The New Voice of Reason

I’ve been doing my best to hold my tongue on the issue of Syria, but things have been mounting for quite a while and at some point staying silent becomes indistinguishable from acquiescence. Hopefully adding my voice to the choir will, if nothing else, lend weight and credence to the idea that Americans are tired of war, tired of policing the world, and tired of “going it alone if we have to”.

Let me start by discussing a point that came up over beers with a friend last week. I mentioned to him that it seemed as if this is a very liberal (in the modern sense) sort of war, what with it being a “humanitarian intervention” (which is a contradiction in terms if ever I heard one). He completely agreed, which is almost tragic since he is a died-in-the-wool liberal. I say it is tragic because it pained me to see him so disheartened by even allowing for the idea; it seemed to me not because he was disappointed in any one politician, but more like he was disappointed in humanity as a whole, or at least those he saw as fellow travelers. Conservatives will go to war in the name of “national interest” (resources), while liberals will go to war in the name of “humanitarian causes” (people).  But how are people ever going to be better off by blowing them up?

I understand that the “trigger event” was the presumed use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons. I only say “presumed” because I have not seen the evidence, nor have most people, and there is still some debate in the international community, although I am willing to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt on this one (although in all honesty we’ve been burned by bad intelligence before). Even allowing that the assertion is true, I’m going to have to say something likely provocative: so what? Chemical weapons are horrible, it’s true. But so are conventional weapons. Chemical weapons kill indiscriminately, it’s true. But so do conventional weapons. Chemical weapons cause devastation on a massive scale, it’s true. But so do conventional weapons. The assertion is that 1,300 people died in that one attack, while more than 100,000 have died in the conflict overall in the past two years. At the risk of sounding perverse, I must ask: are those 1,300 people “more dead”?

What I don’t understand is why some people think it is wrong to go to war when you have identifiable national interests on the line but it is okay to go to war when you have nothing on the line but your conscience. What amuses me (in a gallows humor sort of way) is watching these same people and the politicians who represent them twist in the wind as they try to defend the same sort of action they once vigorously protested, bending over backwards to explain how “this is different”. Well, clearly it’s different. You can’t even pretend the U.S. has anything to gain from getting involved. On the plus side nobody will be shouting “No blood for oil!” at you. Instead they’ll just be shouting “No blood!”

Another friend pointed out that, having drawn this “red line” on Syria, President Obama (and by extension America) risks looking weak if we don’t take action. While I certainly understand that, I don’t believe it justifies moving forward. That’s as much as saying “I told my friends I would jump off this cliff without a parachute, and they’ll think I’m chicken if I don’t!” Yes, there will be ramifications in the world, likely very negative ones, if we don’t take action in the absence of a deal involving Syria surrendering their chemical arsenal. But that discounts the reality that there are also consequences and costs to taking action as well, and some of those could be similar or identical to the fallout we fear from holding back. The difference is that if we don’t take direct military action we don’t suffer the negatives that come with it either.

Of course, if we want to see the upside of military action, we can look to history and see how well that plays out. Come to think of it, better not. We’ve had a mixed bag at best since 1950, and a piss poor performance in this century. Well, we can always conjecture on the possible value and outcomes, and we have many experts to call on, don’t we Senator McCain? Of course, your information is only as good as your source, as Dr. Ms. Elizabeth O’Bagy can tell us (if she’s still being published).

The saddest part of all of this is that it has created another opportunity for Vladamir Putin to become (or at least appear to be) the voice of reason. Yes, that Vladamir Putin. The same one who thinks nothing of wiping his mouth with his own people’s civil rights. And yet somehow this situation has created a space where he can get away with saying (with a straight face) “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” When we have created not one but two situations in the space of a year where Putin’s Russia looks like the bastion of decency and goodness in the world and the U.S. comes out looking like the bad guy, we’re doing something seriously wrong.

And we are doing something seriously wrong, and have been for decades. We approach each international crisis not with the idea of “how can we relieve the suffering here?” or “how can we help minimize this?” or even (admittedly my favorite) “how do we stay the hell out of this?”, but rather with “what should we do about this, and how big of a hammer should we use?” The first assumption may not be a military approach, but it is the second, and it’s a close second, and the entire world knows it. That influences every discussion we have, every policy decision we make, and every negotiation. It also affects our status as a world target. Setting aside the question of whether we are helping to create more terror than we are stopping, the simple fact is that when someone wants attention, they don’t get it by picking on the smallest kid in the room. They get it by picking the biggest guy around and punching him right in the eye (or at least putting a stink bomb in his shoe). We’ve insisted on being the biggest guy around as a prophylactic measure since the end of WWII, and it’s done little to no good. Maybe it’s time we try abstinence instead.

Anarchy X: An Occasional Series on Politics and American Life

I decided it was time I got my thoughts on paper (yes, I’m old enough that I still think of typing as writing and my computer screen as paper) about politics, specifically the intersection of politics and American life, mostly because I’m American and that’s what I know. So the first place to start is with “what is politics?” Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” I happen to disagree; I think he got it completely backwards.

What is war? War is the wholesale application of violence to achieve specific material ends. Politics (at least one definition of politics and the one most applicable to von Clausewitz) is the wholesale threat of violence to achieve specific material ends. Dress it up as nicely as you want, at the end of the day that’s the difference between the two. If you don’t believe me, try to disregard the law of your choice and see if the nice policeman simply asks you politely to cease and desist, or if he may very well at some point consider utilizing some form of force to compel you.

That being the case, it’s all about which came first, the chicken or the egg, in this case the chicken being war and the egg being politics. Another way of considering it is to take it down from the wholesale level to the retail level: personal violence used to achieve specific material ends and personal threats of violence used to achieve specific material ends. This makes things much clearer: we have archaeological evidence of hominids doing violence to each other that predates our evidence of language. Ipso facto, politics is the continuation of war by another means.

Does this mean I abhor politics and everything it accomplishes? Not at all. I believe in self-defense, I believe in just war theory, and I believe it is preferable for us to talk out our problems than for us to fight out our problems. But I also believe that when we lose sight of what the tools we are using really are, then we tend to overuse them. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks very easy to solve. The greatness of politics is also its weakness; it removes and distances us from the immediate pains and burdens of the violence of forcing our collective will on others, which makes it so much easier to use that force. Here’s another famous aphorism from Lord Acton, and this one I agree with completely: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

So what does this have to do with American life, and why “Anarchy X”? By now you may have realized I have certain anarchist tendencies at heart, although many hard-core anarchists would thoroughly disagree with my stated opinions regarding the value of politics and war. The X is a reference to both the Ten Commandments and the original Bill of Rights, both of which have had a major effect on the shape of politics and culture in America and will be the launching point for future posts in this series. Hopefully I’ll cover other topics as well, but if I manage to cover all twenty of those, that’s enough ground to keep me busy for quite a while. It should be a fun ride.