Bloody Madness

Updated below.

Over at The Dish, Zack Beauchamp writes:

It’s better to think of the U.S. as the global police chief rather than sole policeman. We may be the strongest of our allies, but by no means do we take lead role in solving every problem. American allies work like detectives: they conduct crucial operations in support of the general task of keeping the global peace and creating a better world […]

Ultimately, that’s why neoconservative critics of Obama’s “weakness” and realist critics of American “empire” both get it wrong. “Leading from behind” isn’t about abandoning American leadership – it’s about exercising in a manner that’s not completely self-defeating. Being a global policeman doesn’t mean “wars all the time everywhere!” – it means enlisting allies to help us with global governance.  Yes, that occasionally means military intervention by the U.S. and/or allies when the intervention in question passes basic just war theory tests, but doesn’t mean the hallmark of the international order is perpetual use of military force. And our allies aren’t limited to Old Europe – the U.S. can, with skillful diplomacy, work with rising states like India, which has demonstrated its commitment to global governance through its significant contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations.

International police work is important. Not only is it morally required for rich, powerful states, but it’s good for them in the long run by limiting dangerous instability. Luckily, Americans don’t have to conduct every patrol on their own.

I write about the policequite a lot, so maybe Beauchamp’s analogy isn’t meant for someone like me. I find it a bit…frightening, honestly.

But I do so love clever little sound bite phrases like “leading from behind” (at once used to critique the president and to justify a new sort of American exceptionalism). I’m similarly fond of the glib way that pundits can talk about bombing the hell out of poor brown people half a world away almost as if they were discussing cooking tips.

Now you just add a dash of “soft power” diplomacy, toss in a few predator drone strikes, spread some democracy all over it, then turn the oven up to 450 degrees and bake for an hour and a half, and oh doesn’t that just look delicious!

Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive to a bunch of bloggers who have never fought in a war before, or had their homes blown to pieces by American drones, or had some far-off superpower come drop a bunch of bombs down on their village in order to liberate them, clapping so loudly about how well Obama has “led from behind” in our overseas contingency operations as if we know a damn thing about what’s actually going on in these places or what our involvement there really means for that will’o’the’wisp that is ‘global stability’ or ‘global governance’ or whatever we call it now.

Beauchamp’s dystopian metaphor of America as the global police chief – one global policeman among many – is just madness. It’s a comfortable, comforting sort of madness, the invisible lunacy of the status quo, but it’s much more troubling than anything I’ve heard “crazy Ron Paul” say.

People say that anarchy is crazy and untenable, that we need governments like we need global police. Like we need a bullet in the head. I’m starting to think that the opposite is true. Government is chaos. Power flows like blood, just as thick. Just as fast.

[update]

Yeah, so that’s me being a little dramatic. I’m not an anarchist, though I do admire anarchists and have learned a great deal from them. Government is, I think, a violent institution and thus needs to be kept as limited as possible – especially in those areas where violence is its mission such as war and police work. When people talk about the US state as an international police force, it worries me. It strikes me as a huge, terrifying overreach. Preventing genocide sounds awfully nice, but it doesn’t always work out that way. We have a hard enough time understanding our own politics, our own culture, and the long and short-term effects of our own domestic policy. Understanding what will work in foreign countries, with alien cultures and different civil institutions is almost impossible. Erring on the side of extreme caution, and hewing to a defensive set of policies (some might call that realism) is, in my opinion, the safest, wisest course of action (or non-action, as it were).

So government is a force of chaos when it’s let too far out of the box. War almost inevitably lets government out on too long of a leash. So I’m not an anarchist, true, but I see where they’re coming from. More on that here.

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45 thoughts on “Bloody Madness

    • That’s an utterly incoherent thing to say. My politics had literally nothing to do with my gig at Forbes and in any case conservative would have helped me out more with a publication like Forbes.

      I think there are valuable lessons to learn from anarchy, but no I don’t think I can go the distance with that philosophy. Government is chaos, but I have a hard time fully realizing a world without it nonetheless. Then again I’ve been writing about anarchy for a long time now, and my attraction to mutualism of the sort Kevin Carson writes about. Indeed, I’ve written many dozens of posts about it so “trying on anarchy now” is sort of a ludicrous, petty thing to say.

      But thanks for playing.

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      • They’re not fellow travelers. The liberal instinct is precisely the belief that limited, sustainable, constitutional government is possible that does not amount to, or tend toward, tyranny, making the terror associated with anarchy an unnecessary option, and therefore something profoundly not to be wished for, and to be resisted by way of working toward that sustainable non-tyrannical form of government. Anarchists and liberals both react against tyranny, but who doesn’t? This does not make them fellow-travelers.

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        • I said fellow travelers, not the same thing entirely. Again, I consider myself a libertarian-leaning liberal with anarchist sympathies. But still a liberal. There is the way the world is and the way we wish the world could be.

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          • They’re not exactly the same thing… and they’re not fellow travelers, either. Which is not to say you can’t be what you say you are here. But the two things are not fellow-travelers. If they were, then more liberals would have anarchist sympathies, and more anarchists would be far more sympathetic to liberalism, and in both instances they overwhelmingly are emphatically not. Which is not to say a person with your identity identity and your inclination toward anarchy is being somehow incoherent, or that there aren’t others like you. it’s just that you happen to pull together ideological attitudes that are much more opposed than aligned. And just because you do that in your case does not make these attitudes fellow travelers, nor just because you say it’s the case, does it make it so. It is not the case that liberalism and anarchism are fellow-traveling ideologies, even though it’s certainly possible to adhere to one while having certain inclinations toward the other.

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  1. Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive to a bunch of bloggers who have never fought in a war before, or had their homes blown to pieces by American drones, or had some far-off superpower come drop a bunch of bombs down on their village in order to liberate them

    One needs to have a sense of what one does not know in the course of writing on one topic or another. Something you yourself might remember from time to time.

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      • No, but you are advocating that the US (and other outside powers including multinational organizations) should not exert the limited effort and treasure required to turn the tides of what was by all reputable accounts a slaughter against people demanding change in their authoritarian state. Your argument that “callous bloggers don’t live with the consequences of their positions” cuts both ways. No one here who has advanced the non-interventionist position on Libya was going to live out the consequences of said position on the ground. After Gaddafi forces had finished their attacks and regained control, non-interventionist bloggers could reassure themselves that Libya was screwed no matter what, and thus taking any action to alter that trend was doomed.

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  2. Can you explain why you find the idea of powerful countries working together to prevent genocide (as would pass “a basic just war theory test”) so abhorrent, rather than just sneer at the language choice?

    Nowhere in your Forbes columns on police aggression have I seen you make the argument that the police should be disbanded entirely or act as a purely defensive organization – as you seem to be suggesting contra Beauchamp.

    And, at least within the context of this post, you too have not been the victim of a drone attack; nor have you lived under a dictator who threatens to make the streets run red with your blood because you’re from the wrong village. So perhaps I’m missing your point about having the personal experience to know how to act in such a situation.

    As for Ron Paul, he seems to completely reject the idea of crimes against humanity, or at least that such crimes can ever supersede national sovereignty. Given that said crimes were defined from practical examples that occurred within his lifetime, his position does seem odd.

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    • Why shouldn’t of we gone in and taken care of Stalin after we* took care of Hitler, when Paul was about 10? Or Mao in ’72? Both had body counts well in excess of Hitlers’.

      *and by we I mean he. We took care of Tojo.

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      • We were preventing the possibility. From here on out, if NATO determines that a slaughter could happen, it’s justified to start bombing. I have a feeling at some point in the future China will crack down viciously on protesters killing tens of thousands of innocent people (they’ve done it before in higher numbers), so NATO should proactively bomb China starting tomorrow. The same goes for Iran, and Syria is a no-brainer. Then NATO needs to go to the heart of Africa and save all threatened innocent people — it’s long over-due.

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      • The requirement to pass “a basic just war theory test” was in the passage you cited, it seems like genocide would unquestionably do that. (If you’re asking weather I personally think that the Libyan was was wise, no I don’t).

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      • Well, the UN Security Council was concerned about “gross and systematic violations of human rights, including the repression of peaceful demonstrators” (UNSC Res. 1970). UNSC action having been preceded by condemnations of the Arab League, AU, and OIC. Libya’s own representatives to the UN wrote to the Security Council expressing concerns about the Libyan government’s conduct. And Libyan leaders were making speeches that spoke of impending mass reprisals against opponents, referring to “cleansing” and such.

        The non-interventionist answer in the face of crimes against humanity is simply not good enough. Leave aside Ron Paul’s lifetime, in my twenty-something lifetime the US has been a bystander to genocide. Wherever US power can be usefully employed to prevent and punish genocide, it should be used to do so. If that makes us the world’s police, so be it.

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        • I don’t think that genocide is the criteria they’re using. If it was only to prevent genocide, then they’d have an argument. Still, if we thought outside the US military/industrial complex big ass box, the world might come up with a solution that doesn’t force one nation into the role of Global Police. A combination of NGO/emergency, limited-military operations – a special orgnanization not tied to one nation, might be more effective to assist countries facing the anamoly of mass killings. I don’t have the complete answer of course, but I’m sure the world can come up with something better.

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  3. E.D., elimating government doesn’t eliminate. Power will always be with us. It just eliminates any structure by which the public can control that power. Government is the means by which we decide who has power by a means other than “the strongest grabs the most”.

    Don’t confuse empire and government.

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  4. “Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive to a bunch of bloggers who have never fought in a war before, or had their homes blown to pieces by American drones, or had some far-off superpower come drop a bunch of bombs down on their village in order to liberate them…”

    While I agree with your overall conclusions about Beauchamp’s post, I think this may be an unfair line of attack. There are plenty of good/great bloggers who write about subjects they don’t have personal experience with. You and I write a fair amount about under-performing schools and yet I have never attended one and I suspect you haven’t either. I’ve never taught in a classroom but I have lots of opinions on teaching methods.

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