You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Iraq, Libya, And Intellectual Persecution

The Iraq War was a strange moment in American political discourse. The debate surrounding the invasion was heavily skewed toward the pro-war side, and dissenting voices were often marginalized. That experience has left a residue of anger among liberal doves, including those who were hawks at the time of the war.

One expression of this resentment, as I wrote yesterday, is the odd insistence that liberal intellectual hawks bear a large share of responsibility for the fact that the United States underinvests in non-military aid to the Third World, and the even stranger belief that this constitutes a reason not to intervene in Libya. Matthew Yglesias debated this with me on Twitter yesterday. When I pressed him to explain what this belief had to do with the case for or against intervention in Libya, he replied, "I'm mostly arguing, ad hominem, that people like you & the mentality you represent are a pernicious influence on US policy." That's about as close as you'll ever get to a full, Jack Nicholson-courtroom scene-in-"A Few Good Men" admission. It's not an argument about Libya. It's an expression of resentment.

The feeling of intellectual persecution has also popped up in response to some of the arguments made by my TNR colleagues, who stand accuse of moral bullying in their support for intervention. John Judis listed a few consequences of inaction, and then argued:

If you answer "Who cares?" to each of these, I have no counter-arguments to offer, but if you worry about two or three of these prospects, then I think you have to reconsider whether Barack Obama did the right thing in lending American support to this intervention.

In response, Glenn Greenwald retorts:

Note how, in Judis' moral world, there are only two possibilities: one can either support the American military action in Libya or be guilty of a "who cares?" attitude toward Gadaffi's butchery. At least as far as this specific line of pro-war argumentation goes, this is just 2003 all over again.

But that is absolutely not what Judis argued. He was simply conceding that, for those indifferent to the consequences of a slaughter, his argument would have no force. In other words, he was acknowledging that not everybody would agree with some of the premises of his argument, and that he wanted to aim his points at those who do agree with the premises -- which, of course, implies that some opponents of intervention do care about Qadaffi's potential victims.

Meanwhile, another colleague, Leon Wieseltier, deconstructed arguments advanced by various liberals that the lack of sufficient spending on humanitarian aide disqualifies the U.S. from intervening in Libya:

This was Ezra Klein’s gloss on Obama’s sentences: “Every year, one million people die from malaria. About three million children die, either directly or indirectly, due to hunger. There is much we could do to help the world if we were willing. The question that needs to be asked is: Why this?” And Andrew Sullivan cleverly objected, about Obama’s view that “the U.S. cannot stand idly by while atrocities take place,” that “we have done nothing in Burma or the Congo and are actively supporting governments in Yemen and Bahrain that are doing almost exactly—if less noisily—what Qaddafi is doing.”
These are debater’s points made by people who have no reason to fear that they will ever need to be rescued. It is important that this “logic” be exposed for what it really is, because it sounds so plausible. Is it hypocritical of the United States to act against Qaddafi and not against Al Khalifa? It is. But there are worse things in this suffering world than hypocrisy. Are we inconsistent? We are. But should we abandon people to slaughter, should we consign freedom fighters to their doom, for the satisfaction of consistency? Simone Weil once remarked that as long as France retained its colonial possessions it was morally disqualified from the struggle against Hitler. It was a breathtakingly consistent and stupid remark. We should be candid. All outrage is selective. Nobody cares about everything equally. Nobody can save everybody, and everybody will not be saved. If everybody who deserves rescue will not be rescued, should nobody who deserves rescue be rescued? If we cannot do everything, must we do nothing? The history of help and rescue is a history of triage. There are also philosophical and moral and political preferences that determine the selectivity of our actions, and those preferences must be provided with valid reasons. Maybe we should be intervening in Burma or Bahrain: let the arguments be made, the principles and the interests adduced. But of course it is not the expansion of American action that interests these writers. What they seek is its contraction.

Ezra Klein shoots back:

Faced with the argument that there are other humanitarian tragedies that are both far worse in scale and far easier to ameliorate, he calls this a “debater’s point” and compares those struggling with it to 20th-century Europeans who argued that “as long as France retained its colonial possessions it was morally disqualified from the struggle against Hitler.” As we’re less than a week into this intervention, I believe Wieseltier might have just set a land-speed record for Godwin’s Law violations.

Godwin's Law refers to the tendency of people in internet debates to compare their opponents to the Nazis. Leon did nothing of the sort here. He was comparing Klein's argument to the argument that France was morally disqualified from fighting Hitler on account of its colonialism. The point was about the silliness of using the lack of perfect moral consistency as an argument against moral behavior. If anybody was being compared to Hitler in this analogy, it would be Qadaffi, but Leon was not even doing that. he was simply describing the historical pedigree of a very poor kind of reasoning.

Now, I do feel a bit uncomfortable with Leon's point about "honor." There's no honor in trying to help Libyans if the attempt does not work. If our intervention simply leads to a more prolonged period of bloodshed and war, then we have failed, and honor has nothing to do with it. I concede that failure is a possibility. Intervention strikes me as the least-bad alternative, but that position could be proven wrong by events. As I've been saying, this is crux of the question.

But I don't think the "moral blackmail" of war supporters is what's preventing a straightforward debate over the likely outcome of this intervention. I see the impediment to this debate being the left's still-raw wound from Iraq expressing itself as an imaginary sensation of intellectual persecution.