Wednesday, June 16, 2004

"Justify This"

I don't know how much longer I'll be able to stay at my newspaper job. Some days I feel like I could scream, but when the discussions begin I seem to be the one sitting calmly and arguing while my opponents get red-faced and irrational. [Bickering about the Civil War on AOL teaches you infinite patience.]

The other day another editor insisted that exactly the same scenes we saw from Abu Ghraib were official U.S. tactics at Gitmo. I asked him the source of this information, which was new to me, and he got explosive. It seems to me good form, if you're going to engage in a dispute, to be able to back up what you say.

He then insisted that Abu Ghraib stripped away our "moral basis" for freeing Iraq, and left us "just as bad as Saddam." But he denied that was "moral equivalency," and then in the very next breath he said that the war had no legitimacy to begin with, because it was begun under "false pretenses." It's a child's game in reverse; deny the cake and steal it, too.

The unpleasantness ended up with him thrusting an AP article across the desk at me, about the undercover U.S. soldier who suffered permanent injuries while posing as a detainee and being interrogated by other U.S. forces. And I was commanded to "justify that."

Three different balls of fuzz that, somehow, in his head, became an incontrovertible argument that vanquished me. We never did get back to how he could back up his claim about Guantanamo. How do you fight fuzz?

Once you strip back the irrationality and the red face, I think his argument probably came down to the old straw man of "American Exceptionalism." Any time the U.S. attempts a positive change in the world, those who don't like it will retort that we just think we're special, and thus privileged to boss other nations around. They can always go and find that marginal, but (thanks to the Internet) visible, section of the American people that truly believes in its heart of hearts that God Blessed America.

I support the war and the rebuilding of Iraq, and I have no illusions about God or Americans. Whatever "morality" has to do with waging war -- any war -- is a damned slight matter. The United States didn't go to war in 2001 because its people are more moral than those across the ocean, or because God is on our side. We went to war because we were brutally mugged by an enemy who killed almost entirely non-combatants, and got more of them than Pearl Harbor, Gettysburg, and the Lusitania sinking combined. As I said before, it's about 3,000 of our fellow citizens, slaughtered in our cities and fields.

Our side went to war because we were attacked, not by a nation-state, but by a vicious movement that festered in a retarded civilization. Part of the cure for that is to give the people in that civilization some hope and purpose, other than the hope of destroying America and the purpose of sailing airliners into tall buildings. What's better than those things? How about the hope of actually running your own country, and building your own future.

Democracy, transparent institutions, an answerable judiciary, an uncorrupt police force, the rule of law, free expression, religious liberty -- these are not god-given perfections, but centuries of human history have taught us that they're the best available way to live collectively. They're not American inventions -- not one of them. Americans haven't been always good at applying them in our big, messy nation.

So what? If only perfect nations could act, none ever would. We won our independence with the help of a French fleet and a Dutch loan. Were the Dutch and the French pure at heart? Did they have a self-interest in seeing Britain lose its colonies? Should the American colonies have accepted British rule rather than using these world powers as a skyhook into freedom?

France, after its Revolution, sowed the seeds of liberty and freedom across Europe. The French conquered many peoples, and were vastly unpopular after their liberations turned to occupations. They ended up getting chased back to France. But the seeds took root. The ideas, not the armies, were the purpose, and the result.

Are we at least as moral a nation as the France of 1800? Yes, and more. There's no blood of the Reign of Terror reeking from our hands (though I am sure you won't have to go far to find some Chomskyite to make an absurd "McCarthy=Robespierre" moral equivalency argument). If enough people in Iraq want their freedom -- want it even more than they want to send the Americans home -- we can give them the room to take it. We'll give them the tools, if they have the hearts. That's why we're there. Is it in our self-interest to do so? Hell, yes, unless you fancy another 9-11 every year for the next century.

We're not in Iraq because we're better than anyone else in the world. (Stronger, yes). We're there because we're exactly like everyone else in the world: we want to keep living, with dignity and rights. And if we can help other people get that, and help ourselves at the same time, that's a pragmatic choice, as well as a noble one.

It's the anti-Iraq crowd that is obsessed with American exceptionalism. Without realizing it, they've turned their straw man into their main argument. "You aren't allowed to do anything, because you're not perfect." And it ends up destroying the rest of the world for the sake of America:

"The war in Iraq is bad because it was unilateral and pre-emptive, and because it was begun under false pretenses. Therefore, if reconstruction of Iraq succeeds, and the country emerges as a stable and flourishing democracy, all those poisons at the root of the war will be justified and encouraged. America will be justified and encouraged. It is more important that the Iraq poject fail -- and be seen clearly to fail -- because if it does, morality and justice will prevail again, America will be discouraged and shamed, and the world will be restored to its right order."

All that matters is teaching America a lesson, influencing the outcome of the next election in the States, and containing the "evil" neocons. Average Iraqis? Not even a blip on the radar screen of that crusade. The future of Europe or India America be defeated by Islamists in the Middle East? Nobody gave that a thought.