The Open Mind IV: Riposte

by A. Jay Adler on January 8, 2010
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I thought it might be hard this time around. I had gathered ShrinkWrapped and I shared a fair measure of agreement about what Norm Geras at Normblog has designated FKATWOT: the War (Formerly Known As The War On Terror). Fear not. I have found in The Open Mind IV: Synthesis the space between us.

Then there is the matter that – to be very direct about it – I do not represent what anyone would characterize these (or any recent) days as the “liberal” position on FKATWOT. And isn’t that the point – liberal versus conservative? Well, not exactly. It’s me contra ShrinkWrapped. We’re not cardboard ideological figures. (Though I do think we each kind of suspect the other may be a dog.) I keep saying that. Nonetheless, fear not again. I represent what should be the liberal position on FKATWOT.

From Wilson and Roosevelt through Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, liberal internationalism long supported profound engagement on the world scene and the advancement of international institutions, along with a strong national defense. The former emerged as foolish utopianism without the latter; the latter descended into amoral rationalization of self-interest without the former. Liberals met adversaries with a firm belief in the values the U.S. defended in any necessary conflict, and they believed in the justness of defending those values. The great, debilitating consequence for liberalism of its historic reconsideration of, and then opposition to, the Vietnam War was that while it exposed the misguided excesses of the Cold War that conservatism to this day has never recognized, it also suffered a loss of faith in the real America to match its belief in an ideal America. It was stamped with an imprint of heroism that recognized it most naturally in the opposition to exercises of American power, and it has been, demonstrably and repeatedly, limited to a vision of all American conflicts through the prism of Vietnam. The formative and transformative experience of Vietnam was joined with an incisive Marxist-influenced critique of capitalism’s exploitative nature when unchecked, and a post-colonial analysis of the West’s imperial transgressions that accompanied its great achievements. Combined these produced, over forty years, both nationally and internationally, and through and including 9/11, often only the ability to mouth the pieties of just self-defense (and sometimes not even so little) without the ability to enact those pieties with conviction.

When I added my signature to the 2006 Euston Manifesto, a statement of “democrats and progressives” proposing a “new political alignment,” I did so with enthusiasm. Among its principles relevant here are the ten following:

1) For democracy. We are committed to democratic norms, procedures and structures – freedom of opinion and assembly, free elections, the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, and the separation of state and religion. We value the traditions and institutions, the legacy of good governance, of those countries in which liberal, pluralist democracies have taken hold.

2) No apology for tyranny. We decline to make excuses for, to indulgently ‘understand’, reactionary regimes and movements for which democracy is a hated enemy – regimes that oppress their own peoples and movements that aspire to do so. We draw a firm line between ourselves and those left-liberal voices today quick to offer an apologetic explanation for such political forces.

3) Human rights for all. We hold the fundamental human rights codified in the Universal Declaration to be precisely universal, and binding on all states and political movements, indeed on everyone. Violations of these rights are equally to be condemned whoever is responsible for them and regardless of cultural context. We reject the double standards with which much self-proclaimed progressive opinion now operates, finding lesser (though all too real) violations of human rights which are closer to home, or are the responsibility of certain disfavoured governments, more deplorable than other violations that are flagrantly worse. We reject, also, the cultural relativist view according to which these basic human rights are not appropriate for certain nations or peoples.

6) Opposing anti-Americanism. We reject without qualification the anti-Americanism now infecting so much left-liberal (and some conservative) thinking. This is not a case of seeing the US as a model society. We are aware of its problems and failings. But these are shared in some degree with all of the developed world. The United States of America is a great country and nation. It is the home of a strong democracy with a noble tradition behind it and lasting constitutional and social achievements to its name. Its peoples have produced a vibrant culture that is the pleasure, the source-book and the envy of millions. That US foreign policy has often opposed progressive movements and governments and supported regressive and authoritarian ones does not justify generalized prejudice against either the country or its people.

9) United against terror. We are opposed to all forms of terrorism. The deliberate targeting of civilians is a crime under international law and all recognized codes of warfare, and it cannot be justified by the argument that it is done in a cause that is just. Terrorism inspired by Islamist ideology is widespread today. It threatens democratic values and the lives and freedoms of people in many countries. This does not justify prejudice against Muslims, who are its main victims, and amongst whom are to be found some of its most courageous opponents. But, like all terrorism, it is a menace that has to be fought, and not excused.

10) A new internationalism. We stand for an internationalist politics and the reform of international law – in the interests of global democratization and global development. Humanitarian intervention, when necessary, is not a matter of disregarding sovereignty, but of lodging this properly within the ‘common life’ of all peoples. If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a ‘responsibility to protect’.

11) A critical openness. Drawing the lesson of the disastrous history of left apologetics over the crimes of Stalinism and Maoism, as well as more recent exercises in the same vein (some of the reaction to the crimes of 9/11, the excuse-making for suicide-terrorism, the disgraceful alliances lately set up inside the ‘anti-war’ movement with illiberal theocrats), we reject the notion that there are no opponents on the Left. We reject, similarly, the idea that there can be no opening to ideas and individuals to our right. Leftists who make common cause with, or excuses for, anti-democratic forces should be criticized in clear and forthright terms. Conversely, we pay attention to liberal and conservative voices and ideas if they contribute to strengthening democratic norms and practices and to the battle for human progress.

12) Historical truth. In connecting to the original humanistic impulses of the movement for human progress, we emphasize the duty which genuine democrats must have to respect for the historical truth. Not only fascists, Holocaust-deniers and the like have tried to obscure the historical record. One of the tragedies of the Left is that its own reputation was massively compromised in this regard by the international Communist movement, and some have still not learned that lesson. Political honesty and straightforwardness are a primary obligation for us.

13) Freedom of ideas. We uphold the traditional liberal freedom of ideas. It is more than ever necessary today to affirm that, within the usual constraints against defamation, libel and incitement to violence, people must be at liberty to criticize ideas – even whole bodies of ideas – to which others are committed. This includes the freedom to criticize religion: particular religions and religion in general. Respect for others does not entail remaining silent about their beliefs where these are judged to be wanting.

15) A precious heritage. We reject fear of modernity, fear of freedom, irrationalism, the subordination of women; and we reaffirm the ideas that inspired the great rallying calls of the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century: liberty, equality and solidarity; human rights; the pursuit of happiness. These inspirational ideas were made the inheritance of us all by the social-democratic, egalitarian, feminist and anti-colonial transformations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – by the pursuit of social justice, the provision of welfare, the brotherhood and sisterhood of all men and women. None should be left out, none left behind. We are partisans of these values. But we are not zealots. For we embrace also the values of free enquiry, open dialogue and creative doubt, of care in judgement and a sense of the intractabilities of the world. We stand against all claims to a total – unquestionable or unquestioning – truth.

George W. Bush initially well engaged the nation in FKATWOT. From his cry at Ground Zero to his speech before the joint session of congress to the quick, creative dispatching of the Taliban, he displayed the determination, the justness, and the historical context of the battle. If the name “War on Terror” was ill chosen, because subject to the criticism that so named it was a war that could never end, the common criticism that terror is a method and not an opponent, such as Muslim extremism, is superficial and, so, facile. What does it mean, really, in the end, to separate the method from the motive? Does “war on terror” not identify, if not the, at least an issue, perhaps a greater one? The institutions that the left champions – the U.N., the International Criminal Court – and the NGOs that express its humanistic goals – Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others – what do they express in their very nature but the idea that process, that method, matters. What political goal do they all pursue if not an elimination of all forms of terror as acceptable or tolerated methods for pursing political ends? Indeed, the elimination of terror as a rationalized practice of power, either by states against individuals or by political movements against the people who constitute states, would be a culminating political – indeed, human – achievement in the history of civilization.

Al-Qaeda is the first truly trans-national agent of terroristic war. The true danger to the United States and the West of Al-Qaeda is not that its ideas will win out, or that it will be militarily victorious, but that its practice of terrorism will go increasingly rationalized and diminished and the response to it increasingly feckless and without conviction – and that we shall be terrorized.

I am not a believer in culminating achievements. It is in the nature of human business to be unfinished business. This war is against Muslim fundamentalism, and George W. Bush was clear about that too, however much the politically correct have sought to muddy the issue. I think Obama is no less clear. But as long and as central as this particular war may be, it will not be the last, perhaps, of a particular kind of war, a new kind of war, waged by non-state actors. In the nineteenth century anarchist terrorists could assassinate a Czar. In Joseph Conrad’s imagination, they could blow up the Greenwich Observatory – Western time itself. But in our modern world, relatively small numbers of banded individuals can wreak the kind of destruction once caused only by nations. We shall be lucky if Al-Qaeda is the last organization of its kind, and the conceptions and systems developed to combat it will serve in other potential conflicts.

Bush was equally clear, as has been President Obama, that our war – begun by them – is with Islamic fundamentalist extremists and not with Islam. Whatever failing has been demonstrated by Islam at large in rejecting and itself countering the effective nihilism of Al-Qaeda, and that failing is profound, no productive or achievable end can be reached by formulating or conducting this war as a war against Islam, which would only unnecessarily broaden the conflict. Likewise, no productive or achievable end can be reached by disengaging from the Muslim world, as ShrinkWrapped suggests, particularly joined with the scaled back military engagement, except in extremity, that he suggests. Military operations and covert activities will only achieve success if joined with peaceful engagement that draws clear connections between fundamentalist aggression, and any form of support for it, and fully normal and beneficial relations with the U.S.

President Bush went astray in the War on Terror with Iraq. It led, after the initial victory, to a misconceived and misconducted war in Afghanistan, and he never enlisted the engagement of the American people in the war in any specific and concrete way. However, President Obama cannot now start all over again to compensate for Bush’s failures. For that reason, the speech that ShrinkWrapped proposes, outside of a specific identifiable context – which I fear would be only another significant successful attack – would be offered without focused effect. The statement Obama gave on Wednesday about the Christmas security failures, in which he said unequivocally, “We are at war,” is the closest circumstance allows. What Obama can do is pursue the war – a very complex challenge in which we are as likely, often, to be wrong in our choices as right – with greater clarity and to greater effect. His decision to remain in Afghanistan with renewed but focused commitment, and not, at the same time, to stray from Pakistan – the greatest threat of all – is just such a clear pursuit.

Of ShrinkWrapped’s closing recommendations that I have not already addressed, I agree that we should aggressively develop alternative energy sources in order to end a foreign oil dependence that funds our enemies. I would even agree, for a period, to suspending some environmental concerns if and only if such suspensions were tied to an explicit plan, with bipartisan support, to truly end that foreign dependence. And it would be a great boon to our economy.

The debate over profiling is a bogus PC issue. While any policy can be abused – as has been warrantless eavesdropping, outside the strictures  of FISA legislation, which is why I oppose it, even under the Obama administration – criminal, not racial or ethnic, profiling is both a common sense and profoundly effective tool. If the established profile includes elements of race, nationality, or ethnicity, as it does, for instance, for serial killers (predominately white males), then, of course, those elements need to be incorporated, and objections that negate their reality are, as I have found them to be, disingenuous covers for other interests.

True Muslim moderates and reformers should be aggressively enlisted and promoted in the public discourse. This is essential.

On the matter of torture, I have written several times, in Tortured Argument, Torture and a Time of Reckoning, and PinoCheney. ShrinkWrapped says that he does not think waterboarding to be torture. It meets every international covenant and treaty definition of torture. No person wishes to be subjected to it, and no person wishes it because every person knows that that the experience would deliver the physical pain and psychological terror that are the very essence of torture. To claim otherwise is the essence of rationalization.

Conservatives, who invoke the name and legacy of the founders, and also of what has become forever known as “the greatest generation,” more often and more effectively than do liberals, should recall the lesson of those generations on this subject as well. ShrinkWrapped argues, “We should reserve the right to use coercive techniques when in possession of terrorists, enemy combatants, who may have information about current capabilities and future attacks.” Any American paratrooper captured in Normandy on the eve of D-Day might reasonably have been presumed by the Germans to possess some knowledge of crucial operational orders that were part of a pending continental invasion. Any Japanese soldier captured on Guadalcanal or Iwo Jima might have been presumed knowledgeable of the deeply entrenched fortifications on those islands that made victory so costly to American marines. Any Viet Cong combatant captured in South Vietnam probably had crucial knowledge of entrances and command post positions in the Củ Chi tunnels that U.S. forces were never able to destroy. We confront nothing new when we conceive terrorists to possess life and death information. We depart from our forbearers when we resort so quickly and readily to inhumane policies they foreswore because we have been, by pursuit of those policies, effectively terrorized.

My final departure from ShrinkWrapped’s proposals is from the very idea of a required synthesis. I have offered my sense and support of Obama’s foreign policy and national defense vision in Obama Abroad: Liberal, Moderate, Careful and Obama in Oslo: Power without Empire. I believe he is already fighting FKATWOT, which he recognizes as a war, more effectively than did, ultimately, the Bush administration. That does not mean I agree with all of his decisions. I believe that as a war – a new kind of non-state war with new kinds of combatants – non-citizen prisoners should be held as enemy combatants and tried in military tribunals. I think the decision to try KSM and his cohort in criminal courts was a mistake, as was the same decision with Abdulmutallab. But I do not think these crucial mistakes that will be determinative in conducting the war, any more than was the trial of Richard Reid and other terrorists before him in criminal court. Obama operates in the aftermath of major Bush era mistakes, including the legacy of torture and the muck the Bush administration made of the military tribunal system, which could have been established with greater acceptance had it been conceived with greater procedural legitimacy.

In the end, though, I respect ShrinkWrapped’s desire and effort to conceive the synthesis he thinks necessary, in order to pursue, under an Obama administration, a more effective national defense. To comment generally, the record of the Left’s response to 9/11 and of supporting the Bush administration in its response to that attack – a record I have researched and inscribed– is embarrassing and often shameful. Many conservatives today speak and act no less shamefully in their failure to adequately support their President in his genuine efforts to protect and defend us all. They hysterically demonize Obama just as elements of the Left did Bush, and with no lesser conviction of his perfidy than is felt by some conservatives about Obama. These conservatives can continue to justify themselves with recollections of liberal misbehavior, or, beginning with Dick Cheney, they can return to practicing what they so often invoke themselves – patriotic support of their President in times of war.

AJA


5 comments

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Morton Doodslag January 13, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Jay Adler asserts: “Al-Qaeda is the first truly trans-national agent of terroristic war”. If I may amplify on Nightelf’s observations on Islam, Islamic religious, political, economic and legal doctrines are explicitly transnational. By definition Jihadi war doctrine is explicitly terroristic in nature. While some Muslims argue (for the consumption of credulous infidels) that terroristic war can only be defensive in nature, near universal Islamic beliefs maintain that simply resisting the spread of Islam is itself a form of attack against Islam, thus warranting terror and death at the hands of the Ummah (Gummah.)

Speaking of which, Grantchester Meadows is the best PF song EVER.

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Nightelf January 11, 2010 at 8:32 am

Copithorne, where were you in the days and weeks after 9/11? The lefties were shouting from the rooftops that America was at fault, and we’d got what we deserved. I had personal friends who declared that 9/11 was payback for our treatment of the Indians and the bombing of Hiroshima, while notable leftists (like Susan Sontag) refused to fly the flag because the flag ‘represented imperialism and oppression.’ Anti-war demonstrators marched with signs calling Bush Hitler for attacking the Taliban and waving Palestinian and Hizballah flags.

Jay comments:

“Bush was equally clear, as has been President Obama, that our war – begun by them – is with Islamic fundamentalist extremists and not with Islam. Whatever failing has been demonstrated by Islam at large in rejecting and itself countering the effective nihilism of Al-Qaeda, and that failing is profound, no productive or achievable end can be reached by formulating or conducting this war as a war against Islam, which would only unnecessarily broaden the conflict. ”

In my opinion, and the opinion of many of SW’s commenters is that Islamic fundamentalism IS the real Islam. Bush was essentially wrong on this point, though for political reasons it may have been a wise policy to try to enlist moderates on our side. The fact of the matter is that jihad is the primary duty of all Muslims which is why you see so little criticism of the suicide bombers from the so-called moderate Muslims. I think that a careful reading of the essential Islamic texts reveals a religion which is much more than a religion but instead is a totalitarian political manifesto. It seeks to control every aspect of a person’s life. Islam is imperialistic, aggressive and sees itself eternally at war with unbelievers. It has always been this way, it is not a new phenomenon in Islam. The so-called ‘extremists’ represent the heart and soul of Islam.

I suppose it’s possible to imagine Muslims who don’t believe in jihad or the necessity to dominate and suppress unbelievers but it would be like a person calling himself Catholic who doesn’t believe in the Virgin Birth, the Divinity of Christ, the holy sacraments or the holiness of the Pope. Of course such a Catholic might be found here in the liberal West. In Islamic societies he’d be killed.

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copithorne January 9, 2010 at 7:33 am

I’m moved to share a few small responses.

I don’t understand what you are referencing in the last paragraph about the shamefullness of the record of the Left’s response to 9/11 and supporting the Bush administration. I remember the left vigorously supporting George Bush after 9/11. He had his 90% approval rating and he got his blank checks for Afghanistan and even Iraq. Is that the shameful part — tantamount to the shame of the conservative reflexive opposition to Obama?

My perception is that Barack Obama would not enjoy reciprocal support in the same situtation.

The idea in SW’s post that I found the most pernicious is his belief shared with John Yoo that the President has the discretionary authority to break the law (by ordering torture). Such an understanding is not consistent with the liberty afforded by a constitutional democracy.

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A. Jay Adler January 9, 2010 at 11:00 am

It’s a point that needs amplification. I might as well do it in a post – Monday.

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Terri McIntyre January 9, 2010 at 5:34 am

Brilliant!

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