17 February 2016

My discontent with 13th-century foreign policy: a constructive rant


In these times we are constantly told that it is the United States' particular mission to impose a just peace on Syria, North Africa, and Southwest Asia.  Usually, foreign policy experts and presidential advisors couch this mission in secular terms:  we are "the indispensable nation," or only we can save religious minorities under repressive Muslim regimes (the Yazidis, for example) from extinction.

It's my contention that, far from reflecting a mature 'internationalist' worldview, this sort of talk is just a retread of medieval Christian obsessions with crusading.  Beginning around the year 1100, Christian kings and potentates of Europe eagerly embraced invasions of Muslim-majority lands as a way of proving their fitness and religious virtue.  Reading the Christian chronicles of these crusades, it becomes clear how little difference there is between the self-flattering ideology of, say, a Richard Lionheart and the "moral seriousness" that US foreign policy mandarins espouse.  Both have little to no concern with the practical issues of building functioning states under foreign occupation, or ensuring basic law and order after a glorious lightning descent on Saracen / Arab territory.

'Liberal Internationalism':  not a new ideology

Recently I read Jean de Joinville's Life of Saint Louis.  Written by a crusading knight and servant in King Louis IX's (r. 1226-1270) household, the Life brims with religious fervor and tries valiantly to find the hand of God in everything that happened to the author and the army he followed.  Joinville is careful to tell us that not all Saracens (Arabs) are evil.  Indeed, in what is surely a very early example of the "good Westernized leader" trope which has brought us such luminaries as Ahmed Chalabi, he singles out a prince named 'Scecedin,' knighted by the German emperor Frederick II, for praise as a chivalrous and trustworthy negotiating partner.  (For John McCain, finding a Scecedin among the Syrian rebels is the clear solution that our president is too feckless to seek.)

What actually happened in these campaigns was, more or less, as follows:  Louis IX's invasion of Egypt ended disastrously, with the majority of his invading army eliminated by dysentery, starvation, or desperate conversions to IslamAfter being expelled from Egypt, he held out in the walled Lebanese port of Acre for four years.  He died in 1270 on another hapless crusade in Tunisia.  Help from the Mongol khanate in Persia, which the Christian world grew increasingly convinced would save their cause, never materialized to an effective degree.

Despite these misadventures, Louis was lauded by Joinville as the holiest king ever to walk the earth and was canonized by the papacy in 1297.  I cannot avoid thinking of Dick Cheney and the unchallenged deference he still appears to enjoy among neoconservatives today.  However, it's not just neocons on the right that get this treatment.

In the last twenty-five years or so, a school of diplomacy and foreign policy has emerged, often lazily called "liberal internationalism," that advocates for military intervention frequently and passionately.  Their arguments are generally much the same as those Joinville and his ilk proclaimed, but for "God" and "the cause of Christ," they substitute "justice" and "the cause of human rights."  The ends still justify the means in this new school of thought:  it matters little to its exponents how many civilians are killed and made homeless, how much vital state infrastructure is obliterated in the showers of holy bombs they call for, so long as evildoers (sorry, "bad actors") are removed from power in the countries they most care about.

That these wished-for interventions almost always involve military action against majority-Muslim states is in no way related to some religious bias, the internationalists argue - oh no!  It just so happens that humanity is most abjectly suffering in Libya, Iraq, Syria, or Yemen, and "morality" demands that we do something there first.  Maybe in a few decades, when this noble humanitarian project can be declared finished, something should be done about Burma, or Congo, or endemic gang violence in Honduras.  (Latin America has always been a curious blind spot for this crowd.)

Samantha Power, President Obama's onetime foreign policy advisor, is certainly a major figure in this school, and the accolades heaped upon her are eye-catching.  New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier  called Power “one of the keepers of idealism in America,” who “remains almost giddily unreconstructed in her imagination of justice.”  Today's Grail-seekers, it turns out, are just ordinary Americans with colorful pasts and Harvard degrees who have seen the light of global justice and will forego sleep and homely comforts on the pilgrim way to end genocide forever.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was none too impressed by these fervent internationalists when they proposed US military punishment and reconstruction of Libya in 2011.  Recalling the debates within the Obama administration, he said:
It was several White House staffers. They were Ben Rhodes and Samantha and, I might add, Susan Rice—particularly strong advocates of getting involved in a U.S. military engagement. And I don’t know whether these folks have a guilt complex over the Clinton Administration’s having botched Rwanda, where the U.S. did nothing, or what, but they are very much driven ... It becomes detached from U.S. national interests. So I was totally opposed.

"Liberal internationalists" play a rhetorical game that they always lose, or more accurately, that the Ted Cruzes of the world always win.  Their hardline neoconservative colleagues will inevitably press for their wishy-washy interventions to be made "tougher."  No-fly zones and three-times-weekly surgical strikes give way, under the pressure of the neocon propaganda machine and the greed of the military-industrial complex, to daily carpet bombing and finally ground troops.  And why not?  If the ends really do justify the means, there is no good reason to stop at whatever level of military force most New York Times readers find palatable.

Stay tuned for the continuation...

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