It's a species problem
I had just finished reading Michael Lewis' piece in Vanity Fair when David's post below popped up. And the difference in our reactions to it are so startling that I figured I should write about it.
First, the whole piece is so hagiographic, I felt it was more like a religious tract than a magazine profile. This:
His desire to hear out junior people is a warm personality trait as much as a cool tactic, of a piece with his desire to play golf with White House cooks rather than with C.E.O.’s and basketball with people who treat him as just another player on the court; to stay home and read a book rather than go to a Washington cocktail party; and to seek out, in any crowd, not the beautiful people but the old people. The man has his status needs, but they are unusual. And he has a tendency, an unthinking first step, to subvert established status structures. After all, he became president.
Oh boy. This came after the basketball story, which was almost too much to take:
He used to focus on personal achievement, but as he can no longer achieve so much personally, he’s switched to trying to figure out how to make his team win. In his decline he’s maintaining his relevance and sense of purpose.
Anyway, suffice to say that I found it to be an extremely flattering profile, so flattering that I ended up not believing the conclusions about central story in the piece --- the Libya decision that made David so proud to be a millenial. I have no doubt that some of the advisors said they had the ghosts of 800,000 Tustsi's on their minds. We all did. And that's because people in foreign policy circles and the press were all making the same comparison. The idea that Obama was moved in this meeting by some young Turks who broke out of the conventional paradigm and spoke up for human rights strikes me as very far fetched. That conversation was happening everywhere.
I have no doubt that preventing mass murders was an element of the decision. But I can prove that it is not the determining factor in the Obama administration's foreign policy with one word: Syria. That country has been embroiled in a very similar situation for months and the US has not made any moves to intervene. Activists claim that the regime has killed nearly 30,000 of its citizens, 5,000 in August alone. There are daily reports of torture, mass killings and constant terror. And yet there is zero talk of American intervention. Now, whether or not you think that's good or bad, you simply cannot say that the United States is in the business of using it's mighty forces to stop potential genocides or mass murders. It has made no moves to do it here --- we're watching tens of thousands of Syrian civilians being massacred and nothing is being done.
The United States government is in the business of maintaining its power and military hegemony, period, and even if the ghosts of dead Tutsis haunt some of the policy makers, those apparitions do not change that basic equation. If some people happen to get saved, that's all to the good. But it is not the point and President Obama is hardly an avatar of human rights simply because that was a serendipitous effect of a certain military decision.
And this, finally, is why I think this whole piece is bullshit. I'm sure all those people said what Lewis said they said. But I do not believe that the President made his decision based upon those embattled younger staffers who were arguing for humanitarian intervention. The President wanted to intervene for reasons the article doesn't spell out. It does however, discuss his decision making process, in which he takes on the various arguments as his own. As one observers says:
Even when he’s made up his mind he wants to cherry-pick the best arguments to justify what he wants to do.
So color me skeptical about the real motivations for the intervention, particularly considering the coolness with which this president dispatches deadly force in other areas for inscrutable reasons.
But I do want to say that I get David's idealistic enthusiasm for international interventionism. Some of the most painful political spectacles of my life have been watching horrible human rights offenses all over the world and feeling impotent to stop them. (Some of them perpetrated by the United States itself.) But as David identifies Rwanda as the seminal human rights horror of his life while those of us who are older were tainted by our youthful experience with Vietnam, there's a big lesson to be learned from that that I hope is not forgotten by idealists of the younger generation.
Vietnam became Vietnam under a very serious liberal belief that America was helping the South Vietnamese fight off the communists and staving off a monstrous regime from taking over many more countries. And we found out then that we don't do that very well. Estimates are that around a million civilians were killed there, some say twice that. And that's not counting the regular military of both sides along with the United States and other countries' participating forces.
The Best and the Brightest who perpetrated the escalation of that war were all liberal interventionists who believed in using America's power to advance freedom and democracy and save those who were too weak to help themselves. And that way, for any powerful nation, lies hubris.
It certainly seems that one should be able to use whatever power one has to stop wrongs being perpetrated against the weak. But I'm afraid that the messiness of human nature makes that a very dicey proposition when it comes to military violence. In my view, the laws of unintended consequences, the perfidy of our leaders, the inadequacy of our institutions all combine to make liberal style humanitarian interventionism a generally bad idea.
Like David, I hope that humans are able to evolve to a point at which they can manage some global institutions that will react effectively when the dark side emerges. But we aren't there yet. So I think we're stuck with self-defense as the only military doctrine we can rely upon --- and even that is so often fraught with manipulation and propaganda that it's nearly useless. We are not dealing with an American problem or even a nation state problem. It's a species problem. Until that changes, I'm going to be skeptical of all military adventures. There's just too much evidence that these things are never what they seem.