Predictably enough, the Empire's latest Great Moral Crusade -- I mean, the one in Libya; there may have been more, by the time you read this -- has caused the usual crocus-like crop of Lefties to pop up, eager to demonstrate that there is nothing knee-jerk about their anti-imperialism. Among them is the owlish pedagogue shown above, one Gilbert Achcar, who caused a bit of a stir recently with a couple of pieces -- here, and here. It's all very familiar stuff:
if we could turn back the wheel of history and go back to the period immediately preceding the Rwandan genocide, would we oppose an UN-authorized Western-led military intervention deployed in order to prevent it?It's all there, isn't it?
... What is decisive is the comparison between the human cost of this intervention and the cost that would have been incurred had it not happened.
To take another extreme analogy for the sake of showing the full range of discussion: could Nazism be defeated through non-violent means?
I. The calculus of immediate local utility
Achcar, the Auld Dominie, wants us to base our decision entirely on the balance of human cost in the immediate situation at hand. We are to prescind from all consideration of any bigger picture.
We're not to consider whether there are institutions in play that we would like to weaken or strengthen; or whether there are principles involved that we want to support or oppose. We're not allowed to notice trends, or ask ourselves whether we would rather encourage or discourage them. (One such trend might be the increasing pace and scale of "Western" armed interventions, with the usual humanitarian fig-leaf, around the world; another might be the sudden rash of popular uprisings in the Arab lands which have not owed anything to NATO or the CIA.)
It's quite a lot like the lesser-evil argument for voting Democratic. Like the Prof, the zealous Democrat only wants you to think about potential third-order effects that may occur in the next four years. He doesn't want you to think about the fact that he's asking you to support a criminal and repressive institution and encourage it, to the best of your modest ability, to become even worse than it already is.
This fly's-eye narrowing of focus and willed obliviousness of larger context is a strangely impoverished, self-stultified intellectual stance. Why would anybody embrace it and evangelize for it?
Perhaps the evangelism is easily enough explained, given the embrace; the Achcarian thinker, and the Democrat, are like the fox in Aesop who lost his tail and tried to persuade the other foxes to give up their tails too. But then why the embrace? Why lose your fine, fiery, foxy tail if you had the choice to keep it?
One can only conclude that Achcar and the Democrat have started with the conclusion they want and worked backward to the methodology that produces it. Achcar, for some reason, wants to be an apologist for an imperial military adventure every so often.
Who knows why? Perhaps he wants to appear judicious, discriminating, and un-doctrinaire to his cubicle-mates down at the diploma mill. Perhaps he gets tired of being a peace weenie, from time to time, and likes to show that he's really a tough guy, whose nerves, to borrow Auden's phrase, won't flinch at slaughter as long as there's a higher purpose. Perhaps he's just a bit of a contrarian, though not a very imaginative one.
This is all speculation, of course. One would have to know Achcar better in order to form any real hypothesis about what makes him tick. But the mention of speculation brings me to another topic:
II. Phantoms meet Figments at Chimaera Field today
The truckloads of corpses that Achcar wants us to weigh against each other are hypothetical ones, to whom he gives, or tries to give, a specious weight and number with label-grabbing phrases like "Who in his right mind could believe...?"
But neither Achcar nor anyone else knows knows how many people Qaddafi will kill, or how many NATO will kill, or how many a neoliberal comprador regime installed by "Western" firepower will kill.
Oh, we can all make our guesses, and it's an amusing, though heartless, pinko parlor game to argue for our various numbers. But we can't count the corpses before they're dead. Still, that's no problem for Achcar. He's fine with sending in the bombers on the basis of a guess.
On the other hand, one of the few things we do know for sure, as it happens, is that the Empire does not send in bombers for benign reasons. It's not because the imperial oligarchs' hearts have been touched that they're helping the rebels in Libya (unlike those in Egypt, and Tunisia, and Yemen, and Bahrain, and...).
We all agree on this, right? I bet even Achcar does. When the Imperial bombers are sent, they're sent for imperial purposes.
But in accordance with Achcar's Canon I above, this is inadmissible evidence. No matter that we all agree the Empire has malign intentions and will enact those intentions wherever and whenever it achieves a position of sufficient strength. We are not allowed to take into account this fact, which we all know and acknowledge. Rather, we must confine ourselves to counting hypothetical corpses.
Here again the parallel with Democratic Party shills, and their extensive reliance on the apodictic subjunctive, is quite strong: "You can't possibly believe that Gore would have invaded Libya! -- Er, I mean, Iraq!"
III. The Great Good War
There probably hasn't been a single apologist for war in the last sixty years who hasn't hauled in the Great Ant-Fascist Titanomachia to justify his pleading -- the way Woody Allen produced Marshall McLuhan:
I really wish somebody would undertake a thorough cold-hearted debunking of World War II's moral grandeur. Getting rid of Hitler was a nice side-effect, of course, but hardly the motive. The European war was fought to keep Germany in a box (which the victorious Allies ended up opening anyway, just a few decades after the bloodletting stopped) and the Pacific war was fought to keep Japan in a box (ditto; though the box was kept shut long enough to allow Uncle to replace the European colonial powers on that side of the world).
But for the sake of argument, let's grant every self-congratulatory Parson Weems myth about the noble purposes of the war. In that case, is it not obvious that WWII was an absolutely sui-generis undertaking, utterly and entirely exceptional in the blood-soaked history of Uncle's foreign adventures?
And that being so -- isn't it extraordinary that this completely unprecedented and never-repeated lusus naturae should be trotted out year after year to justify every squalid sanguinary romp that the gangsters in Washington -- and latterly, London and Paris and Berlin -- embark upon?
Indeed, it's hard to resist the conclusion that anybody who trots out WWII to justify some jolly little war he's promoting might as well have tattooed on his forehead the words "Liar" and "Fraud".
For Achcar, I'd be happy to do the job myself -- though it would mean getting closer to him than would be pleasant.
Still, it's a question of public safety. After all, who knows how many people this guy will kill if he's not stopped?