18 March 2011

Once again, the question of intervention arises

I have not yet posted on Libya or any of the North African and Middle Eastern uprisings, largely because my knowledge of these regimes is rather casual; however, I will say that I support wholeheartedly the endeavours of people to throw off such dictatorships. With the UN having sanctioned air-strikes against Libya and with Gadhafi having called for a ceasefire, however, once again the question of military intervention is rearing its ugly head. Is it called for here? If so, when and to what degree, et cetera?

Time was when I considered myself an absolute pacifist, but I think I may be growing more pragmatic in this regard, and I am somewhere in an ill-defined territory between pacifism and a very stringent application of traditional Augustinian just war theory (applicable only in the sorts of extremes Bonhoeffer faced, in which case it must be possible for us, as CS Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr would have it, to paradoxically love someone while at the same time committing oneself to the necessity of killing them). I think we have to be keenly and painfully aware of the limitations of our own capacities: both physical (as in, we have only so much military power) and rational (as in both, we can only know so much and we have a tragically flawed sense of morality as the result of original sin). In Libya, we face a very difficult dilemma (as we would have in Iran or in Egypt): to allow Gadhafi to massacre his own people in reprisal (as he has shown himself willing to do), or to rob the Libyan people of the legitimacy of their own cause.

My first impulse as a patriot of the English-speaking community, is always to examine first our own moral standing – and it is wanting on a number of levels. Morality is applicable only within a political community, yet politics (as it is further and further abstracted from authentic wants of lower-level communities) too often works to distort morality. In addition, modern politics has lost the language we need to even begin to discuss morality. Sadly, we do not ask the reflective and virtuous questions of what sort of society and what sort of people we want to be; too often, such questions are considered fixed within the immutable (if empty) voluntarism and materialistic individualism associated with ‘the American Dream’. One of my gripes with Obama is that, while he is attempting to give some normative content to the language of ‘the American Dream’ in ways which do him great credit (neighbours looking out for each other, sharing common values of tolerance and goodwill, &c.), he is unwilling all the same to ask Americans to challenge the basic principle.

But how does this relate to our foreign policy? Very simply put, the West in general and America in particular places such fervent belief in our hands-off, liberal-democratic model of social organisation that we are willing to betray its principles in order to replicate its forms, and this leads more traditional societies to view us as insincere and hypocritical (or to exploit our insincerity and hypocrisy for political gain). China’s government is very willing to play this game – and in some cases, such as that of Mr Liu Xiaobo, they did have the moral high ground (at least, before they overreached themselves by throwing him in gaol). As Mr Bertram points out with the usual keen insight I have come to expect from the authors at Crooked Timber, we may expect Gadhafi to do the same should NATO or the UN choose to intervene. (I agree with Mr Bertram on this one – at this point, from what I gather it may be better that the rebels should have such a Pyrrhic victory and live, rather than losing and being completely massacred by vindictive pro-Gadhafi forces.)

My own preference is for a society with greater ability to examine itself and a lesser propensity to export its own malaises. The historically-evident tragic flaw of American-style liberal democracy is that, in the name of allowing its citizens greater freedom to deliberate upon and decide the Good, it actually abandons discussion of the Good. American-style liberal democracy is founded upon a heretical, Calvinistic political-theological framework in which greater priority is given to the ability of the individual to choose a course of action than on the actual content of the action itself. (I say ‘Calvinistic’ because this framework mirrors Calvin’s heretical insistence on the primacy of God’s will or ‘sovereignty’ over the revealed content of God’s rationality.) Dignity and character are considered of secondary importance. To give one highly-tangential example, one sees this in the revision of the historiography of the Civil War: the ‘Lost Cause’ revisionists, despite being rabidly anti-liberal in political orientation, nonetheless take full advantage of the liberal abandonment of discussion of the Good to place higher legal and moral priority on the right of states to self-determination than on the loss of virtue associated with the dehumanising nature of the choice enabled by such self-determination (namely, chattel slavery). Even if one takes this view of the history, the Confederacy collapsed under not only the superior force and resolve of the North, but also under the weight of its own ideational contradictions (i.e. states began seceding from the Confederacy when they felt their self-determination was being violated).

Again, my apologies for the very loose structure of my thinking here. Regarding armed intervention in Libya: my exhortation at this point is that if we do intervene, it should be solely for the right reasons and in full knowledge and awareness of our own limitations. (One of these limitations is our continued and insupportable presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.)

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