Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Should We Stay or Should We Go?

Iraq is precisely the situation Reinhold Niebuhr could have had in mind when he argued that nations cannot afford to be moral agents.

Morally (and please note, not ethically; Aristotle gave us "ethics," and his understanding of the term was limited to the individual fulfilling their "telos" by achieving "Happiness"), we clearly have an obligation to fix what we broke in Iraq. However, "we" didn't break it; Bush & Co did, by their stupidity, their incompetence, their arrogance, their sheer inability to grasp what government is truly for. This is a consequence of democracy, of making "the people" sovereign, which in the end makes no one sovereign. And just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does governance; a vacuum of sovereignty is one that others will always rush to fill. The consequence can be, and has become, placing people into positions of power and authority in government who clearly have no understanding whatsoever as to what government actually does, and no consideration whatosever for the legitimacy of government. They understand government only as a means to power. As Molly Ivins said long ago, they don't want to govern, they want to rule.

And they've found out ruling is not all its cracked up to be, especially in a democracy, where the sovereign is not the government nor the elected officials, but the people. They may not always act the role of sovereign wisely or well, but they always have the last word. Our "leaders" have found out, once again, that rule over others is also just as complicated as it ever was, which is the primary reason our government was set up as representative, not as authoritarian. This is a secondary problem, one tied intimately to their inability to grasp the legitimacy of government, of any government: complete ignorance of history. The rule of kings and emperors just looks easy and inevitable to the ignorant who can only imagine history as we know it is history as it must be, and that it all leads inexorably to them, and their place on history's pinnacle.

Except history, of course, does not have a "pinnacle," any more than evolution is a process that leads to "success," any more than going to war means the only possible end is "victory" or "defeat." Sometimes it is simply disaster. The lesson of the "Good War" is the aberration; the lesson of Vietnam is the normative one.

So now we are in a quagmire in Iraq, a quagmire of our own making: should we stay, or should we go? As NPR reported this morning, the stark facts are the Iraqis have fewer jobs and less electricity, water, and food, than they did before the US invasion. Part of the problem is the ongoing violence, and so long as we stay, we prompt the violence caused by the objection to our presence. If we go, who is there to even pretend to prop up the powerless legislative body known as the Iraqi parliament? As Vali Nasr told Steve Inskeep yesterday, there is no mechanism in place for negotiations for peace between the factions currently dividing Iraq, and all talk of "benchmarks" is merely a fig-leaf for US domestic political consumption. Any expectation that an "oil law," or any law, coming from the Iraqis parliament will begin to quell the chaos in Iraq is, again, a complete ignorance as to what government is for, and how it actually functions to provide stability and prosperity. Nasr points out that our State Dept. should at least be trying to set up discussions between the Iraqis factions. Instead, we rely on more troops to brutalize the populace into submission. Even Hobbes was not as brutal in his argument for the power of the state. Even Rousseau was not as much of a Pollyanna as the fools running our government are. But, as Kevin Baker has pointed out, this was intentional, too:

...Bush has finally uncoupled the state from its heroic status. It is not a coincidence that modern nationalism dates from the advent of mass democracy—and mass citizen armies—that the American and French revolutions ushered in at the end of the eighteenth century. Bush's refusal to mobilize the nation for the war in Iraq has severed that immediate identification with our army's fortunes. Nor did it begin with the Bush Administration. The wartime tax cuts and the all-volunteer, wartime army are simply the latest manifestations of a trend that is now decades old and that has been promulgated through peace as well as war, by Democrats as well as Republicans. It cannot truly be a surprise that a society that has steadily dismantled or diminished the most basic access to health care, relief for the poor and the aged, and decent education; a society that has allowed the gap between its richest and poorest citizens to grow to unprecedented size; a society that has paid obeisance to the ideology of globalization to the point of giving away both its jobs and its debt to foreign nations, and which has just allowed one of its poorer cities to quietly drown, should choose to largely opt out of its own defense.
As Eliot asked at the beginning of the 20th century: "What live have you if you have not life together?" We have our answer, now.

Who could possibly believe in a plot to lose this war? No one cares that much about it. We have, instead, reached a crossroads where the overwhelming right-wing desire to dissolve much of the old social compact that held together the modern nation-state is irreconcilably at odds with any attempt to conduct such a grand, heroic experiment as implanting democracy in the Middle East. Without mass participation, Iraq cannot be passed off as an heroic endeavor, no matter how much Mr. Bush's rhetoric tries to make it one, and without a hero there can be no great betrayer, no skulking villain.
The dolchtsosslegende Baker writes about is precisely built on the idea of a public morality: of a noble hero, icon of all the society holds true and good, betrayed by evil, by the immoral, by the one who "weds himself to inhumanity." But if there is no public hearth to share, what care I for your humanity? So here we stand, unable to win, unable to lose. What do we do now? What choices are we left with?

The dolchstosslegende, ironically, leads directly to the dissolution of democracy, as even the moral principles of the individual must be sacrificed for the security of the State, and even Niebuhr didn't think the State's inability to be a moral agent in the world gave it carte blanche to do whatever was necessary to survive, to ask literally anything (which can also be to ask nothing) of its citizens. Now, nothing having been asked of us, what question do we face? The only one we have allowed ourselves: should we stay, or should we go? If we stay, more American soldiers will be slaughtered or kidnapped; they will certainly all remain in harm's way. If we leave, we wash our hands of the mess we have made, and go home to try to wash away the blood. Morally, to go or to stay are both indefensible. But governments are not moral agents, and cannot be. We cannot continue to ask our soldiers to go to Iraq and die for our error in invading in the first place. That is a deeply immoral position. We cannot simply remove our forces and wash the blood off our hands. That is a deeply immoral decision.

Damned if we do; damned if we don't. No wonder Rick Sanchez on CNN resorted to the dichotomy of "stop killing them, thereby they'll stop hating you and wanting to kill you, or B, kill them all." So long as we think our national actions are somehow also moral actions, what other options does our political discourse offer?

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