Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Just (don't) do it

I have been resisting writing about the current Lebanon crisis. This is partly because I’m far from an expert on Mideast history or politics, and this is one of those areas where details come to take on an important, indeed iconic, relevance: specific massacres, diplomatic minutiae, factional histories, map coordinates and UN resolutions are all carefully inserted into supposedly impregnable arguments about why one side is all right and the other all wrong. I’ve long been of the opinion, though, that you don’t need to know everything to say something, and, besides, these days any halfway awake person is quickly able to assemble a reasonable arsenal of data and perspectives about what’s going on there.

No, my reticence is mainly because in my experience debates about the Middle East almost inevitably tend to become locked into an all-too-familiar spiral. They quickly degenerate into frustrating exercises in futility and rancor, much like the recurrent diplomatic peace processes which surface and then sink with depressing rapidity. In this, they resemble a lot of other debates, such as those about abortion or the existence of God.

Follow any online debate about the Mideast – say, at the Comment is Free site at the Guardian – and watch the quality of discourse wilt as the power of vox populi is unleashed. Of course, people are dying, so one could say that civility among anonymous commentators (the vast majority of whom are living in places which are not being bombed) is probably the last thing with which we should concern ourselves. Such etiquette might seem superfluous and/or elitist, or it may even be viewed as a kind of censorship privileging the opinions of the powerful. (On the other hand, I think that the rules of discourse, like the rule of law, are a hard-won accomplishment of modern civilisation - one of those, unlike some others, which is worth holding on to - and should be maintained and, when necessary, defended.)

Furthermore, aside from the fact that all the newspaper commentary and blogosphere ranting in the world is neither going to stop a single rocket from slamming into a Haifa apartment block nor prevent a single Israeli missile from tearing open a bus full of fleeing refugees (or, even more horrifyingly as reported today, into two Red Cross ambulances), I’m not sure where the current standard of debate is to take us. Make the slightest criticism of the Israeli occupations and you’re an anti-Semitic appeaser of Islamo-fascist terror. Point out Israel’s legitimate security concerns and the possibility that eliminating – or at least seriously reducing – Hisbollah’s military capability may be a good idea (and possibly essential for any future regional peace) and one is quickly labelled a Zionist-imperialist stooge.

The possibility that a reasonable person might hold both of the above thoughts simultaneously – that he or she might think there is an enormous backlog of horror caused by both sides in this struggle but nevertheless avoid political schizophrenia – seems to rarely be admitted. There’s a great deal of for-us-or-against-us on the part of those partisans identifying themselves either with Israel or with the Palestinians, Lebanese or Muslim world more generally. And I suppose were I Israeli or Lebanese or Palestinian I would be very tempted to join in. It’s very true and worth saying that all lives have the same value, but it’s unlikely that any of the groups involved are going to see it that way. This is something generally true for most people everywhere: the currents of tribalism run deep in the human psyche, and there is nothing ‘natural’ about peaceful coexistence.

There is, in the end, more than enough hatred and legitimate grievance in that region to easily fuel a half-century of terror and counter-terror to match, and probably even exceed, the previous one.

This is not to claim that since both sides have been wrong, there is no way of making distinctions. As far as I’m concerned, no amount of Israeli settlement activity on land to which they are not entitled and no extent of wall building (both of which I oppose) can justify the nauseating suicide bombing campaigns unleashed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. (I would like to think that all reasonable people, and liberals and leftists in particular, could condemn things like that without punctuating it with that seemingly inevitable conjunction, ‘but’; however, I’ve often been often disappointed on that score.) Moral questions aside, if you’re really interested in seeing justice for the Palestinians, you should in any case be able to see that those tactics – and the subsequent democratic election of their authors – has been a political setback. At the same time, one doesn’t have to be hostile to Israel to see that the bombing of Beirut and the – not quite indiscriminate, but certainly careless – use of military force in civilian areas is not helping its cause either. Or that a viable Palestinian state is the only long-term way forward to an even minimally hopeful future coexistence.

We all know this somehow. But it’s depressing to contemplate how many of the commentaries being written today could simply have been pulled out of a desk from two decades ago and still sound as timely. I wonder whether they’ll be able to be published again in another two decades, with only slight changes to the names of the personnel involved. Part of me is furious with both sides. But to be honest another part of me really wants to have nothing to do with any of them.

Which brings us to the increasing talk of Western intervention, to the sending of troops to keep the warring parties apart and, of course, to ‘keep the peace’. And here, it seems, is where I feel compelled to say something. The German defence minister, Franz Joseph Jung, has spoken up for a NATO force to ‘stabilise’ southern Lebanon. Fortunately, this is, so far, all talk. Real enthusiasm is hard to find so far, and it’s unclear how much of this talk is about reality and how much is posturing for the sake being seen to ‘do something’ (or at least say something about doing something).

However, given the current state of things – which I don’t see changing dramatically any time soon – I think Simon Jenkins has made a strong argument against militarily intervention. Does anybody really think that a sending (another) large force of European and/or American soldiers into the Middle East is a good idea? Are they going to be able to disarm Hisbollah? Are they going to be seen as occupiers? How long will it take for a car bombs to wipe out a NATO patrol or two and for the first calls to bring the troops home to emerge? When, after all, are they going to leave? When the situation is ‘solved’? When it is ‘stabilised’ (at which point, the debate will presumably then turn on the notion that removing the troops would be destabilising)? I assume that a precondition for sending a UN or NATO force would be some kind of ceasefire agreement between Hisbollah and Israel. But what if this peacekeeping force proves to be ineffective at maintaining this agreement and, as a result, Israel seeks to re-enter south Lebanon again: would NATO then be willing to use force to stop them? That would be a nightmare, but wouldn't anything else reveal their 'evenhandedness' as a sham?

I would criticise Jenkins for this, though: he too broadly condemns the notion of intervention. There are many who do the same, and it is strange to note that similar arguments seem to emerge from leftist anti-imperialists and right-wing isolationists. (Do people never notice this about their own arguments?) Jenkins, for instance, is contemptuous of situations such as Kosovo or East Timor, where, however, imperfectly, intervention has proven to be a success (in the sense of being better than their likely alternatives). He throws these into the same basket with the much larger-scale, and somewhat successful, operation in Afghanistan and the even larger-scale (and largely disastrous) invasion and occupation of Iraq.

This is unfortunately a common position: once again, one is either ‘for’ or ‘against’ something called ‘intervention’. And again, those who oppose it are isolationists or cold-hearted and those who favour it are imperialists. And the discussion goes on and on. (This is like the argument in US politics about ‘government’: is ‘the government’ good or bad? Well, of course, effective government action is good and poorly run government is bad. As we have recently experienced…)

Intervention by external power can be a good thing. It can also be a bad thing, and there is no magic formula to tell us which is which. But a few obvious principles can provide guidance here. The most important is that morality should not be the only consideration. It may certainly be the case that we have the strong feeling that ‘somebody should do something’; this is often a sign of people's capacity for empathy and concern for others, one which has grown with the ‘process of civilisation’ and through the expansion of the ‘moral circle’ in much of the world. However, calling for intervention can also be, we have to admit, a rather cheap way of expressing our concern for others.

Along with moral criteria, an important question for any intervention would have to be: can it work? Do ‘we’ (the intervening power whoever that might be) know what we’re doing? Is it likely that intervention will make a bad situation worse, or will simply prolong a particular agony which, however horrible, could be better left to run its course?

I can imagine that this last question strikes some as cold-blooded. But what’s happening in Lebanon and northern Israel is hardly a unique event; it is rather a fairly good example of what community-based human hatred looks like. And it’s not as if history and the present world don’t present us with enough examples of that phenomenon.

Thus, it’s a good idea to work out a perspective on military intervention which makes sense and is well fitted to the world we find around us. It’s my view that the two most stark possibilities on offer – from the trigger-happy neo-con crusaders to the no-war-ever-for-anything utopians – are, to put it nicely, insufficient.

What’s sobering to consider is that what we’re seeing today is not even the worst face of this kind of chronic ethnic enmity. Recall briefly the case which for many progressives has become the quintessence of Western indifference: Rwanda. I remember that when news broke of the killings there, I was among those – generally on the left – critical of the lack of activity on the part of the US and Europe. In retrospect, however, what exactly should have been done? In terms of scale, keep in mind that in a matter of about six weeks in mid 1994, some 800,000 Tutsis, about 11% of Rwanda’s total population, were killed. They were massacred not just by well-organised, centrally run military units (which could be bombed from the air), but rather by irregular militias and, often, simply by neighbourhood gangs.

Here, the term ‘intervention’ shows its utility as a handy euphemism of its own, as handy as ‘collateral damage’. If one asks whether ‘the west’ should have ‘intervened’, many would likely agree. But should the west have sent a military force to stop Hutu militias from killing, if necessary by shooting them? How should the west have prevented neighbours from murdering their neighbours? By taking the sides of the Tutsis, would the intervening force inevitably be drawn into a longer-term struggle over political power?

Was it wrong not to intervene militarily in Rwanda? I’m not so sure anymore.

I was against invading Iraq. However, I was not automatically against invading Iraq, something which set me at odds with a lot of the left at that time whose reaction to Iraq (and to terrorism) was somehow insufficient. What is the left-wing/liberal response to dictatorships? When to intervene? Was ‘containment’ really a better strategy, and wouldn’t that make ‘us’ in some way responsible for the continuing terrorisation of the Iraqi population?

I think these are serious questions, ones which too easily subsided amidst the joy of Bush bashing and feeling good about standing up to imperialism.

Much like the term ‘civil war’, ‘intervention’ refers to a range of activity. The imposition of ‘no-fly’ zones in northern and southern Iraq were an ‘intervention’, as was the embargo. The former was a very good idea, the latter was far more problematic. I thought that the case for invasion was, ultimately, not convincing. My problem with some parts of the left, however, is that they couldn’t envision a case being made.

The most persuasive argument was made by Christopher Hitchens, essentially on the grounds of removing a brutal dictator who was oppressing his people and sooner-or-later would again threaten other countries. There’s been a lot of ink (and bile) spilled around this argument, which has only been extended recently in the Euston Manifesto dispute. (Suffice to say, I agree with many of the individual points of the Manifesto, but as its overall aim seems to be mainly to retroactively justify invading Iraq by moving the issue onto the broader plane of principle, I remain sceptical about it.) Unfortunately, this debate has degenerated – sadly, on all sides – into a fairly squalid series of personal attacks. I don’t agree with everything Hitchens has written (increasingly, when it comes to Iraq, I came to disagree with just about all of it), but I do think he (along with Nick Cohen and Paul Berman) have provided the noble service of revealing a problem on the left, which is that it seems to have a problem coming up with a coherent and realistic perspective on the use of military power.

But the argument seems to have become stuck on the issue of whether to ‘oppose’ or ‘favour’ the use of military intervention and the usual name calling and flippant dismissals have continued apace.

This is a fairly stupid turn for this argument. And, again, I don't claim to have any higher wisdom on this, but I can only use myself to suggest that this matter is a lot more complicated than much of the debate seems to allow.

I favoured intervention strongly in Kosovo and think in retrospect that it took too long to intervene in Bosnia (here the moral argument was joined by the conflict’s location in the heart of Europe and the relative possibility that intervention could rapidly succeed). I think UN intervention in East Timor has more recently helped it to make positive steps toward emerging from its terrible history (caused by other kinds of intervention). I hope that the small EU force being sent in support of coming elections in Congo help that nation to achieve some kind of stability. I think the no-fly zones maintained in northern and southern Iraq by the US, Britain and France were a good idea, though they were no solution to the problem of Iraq. I thought toppling the Taliban was justified and that keeping them out of power a worthwhile mission. None of these cases has been without second-thoughts or criticism, but on-balance, I think they stand up to realistic scrutiny.

But I was against invading Iraq since – though I had mixed feelings about many of the arguments being presented – I feared it would lead to a situation even worse than the one which preceded the war. (I think any honest appraisal of the modern world has to consider the possibility that anarchy is as much, if not more, a threat to people’s well-being than tyranny.) I think the current trajectory there confirms my fears. (But I would much prefer to have been wrong about this.) And I think it’s safe to say that military intervention in Iran would be madness.

For the reasons stated above, I feel the same about a intervention in Lebanon.

So which side of the ideological fence does this put me on? Are these the signs of an imperialist agenda? The craven decadence of a naïve pacifist leftism?

I hope to have convinced you that it is neither of the two, and that holding debates about interventionism along such lines is absurd. There are many things which should be done and can be done. (One of them is to provide humanitarian relief to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by this nightmare and to exercise as much political pressure as possible on any side which can have a positive influence. As former foreign minister Joschka Fischer has pointed out, as crazy as it seems, there are opportunities here for a long-term peace.) But there are other things which should be done but can't be done. And there are things which more clearly should not be done.

In this case, given the situation so far, a bad intervention (and I think that any military intervention by the US, EU or NATO would fare poorly) would be far, far worse than no intervention at all.

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