to help create a government in Iraq capable of saying no to its American patron, the way the Turks did? (I don’t mean that we have to work for a Shiite theocracy.) How many “interests and tendencies” contrary to its own is our government ready to acknowledge and accommodate for the sake of global stability? What sort of “equilibrium,” with what other groups, is it willing to accept? V. I. Lenin once wrote that “the task of the intelligentsia is to make special leaders from among the intelligentsia unnecessary.” He didn’t mean it, but the idea is useful. The task of a democratic hegemon is to make its own role less central, the exercise of power more and more consensual.

This will never be the chosen task of the people currently in power in Washington. Even the minimal goal of a better equilibrium, a more compromised hegemony, a more effective defense of democratic government, can only be achieved through oppositionist politics. Opposition will have to come first from inside the United States: American liberals and leftists should be advocates of self-limitation, which would be the real meaning of signing on to (and then upholding) instruments such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, or the Kyoto accords, or the International Criminal Court-and also of accepting greater mutuality in world trade and opening our doors to third world imports. All these involve qualifications of hegemony, the acceptance of universal rules, equally applied, and hence they constitute “sacrifices of a corporate nature.” As Gramsci suggests, however, these sacrifices don’t eliminate hegemonic power; they modify it in ways useful to humanity, but at the same time they represent a form of intelligent maintenance. The Democratic Party should certainly be capable of that much (though its leaders seem, right now, barely capable of anything). But those of us who want more than this, who are worried about and opposed to the rule of a single hegemon, need external allies-first in the society of states and then in international civil society.

It’s almost necessary to feel sorry for Mr. Walzer, a decent seeming man left floundering by the reluctant realization that it is the Right enacting his ideals globally, not the Left.

MORE: (via Mike Daley):
The Selective Solidarity of the Left (Danny Postel, 11.24.03, In These Times)

Why are American progressives by and large silent about the situation in Iran today?

How many American progressives knew who Shirin Ebadi was before she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last month? Almost no one. By the same token, how many of us knew who Rigoberta Menchú was before she won the prize in 1992? Many, if not most of us: We’d seen her speak, read her autobiography, or simply had come to know her story by osmosis in activist circles.

Consider the number of Guatemalan solidarity groups that have come onto the scene over the years. How many American progressives, at some point between the early ’80s and the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996, were involved, at one level or another, in solidarity work around Guatemala? Tons of us. Why the difference?

What is going on in Iran doesn’t lend itself to the kind of analytical prism through which progressives made sense of Central America during the high tide of our solidarity activism, the Reagan years. In Central America, military juntas and death squads, in concert with feudal elites and corporate oligarchs, were running the show with the active support of the United States. In a nutshell, a bloodbath of imperial domination, rapacious exploitation, scorched earth terror, and mass murder—in which the United States was complicit from top to bottom.

But what happens when people are struggling against tyranny and repression that is not being perpetrated by the United States or its proxies and when—to take the case of Iran today—the regime in question is a sworn enemy of the United States.

Let’s face it: It’s just plain uncomfortable for progressives to say anything that sounds like it could also come out of the mouth of George Bush or Paul Wolfowitz.

Jeremy Brecher argues in Foreign Policy in Focus, however, that “failure to defend human rights in such circumstances only plays into the hands of the Bush juggernaut.” Progressives must, he contends, be known as “people whose fundamental solidarity is not with one or another government but with all people who are struggling for liberation from oppression.”

The solidarity, of course, is against America, not in favor of the freedom of other peoples.