Friday, August 02, 2002


I know I shouldn't do this, as it has occupied far too much of my time recently, but I feel compelled to respond to Den Beste's latest article. A few points:

1) The claim that "There's no fairness or symmetry in international affairs. There never has been. Within our nation we try to live as civilized beings, but the world is a jungle, and despite what we'd all like to believe, it is a hostile and dangerous place where only force or the threat of force are truly effective"....

is nonsense. That was already obsolete with the Treaty of Westphalia, and was finally put to bed when multilateralism started in earnest this century. "Fairness" lies in countries making deals and sticking to them, and those deals are based more on mutual self-interest than the threat of force. The United States has done so, and benefits from those deals. Besides, there's no reason to believe that it's that much different within "our nation" either... we "try to live as civilized beings" at least partially because the threat of reprisal hangs over our heads like swords of Damocles. This illusory division between American civility and foreign barbarity definitely boosts one's American ego (to think that we're somehow special in that we obey the law and are civilized), but it's simply nonsense.

2) Den Beste is making an awful lot of assertions, delving into an awful lot of minds, and passing simple judgements on an awful lot of difficult questions through most of this piece. His simplistic interpretation of the Iraqi situation is only one aspect, although an important one. More important is his repetition of the argument that all foreign resentment and anger at the United States is rooted in a clash of civilizations. It's another big bolster to the American psyche, but doesn't really fit the facts at hand any more than the simplistic "they hate our freedom" argument does. Osama said why he was ticked off at the U.S., and while those reasons may not explain entirely why he attacked the U.S., they should not be arbitrarily ignored in favor of simplistic psychology and sociology rooted in, from what I can tell, no recognizable trends or theories within either social science. Repeating your own theories or the theories of your ideological peers as truth serves no one, even if it is convenient.

(By the way, the words "explanation" or "reason" does not mean "justification". Just in case that objection was going to spring to some lips).

I mean, this isn't a new thing: his simplistic and unwarranted description of the reason why King Abdullah of Jordan remains a moderate (he gets cash from the U.S.) defies all logic, and his cheerleading of U.S. unilaterialism remains rather disturbing in his belief that the United States should ignore the rest of the world but the rest of the world should bend at the knee to the United States. Still, it's rather astonishing to behold.


Edit: another incredible assertion in the same vein:

Every nation and every people has its own agenda and its own interests. When they don't coincide with ours, they'll get different answers than we do about critical questions.

I have lamented the fact that it seems like leaders around the world spend all their time lecturing the US on what we ought to do, and precious little time trying to listen to what we think. I believe I understand why they do it now. It really should have been obvious to me; it's because it is their primary way of trying to influence the course of events. We have the ability to act, but all they can do is talk and try to convince us to act in ways which are to their benefit.
This assumes many things that are either unprove or demonstrably untrue. First, that the United States and other nations don't have shared agendas and interests that can override their differences. Second, that the United States does listen to other countries, and that other countries don't listen to the United States. They may not agree, but that doesn't mean they don't listen. The error of "I understand" shines through. Third, that the primary way of influencing the course of events is through speech- it might not be the only way, but the preferred way, which is something that the United States (or at least Den Beste) might not understand. Fourth, that influencing through speech is illegitimate, which again pits Den Beste against the entire concept of diplomacy. Fifth, that the United States shouldn't listen even if influence through speech is legitimate, because influence through force is somehow morally superior. (!) Oh, and finally, although I didn't quote it, the two ideas that the criticism of the prospects of invading Iraq are somehow not based on cost/benefit analyses and that such analyses are the only appropriate ones to be done are questionable as hell.


3)Iraq agreeing to inspections blows wide holes in what remains of Den Beste's arguments after the convenient and questionable psychology and sociology are pulled out, but even if it didn't his argument doesn't make sense. Why not invade Iran, who have also declared enmity and who also possess these sorts of weapons? Why not North Korea? Why not Russia, who can't be trusted to keep their material safe? Hell, why not China? This sort of justification is not suitable for invasion or regime change, but of empire, and I doubt even Den Beste is willing to make the argument that the United States could enforce imperial control on that scale.

4) as yet more proof that Steven seens to have a poor grasp on history:

I wrote about this on October 1 last year, shortly before our bombing campaign in Afghanistan began. The threat of non-support and of America-going-it-alone also hung in the air late last September, when our friends tried to get us to exercise restraint against the Taliban and hoped to get us to consider diplomatic solutions instead of military ones.
Funny, I seem to recall there was widespread support of the United States' actions in Afghanistan around the world, even if there was also dissent. Now it's all dissent, and practically no support. Even the allies that were fighting to be involved in Afghanistan (like Canada, a country that usually defers to the United States in pretty much all matters military) are questioning the wisdom of invading Iraq. Yet supposedly that doesn't matter, because they all happen to be wrong, and Steven happens to be right, based on nothing more than his absolute certainty that he knows what's going through the minds of anybody whom he happens to be writing about. Must be nice to have that kind of unshakeable certainty of the rightness of one's actions. It isn't exactly grounded in the lessons of history and of the relevant fields of study, but I imagine it makes life easier.

In the end, the simple question by one "Stuart" that started his restatement of his old (flawed) arguments is a valid one: "what gives America the right to attack another sovereign nation?"

The answer, of course, is that nothing that Den Beste has said does anything of the sort. The United States agreed to certain ground rules that define the rights and responsibilities of states and the subjects of those states. It did so as a condition of its membership in various international bodies and the international community in general. Under those rules, it currently has no right to invade Iraq, until it can prove that Iraq is dangerous to the satisfaction of the rest of the Security Council . Whether it cares or not is a different question, but the answer to the question Stuart posed is crystal clear. The United States agreed to abide by these treaties, and Den Beste himself insisted that the U.S. is a nation of laws and that those treaties have the force of law. If he truly wants the United States to no longer be bound by those laws, then let him advocate that the United States leave the United Nations, break its collective security agreements, and declare itself in a true state of nature in regards to the rest of the world. He wouldn't be alone- others have said the same thing. They might even be right. Trying to declare that such a state of nature exists when it certainly doesn't, however, is simply nonsense.

(Oh, one other thing: I just finished reading Phillip K. Dick's "Minority Report". I don't know whether the movie suits the situation as well as some argue it does, but I know damned well that the story does. The same questions that are raised by the story about unshakeable knowledge of the future are raised by the current situation, enough so that it's eerie).

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