Battlepanda: Can good liberals wage wars of mercy?


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Can good liberals wage wars of mercy?

Commenter Lawrence Krubner has some questions for me regarding my post on the motivation of terrorists. I think they are important enough to pull out of the comments section and into a post of their own.
Do they have a right to ask us to leave their countries? I've been trying to find something in the great texts of the best known liberal writers on the subject of national sovereignty. I'm surprised at little there is. Locke, Smith, Mill, Bentham and others seemed mostly focus how the citizens should treat their government and how their government should treat them. It's hard to find much on the subject the peace of nations. [snip]

It seems to me that from the point of view of the liberal tradition, there are two possible views regarding the peace of nations:

1.) People have certain basic, inalienable rights and when a government violates these rights it becomes an illegitimate regime which needs to be overthrown.

2.) Nation-states themselves (not the people in them, but the nation states) have certain inalienable rights, and among these are the right to peace.

3.) The people in each country have the right to go unmolested by any government, therefore no government has a right to attack their country, except in self-defense.

#1 makes the most sense to me, but I think #3 is the one that appeals to most of my friends. [snip]

The problem I have with #2 or #3 above is that they don't explain how the liberal democracies might have stopped the early phases of the Holocaust. Most of us, I think, would like to believe that had we been around in 1938 we would have been in favor of taking action to stop the early phases of the Holocaust, and saving the Jews. But what, other than #1, would have justified the liberal democracies in taking action against Germany?

I'm having trouble imagining a really liberal foreign policy that isn't able to justify war against the really, trully horrorific regimes. Are liberal democracies not allowed to make war to expand liberal democracy? If not, what part of liberal theory disallows such wars?
Having read nothing by Lock, Mill and Bentham and only one book by Smith, I cannot address the theoretical framework you seek to understand. All I can tell you is that of all the liberals I've ever come across, none is likely to fail your test and sit by while the holocaust occured because they respect too much the sovereignty of Germany. Why go back to 1938 for such an example? Are we not all of us ashamed of the inaction of our governments in modern day genocides, first in Rwanda, and now in Darfur? You seek to ascribe to your liberal friends viewpoint 3), because we are against the war in Iraq (and for many of us, Afgahnistan), yet our objection to those wars are not based on an ideological aversion to all wars (that are not wars of self-defence), but to the particularly thin moral justification for those particular wars and, more importantly for me, the overwhelmingly likelihood for disasterous outcomes.

The decision made to invade Iraq and Afgahnistan are made independent of the human rights sins of Saddam and the Taliban. The victims of those regimes are only roped in afterwards, much as a sprig of parsley is heaped on chopped liver. Lets not forget that long before 9/11, I was already getting passionate emails decrying the treatment of Afgani women from my liberal friends, calling for awareness and intervention.

I had to get that out of the way first, but if you read my post again, you'll see that it's actually not written from an ideologically liberal point of view at all, but from a pragmatic point of view. I believe the 'coulds' should be established before the conversation can move productively onto the 'shoulds'. The choice before us in not between emancipated Iraqis showering us with rose petals versus rape rooms. It is between living with a brutal but stable regime for the time being and unleashing war and chaos on the very people we say we're liberating. Even if our intentions are impeccable, which I don't think they are, our action ought to be judged not on those fine intentions, but on the foreseeable consequences of those actions.