Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Limits of Empire

Following the earlier entry, Nicholas Johnson, "Don't Like To Say 'I told you so,' but . . .," September 24, 2006, an exchange took place in the comments between James E-J and myself that I thought worth reproducing as an entry of its own:

James E-J said...

I opposed going into Iraq too, but I wonder what you think should have been done about Saddam's refusal to comply with UN Security resolutions, ongoing Food For Oil program corruption, repeated violations of the No-Fly zone ...

I also opposed economic sanctions generally because I find that they punish civilians while the leaders remain mostly unaffected. So, for me that also was not a solution.

I would have supported coordination with Kurdish and Shiite organizations to kill Saddam and his sons (who are worse than he was). Unfortunately, The US has a policy against targeting for assassination the people responsible for a country's bad acts. I wonder what you would have suggested?
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Nick said...

James: I (like you) don't claim to have all the answers. Clearly, I don't have educational/professional credentials with such matters.

My horseback sense is that we do have some level of obligation to all life on earth, and certainly humankind. I certainly don't advocate a "fortress America" isolationism.

On the other hand, we simply have neither the resources nor the wisdom to solve all of the world's problems. Nor do we have the right, I think, to make judgments for others regarding what we know to be better for them than what they have chosen for themselves (or had foisted upon them).

Putting the best face on it, giving the Bush Administration the benefit of the doubt that their intentions were an honorable desire to improve the lot of the Iraq people, Iraq stands as a classic example of how often and easily such seemingly well meaning efforts can end in a disastrously opposite state of affairs from what was intended.

There are a great many countries and peoples for whom I wish better than what they have, many world leaders whom I wish were not in the positions of power that they are -- and utilizing and abusing that power in the ways that they are.

At a minimum, picking who we're going to "help" requires a kind of triage by us of all the world's countries, and the various minority and other groupings within those countries. I don't know how Iraq would have ranked following such an assessment, but it's not obvious to me that it was a greater risk to us than North Korea, or a greater source of terrorists and their financing than Saudi Arabia, or involved greater brutality than Sri Lanka, Indonesia (East Timor), Darfur, or the former Burma, etc.

Are there absolutely horrible situations in which the best America can do is nothing? Yes, regretfully, I suspect that is often the case. Even more often, I imagine, is it the case that, as the bumper sticker has it, "Whatever is the question, war is not the answer."

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1 comment:

James E-J said...

I think your points are fair ... let me put this on the table as a proposal. I won't defend it right now, but from a game theory perspective, I suspect it will work:

1. The US should adopt a policy of targeted assassination.

2. Democratically elected leaders(even when elected in a sham election arranged by an elite that controls government, such as Ahmadinejad's election arranged by the Ayatollahs) are not subject to assassination under this policy, though such elite may be subject to assassination.

3. Leaders who exercise control over a geographic area and are not elected (the Ayatollahs, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, the Mullahs, etc.) are eligible for assassination.

4. The US will prioritize assassination targets that are a danger to foreign countries, support terror, impede democratization, impose fascism on domestic populations, engage in genocide or engage in any form of ethinic cleansing.

5. Successors to an assassinated leader will assume the same priority on the list as their predecessor absent clear and verifiable actions (not words) that establish a lower priority.

6. The US will make its assassination guidelines (but not a list of specific targets) public and publish its case against each person killed after their assassination.

I think if we established this kind of policy we would see more people like Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi reduce their involvement in anti-liberal terror programs. The policy would be targeted very narrowly against those people who cause so much harm to humanity, and would provide strong incentives for those specific people to realign their behavior towards a more liberal course.