I have appreciated David Peterson’s blogging about the ‘humanitarians’ and their ‘interventions’ about Sudan. So when I read his latest, referring to my own recent piece on the subject (a piece which made good use of his own previous blogging), I thought it a good time to blog on the topic myself.
I think David, like Ed Herman, is a very forceful and well-informed anti-interventionist. He takes the hard cases (Sudan, Kosovo) and relentlessly goes after even the more sympathetic liberal interventionists — folks like Samantha Power, Louise Arbour, Human Rights Watch — for their genuine inconsistencies that seem always to favour the powerful. My own instincts are also pretty much always in the anti-interventionist direction. There are various reasons. One is the old moral truism (where have I heard that phrase before?) that we should hold ourselves (or our own societies) to the same standards we claim to hold others. Another is that the US and the West are by far the most powerful, and that makes them the most dangerous, and the stakes very high, even for people outside.
But, if David’s recent post exposes the double-standards of the interventionists, in my own response I’d like to ask a more difficult question of ourselves. Why are those of us who are, for what I think are right reasons, anti-intervention — why are we so ineffective?
Why did we anti-interventionists fail so badly to convince even the whole ‘left’ about Kosovo? Or Afghanistan? And, upcoming, Sudan? We have to examine this carefully. Part of it is our lack of a megaphone and the power of propaganda, of course. Part of it might also be that if we can’t get ‘beyond hypocrisy’, meaning beyond accusing the hypocrites we both cite (Powell, Blair, etc.) of hypocrisy, we allow the interventionists to claim the high ground, in this sense: they can say “all you are saying about Palestine might be true and it might not, but I am the only one with a plan to address what is happening in Sudan — or Kosovo, etc. — right now. You can call me a hypocrite for not caring about Haitians, Palestinians, Iraqis, or whoever, but what about the Sudanese (Albanians), now?”
At which point, in fact, our own side — the anti-interventionist side — divides. Some of us become apologetic for the crimes that are going on, minimizing them or trying to put them in context (“What would the US do if a violent secessionist movement arose in Texas?”). Others repudiate the crimes, declare stridently things like “Milosevic is a thug” (You remember that line, right?) but that that doesn’t justify intervention. I think maybe our weakness in situations like these is that we don’t actually press our competitive advantage over the interventionists.
Our competitive advantage is that we *actually* care about the victims of crimes, because we are against crimes, while they are selectively indignant and only care about crimes of other people. In rebutting them, we usually feel the need to emphasize our own side’s crimes to the same degree that they emphasize the crimes of others, and de-emphasize others crimes to the same degree they de-emphasize US crimes. That might be a mistake, because it makes us a mirror image of their callousness: we care about all people, but we sound like we only care about some. They care about none, but because they have more outlets and scream louder, they sound like they care about all. This doesn’t mean we have to start our every discussion with ritual denunciation of the Sudanese regime (or Slobodan Milosovec, or the Taliban, or Saddam, or Zarqawi, or Bin Laden, etc. etc.). But maybe we have to do something differently.