Remember When the World Went Crazy?

You know what’s always fun? Watching old clips of Christopher Hitchens being wrong. This is from the tail-end of a December 2002 debate with him, Harold Koh, Michael Walzer, and David Rieff. He’s the only one stridently for the war, though one gets the sense that Walzer and especially Koh might be happy with a UN-sanctioned intervention:

Koh and Walzer both concede entirely too much, but Rieff is right on target. This, from Walzer, is critical:

My argument with Christopher is a very old one, I think. There’s a slogan on the left, where we both grew up: “the liberation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.” And I think that applies not only to class politics, it applies to democratic politics generally. We can stop mass murder. We can stop – we should stop – ethnic cleansing. When people are in desperate trouble, when people are radically helpless, then intervention is justified. But tyrannies, authoritarian regimes, class hierarchies have to be overthrown from within.

I would only add that there is a peculiar irony is supporting the deposing of tyrannies not only not from the ground up, but through tyranny. After all, occupation (the governing of a territory by unelected, illegitimate foreign nationals) is tyranny every bit as much as dictatorship (the governing of a territory by unelected, illegitimate domestic nationals) is, if not more so.

5 thoughts on “Remember When the World Went Crazy?

  1. I dunno Dylan. I think it’s difficult to make a general case rule for or against military intervention for humanitarian purposes. I can’t be the only person left who thinks that Bill Clinton did the right thing wrt Serbia/Kosovo and George W. did the wrong thing in Iraq. Like Al Gore, I also think that pushing Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991 was the right call. Sometimes the righteous on the ground need some help. I guess that’s why I also like activist judges.
    I guess that makes me a pragmatic liberal interventionist. Pragmatic only because we all think that we’re pragmatic. (I also sometimes like to call myself a centrist, because it doesn’t mean anything and can be a useful first premise).
    As for Hitchens, about the only nice thing I can say about him is that I love how upfront he is about his constant state of intoxication.

  2. I don’t think there’s much of a disagreement between us on this. I think the ’91 war was a necessary global response to regional aggression, and that NATO actions in Kosovo and especially Bosnia were internationally legitimate and worthwhile. I also wish NATO or UN-sanctioned forces or someone would have conducted a bombing raid to shut down the Radio Milles Collines. But there’s a category difference between in-and-out, very fast operations to protect threatened populations and military occupations. The latter are, as a first principles thing, a form of tyranny, and what’s more they almost never work (and when they do, it’s hard to know if it was worth the effort). UN peacekeeping missions are dramatically more successful than US nationbuilding efforts, and consent of the state involved is a key reason why.

  3. I think what distinguishes “very fast operations” from prolonged occupations is competent planning and setting realistic expectations about what can be accomplished. Obviously, Bush II fired anyone who knew anything about that. There are people in the swamp who still maintain that a few key bad decisions in March of ’03 could have been changed and our experience in Iraq would have been different. Of course, it’s almost impossible to argue a counterfactual in history (though I have smart friends who try).
    In any case, I hope you’ll agree that there are exceptions to a general rule against long occupations. I don’t think anyone other than the paleocons would argue that the Japanese and German operations weren’t worthwhile. But I think if you look at the difference between East and West Germany, you can see “do” and “don’t” examples (not in that order, obviously).

  4. I think the distinction is more clear-cut than that. If you depose a regime, you more or less have to replace it. If you do something short of deposing the regime – as occurred twice in the Balkans and in 1991 Iraq – there’s obviously no such obligation. Now, sometimes you have to depose a regime, like when it’s launched a bombing campaign against one of your naval bases in Hawai’i, or when it declares war on you in cooperation with its allies who bombed one of your naval bases in Hawai’i. And in a very limited number of cases – including, disturbingly, a lot that occur after total wars characterized by the absolute destruction of societies – you can successfully rebuild a democracy from the rubble. But it’s a very very difficult task which is best avoided when the parties in question aren’t Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany.

  5. Ultimately I think the general rule should be that you should only do it if there’s a present pressing reason to. But looking back into history, I think there was a pressing reason or two to go to war with Germany even before they declared war on us a couple of days after pearl harbor.
    One thing I keep in mind about the whole enterprise is that the occupation phase is often done wrong. Reconstruction in the south, for example.

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