Meta-Commentary

Libya

Posted in politics, war by Adrian Arroyo on March 22, 2011

John Judis at TNR has the best defense of the Libya intervention, arguing that it flows from basic concerns about regional stability and human costs of Qaddafi’s offensive. However, by focusing on the outcomes of inaction, he handily elides one major point of criticism: the ends don’t match the means. In other words, if you care about the issues he highlights, you shouldn’t be fighting an air war.

In Bombing to Win, Robert Pape exposes the illogic of strategic bombing. The fundamental premise of strategic bombing is that a bombing campaign undercuts both the state’s warfighting capabilities and the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the populace. That’s a nice theory, but reality isn’t quite that neat. The two aims are contradictory. By taking out infrastructure—and, inevitably, homes—strategic bombing creates a mass of homeless and unemployed people who are dependent on the state to fulfill basic needs. It’s a brave man who will forgo his meal ticket and shelter to stand up to his government to the ultimate benefit of the people who bombed his house or workplace.

The mismatch between our methods and our goals is one of the most troubling aspects of the war, and it undercuts John’s argument. A better defense, I think, is that the intervention is fundamentally opportunistic. While the methodical slaughter of Libyan civilians by Gaddafi isn’t the biggest threat to American interests, it’s also not hard to interdict conventional forces with air power in a country as flat and barren as Libya. Moreover, a multilateral intervention on behalf of an uprising that has been (inaccurately) lumped into the “Arab Spring” is a useful gesture to emerging civil society groups in the region. Qaddafi—a near-universally loathed despot—is a target of opportunity and nothing more.

Understood as multilateral opportunism, the case for intervention is clearer. At the cost of expended ordnance, we can forestall a humanitarian catastrophe, undermine an old foe, and pass the costs of post-combat planning on to allies who have more vital interests in the region. Apparently, the Obama administration is willing to make that gamble.

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Serwer

Posted in media, politics by Adrian Arroyo on August 16, 2010

Serwer responds to Chait’s agent-free argument that Obama’s intervention in the Park51 controversy will pay dividends for the Democratic Party, if not for Obama.

Not to pick on Chait in particular, but there’s a liberal complacency when it comes to conservative intolerance that I find maddening.

However, guest-blogging at TNC’s Atlantic digs some months earlier, Serwer offers a similarly structural account of American history:

The American conscience, when it decides to act, is mighty–but it is also sluggish and vain. Americans are crushed by the weight of not fulfilling their own high expectations–so the shameful acts of one generation are often rectified by a subsequent generation unencumbered by their own complicity in such acts.

Serwer’s positions are not contradictory, but they certainly exist in tension with one another. To the extent that the Park51 issue and the fecklessness of the right generally produce any results for the Democratic Party among American Muslims, the proximate cause won’t be either natural affection (per Chait) or the American conscience (per Serwer). In asserting such, they both stumble upon the error at the heart of Democratic politics. To paraphrase Parker/MLK:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it can be bent toward justice.

Political relationships are personal, iterative and transactional, not simply a matter of acquiescence to vast, world-historical forces. Leaders have agency. Additionally, there’s no reason to believe that one group will produce significant political outcomes for another simply because the latter doesn’t denigrate the former in public fora; “nowhere else to go” is a reason not to leave a coalition, not a reason a to enter one. Recent statements from Sen. Harry Reid and President Obama suggest that there’s not a whole lot of interest in building that kind of relationship. There may be an argument that this primal scream by the GOP will help foster an environment where American Muslim leaders can have the sorts of conversations with Democratic leaders that lead to electoral alignments, that’s a predictive argument, and one that’s currently a bit short on support.

Parenthetically, we should also ask what use or value our national conscience holds if we must be absolved of all wrongdoing before it has any discernable impact on our actions. Today, the sort of national conscience that begets real political courage remains firmly in the realm of blue fairies and gold badges–assuming it ever existed.