Reflections on the Protest Today, and on Idealism in General

I’m not here to report on the protest today. The pictures, word-of-mouth, and, no doubt, other posts will offer you a clue as to what went on. It was a remarkably well-organized event and encouragingly well-attended. Still, some of my confusions about the anti-war movement were made clearer.

An open-floor discussion is perhaps not a fair way to evaluate an event, as there was no central message meant to be relayed. However, some central themes came through and the enthusiastic results of the crowd suggest to me none of them were anathema.

In order, then.

The Protestant Chaplain made some curious, if telling remarks. He said it is the responsibility of those who “broke it”, Iraq, “not to fix it,…but to end it.” He also said he would end the peace vigil he co-runs “when U.S. led hostilities end”. So which is it – a peace vigil, or a U.S. led hostilities vigil? Is his duty to save the lives of American soldiers who volunteered to serve their country, or to save the lives of innocent Iraqis? Was there a solidarity vigil when Saddam was butchering civilians unopposed? Perhaps I misunderstood the chaplain’s intentions or remarks on this point. I am not going to win many people over by beginning with criticizing a well-respected and well-meaning religious figure, but I thought these comments provided a good introductory framework.

In a sgeringly surreal moment, David Emer quoted with approval comments made by Dick Cheney from 1994. A version of these comments, or what I believe David was referring to, can be seen below: [youtube][/youtube]The former Secretary of Defense and future Vice President did indeed make some eerily prescient about the sgering difficulties an invasion and occupation of Iraq would entail. He concludes by saying the main question was “if we went on to Baghdad, how many additional dead Americans is Saddam worth? Our judgment is not very many, and I think we got it right.” Now perhaps Saddam himself was not worth many dead Americans, but this is a bit callous when one considers the hundreds of thousands of lives Saddam was free to take by our decision to leave him in power.

To use, and, yes, abuse the words of a famous protest chant, didn’t Dick Cheney “give peace a chance”? Didn’t aggressive American imperialist foreign power restrain itself, at the expense of hundreds of thousands of lives of Kurds and other persecuted groups in Saddam’s Stalinesque reign?

A later speaker spoke of ideals, and how we must be proud of our ideals. But is this appeal to non-violence and pacifism really so ideal? If one finds oneself at an ostensibly liberal rally quoting Dick Cheney, even the Dick Cheney of 1994, something must be wrong with our ideals! This is not idealism, but calculated foreign policy realism.

One can argue, as I do, on the grounds of effectiveness, or cost/benefit, or risk analysis (as well as the shocking corruption and ineptness of the occupation). These are not the terms of idealists. The question I think every anti-war activist (or person with strong anti-war feelings, no matter how active) must ask themselves is this: if the invasion of Iraq had gone flawlessly, with no American profiteering or extended occupation, and minimal Iraqi casualties, can it seriously be denied that a replacement of Saddam Hussein with a stable government would be a better thing for Iraqis and the world? Again, one can argue, as I might, that this was not essentially possible, or that the cost was too great. But one must acknowledge how this, at some level, involves a flirtation with isolationist impulses and with the often implicit assumption that American lives are more important than Iraqi ones. Indeed, we had a touching outpouring of support for the men and women of our volunteer army. However, I could not help but wonder why nothing was offered in support of the victims of violence in Iraq?

To frame the question slightly differently, Sahar, a friend of mine who I must stress I respect and admire, spoke, quite courageously I believe, of his initial support of the war. He writes about his whole process quite movingly in an earlier post on this very website. Sahar, I have to ask you the same question: do you oppose the Iraq war in theory or in practice? You decry the degradation of civil liberties that has occurred in this country as a key to your erosion of the war’s support. I could not possibly disagree with your disgust at the current state of civil liberties, although I feel this clouds the issue. The United States, in the 1940’s, could have undoubtedly won the war just as easily without interning its Japanese citizens. This disgusting policy, however, did not undermine America’s moral case against Nazism and fascism. Would you, by your logic, have supported the war if George Bush didn’t want to tap your phones? This intellectual game of moral equivalency is a troubling tendency the left would be better off reconsidering. Indeed, when one of the speakers asked the group if we were more afraid of terrorists or our government’s war on civil liberties, I could not help but answer “terrorists!” Perhaps others wished to answer with me, but refrained out of politeness. But such an argument should be offensive to anyone with any honest sense of moral judgment. This is not to say 1) that I believe Saddam represented the forces of terrorism (key to my opposition of the war) or 2) that I support the erosion of civil liberties.

I want to make myself clear that I do not believe this administration was capable of carrying out this war correctly or responsibly. This does not make me anti-war or pacifistic. This also does not, however, mean that I theoretically oppose the liberation of Iraq from Saddam, by force if necessary. I do not. It would have been a benefit to Iraq and to the world. Whether it was possible or in our vital interest in the often zero-sum world of military appropriations and deployment (and, I argue, it wasn’t) is a different argument, but not one routed in idealism.


2 thoughts on “Reflections on the Protest Today, and on Idealism in General”

  1. Instead of quoting Howard Zinn at the rally, I was going to use this statement from Gandhi: “Many people mistake nonviolence as compromise or avoidance of conflict. It is not. On the other hand, it is standing up for what is right (truth) and justice. Fighting a violent war is BETTER than accepting injustice. So, really, there is NO contradiction in fighting a just war, and believing in nonviolence. Both are duties to be carried out to preserve truth and justice.”

    I like this quotation, because it says what I feel about war in general. I am not a pacifist, but I believe strongly in nonviolence. Certain values undeniably trump nonviolence, however, or else we slide into a masochistic sort of nihilism. Justice and liberty are worth fighting for. But the problem is that they are incredibly vague. When Bush and Cheney launched a war in Iraq, in the name of these values, with the real cynical intent of raping the land for oil while recklessly implanting an alien ideology where it did not belong, they perversely distorted the concept of liberty – only to trample on that of individuals here at home.

    I fully acknowledge that the Kurds are far better off, for the moment, than they were under Saddam. But I feel that it is hardly a justification for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and the spread of global Islamist extremism caused by our idiotic actions. But beyond these factors, the real issue for most people is that America, as a superpower, disregarded the rest of the world and unilaterally invaded a much smaller and weaker nation without provocation.

    Without being an isolationist or a pacifist, I think that we can find a way to stand up for certain ideals – sometimes even invoking war – and still morally object to war in principle.

    Like all thinking people who is not blinded by doctrine, we must reject absolutes that tell is war is always the answer, or war is NEVER a solution. We must exercise judgment accordingly, and not give the upper hand to either side. What you have seen with the poor exercise of judgment on Iraq is an increased tendency to back away from any intervention, good or bad. We may have cause for concern, but we can still oppose this terrible war.

  2. Thanks, Matt; I think you raise a really really important point. Several months ago, I went to a talk at BU by diplomatic historian and Vietnam veteran Andrew J. Bacevich, who strongly opposed the war in Iraq, and whose son recently died in Iraq. Bacevich’s talk was actually about one of my favorite philosophers, Reinhold Niebuhr, but his thesis was that Niebuhr is still relevant today– especially in light of our foreign policy problems and the awful war in Iraq. Bacevich called for a return to Niehbuhr’s REALISM. In “The Irony of American History,” Bacevich explained, Niebuhr called out both Communists and the most ardent Cold Warriors (think today’s NeoCons) for their wild-eyed idealistic and very, very dangerous views that they were “on the right side of history” and could remake the world in their image. Just policy, and a kinder, humbler America would come from maintain a sense of “irony”– that is, understanding human limits and that history has no grand design. Bacevich, quite emotionally remembering the death of his son and so many others in Iraq, implored us all to return to Realism.

    After the talk, I emailed Bacevich with this question: As an activist, HOW do I help push the country back toward Realism? Especially since, the appeal, the TRAP, of NeoCon-style Liberalism is that it IS something you rally around and get excited about. But how do you inspire activists to rally around a REALIST call? Bacevich wrote me back simply saying that he had no clue.

    I dont think this is just an academic question about labels that IR scholars made up. As Matt points out really well, the rally today (which I loved and thought was very successful!) showed again how much easier it is to rally people around a call of “idealism,” even when– again, as Matt does such a great job of showing– using idealism to oppose the war really makes very little sense or at least causes many contradictions.

    I know that Matt’s not quite willing to give up on idealism, and neither am I. My brand of Realism is much more optimistic than many cynical idealists I know. Embracing Realism doesn’t mean that we have to give up on HOPE or all that great talk about changing the world. In fact, what it means is rejecting one paradigm– as Gordie talked about at the rally– that has only lead us in to terrible injustice and insecurity, for another one. You don’t have to agree with my perspective on Realism vs. Liberalism, but I do think it would be good if we injected some of Niebuhr’s “irony” into our Progressive alternatives to war and opposition to the war in Iraq, and thanks to Matt for pointing this out!


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