Tuesday, February 01, 2005

A skeptic's reply (to Tim Cavanaugh)

Reason's Tim Cavanaugh cuts to the chase on the skeptics' dilemma:

The measure of success of the Iraqi election in winning over the fickle American audience isn't found in the corny, triumphant speechifying of the war hawks; you could have had a turnout of mere dozens and those folks would have mooned about how all freedom loving people were obliged to watch the miracle of democracy with a lump in their throats -- and specified minimum acceptable sizes and dimensions for the lump. The real surprise is how even the war skeptics seem to have no counternarrative to put up against the story of a Miracle In Mosul.

And a dilemma it is -- if we insist upon analyzing every event in terms of opposing narratives and counternarratives. Or, to put a finer point on it, in terms of insistence that the microcosm fully reflect the macrocosm: That every event for which the "wrong side" might take credit must in some way be defective, and that every event for which the "right side" might be blamed must somehow prove ultimately either redemptive or irrelevant.

The apparent success (and I do mean apparent -- some definite problems with the "narrative," as Cavanaugh would have it, are beginning to emerge, not least the credible accusation that Iraqis found their food rations held hostage to their decision to vote) of the Iraq election (or of any other "good news" aspect of the occupation) is one horn of this dilemma.

The other horn is the gut feeling of many Americans, assiduously cultivated by the War Party, that to oppose the US invasion and occupation of Iraq is to de facto align one's self with an assortment of pretty bad hombres. Saddam and the Ba'athists. Al Qaeda and al-Zarqawi. The shade of Khomeini. You name'em, the gang's all here.

So, how do we fashion, as Cavanaugh would have it, a "counternarrative?"

The first element of any such counternarrative is to insist upon an analysis of the conflict strictly with reference to US interests. The doctrinaire left finds such an approach odious in the extreme, and many libertarians recoil from its nationalist implications. Some leftists I've spoken with are quite uncomfortable finding themselves in bed -- if only for a one-night stand -- with the remnants of the Old Right. And some libertarians I've spoke with are hesitant about the attempt to store the wine of liberty in a skin composed of political borders. Nonetheless, the question bears asking:

Even if we give the advocates of the invasion, occupation and restructuring of Iraq the benefit of the doubt -- if we accept as gospel their accounts of a grateful and liberated Iraqi populace stepping into the light of liberty for the first time, rebuilding their shattered nation and embarking upon a genuine and sustainable journey toward liberal self-government -- do those successes justify the sacrifice of (so far) 1400 American lives, the investment of (so far) some $200 billion in American treasure, and a long-term commitment of the US to military adventurism abroad to drive home, secure and expand those accomplishments?

In other words, the counternarrative must be based upon the policy's correctness or incorrectness and upon its price and the means by which that price is exacted, rather than upon its success or failure.

The second element the counternarrative must promote is a reasonable distinction between advocacy of or opposition to a policy and alignment with others who might advocate or oppose that policy. Yes, the US invasion, occpation and restructuring of Iraq was and is opposed by the Ba'athists and the Islamists. What of it? The robbery of a bank by Felon A might well be opposed by Felons B and C, who had intended upon robbing it later in the day. Yet no one would accuse the bank's security guard of being allied with Felon B and Felon C because he attempted to thwart Felon A's gunpoint-withdrawal-of-funds.

It was not the antiwar movement which aided Saddam in his rise to power. It was the Central Intelligence Agency.

It was not the antiwar movement which recognized the Ba'athist regime in 1984 and helped arm it in its eight-year war with Iraq. It was the Reagan administration.

It was not the antiwar movement which encouraged and funded Osama bin Laden's creation of the organization which became al Qaeda as a proxy in its war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It was the US government.

And today it should be the antiwar movement which stands in solidarity with the oppressed and terrorized people of Iraq versus all of those sometimes-allied, sometimes squabbling antagonists. That the Iraqi people have been allowed an election, and just possibly the political space in which to pursue self-government, is no more a moral justification of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq than the fact that al Qaeda built schools and hospitals in Afghanistan was a justification of 9/11. This is the third element of a successful counternarrative: The moral element.

Ultimately, Cavanaugh (and Brian Doherty, whom he references) may be right: Time may be on the side of the hawks and a few years down the road Americans may routinely regard the war on Iraq as ultimately having been not only a foreign policy success but a relatively cheap one, especially given the American public's continuing reluctance to factor future "blowback" into the equation. If antiwar counternarrativists are to succeed, we must take the initiative in emphasizing questions of interest, price, alignment and moral standing. Praying for the War Party to fail at every juncture -- even when their success would actually accomplish some good -- isn't just unseemly. It's also a reactive, rather than proactive, strategy and it is doomed to failure.

Technorati tags: , ,

No comments: