I’ll echo Greenwald in encouraging people to check out Freddie De Boer’s post on liberalism and American empire (and incidentally Ron Paul, but not really). Part of my political id instinctively responded in exactly the way De Boer laments, both for valid reasons and invalid ones, but the post is challenging and worthwhile regardless of your ideological predilections. Check out as well Robert Farley’s response, which is well-argued. Both get at fundamental questions of political ethics in today’s world that are as uncomfortable as they are important. De Boer starts with a painful reminder of the atrocities committed under the Suharto regime in Indonesia; atrocities committed by American-armed, American-trained forces under orders from an American-allied regime:
The “conservative estimate”– that is, the one that won’t get you laughed at by Very Reasonable People– is that 500,000 Indonesians were slaughtered, all under the considerable support of the United States. Some Indonesians I know find that estimate a laughable, inflammatory underestimation, but okay. Render unto Caesar. Half a million people, stuff underground or thrown into the sea. Lined up and shot in the back of the head, or hacked to death with machetes, after having been forced to dig their own graves and those of their families. You’ve heard it before. You’ve likely even heard that we supported it in every way conceivable, providing intelligence, arms, and funding to the new junta, including a literal hit list. If I know the average political mind today, many could read about these events with only eye rolls. They don’t deny the factual accuracy of the claims. They don’t even deny their horror. They just react as if talking about them is something gauche, uncool, boring. Few could deny their truth, at this point; the declassified CIA documentation is, as always, terribly frank. You’d be amazed at how many offer justifications to me. These people were commies, after all.
I want those who profess belief in liberalism and egalitarianism to recognize that they are failing those principles every time they ignore our conduct overseas, or ridicule those who criticize it. What I will settle for is an answer to the question: what would they have us do? If you can’t find it in you to accept our premises, at least consider what you would do if you did. For those of us who oppose our country’s destructive behavior, there is no place to turn that does not result in ridicule. Every conceivable political option has not only been denied by establishment progressives, but entirely dismissed. The idea that one should criticize the President from the left is not just wrong but self-evidently ridiculous. The notion of primarying President Obama is not just wrong but self-evidently ridiculous. The idea of supporting a candidate from a different party is not just wrong but self-evidently ridiculous. Every conceivable path forward, for those of us who demand change in our conduct overseas, is preemptively denied. I want my country to stop killing innocent people. What am I supposed to do?
Here are two assumptions embedded in this post:
1. The Indonesian government wouldn’t or couldn’t have carried out serial pogroms and violent state-building exercises without the support of the United States.
2. A President Paul, by withholding support and instigation, would have prevented these bad things from happening.
The first is a matter of historical debate. The CIA surely played a role in the fall of Sukarno and the murderous rise of Suharto; it’s far from clear, however, that CIA influence was determinative either in spurring the conflict or in producing a specific outcome. It’s also surely true that the United States maintained good relations with the Suharto regime for commercial and what it perceived to be strategic reasons, and that the US continued this support while Indonesia engaged in a variety of exceedingly violent statebuilding projects at various points in its periphery. The United States continued to sell Indonesia weapons during this period, took some steps to shield Indonesia from international scrutiny, and largely avoided using commercial ties as leverage over Indonesian behavior.
Again, we can debate as to how much this amounts to “piling up dead” for which the United States presumably holds responsibility. For my part, I think that lots of countries have brutal, bloody factional conflicts, and lots of countries engage in brutal statebuilding efforts without any assistance from the United States, so in general I’m inclined to think that US positive influence (making it happen) over these events is fairly minimal, with the real responsibility of the US in this case lying in its rejection of using any tools of negative influence (political or economic leverage, which was considerable) to moderate the behavior of the Indonesia government. Political leaders have terribly good reasons to kill other people for political effect; the United States rarely has to try very hard to convince them to do so, and often cannot convince them to refrain from doing so.
These two excerpts get at the crux of ethical dilemmas that everyone – leaders, writers, citizens, subjects – need to think long and hard about. I’m frankly a bit hesitant to write about this, because there’s no way my opinions won’t ring a bit hollow. I live a life of reasonable comfort and security. I’m not afraid that I’ll be dragged out of my house in the middle of the night by my government and shot, nor am I particularly concerned that a wayward Hellfire will obliterate my apartment. Intellectualizing these kinds of questions – generally my Freudian defense mechanism of choice – seems crass. But they’re important.
To live in a modern, developed state (the U.S. in particular, but this generalizes well) is to acknowledge a measure of complicity in organized violence. Liberal democracies, social democracies, bureaucratic autocracies; all are first and foremost states. And states at their core are institutions dedicated to the controlled dispensation of physical and psychological violence, within their borders and without. Progressives of every modern generation have fought hard to carve social space for human flourishing within that context, occasionally even harnessing state institutions to that purpose, but the fundamental nature of the state remains, and is difficult to substantially remake even for those who stand at its helm. To make this a bit less abstract, the United States, for better or worse, is a central node of global power that distributes military force, economic largesse and ideological discourse across a huge and immensely complex network. This means that the U.S. government is in some ways ethically implicated, by commission or omission, in most major global events. But precisely because of that network’s structural resilience, it’s hard to pose valid moral counterfactuals. As Farley points out, even without official U.S. government support, elites within the Indonesian state would have faced powerful incentives to deploy horrific violence against their domestic enemies. And absent a herculean domestic and international effort, they likely would have found the resources to carry out their plans. Just look at Syria.
None of this absolves U.S. leaders of standing idly by while this went on (goes on, far too often, in far too many places). It certainly doesn’t absolve them, or those who support them, of actions over which U.S. elites exercise more direct control (drone campaigns, secret prison complexes, foolish wars). It does contextualize political action in a consequentialist framework that acknowledges that all of us – citizens, writers, presidents – have limited control over the macro-historical trajectories of the necessary and terrible social machines we’ve inherited from our forebears. There’s only so much one can expect.
Getting back to Freddie, though, I think that an essentially consequentialist political morality means some progressives need to lighten up on their own left flank. Launching a primary challenge against Obama isn’t self-evidently foolish. It’s a means of incentivizing the President to act differently, and to pay attention to arguments that currently have limited currency but high value. Loud policy critiques that incumbent Democrats find inconvenient aren’t cliquish, personal betrayals. They’re means of applying political pressure to salient points. Thinking in structural, consequentialist terms rather than those of personalization and tribalism actually means opening up the range of possibilities for political action, even as it narrows the range of likely transformative outcomes. So criticize the hell out of the Obama Administration and the entire U.S. government, but then view voting as a strategic political act, rather than an fraught act of political self-actualization, and vote for Obama in the general election, especially if you live in a swing state.