In his plea to look serious, Obama has would-a-been Presidents rallying to his cause. First, McCain appears on Fox News to put down its obligatory anti-Muslim bigotry currently masquerading as counter-jihadism:
(With thanks to Harry’s Place.)
Second, John Kerry has been speaking – some words so blunt one has to question whether Obama approved them – against what he feared to be the lingering political undercurrent of “armchair isolationism”:
“This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to a slaughter,” Mr Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence.
“We have spoken up against unspeakable horror. Now we must stand up and act.”
Mr Kerry made an impassioned case for punitive strikes against Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons after President Barack Obama put off military action to first ask Congress for approval.
What Kerry calls “armchair isolationism” is quite important: it requires no effort on the part of the person sitting in the armchair, making it much more effective than the “armchair general” metaphor that reactionaries like to jump on.
It goes rather well with what Daniel Finkelstein has called in his blog the tendency of an “omission bias” where we instinctively presume that doing nothing is better than doing something, if the outcomes are uncertain:
Basketball referees are taught that there are four types of calls — correct calls, incorrect calls, correct non-calls and incorrect non-calls. It is better to make a correct call than an incorrect one, obviously. And if you fail to call an infringement when you should, you will be criticised.
But every referee knows that it is far better to make such an omission than to make a call in the dying moments of a game and be wrong. So what happens? In sport after sport, the referees blow their whistles far more in the earlier parts of the game than in the closing stages, thus penalising those infringed against. Omission bias.
Yesterday morning the Conservative MP Adam Holloway, opposed to taking action in Syria, provided as his chief argument that the outcome of intervention was impossible to predict. And he is quite right. In fact, he pierced to the heart of almost every foreign policy dilemma. The outcome of action is always hard to predict.
Kerry has had a morally dubious edge in his history, of course, having once boasted for shooting a member of the Viet Cong from the riverbank. As if that were not rather distasteful in itself, this would feature in the same presidency campaign he ran based on a platform of opposition to the Iraq war. I have seen people oppose both wars; I have seen others support the overthrow of Saddam but remain horrified at the prospect of napalm in the jungle. Kerry’s revisionism was more the twisting of rotten carcass than a breath of fresh air, his trade-off between principle and populism outperforming even Ed Miliband.
All the same – swiftly navigating away from that tangent – it’s encouraging to see that both the left and right of American politics seem willing to confront Assad. It seems that McCain will have advised the President on more than he did to the Senate, whom he recommended vote for action principally to maintain American credibility. Elsewhere, he has been more willing to emphases the need for a Syrian policy against Assad as necessarily being concomitant with an active one to support the more moderate rebels facing off terrorist groups.
In a way, it’s a long overdue slap down to the old Kissinger-esque assumption that a foreign policy of humanitarianism cannot also be one of realpolitik pragmatism. McCain, and to a lesser extent Kerry, have recognised that a war against sectarian jihadists satisfies both outlooks.
Those who believed that the physical and sexual abuse perpetrated at Abu Ghraib under the US occupation put Bush in the same camp as Saddam have questions to answer. They refuse to rise to the challenge because they know their position is untenable – both morally, and factually. Spoiled children of democracies will always run into the hands of local criminals if it leads to the derision of those who brought them up.
Some more uncomfortable details for them:
The US soldier who murdered 16 Afghan villagers last year has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Staff Sgt Robert Bales, 40, opened fire on men, children and women during the attack in Kandahar on 11 March 2012.
He pleaded guilty to the massacre in June to avoid the death penalty.
He apologised during his sentencing hearing at a Washington state military base on Thursday, calling the attack an “act of cowardice”.
Sgt Bales had been making a case for why he should one day be eligible for parole, which would have meant he could have been released in 20 years.
The reason Bradley (Chelsea) Manning’s revelations caused such discomfort for humanitarians was because of the American government’s silence on the crimes in which they are now to be indicted; it might not have happened here, thankfully, but unspoken awareness is simply a step away from tacit approval. (No law exists allowing an official in the US government to overthrow other elected presidents, yet Henry Kissinger is still a free man.) It seems like a betrayal, it saddens me to say, in the same league as Pope Benedict’s to his followers, his refusal to cooperate with secular judiciaries on allegations of pedophilia leading to its institutionalisation and the blackened reputation of every humane priest. Justice, it seems, can lose its eternal authority at the whim of politicians courting the approval of their audience.
But, please – perspective.
To demand political transparency is as much a right as an imperative; but compare, for simply a moment, whatever supposed crimes of which the democracy and the dictatorship are charged. Assad’s recent chemical attack outside Damascus is a momentary echo of Saddam’s message to Halabja in 1988. The news of Sgt Bales’ imprisonment, meanwhile, is like valley to desert.
Failures in Iraq say nothing of our urgency to act in Syria.
All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together out on the streets—people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think — and they could be right — that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be somber in their view.
Ian McEwan, Saturday (2005)
Everyday there seems to be yet another example of anti-Iraq posturing attempting to draw moral equivalence between Saddam and the Coalition. There’s never the slightest trace of humility. You either opposed the war, and have been vindicated by the “occupation”, or you are an imperialist stooge bloated in self-denial. Most commentators can’t comprehend that there might be principled people who happen to hold a different position to themselves.
McEwan’s novel was viewed by many as something of a pro-war pamphlet, trying to shame the protesters in their ignorance of the horrors of pre-invasion Iraq. Clearly anyone who has read the book – or even just the above quote – knows that this is crap; McEwan was at the march and that’s how he knows what most protesters were like – gleeful would-be hippies out to have a good time and do a little shopping on the London high streets. McEwan, like myself, has little respect for people for whom a decision the 2003 was an easy one, and I’ve virtually none for those who subsequently abandoned any attempt to help postwar Iraq, being more interested in spiting Blair than expressing solidarity. Promising, but sadly isolated, was the trade unionist support, especially those linked to Labour in Gary Kent or Iraqi exile Abdullah Muhsin; despite opposing the war they had no trouble in calling for aid to the Iraqi left-wingers in their struggle for secularism and economic security.
The sad truth is that “pacifism” no longer holds the integrity it once did. When I asked Tony Benn what he thought about the wars in Mali and Syria he said that all he cared about was that Britain did not get involved; the vast majority of “peace” protesters – virtually without exception those in the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Stop the War Coalition, Respect – are not opposed to war itself but Western involvement in it. The idea that the intervention of superior weaponry might end the war with less bloodshed seems either to elude them, or be an inconvenient truth to be pushed aside.
So my visit to a friend at Bangor University resulted in attending more lectures than I do during term time, and in this case it was a rather fascinating talk by Philip Zimbardo on “The Lucifer Effect” or the “Psychology of Evil”. I couldn’t find the exact lecture recording that I watched but this one probably covers the same material (being based on his book named to similar effect). I recommend you watch it if, as I could not, you are able keep your eyes away from his incredible beer belly.
It’s nothing short of fascinating. Psychologists are, we might say with dreary accuracy, renowned far and wide for their skills of eloquent bullshitting, tapping into fresh reservoirs of facts and figures to justify theories more ludicrous than the mental subjects they examine. But this particular talk seemed somewhat departed from that tradition; he humbly designates the first part of his lecture to explaining the importance of rehabilitating morality into science. If we want to override and prevent “evil” behaviour then we need to challenge its presuppositions, the conditions that produce it. The lecture gives some convincing material explaining the role psychologists might play here.
Zimbardo takes a tour around a few studies, some published and some not, but centre-stage is his own pride and joy – the well-known Stanford Prison experiment. Relevant, I suppose, that we’re currently reminiscing on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War are the comparisons that he draws between Stanford and the crimes of Abu Ghraib in 2003-4; Zimbardo noticed that the subjects in his study acted almost identically to those military personnel in Iraq. There were common factors: boredom, mental hierarchy between prisoner and imprisoned and all the rest and so if we want to counter evil then we have to change the system. Its vaguely put confidently asserted that psychology can provide a significant part of the answer – and I’m more than a little persuaded.
I did, though, have one lingering reservation: perhaps Zimbardo is too keen. When the crimes of Abu Ghraib hit the media Zimbardo was invited to defend one of the detainees, and he did so in order to argue that the criminals were not military “bad eggs” but part of wider institutional problems that provided the conditions to make the acts virtually unavoidable. But to follow this logic is to assume that to explain is to justify; that to find the cause is to morally exculpate the individual involved. If social institutions make certain outcomes more likely then we should change the conditions, not excuse the subjects; to do so is the destroy thousands of years of Western moral philosophy – to equate Saddam’s chief institutional devices of rape and murder and torture with American democracy – all for the chance to sound that little intellectually superior.
Conclusion on Zimbardo: really interesting ideas with a tendency to jump the wagon.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attack on the town of Halabja: on March 16th 1988, as many as 5000 Kurds breathed as they did and then suddenly found that the air was poison. It was the most publicised event of the 1987-88 Anfal campaign: a systematic genocide of all the Kurdish and non-Arab peoples in the north of Iraq, leading to as many as 200,000 deaths. It should, I think, stand symbolic of the war against terrorism, however it manifests itself. There are some very distressing photographs online, but I decided against including them. Sometimes our imagination can capture horror well enough.
As the Kurdish ambassador said to Nick Cohen, “Everyone wants to remember Fallujah and no one wants to remember Halabja.” Well, for all the justifiable criticisms levied against the war 10 years on, we must never forget what the alternatives may have been.