March 9, 2005

At the Checkpoint

This week the bad David Brooks ambled out and degraded the intelligence of his readers. I’ve come to have an appreciation for Brooks when he’s on his game: he can do a good job being both entertaining and interesting as well as provocative. But his love poem to Paul Wolfowitz is the other David Brooks, the one given to intellectual sloth and bogus generalizations.

Wolfowitz’s most ardent critics are not and have never been the “infantile left”, if by that Brooks means the antiwar faction that tends to be most strongly drawn to the views of Michael Moore et al. Wolfowitz actually plays a small role in Fahrenheit, albeit a memorable one visually. For the antiwar movement that Brooks gestures towards, the neoconservative argument about Iraq is a mere smoke screen for something deeper, something prior: the expansion of American economic and geopolitical hegemony, US interests in Middle Eastern oil, the Bush family fortune, and so on. Even anti-Zionist critics tend to see neocon arguments about democracy in the Middle East as a mere distraction from a “real” agenda, namely, the support of Israel.

So Brooks wants to play gallant knight and rescue his fair damsel from these dragons, but in so doing just re-enacts the same sick, sad, dull tableaux that the neoconservatives in power and their ardent groupies like Christopher Hitchens and Michael Totten have been replaying over and over again since the drums of war started pounding. It’s a shadowplay that lets them avoid the elephant in the room, namely, a substantial, thoughtful, deeply intellectual disagreement about the historical genesis of liberal democracy in the world.

Wolfowitz is interesting. I agree with that. He’s also a genuine intellectual.. He has a theory about liberal democracy and its relationship to 21st Century humanity, a theory that other thinkers have done even more interesting and passionate elaborations of. He’s in the middle of a test of his theory. These are all true: I've long said that I think it’s a mistake to just cast all this aside and go looking for the “real” motive, like oil or graft or Zionism. It’s a curious paradox: one of the most anti-intellectual Presidents in the last century has subcontracted out his foreign policy, the center piece of his Presidency, to intellectuals.

Now it does occur to me, somewhat bitterly, that I thought we’d learned a lesson about this with Vietnam, that allowing intellectuals to test grand geopolitical theories without some common sense checks and balances, not to mention some healthy pluralism and skepticism within the circles of power, is a really bad idea.More importantly, though, if Brooks wants to write a hagiography of Wolfowitz, he’s got to ask an intellectual’s question about his favored intellectual. Namely, how well has his grand geopolitical experiment gone so far?

I think there’s a few interesting things out there in the last month or so that a Wolfowitz defender can legitimately say are intriguing, promising: the Iraqi elections, the political news out of Egypt and Lebanon. These are developments that even his critics have to pause and be thoughtful about, particularly the Iraqi elections. I don't share the extreme hostility of Juan Cole and others towards those elections: I think something genuine and meaningful happened. I think there are long-term developments that are also promising for Wolfowitz and his defenders. For one, it’s clear that the Iraqi insurgency (I think insurgencies, plural), whatever it is, is not an authentically popular revolutionary movement with genuine aspirations to gaining national power or controlling the state, that instead it is a kind of gangster nihilism. That can only be slightly encouraging, however, since the United States and its Iraqi clients have for the most part failed to establish themselves as the overwhelmingly preferable alternative. Iraqis drawn to neither, or trying to pursue the renovation of their society in serious ways while refusing to bow either to intimidation or to become compliant clients, have very slim reeds at which to grasp.

The criticism of Wolfowitz has always come from much more powerfully serious thinkers and activists who question the generality of his theories and models and the specificity of his understanding of the region he’s experimenting with. The defenders of the war in Iraq, and Wolfowitz in specific, usually refuse to engage with this criticism at all. If they do, they’ll gloss it, carelessly, as amoral “realism” (as David Adesnik did to Matthew Yglesias this week).

What’s at stake here is both an abstract theory but also a quite empirical argument about how and when liberal democracy has taken hold in the world, and what actually defines “liberal democracy”. What's at stake here is also a principled argument about the conditionalities and realities of interventionism, one that asks in all seriousness that the pro-interventionists explain how they know which injustices require the immense cost and suffering of an intervention and which do not. Here it’s not just that Wolfowitz’ theory is up against a very strongly detailed, intellectually meticulous, and wide-ranging opposition, but also that Wolfowitz and his defenders are prone to a kind of horribly sloppy, contemptibly instrumental tendency to grab at any shred of evidence supporting their theories and complete ignore anything else. I have complained about this tendency before, and I’ll do so again, I’m sure. It offends me, mortally, deeply, profoundly. Nothing offends me more about the war, in fact, than the blunt instrumentalism and rationalizations, the evasions, the diversions. I'm a skeptic even about the best-practices argument for the war, but I'd be a much happier man now if I saw more examples of people making that best-practices argument.

Take Lebanon, for example. The neocon argument allegedly has always been premised on arguing that the achievement of freedom is the more important litmus test of the Bush approach than the narrow or exclusive establishment of democratic mechanisms for the selection of national and local leaders. Freedom of speech, of assembly, of conviction, the rule of law were to be the benchmarks. I think that’s actually a very sound insight. Outside pressure on postcolonial African states in the 1980s and 1990s was obsessively focused on getting multiparty democratic elections scheduled, without considering the far more important problem of political liberalization. The consequence of that, in part, was fair multiparty elections in states like Zambia that merely replaced the old corrupt autocrat with a new corrupt autocrat, the old ruling party with a new one.

Now in Lebanon suddenly the whole project of the neocons has taken an abrupt turn into much more conventional kinds of formulations about sovereignity and self-determination, that what is important for Lebanon is to get Syrian troops out, that the absence of Syria equals the achievement of democracy. Sorry, how so? If you’re really interested in the spread of liberalism, e.g., freedom, then you ought to be just as excited by a half-million people in the streets peacefully demonstrating for Syrian presence, even if you don’t like what they have to say. But evidently it’s more important to poke Syria in the eye and play certain kinds of power-politics, to move the yardstick of what constitutes “democracy” to “whatever George Bush wants”. When people say what you like, they’re heroically free. When they disagree with you, they’re lackeys and stooges. (Christopher Hitchens is especially fond of this formula). Remind me: who are the amoral realists here? Remind me also: how can we, of all the actors on the global stage, afford to make an argument that sovereignity alone is the simple key to political liberalization, given what we’re trying to do in Iraq?

The criticism of Wolfowitz has come most strongly from scholars and intellectuals who protest that liberal practices and democratic norms grow from the bottom-up, in organic ways, within the complex histories and cultures of a given society. If you believe that, than the screaming ignorance of Wolfowitz and most of the Iraq war planners about Iraq itself and its surrounding region becomes an issue. It’s only irrelevant if Wolfowitz’s faith in the simple universality of all modern human subjectivity is warranted, if all people everywhere not only yearn equally for liberal democracy, but have exactly the same highly specific working model of liberal democracy in mind when they so yearn. So Brooks is lazy, even contemptible, in absenting the real challenge to Wolfowttz from his panegyric. I think there’s plenty of interesting developments on the ground in the last month that a more honest defender of Wolfowitz and the neocon vision of the Iraq War can point to and suggest that perhaps the neocons had some things right after all—but not if that requires an echo chamber or strawmen in order to be said with confidence.

There’s another direction where I wish that Wolfowitz’s defenders took him more seriously, where I wish that Wolfowitz and the other neocons inside the Administration took themselves more seriously. We have one problem that the defenders of the war who share the neocon vision continue to lazily evade the real debate. We have another problem that the actual implementation of the vision comes pre-equipped with a crippling set of double standards that amount to a thorough form of self-sabotage. Even if you grant that the war’s aims are based on a serious and credible intellectual premise, you’d have to be worried about how badly that premise is operationalized.

This week’s news about the shooting of an Italian intelligence agent at a US-manned barricade is a good example. For months now, both Iraqis and observers have been talking about a pattern of reckless military aggression at checkpoints. They have often been met with overwrought, hysteric condemnation from pro-war pundits and bloggers, with accusations that showing concern over such incidents is just a tactic in a conspiratorial attempt to weaken the war effort. Hitchens hit the low note perfectly when he declared that the US can only lose in Iraq if it defeats itself, with the clear suggestion that any and all criticism of the war effort is a form of treason. Sorry, but that’s got it exactly opposite. If the war really is following the most generously constructed version of the neocon argument, it is absolutely crucial to treat every Iraqi citizen with the same presumptive respect as the US Constitution instructs the US government to treat its own citizens.

The whole point of the occupation is to demonstrate the virtues of the rule of law, to move Iraqis from subjugation to autocracy to a society in which their rights-bearing humanity is fully recognized by the state. I’m absolutely in sympathy with the soldiers at those checkpoints, with their legitimate anxieties and fearfulness, facing the very real possibility of death from suicide bombing. They’re not monsters when they shoot quickly at any possible threat. But at the same time, if you hand the men and women on those dangerous, deadly firing lines a ready-made alibi, if you don’t have meaningful oversight or a demand for restraint, even saints in time are going to pre-emptively open fire on anything that even vaguely concerns them, and more orphans and even allies are going to tumble out of the back of cars coated in the blood of their loved ones and associates. And afterwards, they're going to say that the car was speeding, or failed to respond to commands, when very possibly the car and its inhabitants were guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If the uncritical, unthinking defenders of the war habitually froth at the mouth every time this happens and cry "Rally round our troops, boys!", presumptively believe that whatever the Pentagon is serving up today must be true, they're turning their backs on their own declared war objectives. The Iraqis are owed the same oversight, diligence and skepticism about authority that we would demand for ourselves.

If there is anyone who ought to be deeply, gravely concerned about unwarranted shootings at checkpoints, accidental deaths of civilians, torture in US prisons, killings of surrendered prisoners, it’s the advocates of the war, at least the ones who believe in the Wolfowitz vision as it is represented by Brooks, Hitchens and others. They ought to be concerned for very functional reasons, because failures of these kinds are effectively losses on the battlefield as grave and serious as Bull Run or Gazala. They ought to be concerned also for philosophical reasons, the same way I would be concerned if the police started busting down the doors in my own neighborhood for what seemed flimsy reasons and then hauling away some of my neighbors without any real due process.

Wolfowitz and his defenders want to convince us that humanity is united by its universal thirst for liberal democratic freedoms, well then, how can they possibly fail to react to injustice or error in Iraq with anything less than the grave and persistent concern they might exhibit in a domestic US context? Where’s the genuine regret, the mourning, the persistent and authentic sympathy? I don’t mean some bullshit one-liner you toss off before moving on to slam Michael Moore again for three or four paragraphs, I mean the kind of consistent attention and depth of compassion that signals that you take the humanity and more signally the rights of Iraqis as seriously as you take the humanity of your neighbors. Only when you’ve got that concern credibly in place, as a fundamental part of your political and moral vision, do you get to mournfully accept that some innocents must die in the struggle to achieve freedom.

The Wolfowitzian defenders of the war want to skip Go and collect $200.00 on this one, go straight to the day two centuries hence when the innocent dead recede safely into the bloody haze of anonymous tragedy. Sorry, but this is not on offer, least of all for them. If they can’t find the time, emotion and intellectual rigor to be as consumed by the case of a blameless mother and father turned into gore and sprayed on their children as they are by what Sean Penn had to say about the war last week, then their entire argument about the war is nothing more than the high-minded veneer of a more bestial and reasonless fury. If Brooks or anyone else wants to rise to toast Paul Wolfowitz, then they’ll have to live up to the vision they attribute to him, and meet the real problems and failures of that vision honestly and seriously