Set your own house in order

I have been known to say that I would find the figure of the “activist academic” more plausible if academics hadn’t failed so abyssmally in the case of their own institutions. As I reflect on the idiocy of a potential “humanitarian intervention” in Syria, I find myself thinking similar thoughts. I have no doubt that the Syrian regime is brutal and that terrible crimes have been committed and are still being committed.

At the same time, the international arbiter of morality is a state that, for example, is running a torture camp on foreign soil specifically to be “technically” outside the realm of U.S. law. This is a state that imprisons more people — not in per capita terms, but in absolute numbers — than any other country on earth. (Oppressive Communist China has four times our population but only 1/6 our per capita imprisonment rate.)

Imprisonment disproportionately affects the group that the nation held in slavery for the first hundred years of its existence and then subjected to legal segregation and extra-legal campaigns of terror for the next hundred years.

In those prisons, solitary confinement is used routinely despite the devestating effects it has on mental health, and rape is so common as to count as a de facto part of the punishment in any prison sentence. Our culture is so debased, meanwhile, that rape, whether in prison or elsewhere, is a common topic for jokes.

Our nation just celebrated a massive protest march, but contemporary protestors are brutalized and abused by an increasingly militarized police force that is literally equipped with chemical weapons. Ordinary Americans are daily subjected to constant surveillance and humiliating “security” rituals with no apparent purpose but to instill fear in them.

Social spending and education are routinely cut for arbitrary reasons stemming from the political rivalries of self-interested elites, while the government itself entraps the younger generation in ruinous and inescapable student debt.

I could go on. If the U.S. government lacks either the will or the ability to take care of those very serious problems in a country where it enjoys largely unquestioned legitimacy, stable institutions, and a docile population, exactly why the fuck is it remotely plausible that it can solve problems in a foreign country embroiled in a civil war?

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18 Responses to “Set your own house in order”

  1. Hill Says:

    If would could use cruise missiles on ourselves, we could solve these problems easily.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    We have the technology!

  3. Murray Reiss Says:

    Well, you’ve used nuclear weapons on yourselves. Ask the “downwinders’ of Utah & Nevada.

  4. nonmanifestation Says:

    I generally try to avoid mainstream media, but the discussions of Syria that I’ve seen have presented military intervention as almost inevitable. The only real questions are when and how: Is massacring civilians enough or do they have to use chemical weapons first? Will there be “boots on the ground” or some more cowardly form of intervention? I think this shows the importance of the Iraq war that you’ve discussed on here before: the biggest protests in the history of the world had absolutely no effect on “our leaders” in their preparation for the Iraq war and it doesn’t seem like anyone is even going to bother trying to stop them this time. Whatever personal reasons the Bush administration may have had for invading Iraq, I think the “function” in global politics was to make worldwide US military intervention the norm. Just as neoliberalism means endless austerity just because, “neo” militarism means endless war just because, rather than eg. invading a country to prevent it falling to the Communists, or to steal its natural resources.
    And I think your joke about technology is spot on: the development of drone technology makes war so much easier for our leaders. The biggest source of political damage from the Iraq war was surely the deaths and injuries to American soldiers, but with drone strikes, no one dies, and politicians can’t score points by saying we should “bring our boys home”, etc. So there’s no political reason I can see that would prevent Syria from being the next Yemen, though most likely on a larger scale. Drone technology makes it possible for a global semi-war on vague abstract nouns to go on forever.

  5. thinkingoutloudinsarajevo Says:

    What amazes me is how naive Americans are to think that a military response would only hurt the “perpetrators” of Syria’s problems. We have generations ago lost our experiential understanding of civilian suffering and casualties. Ask women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan whether their lives are better now, the answer may surprise.

    I am further stunned by the lack of stated objective for an intervention. The WH and State only say what they aren’t planning; it won’t be regime change, etc.. It’s like the president wants the permission to do something without the obligation to report whether the effort is really succeeding.

    Finally, even Syria’s closest neighbors don’t like this idea. Who is the US to think they know better than her neighbors?

  6. Thursday! Thursday! Thursday! | Gerry Canavan Says:

    […] * The five (and a half) stages of humanitarian military intervention. Great moments in op-eds: Bomb Syria, Even if It Is Illegal. Adam Kotsko:  If the U.S. government lacks either the will or the ability to take care of those very serious probl… […]

  7. melmakko Says:

    The whole world is America’s house, didn’y you know. You’re not much better off than we are though: neither of us has a real politics. If we did, we wouldn’t have had a war. If you did, you wouldn’t be coming to help us. Sorry.

  8. Ed Says:

    Hear! Hear! Well said.

  9. sixfootsubwoofer Says:

    This is a great post, especially because of your overidentification with the claims being made both by the media and the US gov that intervention would be carried out to “help solve the problems” of Syrians when it is obvious to everyone that it would only be done to maintain our strategic military interests. None of the people involved give a Shit about the plight of the Syrian people (except the Syrian people) and yet to maintain even the discussion of the possibility of intervention requires that they pretend to care.
    Is this just simple hypocrisy, or something more?
    And what, besides blatant economic or cultural self interest, keeps journalists from employing the same overidentification in order to ask Obama the kinds of questions raised in your post? You think it’s simply a lack of access for journalists willing to do such, or what?

  10. Credit Union Will Says:

    The purpose of a military strike is not to solve Syria’s ‘problems’ – Obama doesn’t even claim for it to have any substantive effect on the balance of power on the ground. Not in the West’s interest for it to do so for fear of intensifying war by-proxy with the Russians and risking arms falling in the hands of less desirable rebel elements. Big fear regarding how a transfer of power would effect the security of the stockpiles, hence you want to keep state apparatus intact.

    I see it more of upholding the norm of the qualitative difference between conventional and unconventional weapons. More of the case of regulating Syria’s problems then solving them.

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    That is the stupidest reason to go to war that I’ve ever heard.

  12. Credit Union Will Says:

    US isn’t going to war though is it? War implies some kind of on going engagement. US is going to drop some bombs and fire some missiles. It may be the stupidest reason to risk war i.e. Syria upping the ante in response and things spiral from there.
    Without necessarily agreeing with it, a limited strike in response to the use of chemical weapons on civilians is a defensible position.

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Of course, for my entire adult life, my position on US foreign policy has always been, “NO.” So I may not be the best person to ask about the subtle nuances.

  14. Ethan Says:

    1. Only within the infinite chin-stroking nuance of liberal interventionism does using your military to attack a sovereign country not “count” as war.
    2. Like WMDs, “chemical weapon” is a politicized/political category. (And speaking of WMDs, the very idea that something like mustard gas belongs alongside nuclear weapons under a single heading is ludicrous.) The U.S. has done a good job, for instance, of keeping its own preferred chemical weapons off the official list. Chemical weapons are neither intrinsically more harmful, more indiscriminate, or less gruesome than bombs. Frankly, if a country is relying on century-old weapons technology, it’s a sign that their military is weak.

  15. Imma Faque Says:

    I don’t see why we’d take Obama’s rhetoric at face value any more than we did Bush’s. America is never attempting to be an international arbiter of morality. This isn’t even about selfishly protecting American interests. It is, as it always is, about protecting perceived ruling class interests. Does this sort of intervention ever strengthen the US state? The Iraq war certainly didn’t strengthen the US government or make America as a nation, safer. And its hard to believe ANYONE thought it would. I am just some regular idiot guy and I predicted many of the problems that war created. So its difficult to believe actual, educated, trained experts believed what they were doing was in America’s interest. However, American BUSINESS interests did quite well in Iraq. And if the war actually diminished the power and credibility of the US government…well isn’t that what the neo liberals (one of which, the Wall Street-backed Obama is) want? You might say they killed 2 birds with that stone.
    This is about the ruling-class setting its house in order. A weakened Assad would perhaps mean an Iran more likely to bow to multinational business interests? That’s the only reason I can think of that makes sense for this intervention.

  16. Imma Faque Says:

    Yeah, i know – Obama is not a neoliberal. He just instituted socialized healthcare! The health care system dreamt up by the guy from Bain Capital.

  17. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think the true horror is that there is no coherent reason for this, other than the vague sense that we should “do something,” for a series of contradictory reasons — to show that the US is still the global hegemon, to burnish our damaged reputation, etc. Zizek’s “borrowed kettle” analogy for Iraq strikes me as a plausible explanation for all of our weird pointless wars since the end of the Cold War: everyone can project their own preferred reason onto it, and so we wind up doing it just because that jumped of contradictory reasons all converge on it. Then the aftermath turns into chaos because we never had agreement on why we’re doing it, only that we should do it.

  18. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Businesses profited from Iraq, yes, but it seems like a weird fucking plan to promote business. Businesses can profit from almost any situation. In my view, claiming that the Iraq War was fought for US business interests grants it too much dignity — it implies that there was some recognizable coherent reason, when really there was not.


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