The New York Times Magazine printed a chat dialogue this past weekend between Michael Ignatieff, David Rieff, James Traub, Paul Berman, and Ian Buruma, about the aftermath of 9/11 and its effect on foreign policy.
The chat, between liberal writers (mostly reporters), gives a fair view of the chats inside the salons of liberal intelligentsia. As such, it also epitomizes everything that is wrong with the liberal response to 9/11.
From the outset, the discussion is entirely between well-to-do, white, male, Western writers, none of whom speak Arabic or have spent an extended time in the Middle East or Central Asia (despite all being “experts”). This is not merely a cosmetic criticism — any discussion about post-9/11 foreign policy is almost meaningless without someone from the Arab/Muslim (not interchangeable, I know) world, which is actually targeted by our wars. Here are a bunch of armchair intellectuals trying to fumble with what the “Arab Spring” “means” — without talking to any Arabs! Many more Iraqis and Afghans have died than coalition forces, and yet, here we are debating if we maybe should have done things differently.
Beyond that initial complaint, the discussion largely centers on the competence and scope of our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, the only participant in the discussion who seems to think that American intervention for “liberal” causes was largely a bad idea is Buruma. This excerpt is typical:
MALCOMSON: In terms of what should be done now, two questions: Do you (each) believe that the Western or American public, having financed and fought most of this since 9/11, is eager to engage in further advancement of liberal arguments? If not, does that matter? And relatedly, President Obama has to figure out what to do himself, pretty practically. (He makes little public reference to 9/11, interestingly.) Where do you see whatever lessons we might have learned in the past decade taking policies in the near future?
TRAUB: On the first question, this is what troubles me about David’s response. There is a big difference between humility and despair. I think we have learned a lot about limits. But I don’t think the lesson is: We can do nothing to shape better outcomes in the world; we only make things worse. I would say that the American people, far from being interventionist, as they were in the aftermath of 9/11, are now heavily isolationist. How does one find the language that justifies a significant and positive American role in the world? Obama is searching — not so successfully, right now.
BURUMA: One way is to be concrete. I really don’t know what “advancing the liberal argument” means, except that it is supposed to make us feel warm all over. Are we talking about U.S. government policies? Fine. Military intervention, to topple regimes, the Napoleonic enterprise of revolutionary war, is almost always a mistake. Humanitarian intervention is the way this is phrased these days, but in fact this is often not so different from the Napoleonic way. There are things a powerful government can do to help democrats and liberals in other countries short of military force. Sometimes it is better to do nothing much at all. I believe that Obama’s relative passivity vis a vis the Green Revolution in Iran, for example, actually helped. It gave room for people in the Middle East to find their own way, without fear of being seen as America’s boys.
BERMAN: I think that “advancing the liberal argument” has a simple meaning. We should try to demonstrate the falsity of horrendous ideas — e.g., the false nature of Islamism. Islamism is not “the solution,” as it claims to be. It is a compilation of modern and ancient ideas, admixed with a great many horrendous European ideas. We should try to expose the nature of these doctrines. Very important, for instance, is to put up an argument against anti-Semitism, a key element in totalitarian doctrines, sooner or later. Women’s rights: another big theme.
Do these arguments mean nothing? We know very well that, in Iran, the universities are a center of resistance. Do people in other parts of the world listen to our own arguments? They do. They argue back. Exchanges go on. This — THIS — is the actual solution: the advancing of lucidity. I wish Obama did a bit more of it, given that, unlike Bush, he has the talent to do so. But it is not ultimately for politicians to do. This is something that intellectuals, writers, artists, journalists can do — something that quite a few NGO’s have been doing, with success too, as we have lately learned.
BURUMA: If only everybody in the world would read The New Republic, the world would solve all its problems.
Buruma’s snark at the end, although not entirely professional, was a necessary counterbalance to all the chest-thumping. In Berman’s world (and even Traub’s), the question about 9/11 has been all about us. It’s “what about America?” and “what should America do?” rather than considering what we have done and who it has affected. (Luckily Malcolmson addresses this point, if only briefly.) If only we intervened in the “right” way with the “right” types of force, we could succeed in winning hearts and minds. But this ignores entirely the question of our right to be in a war in the first place.
The discussants here fail to see 9/11 and our subsequent foreign policy in terms appropriate in scale for the event. Malcolmson goes so far as to compare the post-9/11 era to the Civil War — about as far from a comparable situation as one can get. 9/11 does not represent the potential end of the republic the way the Civil War did. The “existential threat” that 9/11 represented was never existential at all. 9/11 was al Qaeda’s best shot, and it was an attack on a symbol, not a military target — never a good strategic turn. (Attacking symbols rather than military targets was why the London Blitz failed… also, radar.) All the bloviating about “the threat to our way of life” as an excuse to go somewhere else and blow people up, and for what? Military responses to terrorism have almost always failed historically (see, for example, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand), and yet that’s exactly what we rushed to do.
I’ll end on a pacifist note. Every discussant here believes that military intervention is appropriate in a variety of circumstances, with differing beliefs on what those circumstances are. The pacifist voice has been consistently marginalized in “serious” foreign policy debates, and anyone who says anything resembling pacifism is treated as participating in an intellectual exercise rather than the real world. When discussing post-9/11 foreign policy, the debate is always about “how much” military force to use, rather than “whether” to use force at all. “Give peace a chance” may be derided as unrealistic and naive, but I’d note that nobody has actually tried it.
(Side note: Try as I might, I could not find any similar roundtable discussion by Arab-American or Muslim about the American response to 9/11. How strange.)
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