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December 15, 2006

Refusing to Accept "Reality"
Posted by Shadi Hamid

While I’ve been off-roading in the Emirates and relaxing on the gorgeous beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh, it appears that Ali, Marc, and Lorelei have been busy with something infinitely more useful but perhaps less fun – provoking a serious, fascinating debate on the future of liberal interventionism.

I’m late to the game, but let me say a few things. First of all, I’m not convinced, as Lorelei and Marc suggest, that there is anything approaching a broad consensus among progressives on foreign policy. There is a real, significant divide on crucial questions regarding the uses and abuses of American power, the role of idealism in foreign policy, and, yes, democracy promotion in the Middle East. Now, it may make sense in the interest of unity to de-emphasize these differences, but that doesn’t make them any less real. I’ve made similar points before here and here, so I'll leave it at that.

I think one of the most interesting "dividing lines" not only among those on the Left but between realists and anti-realists such as myself is how we perceive “facts on the ground.” Rachel Kleinfeld, co-founder of the Truman Project, wrote in comment #20 to Ali Eteraz’s original (flame-throwing) post that “belief should never trump facts on the ground.” Now, I know exactly what Rachel means by this and it’s an important thing to say after 6 years of an administration that doesn’t seem to have any grasp of reality.

However, if we take the statement literally, then I actually disagree with it. I think there are cases where belief should trump facts on the ground. And I think this is fundamentally what separates interventionists from anti-interventionists. Interventionists look at the way things are in, say, the Middle East, and say: dictatorship is not right and, therefore, we cannot and will not accept it. We cannot accept it (from a moral standpoint) because then we are complicit in a grave injustice. More importantly, accepting the “facts on the ground” in such a case would be a betrayal of the very essence of what it means to be American. This is not why our parents came to this country.

Quite often, when I bring up democracy promotion, people will say exactly what I expect them to say: “be realistic, Shadi.” Then they go on to explain in a very long-winded way why the Arabs are incapable of democracy or why Americans are incapable of promoting it. They say, “America has been supporting Arab dictatorships for the last 60 years. Why do you expect that to change now?” Or worse: “maybe democracy isn’t appropriate for the Arab context” (presumably because Arabs are somehow less deserving of the one thing that God has granted all men: the inalienable right to make their own decisions and to determine the course of their own destinies).

But, in a sense, the democracy skeptics are right: if we look at the “facts on the ground,” then Arab democracy does, in fact, seem like a pipe dream. If we look at the reality of the last 50 years of America propping up dictators who have jailed and slaughtered their own people, then, no, things don’t look particularly promising. The anti-interventionist will say: "look at how America always messes things up when it interferes in the third world." So they resign themselves to a kind of high-minded pessimism. The interventionist says something quite different: “even if things have always been this way, it doesn’t mean that they must continue to be so. Just because we have failed in the past does not mean we are doomed to fail in the future. No, it is precisely because we have failed in the past that we must do more than ever to make sure we succeed in the future.” 


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The mathematician and philosopher William K. Clifford wrote an important essay on this topic called "The Ethics of Belief". The heart of Clifford's point is contained in the two opening paragraphs.

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.

As an American citizen, Shadi, you are called on from time to time to participate in decisions about possible military actions by the US armed forces. These actions will hazard the lives and well-being of our soldiers and their families. It is your obligation to base your decisions on the best information you have available about the likely consequences of the action under consideration, and about the likely consequences of alternatives to that action. That means it is you obligation to base your judgment on the evidence that is available.

On the other hand it is morally irresponsible for you to subject the disposition of our soldiers lives to any mere faith you might have in the consequences of the proposed actions, when that faith runs contrary to the evidence that is available, or even worse base your decision on a mere hope you might have. In making choices regarding your own life and well-being, perhaps, you are free to base those choices on your empirically unfounded faiths and hopes. But once you assume the reponsibility of making choices for others, that is no longer a morally permissible option.

You are correct to point out that “even if things have always been this way, it doesn’t mean that they must continue to be so. Just because we have failed in the past does not mean we are doomed to fail in the future." These are generally true statements. But the decisive question is rarely a question about what "must" be so, or whether we are "doomed" to fail. It is instead usually a question instead about what are likely to be the consequences of our actions, how likely those consequences are, and what as a result are the chances of success or failure. We never know these things for sure, and must act under uncertainty. But our inability to know the answers with certainty does not excuse us from the obligation to do the best we can in estimating them on the basis of empirical evidence available to us.

You seem to have lots of peculiar theories, Shadi, about why our ancestors came to this country. Of course, people came to America for all sorts of reasons. In your view, apparently, they mainly came here to set up America as a kind of moral base camp from which to transform the entire world and spread "our values". I can't say for sure how many people came here with that intention. Yet clearly many of our ancestors came to this country to escape the wars, persecution and insanity of the world they left behind, and hoped only to start a new life, live in peace and be left alone. This has been an abiding concern of Americans throughout their history, which is why politicians who seek to engage the country is overseas crusades for purposes weakly unrelated to the national defense are constantly compelled to lie to the public in order to enlist their support.

Shadi, there's a tremendous difference between doing all the good you can, versus stamping out all evil in the world wherever it exists. I get the sense you have those confused.

Jesus Christ I am so sick of libhawks on this site trying to find new ways to kill American soldiers.

Give it a rest. Your ideas FAILED. Your interventionist policies are headed for the grave, a grave I will gladly dance on.

I suppose someone ought to take note of the proverbial elephant in the room here. In doing so I intend no disrespect either to Shadi Hamid personally or to other Americans who share his perspective.

It is not uncommon for Americans of foreign descent to be preoccupied with the politics of the regions of the world in which their ancestors lived. One might be able to convince me that democracy in the Middle East was the one foreign policy issue most deeply important for America's interests and for who we are as a nation -- but it would have to be one whale of argument. There are several times more Indians and Chinese in this world than there are Arabs; the economic productivity of the Middle East, apart from the oil sector, is less than almost anywhere in Europe or East Asia; and the Middle East is thousands of miles away, while Latin America is right on our doorstep. I grant the importance of the oil sector in the world economy right now. But in every other respect the Middle East is less important to this country and to the world's future, not just compared to some other areas of the world but compared to most other areas of the world.

Neoconservatives' fierce emotional attachment to Israel and tendency to see all Israel's problems as America's also are major reasons I regard their counsel on foreign relations as profoundly unreliable. Frankly, I feel the same way about Shadi Hamid, and for the same reason. I'm not uninterested in that vast universe of issues that goes by the name Other People's Problems; I know it often intersects with America's own priorities. It should never be confused with them. I doubt that Shadi Hamid, as an Arab American, has that clearly in mind.

There is another elephant that has squeezed its way into the room here, and that should be recognized as well. We are apt to speak glibly of Arab autocracies "propped up" by the United States, as if they would vanish (and not be replaced by something worse) if American support were withdrawn. Common also are references to the repressiveness and brutality of such regimes, as if these were somehow alien to the region or the product of American influence.

It would be pleasant to believe these things, and pleasant as well to believe that the Anfal, the Arab genocide in Darfur, the cult of the suicide bomber and a somewhat lengthy list of additional savage episodes were just coincidences, not expressions of anything essential about Arab culture. And surely we should consider this view. We should also consider the opposing view that what we think of as aberrations -- because they would be aberrations in North America or postwar Europe -- are in fact integral to the culture, and cannot be effectively addressed by the merely political changes many Americans would like to promote in the Middle East.

Now, there is an aspect to this that post-Vietnam American liberals, always ambivalent about whether the West was one the right side of the Cold War, are pretty much oblivious to. Most of the Arab regimes with the greatest "freedom deficit," the most pervasive and offensive internal security structures, and the greatest affinity for violence were Soviet clients during the Cold War, not American ones. American policy during that period did not offer to Arab countries a model for establishing and maintaining a monopoly on power outside the mosque, but Soviet policy did. The extent to which the poisonous Soviet legacy altered the political evolution in the Arab world, or made more vicious Arab regimes that would have been unpleasant in any event, can be debated; certainly the benefit to the Soviet Union of its influence in the Arab countries is hard to discern in retrospect. But it is fair to argue that to the extent Arab regimes like Syria's, Libya's, Egypt's (before Sadat) or Iraq's did absorb Soviet influence, their internal security practices or concentration of all secular power in the hands of the state cannot be said necessarily to be a product of Arab culture.

Having raised that caveat, I'd conclude by emphasizing what I regard as a gigantic shadow looming over all the talk about democracy in the Arab world. This is Darfur, a subject that as far as I know Shadi Hamid has never thought important enough to mention here. The American and European approach to genocide in Sudan's western provinces can fairly be criticized; Chinese indifference to Khartoum's long war against civilians -- while not surprising considering China's own history -- is not praiseworthy. But the Arab countries without exception have supported Sudan's campaign to block international efforts to stop the genocide. Arabs have contributed next to nothing to succor the victims of Sudan's government, less in fact than any one of several small European countries has contributed by itself. Arab media has been all but silent on the subject. The number of Arab spokesmen who have ever suggested that genocide by an Arab government is something other Arabs have some responsibility to help stop can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Leave aside the question of whether Arab democracy is prime among America's interests overseas, or the question of whether it is an attainable objective. I'd like someone to explain to me what possible difference it can make to encourage democracy among a people indifferent or worse to genocide.

I understand that Darfuris are just black Africans, who don't have many Westernized, English-speaking representatives showing up at the symposia and conferences American foreign policy cognoscenti like to attend. There's no point in pretending this doesn't make a difference. It's still worth asking -- in the short term anyway, just from a moral point of view -- why promoting democracy and not ending genocide ought to be the cause America takes into the Arab world. Worth asking, and worth insisting on an answer.

"Hi, I'm a non-American new to this website and and I'm just thrilled to death (not literally I hope) with your American democracy-spreading idea. I think that any country that is ruled by essentially one political party and where the president is appointed by the supreme court, and elections are non-competitive and fixed, and the country enjoys the highest incarceration rates, where the government kills its citizens, has a poor public health system resulting in high infant mortality and there are the highest suicide and homicide rates in any developed country is uniquely qualified to spread democracy even if it takes a devastating war.

"Can we get some of that?"

Mr. Hamid:

I think democracy promoters can be "realistic." It means acknowledging the likely consequences of our actions and then arguing that they are acceptable. Alternately we can shoot down supposedly "likely" consequences that are in fact unrealistic.

George Washington's Farewell Address --Excerpt:

31 Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and Morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt, that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages, which might be lost by a steady adherence to it ? Can it be, that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its Virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices ?

32 In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential, than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests.

33 So likewise, a passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite Nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite Nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the Nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained; and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens, (who devote themselves to the favorite nation,) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.

34 As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent Patriot. How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practise the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the Public Councils! Such an attachment of a small or weak, towards a great and powerful nation, dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.

Why is the centrality of democracy promotion always contrasted with this supposed idea that democracy is incompatible with the Arab world, (let's pretend for a second that Persians and Semites are included in this analysis.) Why isn’t the issue instead, framed about the rejection of the primitive ballot and bombs approach?
Now maybe I don't get out enough, but I've really never seen this incompatibility thesis advanced by serious thinkers in foreign policy. I've always just assumed it was in the same genus as the Chamberlain strawman, because it’s obviously politically convenient to dismiss critics of preventative war as being tolerant of the intolerable, culturally relativistic and condescending to the common person in the middle east vis-à-vis their ‘rights’. But if Shadi has apparently encountered this view in reality, perhaps I am mistaken.
My view is that’s It’s mostly a matter of discredited terminology. I have never had a problem with exporting democracy and democratic values, but given the inevitable logic of Bush approach to this, it was impossible to support.
As I alluded to in the first paragraph, for me the issue is really about the what is the essentialism of legitimate and enduring democracy , and what is the best way to achieve this end. Therefore, rather than ballots, I would emphasise the importance of a civil and legal culture supported by robust institutions. Rather than preventative war based on exceptional right, I would emphasise the approach of exporting norms, boosting moderate and reform voices, increasing the buy-in in the cultural and economic market by being seen to be fair, and systematizing any proactive approach one might make with regard to humanitarian intervention.
The benefit of this over the Shadi’s perspective is that it doesn’t attempt to divide the progressive polity into democracy skeptics and those whose dissatisfaction is a tipping point for assertiveness, which does strike me as an artificial and unhelpful division. Instead, this approach skewers the neo-conservatives where they are most vulnerable (exceptionalism, understanding democracy, soft power, empirical results) whilst being a unifying on the progressive side.

I think that a single line in the post makes me convinced that we need to be very careful about how Mr. Hamid is arguing. It is the parenthetical about how Arabs are less deserving of some gift from God. Trying to build a rational foreign policy from an impossibly irrational foundation will almost certainly lead to some form of zealotry.

There is no God. In order to understand how to apply rationally the tools of liberal interventionism, and in order to gauge its success in a fair manner, it is very important to stay away from emotionally inflammatory statements about human rights being derived from God. They are not. They are more like a learned behaviour whose existence has likely been fixed in our neural networks via natural selection - to what extent is completely unclear. Treating human rights as God-given will inevitably lead to profound disappointment, which leads to despair, which leads either to unhinged and unfettered hawkishness (a la Iraq) or total inaction.

I apologise for how unclear this came off - but I think the one place that realism does have an unassailable position is in the formulation of one's vision of a foreign policy. Why do you hope to implement your idea? If this is built on a lie, then when the lie is exposed the idea itself suffers irreparably (that is my greatest fear about the aftermath of Iraq - Americans will not be willing to put boots on the ground for a humanitarian operation for a generation probably).

I have only one thing to say about this topic.I quote: Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding. This is something your current goverment doesn t understand.

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