What Makes America So Prone to Intervention

Joseph W.H. Lough

A quarter century ago I recall reading an essay by Stanley Hauerwas, a midrash on the novel Watership Down, in my Ethics class at Pacific School of Religion, where I was attending seminary. Since then he has gone on to establish himself at the top of the world of Ethics more generally, evidenced by the appearance this week of of excerpts from an interview probing Professor Hauerwas on US intervention in the Syrian conflict, published in Atlantic Monthly (http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/09/what-makes-america-so-prone-to-intervention/279393/)Stanley Hauerwas

One can only lament at not having the entire interview; or not having access to Professor Hauerwas’ full argument. For out of the piece published in Atlantic Monthly it is difficult to make heads or tails. The interview begins promisingly enough with a not-too-well-veiled invocation of Pericles’ Memorial Speech, which all students will remember from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. There, Pericles (or Thucydides) establishes the basic outline for every memorial day speech since, reminding his listeners of those whose lives have already be sacrificed in making Athens a great power and pleading with them not to allow the lives of the dead to have been sacrificed in vain. Pericles then goes on to invite the grieving mothers, wives, and sisters of Athens to put aside their grief and to commit themselves to raising up future generations of children for the glory and honor of self-sacrifice.

Thus, in the Atlantic Monthly piece Hauerwas notes how “war serves as the great liturgical event for Americans, where we sacrifice the youth of the present generation to show that the sacrifices of the youth of the past generations were worthy. So war becomes the great ritual moral renewal of the American society.” Hauerwas’ debt to the classics does not end with Thucydides. Later in the interview, Professor Hauerwas also invokes Aristotle, whose republican ethics once lay at the foundation of every Atlantic seaboard republic, including the United States, since it offered a rigorous refutation of mere utilitarian ethics.

Thus, when asked to esteem the merits of altruistic versus selfish reasons for going to war, Hauerwas dismisses the very distinction as spurious. “The construction of altruism vs. selfishness – Aristotle knew nothing of that. He thought your first obligation was to be your own best friend. And if you are a good person, therefore, you are to follow your own interests because they are for the good.” There is not one ethics that is right for the individual and another that is right for the community. Those individuals who enjoy integrity appreciate why my good is intimately connected to the good of those around me and why I can answer the question “What is good?” only by acting on a principle upon which each and every person independently would also have to act.

These displays of brilliant insight make even this short excerpt worth reading. And, yet, I am forced to conclude that there must have been much else that was edited out of the published version. For if Americans today are merely repeating the same ritual liturgical rationale for war that Pericles developed two and a half millennia ago, then it would hardly seem a sufficient explanation to differentiate contemporary Americans from fourth century BCE Athenians or, for that matter, to differentiate them from contemporary Frenchmen, Germans, or Italians. Why might we be so ready to embrace this liturgy while others are less so?

Perhaps it is here that Professor Hauerwas’ approach lets him down. For in order to answer this question – and so answer the question with which the interview is titled – we would have to determine what differentiates contemporary Americans from their predecessors or from their non-American contemporaries. And while the answer is too complex to tackle in a short blog, two differences do stand out.

First, contemporary Americans differ from non-Americans insofar as America’s political system is explicitly and perhaps deliberately plutocratic. It was plutocratic before Citizens United, but it has now received legal cover from the highest court in the land. In America, money not individuals vote. Second, while the framers of the US Constitution unquestionably aimed at a republic of virtue, a political culture grounded in Aristotle’s Politics, it was not long (1790s at the latest) before this principle of virtue was compelled to bow to the principle of pure numbers: democracy absent the institutional and substantive foundations necessary to make democracy work.

America is so prone to intervention because it has embraced a modern version of the same Periclean democracy that hypnotized fourth century Athens; democracy without the institutional and substantive conditions necessary to make it work. But this means that those who have short-term financial interests – and not least the industrial military complex itself – are easily able to bend public opinion to their own short-term ends; and are able to do so easily because money now legally enjoys the largest vote by far.

In order to reground America on republican principles, we will first need to work vigorously to isolate the interests of capital from res publica, from the wealth we hold in common. Brilliantly, Professor Hauerwas invites us to explore this confusion of public and private interests not along utilitarian lines, but along lines of an ethics of responsibility.

The Pope and the Prophet

Joseph W.H. Lough

I must admit, even for me there was something strangely comforting in a mass rally led by a major religious figure – God’s representative on earth, the Pope – on behalf of peace. I found the Pope’s message comforting not only because the Pope articulated a position in God’s name from which, tragically, God is all too often missing; indeed, a position on which God all too often is made to assume the other side: war and death. And, yet, as I read on I was struck not only by the explicitly Platonic form of the Pope’s underlying rationale (he is, after all, a Jesuit), but its implicitly Hegelian form. For make no mistake. Francis was not inviting us to contemplate a diversity whose individual elements articulate with one another as benign, isolated particularities seeking understanding and concert. Rather was he contemplating a highly differentiated, yet integrated, comprehensive totality in which, as His Holiness made clear, “everyone is able to find their proper place and feel ‘at home’, because it is ‘good’” (Francis, Vigil for Peace Homily 2013.09.08). To be sure, Francis no doubt understands this unity in terms of a divine creation outside of or next to which there is no parallel “Manichean” opposition threatening to unseat the divine. And so his interpretation of Genesis – and God saw that it was good – is not out of keeping with a more traditional theology of creation.

Pope Francis met with media
Pope Francis met with media (Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales))

Nevertheless, we would be mistaken to find in Francis’ counsel only a traditional Roman Catholic, which is to say classically Stoic, reading of creation. To be sure, Francis’ homily overflows with classically Stoic imagery and, to this extent, it reproduces sound First Century rabbinic Midrash on Genesis (see Romans 1-2, and 13). But, it is precisely for this reason that the Pope’s message overlooks the central message of the Cross, even or specially when it is Francis’ intention to point to the Cross.

My Christian faith urges me to look to the Cross. How I wish that all men and women of good will would look to the Cross if only for a moment! There, we can see God’s reply: violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue, and peace is spoken.

What Francis sees in the Cross is GWF Hegel’s 19th century fantasy, a unity within diversity, not an overcoming of death, but a subsumption of death within life and of life within death. And it is this vision that differs fundamentally from, say, Saint Paul’s vision of the Cross recorded in the first two chapters of First Corinthians. Here, as distinguished from the passage in Romans, which is simply a rabbinic repetition of classical Stoic platitudes, we find a vision of the Cross that is more than unity within diversity, or more than a quasi-naturalistic reconciliation of death and life. Here, to the contrary, we find a militantly defiant message to the rulers of this present age:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Again, this is not a message of reconciliation. For Paul, a leader within a minority community under imperial occupation, there is no stoic ambivalence here about good and evil, light and darkness, “those who are being saved” and “those who are perishing.” And, lest we entertain any doubts over those in the first group (the saved) and those in the latter (the perishing), Paul banishes those doubts completely:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not may were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

So much for reconciliation. God has chosen some to bring to nothing – to annihilate – those things that are. And with this, Paul, the first century diaspora Jew, places on its head the classic, yet trivial, Stoic formula he merely reproduces in Romans 13:1-7. There those who possess and exercise power are counted servants and ministers of God. Here by contrast those same powers are being brought to nothing. For, according to Paul, “the rulers of this age . . . are doomed to perish.”

Why? For this simple reason that they did not and do not comprehend the wisdom of the Cross, which is therefore a wisdom that does not and cannot comprehend both the victim and the perpetrator. So that on this reading the Cross is not a place of unqualified reconciliation. For, according to Paul, had the rulers of this age understood the divine preference for the poor, foolish, weak, and powerless, they would not have crucified Jesus.

None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

To be sure, the Pope, who knows these texts as well as or even better than anyone, does not overlook God’s preference for the poor. But insofar as he interprets this preference within an overall Stoic-Hegelian totality, he is inclined to favor a pacifism absent from the Cross itself. God does reconcile the world through the Cross, according to Paul. But not without considerable struggle and even violence.

Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and every power (I Cor. 15:24).

How very different this is from the Stoic-Hegelian formula according to which each being assumes its proper place – women and men, slaves and masters, children and parents, ruled and rulers – within a benevolent, yet hierarchical, systemic totality of domination and submission.

Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool, cropped version of ...
Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool, cropped version of Image:Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Which is why I am more inclined to attend to Slavoj Žižek’s reading of Syria, precisely because it is more in line with the Cross that Francis invites us to behold. For Žižek, as for Paul, we are not invited to imagine a benign and benevolent reconciliation among fundamentally disparate and hostile actors, as though al-Assad and his henchmen might assume their place benignly and benevolently next to the women, men and children whom they have gassed. No. Like Rome’s rulers and powers and authorities, al-Assad does not grasp because he cannot grasp the mystery of the Cross, God’s unconditional preference for the poor and oppressed. And so those whom God has chosen – the poor, oppressed, and weak – are destined to bring him to nothing. That much is clear.

But, Žižek’s analysis does not stop there. Rather does he, like Paul, turn the logic favoring war on its head. “The moral outrage evoked to provide a rational cover for the compulsion-to-intervene (“We cannot allow the use of poisonous gas on civil population!”) is fake.” It is fake because it really does not proceed from the vantage-point of the poor, oppressed, and weak. For did it proceed from this vantage-point, then the US and its allies would be focusing its attention less on “the struggle for freedom and democracy,” which invokes no emancipatory practice, than on “a struggle for social and economic justice.” To be absolutely clear in this regard, Žižek is not arguing against freedom and democracy. Rather is he pointing out the inadequacy of the connection we (following Hegel) may be inclined to draw between freedom, democracy and emancipation, a connection for which Žižek rightly faults Francis Fukuyama (among others). This is because, as Paul pointed out in the first century, the fundamental conflict in the Middle East is not over the institutional political or economic mechanisms that mediate social relations – the ballot box and the market place – but relationships of power, domination, authority, and subservience; relationships that are not and cannot be resolved without an actual, deliberate, redistribution of resources.

And it is precisely here that Žižek’s counsel offers a better, more accurate reproduction not only of Christian dogma, but also of the actual situation in Syria. Both His Holiness and Žižek oppose US intervention; and not on entirely dissimilar grounds. But consistent with his training in Philosophy at Frankfurt, Francis’ fallback position is a spin-off of classic Platonic and Stoic unity and Hegelian idealism. Instead it is Žižek who more accurately grasps and appreciates the mystery of the Cross and its divine resolution.

And this brings us back to Syria: the ongoing struggle there is ultimately a false one. The only thing to keep in mind is that this pseudo-struggle thrives because of the absent third, a strong radical-emancipatory opposition whose elements were clearly perceptible in Egypt. As we used to say almost half a century ago, one doesn’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows in Syria: towards Afghanistan. Even if Assad somehow wins and stabilises the situation, his victory will probably breed an explosion similar to the Taliban revolution which will sweep over Syria in a couple of years. What can save us from this prospect is only the radicalisation of the struggle for freedom and democracy into a struggle for social and economic justice.

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Clear Case against Syria Not a Clear Case for War

Let us assume for the moment that the case against Syria is “clear,” that Assad has used chemical weapons against Syrians, and that there is good reason to believe that he will equal or better these atrocities in the future.

Even were all of this “clear,” we would still need clarity over the course and conclusion of the ensuing war. To be sure, perfect clarity, particularly during war is not only unlikely, but, by definition, impossible. Nevertheless, it is still possible for us to ask whether a limited range of likely courses and likely conclusions are preferable to the likely course and conclusion that might follow without intervention.

Since I do not propose to review, or even propose to know, the range of possible courses or conclusions, I want instead to limit my own reflections by identifying what I take to be a set of highly unlikely courses and conclusions.

The first unlikely course and conclusion – which, of course, is always the most unlikely course and conclusion – is that lives will be saved. Here we should need to bear in mind counsel well-known and often repeated by nearly every military leader ever to have led soldiers into battle, the counsel of Archidamus, Spartan King, which we have from ThucydidesPeloponnesian War:

“Spartans. in the course of my life I have taken part in many wars, and I see among you people of the same age as I am. They and I have had experience, and so are not likely to share in what may be a general enthusiasm for war, nor to think that war is a good thing or a safe thing. And you will find, if you look carefully into me matter, that this present war which you are now discussing is not likely to be anything on a small scale. . . . As for being slow and cautious – which is the usual criticism made against us – there is nothing to be ashamed of in that. If you take something on before you are ready for  it, hurry at the beginning will mean delay at the end. Besides. the city in which we live has always been free and always famous. “Slow” and “cautious” can equally well be “wise” and “sensible.” . . . Let us never give up this discipline which our fathers have handed down to us and which we still preserve and which has always done us good. Let us not be hurried. and in one short day’s space come to a decision which will so profoundly affect the lives of men and their fortunes, the fates of cities and their national honour. We ought  to take time over such a decision” (Thucydides, Pel. I.80-85).

Thucydides, whose history provides many of the...
Thucydides, whose history provides many of the details of this period (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thucydides’ account is remembered two and a half millennia later not because of its uniqueness, but because of its banality. With each and every successive conflict from his time to our own, every General who has ever fought has remembered reading Thucydides’ sober counsel and has been struck by how true his words ring to the conflict they have themselves just fought. The Peloponnesian War is every war; and like every war it leaves a trail of death, disease, pain, sorrow, and decay. So too will the war with Syria.

The second related limit we must bear in mind is that the war with Syria will not limit the spread of war – it will precipitate the spread of war in the surrounding region. In this instance, it is virtually certain that war in Syria will spread to Iran, Iraq, and Jordan. Nor is there any great certainty that it will not lead to further social, political, and economic chaos in Turkey, Egypt, and Lebanon. Therefore, if containment is our aim, then we should bear in mind that this war is likely not to contain, but to amplify violence and instability in the region.

Finally, some may imagine that democracy will arise from war in Syria. Yet, even were this true – even if war did shift the center of political power from Assad to Assad’s far more numerous opponents and enemies – we should be under no illusion that our enemy’s enemies are our friends. Democracy in Afghanistan will require the restoration of a Taliban whom once we supported against Soviet occupation, but who then allied themselves with al Qaida, and who now propose to once again be our friends. Democracy, however, is almost never a stabilizing, but is instead almost always a destabilizing force. Moreover, as Aristotle pointed out (and Benjamin Franklin repeated) nearly two and a half millennia ago, only when the majority are “healthy, wealthy, and wise” is majority rule the same as good rule. Wherever the majority are unhealthy, poor, and ignorant, there majority rule cannot help but lead first to poor government and, second, because poor government invariably generates calls for a new, more effective leader, poor government almost always leads at best to demagogic rule and, more often than not, authoritarian and dictatorial rule.

If “democracy” is our watchword, we ought therefore to cleanse it from our minds. War with Syria does not support nor will it lead to democracy.

Which is not to say that we should not help alleviate suffering in Syria. Nor that we should not intervene militarily in the Syrian Civil

President Hafez al-Asad with his family in the...
President Hafez al-Asad with his family in the early 1970s. From left to right: Bashar, Maher, Mrs Anisa Makhlouf (the then new First Lady of Syria), Majd, Bushra, and Basil. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

War. Innocents are suffering. The pain is almost too much to bear. Which is one of the reasons why we dare not think only or even primarily about US involvement strategically. Rather must we think about it contingently and immediately; how can we carve our zones of safety and security and provide safe passage for those eager to enter such zones? How can we disarm the weapons Assad is using against his people? How can we protect the innocents from the belligerents?

And with these questions we also once and for all abandon the supposedly high ground of pacifism or non-aggression; for there is simply no known way of carving out safe zones, guaranteeing safe passage, disarming aggressors or protecting innocents from belligerents without risking violent, lethal engagement with Assad’s forces.

Nor will creating such zones or isolating belligerents from innocents guarantee anything remotely like an end to the conflict or even an end to suffering. Syria, like Egypt and Afghanistan, or Iran and Iraq, has been a long time in the making. And Americans and Europeans have played central roles building this nation in its current configuration. We cannot hope to undo this nation-building in one day. Nor should we want to. Rather should we begin to think prospectively about the kind of Syria – and the kind of Middle East – we want to see in fifteen, twenty, or fifty years. If we want to see a world where all Syrians are healthy, wealthy, and wise – and therefore a Syria where democratic rule is identical with the rule of the good and for the good – then we will have to take aim at the “good” we want to see not only in Syria, but also in Europe and North America.

To be absolutely clear, free markets and a feeble public sphere where individuals must fight alone to be healthy, wealthy, and wise offers no prospect for the kind of future where democracy and the good reinforce one another. Down this road lies nothing but a endless future of Syrianas. We must therefore instead aim at the good we seek: a public all of whose members are healthy, wealthy and wise, which is, after all, the definition of what it means to be res publica, a Republic.

At the same time, we cannot let this aim prevent us from taking up the immediate tasks identified above, which are devoid of every idealism save that of protecting the innocents – which ought to be and must be our number one project.

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