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, whats next? Theres 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 Husseins 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 Husseins
misrule and repression, which was grotesque and horrible and deserved to be
crushed. Unfortunately theres 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 hes talking about Liberia that he demonstrated on Iraq. That
only makes the problem worse, however. Why isnt Totten calling for a US
invasion of the Congo, for example? Because its in the French sphere of
influence? Thats 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, Im guessing hes said very bad things
about Mugabe in the past, but as we know from reading his essays, thats
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. Theres 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 littleAfrica is far away, and not strategically vital.
Then he says, Lets go and and invade, because we have to.
At least hes consistent, and I actually admire thatbut that consistency
means he literally cannot ignore or push to the backburner a single one of the
cases Ive 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 cant be done by people who arent 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 wasnt sad to watch the Administration flail about trying to find their
way towards a bigger multilateral fig leaf to cover their exposure in Iraqjust
like its 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 Fergusons
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
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. Its time to put up or shut up for the nation builders.
Calling for the Marines to invade Liberia is no big deal: its what follows
The new imperialists and nation-makers have gotten all the mileage theyre entitled to from outsize, hysterically overwrought condemnation of their moral inferiors. Since they cant even draw a road map that gets from A to B, theyve got no right to sit behind the steering wheel.