Saturday, August 28, 2004

Why we fight 

I don't know too many people involved in politics on the right, who don't have fondness for the classic early to mid 1980s BBC comedy series "Yes Minister" and "Yes Prime Minister." Margaret Thatcher certainly wasn't alone when she said that "its closely observed portrayal of what goes on in the corridors of power has given me hours of pure joy." I'm led to believe that for all the differences between the British Westminster system and the American system of government, the show was also a big hit in Ronald Reagan's Washington. After all, politics and bureaucracy are not all that different the world over.

As I follow the international news nowadays, I'm often reminded of an episode "A Victory for Democracy", where the arch-bureaucrat Sir Humphrey explains the classic four point strategy that the British Foreign Office uses in response to any crisis:
"Stage One: We say that nothing is going to happen.

Stage Two: We say that something may be going to happen, but we should do nothing.

Stage Three: We say that maybe we should do something about it, but there's nothing we can do.

Stage Four: We say that maybe there was something we could have done but it's too late now."
Underneath all the laughter, "Yes Minister" and "Yes Prime Minister" could be quite brutal in its honesty. Sadly, watching the events in Central Africa and the Balkans a decade ago, Iraq before March 2003 and in Darfur today, one is reminded that the four point strategy is not restricted just to political comedy shows, or even the real-life British Foreign Office for that matter, but seems to be avidly followed by most governments and the "international community" generally.

"Doing nothing" is a somewhat unkind and inaccurate description of the processes taking place - after all, politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats do generate a lot of activity while in their "problem-solving" mode, even if that activity largely consists of lots of talk during lots of meetings, and a great deal of first class international travel. While "doing nothing" might more appropriately refer to the ultimate outcomes (lots of dead Tutsis, Bosnians, and Sudanese; defiant Saddam still in power, etc.), I prefer to think of it as a synonym for the reluctance to seriously consider, much less actually use force to solve international problems.

One one level, this reluctance is quite understandable; more violence is not necessarily always the best solution to already existing violence. The decision to go to war is a momentous one, and it should weight heavily on the consciences of those who send young men (and increasingly women) into battle. Last, but certainly not least, there's the very human unwillingness to risk harm to one's own for the sake of helping others, on the other side of the world, in their strange and seemingly irrelevant predicaments.

It was Adam Smith, who more than two centuries ago famously commented on this trait in our character:
"Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could before himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own."
This indifference to the fate of others and unwillingness to seriously assist, are as familiar to us today, as they were to Smith when he wrote his "Theory of Moral Sentiments". Most of us, I'm sure, have participated in discussions where faced with a call for action to stop genocide, or famine, or remedy some other natural or man-made calamity, our interlocutors resorted to lines such as "it's not our problem", "it's somebody else's business", or "what have they ever done for us?"

In the late 1930s, British appeasers (or realists, as they would have liked to think of themselves) were fond of saying that Danzig is not worth the life of a single British soldier. Nowadays, sentiment remains the same, only the settings and the participants have changes; Fallujah, and Iraq generally, are not worth the life of a single American (or British, for that matter) soldier, we are told.

The institutionalists agree: after all, war is not the answer; peaceful means should be at all times pursued to solve international problems such as those in Iraq. That way there will be no need for any soldier to lay his life for Fallujah.

The realists agree, too: soldiers' lives should be sacrificed only when the national interest, narrowly construed, demands it. Iraq was not a threat to us and we have no business being there, trying to change the Middle East.

Finally, the isolationists, not caring very much either for the institutionalists or the realists nor for their arguments, nod and repeat the mantra about minding our own business and not trying to solve all the world's problems.

Only the neo-cons, for the lack of a better term, disagree. To the proposition that Fallujah is not worth the life of a single American soldier, they present two answers.

Some, like Marine Major Glen G Butler argue that the American soldiers aren't dying to Fallujah - ultimately they're dying for Des Moines: "No, I would not sacrifice myself, my parents would not sacrifice me, and President Bush would not sacrifice a single marine or soldier simply for Falluja. Rather, that symbolic city is but one step toward a free and democratic Iraq, which is one step closer to a more safe and secure America." In other words, contrary to the realists and the isolationists, it is in America's interest to fight in Iraq, because we're ultimately trying to make sure that the region doesn't pose in the future the same threat to our security and well-being it has posed in the past.

The other - and related - answer is that it takes two to tango: it's not just our decision whether or not Fallujah is worth even one soldier's life. Those who in 1939 thought that Danzig was not worth sacrificing the lives of British "Tommies", were soon enough forced with the necessity of sacrificing them for London and Coventry. It's not that their willingness to send troops in the harm's way has changed - it's that their enemies' hasn't.

The institutionalists in particular, seem to share in a popular and appealing delusion that everyone in the world is quite rational. Since no rational person would ever want war, there's really no excuse for anyone to resort to violence. All we have to do is sit down and talk out our differences. And if that's not possible, then the least we can do is to leave them alone, as surely they will.

This belief in universal rationality is not dangerous because it's always wrong. It's dangerous because it's sometimes wrong, and those sometimes matter a lot. We have to face the fact that once in a while an enemy comes along, whether it's communism, fascism or Islamism, that is not interested in "taking out the differences." The enemy doesn't have limited strategic objectives; he wants to see us dead. And if we don't fight him in Danzig, soon we'll have to fight him over London.

So next time somebody tells you that we should leave the foreigners alone and let them sort their own problems, remember these three simple propositions:

1) sometimes the alternatives to war are even worse.

2) sometimes our interests don't stop at our shoreline.

3) sometimes it's better to fight them in Fallujah.


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