Posts tagged Syria

Nie wieder. Jamais plus. Never again.

Shared Article from Reason.com

This Isn't America's First Freakout Over Refugees

Before anyone was afraid of ISIS terrorists disguised as Syrian refugees, Americans were afraid of Nazi agents disguised as Jewish refugees.

Jesse Walker @ reason.com


War is not a weapon you can aim

. . . In June, I deployed several hundred American servicemembers to Iraq to assess how we can best support Iraqi security forces. Now that those teams have completed their work –- and Iraq has formed a government –- we will send an additional 475 servicemembers to Iraq. As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission –- we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment. We’ll also support Iraq’s efforts to stand up National Guard Units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL’s control.

— Barack Obama, remarks on ISIL/ISIS and war on Syria and Iraq, 10 September 2014

This is a promise that is foolish to make. Maybe he’s right that the proxy wars on the ground and the U.S. war in the air won’t end up dragging U.S. forces deeper into a quagmire on the ground. But there is no way he can confidently promise this. War is not a weapon that you can aim, not even if you are President of the United States, and expect that you’ll hit exactly what you hoped to, with no complications or unexpected results. Modern wars are always conducted on the basis of classified information, secret strategic interests that are not disclosed to the public, half-accurate information and politically-filtered intelligence. They operate away from any possibility of informed consent by ordinary people, who don’t have access to the information government keeps secret, and indeed even away from the possibility of informed decisions by that government, which finds itself blundering through the fog of its own secrecy, errors, self-deception and political rationales. Wars develop a logic of their own and they always involve both deception of the public about the likely outcomes, and also consequences unintended or unforeseen even by their architects. It wouldn’t be the first time that U.S. military advisors got drawn into a land war in Asia. It wouldn’t even be the first time that U.S. build-up was really only a prelude to a wider war in Iraq.

Certainly, it has already proven a prelude to bringing the U.S. war power into a wider regional war.

The pacifist is roundly scolded for refusing to face the facts, and for retiring into his own world of sentimental desire. But is the realist, who refuses to challenge or to criticise facts, entitled to any more credit than that which comes from following the line of least resistance? The realist thinks he at least can control events by linking himself to the forces that are moving. Perhaps he can. But if it is a question of controlling war, it is difficult to see how the child on the back of a mad elephant is to be any more effective in stopping the beast than is the child who tries to stop him from the ground.

The ex-humanitarian, turned realist, sneers at the snobbish neutrality, colossal conceit, crooked thinking, dazed sensibilities, of those who are still unable to find any balm of consolation for this war. We manufacture consolations here in America while there are probably not a dozen men fighting in Europe who did not long ago give up every reason for their being there except that nobody knew how to get them away.

–Randolph Bourne, War and the Intellectuals ¶ 12
Seven Arts (June, 1917).

End all war, immediately, completely, and forever.

Against National Relativism

It’s not every term in meta-ethical theory that gets taken up into burning public-policy debates. But due to a complex series of cultural events, the term moral relativism has. The problem is that nearly every use of the term moral relativism in common political debate has more or less nothing actually to do with the subject of moral relativism. Here’s some notes from a recent Glenn Greenwald column on u.s.-American responses to the Israeli government’s bombing of urban targets in Syria:

. . . [T]he claim is being hauled out that Israel’s actions are justified by the “principle” that it has the right to defend itself from foreign weapons in the hands of hostile forces. But is that really a “principle” that anyone would apply consistently, as opposed to a typically concocted ad hoc claim to justify whatever the US and Israel do? Let’s apply this “principle” to other cases, as several commentators on Twitter have done over the last 24 hours . . .:

Imagine if, say, Iran had unilaterally launched a strike on Salafi Syrian rebels overnight? Would we all be okay with that? #lawofthejungle — Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan)

. . . As soon as Hasan tweeted his question, he was instantly attacked by a writer for the Times of Israel and the Atlantic, dutifully re-tweeted by Jeffrey Goldberg, on this ground:

Israel’s strike on Syria has been a revealing moment. Some, for example, seem to view Israel as equivalent to Iran –Liam Hoare (@lahoare)

One could say quite reasonably that this is the pure expression of the crux of US political discourse on such matters: they must abide by rules from which we’re immune, because we’re superior. . . . The ultimate irony is that those who advocate for the universal application of principles to all nations are usually tarred with the trite accusatory slogan of moral relativism. But the real moral relativists are those who believe that the morality of an act is determined not by its content but by the identity of those who commit them: namely, whether it’s themselves or someone else doing it. . . . Today’s version of that is: Israel and the US (and its dictatorial allies in Riyadh and Doha) have the absolute right to bomb other countries or arm rebels in those countries if they perceive doing so is necessary to stop a threat but Iran and Syria (and other countries disobedient to US dictates) do not. This whole debate would be much more tolerable if it were at least honestly acknowledged that what is driving the discussion are tribalistic notions of entitlement and nothing more noble.

–Glenn Greenwald, Israeli bombing of Syria and moral relativism
The Guardian (May 6, 2013)

The view that moral relativism is actually supposed to signify is, roughly, the position that one and the same action, taken in the same context, can be both right and wrong at the same time; that is, the position that questions of morality can rightly be answered only relative to a frame of reference[1] which can change from one judgment to the next. (So, for example, some people have believed — wrongly — that whether an action is right or wrong depends on whether the person making the moral judgment has a feeling of approval or disapproval towards it; other people have believed — also wrongly — that whether an action is right or wrong depends on whether the person making the judgment lives in a society in which the action is generally praised, generally tolerated, or generally condemned. For an excellent discussion of, and critical reply to, actual moral relativism, see the third chapter of G. E. Moore’s Ethics [1912].)

Now it is no sin not to know meta-ethical theory. It’s a branch of technical philosophy, and not the least recondite of the branches you could study. But if you’re going to use the terms, you ought at least to know what they mean. Moral relativism is a real thing; and even kind of a common personal stance or cultural phenomenon (it’s common enough for people, when challenged to justify their actions or to ground their moral pronouncements, to retreat into a sort of relativism, whether with a seemingly sophisticated philosophical defense or with a dull Well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.). And it’s something that’s worth pointing out; I think that the retreat to relativism is not only a cognitive or intellectual mistake, but really itself a kind of ethical lapse. But in public political debates, when the word moral relativism is thrown against a position, it is rarely being thrown at a position that’s actually relativist. In fact, because the word has become a watch-word of the cultural Right — and because u.s.-American militarism draws so much of its intellectual basis from the watch-words of the cultural Right[2]relativism has come to be very frequently used in order to defend the crassest sorts of exceptionalism and militarism in foreign policy debates. But when moral relativism is used polemically this way in debates about war and foreign policy, the word is almost always being used to attack positions that are exactly the opposite of relativist — it used to attack views precisely because they insist on principled ethical judgments being applied across the board, and demand that moral actors be held to the same ethical standards regardless of who they are, regardless of their politics or the government they are part of or the nationality they claim to represent. When someone condemns the Israeli government for taking exactly the same actions that would have been condemned from the government of Iran, the person condemning those actions (whether they are right or wrong to do so) is explicitly demanding a universal standard of moral judgment, and thus rejecting the sort of national relativism that tolerates behavior from our government while condemning it in others, simply because they are on the other side of a political boundary.

When moral relativism is used polemically in foreign-policy debates, the position being attacked is almost always being attacked because it makes a moral argument which is actually the exact opposite of moral relativism. And that’s too bad, because words mean things. Or at least they ought to.

Also.

  1. [1]Depending on the version of relativism in question, the frame of reference might be the frame of reference of the person acting; or it might be the frame of reference of the person evaluating the action and responding with praise or blame.
  2. [2]Both in terms of the people who advocate militarism, and also in terms of the conceptual framework that even liberal hawks routinely make use of.

Voyage of the S.S. St. Louis

Everything old is new again.

Please bear the following facts in mind.

If you and your family are trying to escape the Chinese government’s coercive population control policies — if, for example, you are a man, and your wife has been forced into an abortion by threats or violence from the government, and even if you, yourself, have been threatened with government-forced sterilization; or if you are a woman, and you have been forced into an abortion by the government, but you don’t want to be forced to live apart from your life partner — if, that is, either you or your life partner has been held down, under threat of violence, and had your reproductive organs cut into, against your will, by order of the State, and it’s perfectly likely to happen to you again if you go on living in China — well, then, I’m sorry, but that just isn’t a good enough reason for the United States government to consider you and your family Officially Persecuted by the Chinese government, and thus not enough for them to get out of your way and leave you alone to live your life peacefully within the borders that the U.S. government claims the right to fortify. They are especially unlikely to consider your persecution important enough to merit asylum if the Chinese government, as part of those same population control policies, refuses to write down a legal record of your marriage to the man or woman that you wed years ago and have lived with ever since. In fact a panel of comfortable American judges will sneer down at you, from their politico-moral high ground, that legal marriage reflects a sanctity and long-term commitment that other forms of cohabitation simply do not. Your actual, real-life marriage doesn’t count, because the government that is persecuting you won’t recognize it. Your suffering and the violation of your body, or your spouse’s body, by a violent government, don’t matter to this government, because it won’t count them as real persecution. So instead of leaving you alone, this government will roust you up out of your new home, and march you out at bayonet-point, and ship you out of the country, back to the tormentors in China who you risked everything to escape.

If you are a woman from the Republic of Guinea, and, when you were a child, you were held down and had your clitoris cut out with a knife, without anesthesia, and if, after being forced to suffer this painful and traumatizing mutilation of your body, you make a deliberate decision to get out of the country, perhaps because it hurt you, and perhaps because the effects still hurt you, and perhaps because you didn’t want it and now you just can’t stand to live in the place where it was done to you, and perhaps because you don’t want your daughters to be forced into the same thing — well, I’m sorry, but according to the United States Department of Homeland Security and the United States Department of Justice [sic], that just isn’t a good enough reason to consider you Officially Persecuted in Guinea, and thus not enough reason for them to get out of your way and leave you alone to live your life peacefully within the borders that the U.S. government claims the right to fortify. Because, hey, you’re damaged goods now and you don’t have any clitorises left for them to cut out. Your suffering and the violation of your body, by certain violent members of your community, don’t matter to them, because it won’t count them as real persecution. So instead of leaving you alone, this government will roust you up out of your new home, and march you out at bayonet-point, and ship you out of the country, back to the tormentors in Guinea who you risked everything to escape.

If you and your family are from Iraq, and, because of the crushing poverty and the tremendous danger to your life and limb which you face — due to the United States government’s own war and bombing and occupation in Iraq; or due to threats from the government-backed and freelance ethnic-cleansing death squads, which have flourished under that occupation; or due to the crossfire in the endless battles between the United States government’s occupying forces and Iraqi insurgents — if, because of all that, you are one of the 2.5 million Iraqis who have fled the country in order to try to find a new home (either temporarily or permanently) where you can live your life free of fear and starvation and unspeakable daily violence, and now you find yourself stuck — like 2.4 million of your fellow Iraqis — in some hellhole refugee camp or urban ghetto in neighboring countries like Syria or Jordan, where conditions are awful, where you are surrounded by suffering, where you cannot legally work for pay and have little or nothing to do other than take hand-outs and fill out paperwork for UNHCR, while you watch your life savings drain away in the effort to keep yourself alive for a few more months while you wait, and wait, and wait, and if you don’t happen to be one of the 500 people per year who are eligible for Special Immigration Visas in return for collaborating with the U.S. government’s occupying forces in Iraq, and you don’t happen to be one of the quota of only a few thousand Iraqi refugees that the U.S. government has agreed to accept each year — well, then, I’m sorry, but according the United States government that just isn’t a good enough reason to get out of your way and leave you alone to travel to the United States and live your life peacefully within the borders that the United States government claims the right to fortify. Your suffering, and the danger to your life or the lives of your loved ones, by any one of the countless armies and armed factions rampaging through Iraq, don’t matter enough to them for them to reconsider their immigration quota policy. So this government will keep you penned up in your hellhole ghetto, where you can die for all they care, or, if you somehow get to America, this government will march you out at bayonet-point, and ship you out of the country, back to the ghetto conditions or to the tormentors in Iraq who you risked everything to escape.

This is life, such as it is, under government immigration controls. It is life as it always will be, as long as politicians and bureaucrats have the power to pick and choose whose reasons for wanting to cross an arbitrary line on a map are good enough, and whose are not.

But it is criminal that there is even one single refugee in this world who cannot immediately find asylum and a chance to make a new life and a new home for herself in a new country.

It is inexcusable that, in the name of the ethno-political system of international apartheid, the governments of the world continue to collaborate in violence against women, in forced starvation, and in ethnic cleansing, by forcing peaceful women and men into refugee ghettoes or, worse, by forcing peaceful women and men back into the maws of the very governments or violent factions who intend to devour them.

It is obscene that a bunch of politicians and unaccountable bureaucrats from the United Nations or the U.S. government would be invested with the power to sit in judgment, from their comfortable offices, on the most marginalized, the most exploited, and the most oppressed people in the world, so that they put all their conventional prejudices and political blinders to work in picking and choosing whose suffering should count as real, in the eyes of the governments of the world, or whose suffering, if acknowledged as real by the government, is important enough to let them into a tiny quota that the government will allow to cross an arbitrary line on a map.

The S.S. St. Louis still sails the seas today, a ghost ship with ghost passengers, without rest and without safe harbor. It will haunt the world forever, as long as this system of international apartheid is enforced.

And all for what? To avoid the voluntary co-mingling of people from different countries? To ensure that the people of the world hear only one language, live and work with people of only one nationality, remain segregated, either by penning them up in their government-appointed place or else by making sure you can monitor all their movements according to a government-created system of passbooks and minders? The idea would be laughable if not for all the ghosts–the ghosts of millions upon millions of real, living, irreplaceable and unique individual people, who were turned back, ruined, persecuted, mutilated, tortured, starved, and murdered for the sake of that idea.

There is another way. A way in which the living can finally live, and the dead can finally rest, in peace. But that other can only become a reality when people are free to move from one place to another, and their reasons, their suffering, and their lives cannot be measured and found wanting by entitled strangers with the power to turn them back and force them back to the tormenters that they risked everything to escape. It can, that is to say, only become a reality with the immediate, unconditional, and complete abolition of all government border controls, and with universal amnesty for all currently undocumented immigrants.

There’s no room for compromise or moderation in the politics of immigration when real people’s bodies and real people’s lives are hanging in the balance. As they are all over the world today.

See also:

One man’s reductio

Here’s widely-published, reportedly libertarian columnist Walter Williams on the need for political will in the War on Terror:

Does the United States have the power to eliminate terrorists and the states that support them? In terms of capacity, as opposed to will, the answer is a clear yes.

Think about it. Currently, the U.S. has an arsenal of 18 Ohio class submarines. Just one submarine is loaded with 24 Trident nuclear missiles. Each Trident missile has eight nuclear warheads capable of being independently targeted. That means the U.S. alone has the capacity to wipe out Iran, Syria or any other state that supports terrorist groups or engages in terrorism — without risking the life of a single soldier.

Terrorist supporters know we have this capacity, but because of worldwide public opinion, which often appears to be on their side, coupled with our weak will, we’ll never use it. Today’s Americans are vastly different from those of my generation who fought the life-and-death struggle of World War II. Any attempt to annihilate our Middle East enemies would create all sorts of handwringing about the innocent lives lost, so-called collateral damage.

Such an argument would have fallen on deaf ears during World War II when we firebombed cities in Germany and Japan. The loss of lives through saturation bombing far exceeded those lost through the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

— Walter E. Williams (2006-08-23): Will The West [sic] Defend Itself?

I’d like to thank Mr. Williams for helping to illustrate an important point about logical inference.

Two of the most important rules of inference are the modus ponendo ponens (pq. p. ∴ q) and the modus tollendo tollens (pq. ~q. ∴ ~p). Something that people often don’t realize is how the very same reasoning could be used to set up either a modus ponens or a modus tollens in the last step. Here’s an example drawn from real life. Walter Williams argues:

  1. If there were something wrong with slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of military victory today, there would have been something wrong with the Allied governments’ massacre of half a million or more innocent people in the name of military victory during the firebombing campaigns of World War II. (lemma)
  2. There was nothing wrong with the Allied governments’ massacre of half a million or more innocent people in the name of military victory during the firebombing campaigns of World War II. (premise)
  3. Therefore, there must be nothing wrong with slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of victory today. Q.E.D. (M.T. 1, 2)

But someone or another just might use the same line of inferences that Williams drew in order to establish a different conclusion:

  1. If there were something wrong with slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of military victory today, there would have been something wrong with the Allied governments’ massacre of half a million or more innocent people in the name of military victory during the firebombing campaigns of World War II. (lemma)
  2. There is something wrong with slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of military victory today. (premise)
  3. Therefore, there must be something wrong with the Allied governments’ massacre of half a million or more innocent people in the name of military victory during the firebombing campaigns of World War II. You dick. (M.P. 1, 2)

For some people’s argumentative purposes the Allied war effort in World War II is not so much just as the paradigm for justice itself; like the meter stick in Paris, it doesn’t even make sense to say that it is just, because the possibility that it even might have been less than just is simply unintelligible. Those who have a less reverent view of the single most destructive total war in the history of the entire world may not share the same premises. And thus may draw quite a different conclusion. I’m just sayin’.

I’d like to thank the War Party for offering yet another opportunity for an important lesson on informal logic.

Update 2006-09-02: Commenter Adam B. pointed out that the full Latin name for modus tollens is the modus tollendo tollens, not modus ponendo tollens as I’d originally written. This has been fixed in the text.

Further reading: