November 16, 2003

There Is Much Ruin in a Nation; or, Novus Ordo Seclorum

Forgive me, reader: it's been nine months since my last long, italics-filled, ill-informed political rant.

I don't know if I've ever been explicit about it here before, but I supported the US war in Afghanistan in 2001. Al-Qaeda had just killed several thousand of us, and tried to kill more, and would happily have killed me: crushing such people, as quickly and effectively as possible, is precisely what we have a government for. Given the circumstances, that meant crushing the Taliban, too, and I was happy enough with that: they were a thoroughly despicable regime, an evil stain on the Afghan national honor. (There is a long and complicated family saga compressed behind that last clause; some other time, perhaps.) I thought, and still think, that it was a just war.

Even a justified action can be a bad idea, however, especially if it has disproportionately bad consequences. There were obviously many, many ways something like the invasion of Afghanistan could go wrong. I wasn't very worried about a strictly military failure, because the modern American military is the most perfect mechanism ever devised for defeating states, and the Taliban were a state. What I was worried about was that we would destroy that state, and leave nothing in its place. The fragmentation of Afghanistan into hundreds of petty bandit kingdoms would be an awful human tragedy, further immiserating millions of people. (I would not expect ethnic violence --- the media have had a script about that stuck in their heads since Yugoslavia and Rwanda, but it doesn't fit Afghanistan at all --- but that's not much of a comfort.) It would also be an open invitation, if not to al-Qaeda, than to any of the dozens of other self-proclaimed jihadist groups, or indeed anyone else at all who wanted to set up operations in a lawless region, and would inevitably further destabilize Central Asia, not to say Pakistan, which is (let us recall) a nuclear power. So: letting Afghanistan slip into statelessness would not just a crime but a blunder.

Surely, I thought to myself, the government has people who can reason this out much more thoroughly than I have. Providing the necessary resources, and the necessary security, will be expensive, demanding and time-consuming, but we spend more on our military than the rest of the planet put together, in part to be able to handle contingencies, and we're a rich country. Most of all, I thought, this is serious, a matter of our direct national self-interest. Surely we won't fuck this up.

Two years later, the governor of Kandahar gives himself six months before things collapse into total chaos, because he has no money, no security and no forces at his disposal. He's not, baring a miracle, going to get any help, because we've committed all our forces to chasing mare's nests in Iraq, and have spent most of the last two years gearing up for that glorious hunt, which had absolutely nothing to do with al-Qaeda (except, perhaps, to provide them with a new field of operations).

Every political regime relies, for much of its power, on the opinions of the governed: that support for the regime is morally right, or is in their interest, or both. For more than half a century, America has exercised hegemony (not imperium) over much of the rest of the world. We have been able to do this because the rest of the world has thought it in their interest to cooperate with us, and that it was the right thing to do, because we would do the right, the fair, thing. The support of the "opinion of right" is dissipating, because the world no longer trusts us to do the right thing. (Whether this distrust is objectively justified is irrelevant.) What will happen to the "opinion of interest" if our legacy in Afghanistan and Iraq is two failed states? Without opinion, power rests only on force, and "force is always on the side of the governed". We are pre-eminent, but not invincible, and right now we're stretched thin (the Army has thirty three combat brigades, with one in the Balkans, two in Korea, two in Afghanistan, and sixteen in Iraq).

As an American, I don't particularly care whether my country is powerful, but I do care whether it's safe, and whether it does right by the rest of the world, and I can't see any way for our current hegemony to collapse without both of those going to hell. As a Left Popperian, I look at the Pax Americana and see a set of interlocking institutions which have done a lot of good for a lot of the world. They're not democratic institutions, because they exercise power over people without being particularly accountable to those people, but they could definitely be made more democratic, and should be. I see places where the effects of American hegemony have been pretty awful, but that makes me think that we should reform those institutions so they produce fewer outcomes like, e.g., Guatemala, and more like, e.g., South Korea. Most of all, I don't care how or why American hegemony came into being; what I'm interested in is what we can make of it, and what the alternatives are. If we want a peaceful, open, prosperous world, getting rid of even the present limited degree of global governance is an extremely bad idea, and I can't see any way for American hegemony to break down without taking that governance with it. The goal, then, of good internationalists should be to transform the Pax Americana into an organization of free, cooperating and mutually restraining states, not smash it and assume the usual suspects, freed from even their present constraints, will make things better.

I used to joke that George Bush was preparing America to be taken over by Kim Jong-il; now that seems too hopeful. If the present policy was actually designed to produce its effects, we'd have to find someone who benefited from reducing much of the world to impoverished, nuclear-armed anarchy. I can't imagine any people like this, which leaves me with Ken MacLeod's Reptile Party (not to be confused with the Baby-Eating-Aliens Party).

Of course I don't really believe that Bush is working for space aliens who want a warmer, slightly more radioactive planet full of disorganized indgenes to conquer. No, I just think our rulers are profoundly delusional maniacs. This means I'm reduced to hoping, desperately, that the country will boot them out of office and elect a crew who will at least be able to maintain the situation, and maybe begin to undo some of the damage. Otherwise, I'm very much afraid we'll find out exactly how much ruin there is in the nation, and perhaps many others as well.

Afghanistan and Central Asia ; The Continuing Crisis; The Running-Dogs of Reaction

Posted at November 16, 2003 15:54 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth