Confronting Terrorism and Neo-Conservatism: Initial Provocations

by Tom Farer

I would like to begin by echoing Ben Wittes thanks to Chris and his colleagues for creating this vehicle for informal but rigorous discussion of critical issues at the juncture of law and public policy. And of courseI want to express my appreciation at being invited to discuss the themes of my book only partially because, as Oscar Wilde once observed, the only bad public notice is one’s obituary (and even that depends on a still mooted point about post-deathprospects). More important than being noticed is being jolted out of the post-publication complacency bordering on cerebral torpor that besets most authors in the aftermath of a book-length effort to understand the world and hence your self, that is the hodge-podge of epistemological convictions, moral intuitions, aesthetic preferences and real and vicarious experiences that constitute a personal world view and shape’s one’s diagnoses of and prescriptions for the world’s pathologies. You type the final page, feel the millstone slip from your neck, and more-or-less consciously congratulate yourself on having thought something all the way through . . . whereupon you stop thinking. Having read with fascination the previous Opinio Juris book discussions, I have to anticipate that by the end of this week my interlocutors will have squeezed out of me every lingering ounce of intellectual complacency.

Chris suggested that I open the exchange by sketching in a few broad strokes what I thought I was doing in this book. My purpose, however well or poorly realized, was to look through a Liberal optic at the most important and neuralgic issues implicated in the struggle against mass-casualty terrorism linked to individuals imagining themselves as Islamic warriors. Those issues are the serial themes of this week’s blog. More specifically, I wanted to tease out the strategic implications of a Liberal optic and to contrast them favorably with the policies and underlying set of ideas and values propagated most famously by neo-conservative publicists and channeled by the Bush Administration particularly in its first term.

To that end I begin the book by explaining what I mean by a Liberal optic and clarifying the irreducible differences between that optic and the one employed by neo-cons. Liberalism, I propose, rests on belief in the moral equality of human beings. While, for reasons I elaborate in the book, that belief can be reconciled with special concern for communities smaller than the totality of the human race, it does not allow communal preference where fundamental rights like thoseto life and freedom are at stake. Human Rights stem from the same conviction, act of faith if you will, so it is not surprising that, as the social-democratic hawk Paul Berman (the designated punching bag of my final chapter) has written, in the course of the 20th Century, Liberalism and human rights have become inextricably intertwined in common perception. Moreover, Berman correctly claims, together with international law they form a normative trilogy. That too is unsurprising. It is unsurprising not only because human rights have been incorporated into the body of international law, but also because international law seen as a means for facilitating and institutionalizing cooperation among sovereign states and restraining their egotism expresses the liberal impulse to foster a more equitable distribution of critical public goods among national communities for the benefit of their respective citizens and to reduce the risk of war with all its attendant and ineluctable costs in human welfare.

A defining feature of the Right-Wing in every country is belief in the virtue of seeking gains for one’s own national community whatever the cost to others. A cosmopolitan sensibility is mistrusted, even despised. The world is seen as an arena of fierce competition for scarce resources, a competition that is both necessary and a test of national character. From that perspective international laws are at best occasional expedients for advancing the national interest. They carry no moral weight and should be discarded or evaded when they hinder pursuit of the national interest by other means. John Bolton, the former Ambassador to the UN, has called them merely political understandings and thus qualitatively different in character from domestic laws.

If this view of international relations and international law is, as I claim, a generic feature of Right-Wing movements, why do I single out Neo-Cons for special critical scrutiny? The answer, of course, is that unlike the rest of the Right (with the arguable exception of Libertarians, a people deluded by belief that the state alone threatens human freedom and that the natural order is benign), Neo-Cons purport to constitute the more authentic form of Liberalism at least in foreign affairs, more authentic in the sense of less willing to compromise with authoritarian regimes and movements and more willing to use all of the instruments of statecraft to protect and promote human rights, democracy in particular.

As I see it, they have appropriated the rhetoric and symbols of human rights on behalf of policies that have, on balance, savaged human rights, not merely since 9/11 but much earlier, beginning with the Central American Wars of the 1980s. Assuming the sincerity of their claimed belief to be the most committed and authentic adversaries of autocracy, what underlying ideas about the world lead them to endorse policies of an illiberal character? And how do they reconcile their ardent nationalism with their claimed commitment to human rights.

The second question’s answer is obvious: They reconcile the two by equating the expansion of US influence, that is U.S. power, with the promotion of human rights. From the former the latter automatically flows. Once you equate the national interest, however narrowly i.e. traditionally conceived, with the human interest, the supposed conflict between parochial and cosmopolitan values vanishes. The first generation of neo-cons, people like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz and Jean Kirkpatrick, used much the same argument during the Cold War in defending the incorporation of brutal regimes into the “Free-World Alliance”. Whatever in their judgment (often faulty I believe) advanced American and correspondingly reduced Soviet power was a per se advancement of human rights.

It is this view about means and ends that best summarizes the difference between Liberals and Neo-Cons. Liberalism is not Pacifist. Indeed it can generate a call to arms for battle against gross violators of human rights. But the core idea of human rights as a normative system, the idea that certain few basic rights cannot be trumped in the name of the general good, restrains or perhaps it would be more precise to say it leavens Liberalism’s belligerent impulses (in which I share), forces upon it the appreciation that the only thing certain about the use of force is the death and mutilation of the innocent, the unfortunate collateral damage of war. In other words their contemporary umbilical connection to Human rights compels Liberals to a granular calculation of means and ends, a deep appreciation of the tragedy inherent in violent means.

Neo-Conservatives on the contrary seem to me unballasted by the core idea that optimistic predictions of gains for the general welfare do not trump the basic rights of individuals of all communities and infected by the same avid nationalism that ripped Europe apart in the first four decades of the 20th Century. In this rosy optimism about the uses of force and also in their Manichaean impulse, their avid desire to divide the world into the forces of light and of darkness, their distrust of compromise, their refusal to contemplate the possibility that our means may create recruits for our enemies’ armies, they seem to me much like the Marxists they once rejoiced to smite. For Marxists too, the true believers, envisioned themselves as champions of human freedom. Of coursewe would first have to endure the sanguinary unpleasantness of the global revolution and then the interlude of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. But ultimately, after all that regrettable carnage, with the class structure obliterated and the problems of production and distribution (“to each according to his need”) resolved, by God what perfect freedom we would have: Why you could be an ironmonger in the morning, a professor in the afternoon and a poet (or today we might say “blogger”) in the evening) or you could have diurnal alternation, whatever.

Reading over what I have just written, I fear that I may have overemphasized the role neo-cons play in this book. My arguments are not only with them and in fact they have no role at all in my chapter exploring the problematic relationship between liberal secular regimes and communities of ardent, traditionalist faith, a chapter which is in part an exploration of the limits of minority rights. Nor are they exclusive antagonists in my exploration of other issues like the one that will be the focus of my next post, namely the present and prospective condition of international norms governing the use of force. Still, when I turn in the final chapter of my book to a fuller exposition of Liberalism’s strategic implications, I do feel engaged in a dialectical exchange with neo-con thought, an exchange that does not anticipate some final synthesis. But let that matter abide the event. For the moment, we are launched and I will move as quickly as possible to the substance of my claims and doubts and questions about the great issues of our debate over how best to confront the threat of catastrophic attack.

Comments are closed.