Friday, July 16, 2021

American Identity Politics

Can't find a decent credit for this photo, but I think it's Kabul in 1960s sometime.

Shorter David F. Brooks, "The American Identity Crisis", New York Times, 16 July 2021:

Why can't liberals be more neoconservative? Don't they have any moral consistency at all?

Really, that's about the whole thing. He's regretting the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and while he recognizes that the Bush-era invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were a catastrophe causing the US to lose confidence in its ability to spread democracy and be a lamp unto the nations, he doesn't get why that should prompt us to quit. Just because our adventure in Afghanistan is a total failure, is that any reason to quit Afghanistan? 

I guess what befuddles me most is the behavior of the American left. I get why Donald Trump and other American authoritarians would be ambivalent about America’s role in the world. They were always suspicious of the progressive package that America has helped to promote.

But every day I see progressives defending women’s rights, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and racial justice at home and yet championing a foreign policy that cedes power to the Taliban, Hamas and other reactionary forces abroad.

We told you not to invade in the first place! We've been telling you for 40 years! You can't liberate people by force! They need to liberate themselves!

The punitive expedition to Afghanistan in 2001 and effort to cripple the original al-Qa'eda organization in the mountain redoubt to which it had fled from Sudan was comprehensible after the 9/11 attacks, and probably inevitable, though it would have been a lot better if it had managed to focus on Qa'eda and left the regime change alone. The crazy neocon demonstration project in Iraq was just an intolerable horror from start to finish, and unforgivable, and the role of David Brooks in pushing it is a permanent reason for never paying any attention to anything he says. But the most important military adventure to discuss here is the one in Vietnam, which is when the "left" learned this lesson that Brooks is unable to imagine: you can't create democracy by diktat.

It was in fact Richard Nixon who got this right, though that doesn't excuse any of his own crimes (notably the four-year prolongation of the war in Vietnam, engineered in an act of actual treason, and the coup in Chile), and the original Cold War neoconservative Democrats like John F. Kennedy and Henry Jackson (I'll accept the possibility that Kennedy personally learned better in the course of his presidency, and Johnson vaguely knew better from the start) who were wrong. War does not do this job, and in particular war imposed by an outside power. Foreign policy really needs to be about the pursuit of national interests. We're not really going to bear any burden and pay any price anyway, however much we talk about doing it, but especially we won't succeed in modeling our own political dispensation in Asia or Africa or Latin America by any means whatever. Democracy means democracy, or people doing it themselves.

It's terrible to think of the possible fate of the educated women and girls of Afghanistan (I prefer to hope that Afghans can work out a real solution that leaves a lot of space in the country for women and others to enjoy their rights, as Abdullah Abdullah, the canny old guy who always should have been president and who will lead the negotiations for all the non-Taliban parties in Doha, is saying; and I prefer to hedge against disaster with the most liberal possible immigration policy, as always—not just abandon them but offer them a haven), but after all the Soviet commandery also raised up a generation of liberated women in (parts of) Afghanistan in their 20 years, and they couldn't sustain it either.

Brooks's formulation—

progressives defending women’s rights, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and racial justice at home

—betrays exactly what he's doing wrong, which is what he's always doing wrong, which is the hidden assumption that everything that gets done is done by well-off white men (Graham Greene's "quiet Americans"). 

It's progressive women, and their allies, who defend women's rights in the US; it's progressive gay people, and their allies, who fight the LGBTQ+ fight; it's progressive BIPOC, and allies, including of course those who some progressives fear are not very progressive (it's none of their business), who work for racial justice. It isn't some kind of neutral progressives who are none of these things. It's not some kind of neutral American Identity politics invading our own domestic asphalt jungles and rural hamlets and pacifying them into proconsular units for the benefit of helpless minorities, it's Americans of all sorts working for the general benefit. And it's not military at all, of course. 

It's Americans, many of whom are female themselves, or gay, or Black or Indigenous or AAPI or some combination of these, trying to take justice for themselves and for everybody. And it's Afghans, like Costa Ricans or Liberians or Malaysians or Peruvians or whomever, who must do the same thing, if they can want it enough. Neoconservative lip service to democracy can't make up for the undemocratic method.

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