July 3, 2003

In Which The Nation-Builders Find Out That Nations Don't Grow on Trees

So I notice that the crusade to liberate humanity from tyranny seems to have slacked off a bit. Iraq is free, right? So, what’s next? There’s a long list of dictators out there, and an even longer compendium of preventable human suffering. Grab up the torches and pitchforks, guys!

Anyone who hesitated about the Iraqi War, if you read Michael Totten or any number of other folks, was a morally confused, faint-hearted, secret sympathizer with Saddam, a compromised lackey of totalitarianism. The least critique of the war was enough for the red-meat proponents of war to cast the critics into the pit of darkness inhabited by authoritarians, enough to make one ethically responsible for every body buried in a mass grave, enough to charge the critic with personal culpability for torture and suffering.

The thing of is, I shared some of the anger that the pro-war advocates levelled at the left in the US and Western Europe, and I still do. I agree that many people have betrayed their own political principles by conspicuously looking away from the misdeeds they find inconvenient, and in particular, I feel considerable anger for the long legacy of Western leftist alibis and silences about the moral catastrophe of Third World nationalism in its (typical) authoritarian manifestations.

However, the only unique argument for war in Iraq appears to be in shreds: that the combination of Hussein’s misrule and repression, his possession of WMD and his imminent plans to act against the United States and its vital interests justified not just a war but an urgent war, a war that could brook no delay, no negotiation, no inspections, no dissent. All that is left of that combination is Hussein’s misrule and repression, which was grotesque and horrible and deserved to be crushed. Unfortunately there’s a lot more where that came from, and given the standard the prowar voices have set, any hesitancy about the military conquest of any tyranny in the world is intolerable hypocrisy.

Totten at least brings the same stridency and relative lack of complex introspection to the table when he’s talking about Liberia that he demonstrated on Iraq. That only makes the problem worse, however. Why isn’t Totten calling for a US invasion of the Congo, for example? Because it’s in the French sphere of influence? That’s no excuse! (As well as being arguably untrue, given US support for Mobutu over the decades.) Wait, has he called for the immediate invasion of Zimbabwe? Well, I’m guessing he’s said very bad things about Mugabe in the past, but as we know from reading his essays, that’s not enough. Merely saying that things are bad is just liberal hand-wringing and covert endorsement of repression, isn't it?

There are states in Central Asia that are sliding rapidly towards overt repression of human rights. Pakistan is a military dictatorship that has nuclear weapons and Islamofacists in the government. Libya and Syria are controlled by authoritarian regimes that have supported terrorism in the past. Somalia is an anarchic mess where the population suffers daily from violence and neglect. Sudan is ruled by a regime that regularly perpetrates crimes against humanity in the prosecution of a racialized civil war against one half of its own population. North Korea has one of the worst regimes of the last fifty years, its population starving and repressed, and it is building nuclear weapons. There’s also a little place called China, but that at least raises some complex issues, so maybe we can wait to talk about it.

You get the idea. Totten temporizes a little—Africa is far away, and not strategically vital. Then he says, “Let’s go and and invade, because we have to”. At least he’s consistent, and I actually admire that—but that consistency means he literally cannot ignore or push to the backburner a single one of the cases I’ve cited. Every single one of them requires an invasion, right now, and an outside administration designed to build a good nation. Any failure to advocate invasion in any of these cases opens Totten up to the rhetoric of moral outrage he has so liberally vented at so many targets, because his past rhetoric has allowed no exceptions or nuance (except for committed pacifists, to whom he has given a free ride.)

As the Bush Administration is now discovering, nation-building is hard and expensive work with an uncertain outcome that exposes the nation-builder to enormous financial and human cost. It can’t be done by people who aren’t terribly clear in the first place about what a liberal democracy is and why and how they work, and I think at least some of the top figures in the Bush Administration lack that clarity. Moreover, it is work that cannot be done unilaterally. It would be funny if it wasn’t sad to watch the Administration flail about trying to find their way towards a bigger multilateral fig leaf to cover their exposure in Iraq—just like it’s rather bitterly funny watching President Bush talk about how important multilateralism is to any intervention in Liberia.

There is a lot of sudden nostalgia in the public sphere for the British Empire, which has produced some interesting, challenging writing that I think resurrects some points of value and complexity about the British Empire that had disappeared from public conversation for too long. (I hope to write a bit about Niall Ferguson’s Empire here soon). Typically this nostalgia blithely sails past the most crucial point of all, made most cogently by Basil Davidson in his book The Black Man's Burden. The long-term legacy of colonialism is pretty horrible when it comes to making nations. Yes, not all or even most of what is wrong today in African nations is the direct responsibility of the British, French or Belgians, but as an exercise in nation-building, imperialism in Africa was a spectacular, flaming failure.

Seventy or eighty years of colonial rule and large sums of money and human effort could not manufacture nations that were built around borders that made no organic or historical sense to their inhabitants, around political institutions that were alien and often structurally malformed to begin with, and around a legacy of corruption that was hardwired into imperial administration. What could be more corrupt than the racialization of power that the British and French Empires were centrally premised upon, more a betrayal of the core principles of liberalism than the construction of a two-tiered legal and administrative system that defined Africans as permanent subjects rather than citizens, more autocratic than making a “native commissioner” the lord and master of people he scarcely understood? These are not ills that afflicted African nations suddenly on the first day they hoisted the flag: African rulers slipped easily into the chairs warmed by the posteriors of their former rulers.

Nations are not built like assembly-line products. The hopeless, helpless careening of the American administration of Iraq from one principle or design to the next is entirely familiar and depressing to any student of modern empire. Ferguson, Robert Kaplan and others are probably right that the American government and American people have no stomach for building a long-term administrative apparatus for imperial rule. To avoid casualties to US troops occupying Iraq, those forces will have to treat every Iraqi as a potential enemy. To build an Iraqi nation and deliver the services that a government ought to deliver to people who are citizens rather than second-class subjects ruled as racial or cultural inferiors, US forces and administrators will have to be open to attack and responsible to the Iraqi people in a day-to-day manner, accessible and transparent. Time to choose which it will be, and I rather doubt that the latter choice is sustainable by the White House because of its inevitable costs.

Or by Michael Totten and people like him. Totten even won't admit that what he's envisioning is imperialism. What else can you call the military administration of a society by the citizens of a another nation? None of the most over-the-top prowar voices seem to understand that you cannot make a nation with a gun. You can only kill the dictators. (And perhaps not evne that). There are ten thousand Charles Taylors in Liberia waiting for their chance to be President-Until-Killed-or-Exiled. Robert Mugabe is surrounded by little Mugabes, and even opposition leaders in states that are custom-designed for autocratic rule have a bad habit of becoming autocrats when they are victorious in opposition.

You can only make nations slowly, through persuasion and example and investment and the painful unfolding of history. If you want something resembling liberal democracy in Iran, for example, then put your money on Iranians who want it too, not on the US military. The fighting in the Congo will end when the fighters finally decide that they cannot live this way any longer, or their victims successfully fight back, or when a single group of combatants achieve a necessary and structurally solidified monopoly on force sufficient to suppress any opposition. There is no way for outside military powers to impose any of those things on the Congo, not without a force of a million men, decades of work, an intellectual clarity about the nature and origins of liberal democracy and trillions of dollars to match, and maybe, probably, not even then. If China is going to be a free society, it's going to get there the same complex and messy way that Western Europe did, because there are social groups that have meaningful power who want to be free and are willing to pursue their own liberation.

It is true that sometimes outside military force is productive or necessary either for humanitarian reasons or for the protection of global security. Afghanistan was necessary, whether or not a nation that meaningfully serves its people is left in its wake. It might even be a good thing to send the US Marines to Monrovia in some limited fashion. It would warm my heart a little to know that Charles Taylor is dead or imprisoned: a worse example of human evil is hard to find in the world in the last three decades. It is what follows that matters, however. Removing Hussein or Taylor or Mugabe accomplishes little if they are followed by equivalent rulers commanding (or failing to command) similar powers over their peoples.

If you live in a universe where the failure to pursue the defeat of tyranny with military force makes one morally culpable for tyranny, we are all of us either culpable or all of us committed to a new global imperialism that would have to be systematically different in some fashion than the imperialism we have known in the past. None of the people who have anointed themselves the moral paragons have offered even the smallest hint of a specific programmatic vision of how such a mission might lead to a world of free nations governed by liberal democracies and an end to human suffering. It’s time to put up or shut up for the nation builders. Calling for the Marines to invade Liberia is no big deal: it’s what follows that matters.

The new imperialists and nation-makers have gotten all the mileage they’re entitled to from outsize, hysterically overwrought condemnation of their moral inferiors. Since they can’t even draw a road map that gets from A to B, they’ve got no right to sit behind the steering wheel.