They Still Don't Get It

For the most part, the liberal champions of the Iraq war have survived last eight years with their reputations intact.  Some, George Packer, Paul Berman and others,  have been celebrated for the noble motivations behind their  support for the 2003 invasion (democracy, Kurdish rights, etc.).  It's like we're supposed to think the  liberal hawks were  good kids that fell in with a bad crowd, the Bushies -- their only mistake was in loving democracy and hating Saddam too much, and who could hold that against anyone? 

I think this gives the liberal hawks a free pass, and fails diagnose the fatal error in their thinking.  Some of the excited American reactions to the very inspiring events in Iran have made me worry that the attitudes behind "muscular" democracy promotion and humanitarian-militarism remain uncorrected.

Most critics of the Bush administration's project in the Middle East would argue that war and occupation have been ineffective means for realizing the noble end of democracy, human rights, etc.  In other words, the problem was merely the technical one of selecting the wrong tool (warfare and occupation) for  advancing the cause of political liberalism and representative government.

Obviously, destroying a country and letting its society descend  into a hell of religious and ethnic violence is not a very nice thing to do.  But I think the problem is not a question of  means and ends, but of actors and agency -- not how but who.

"With great power comes great responsibility,"  the lesson of the Spider-Man comic books, pretty much sums up the moral rationale of American imperialism.

The thinking goes that since American power is great,  the United States is, by its actions and inactions, greatly responsible for world affairs and bears a special burden of being the principal historical actor of our times and the key architect of humanity's future.  Let's call it the Yankee's burden.

The Spider-Man maxim has become such an established principle in our foreign policy debates that it seems like a no-brainer, but it is entirely wrong.  It is wrong because it diminishes the responsibilities and historical agency of other peoples and nations.  It also allows for the the United States to dangerously and ahistorically insert itself  into all kinds of past events and developments in which the United States was not really a protagonist.

For example, even educated Americans generally understand the dissolution of the Soviet Union,  largely the result of processes internal to the Soviet and Eastern Bloc systems,  to have been a heroic American victory.  Forget the political dynamics and tensions of Glasnost and Perestroika  (Perez Hilton?),  Ronald Reagan somehow wrestled Gorbachev to the ground in Afghanistan, Lane Kirkland parachuted into the Gdansk shipyards and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.   Hurray!

The United States has few if any responsibilities or obligations to Iran besides, perhaps, compensation for oppression endured under the Shah's reign and the misery suffered by Iran's people during the Iran-Iraq war.   If we (Americans) want to support the  mobilizations in Iranian cities we have only the right to follow the lead of Iranian reformers and help them as per their specific requests, instructions and appeals to the international community.  That's it.  They are in charge and we can't pinch hit for them.

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