Sunday, December 16, 2007

American Principles, Ideals of Convenience, and Conservative Disregard for Human Rights

It frequently strikes me as peculiar that people seldom discuss the fact that, though conservatives frequently wave the flag, proclaim their undying love for America, and deride those of us who sometimes criticize the country, they themselves seem to have only fairly spotty allegiance to American values. In particular, America considers itself to be the defender of the weak. When, for example, we think with pride about our role in WWII, we primarily think of ourselves as having triumphed over evil, not merely as having protected ourselves from danger. But in my lifetime conservatives have consistently argued against using American might and money to help the underdog. "We can't be the world's policeman" was the rejoinder whenever liberals wanted to use our military to help the helpless. They don't even have any oil was, for example, Tom DeLay's response to Clinton's push to stop the slaughter in Yugoslavia.

Although conservatives do invoke human rights in matters of international affairs, they only do so when they have some ulterior motive for using force. Iraq is, obviously, the most salient example here. Appeals to human rights were, of course, an afterthought, and only achieved prominence after it became absolutely undeniable that there was neither any link to al Qaeda nor any WMDs. Now conservatives piously intone the mantra of moral obligation, democracy, and human rights...but this is all post facto rationalization for a strategic calamity. Imagine what would have happened if, for example, Saddam had renounced WMDs, turned himself into an ally of the U.S., and yet continued to oppress his people. Now imagine that liberals had suggested invading for moral reasons. If ten percent of conservatives endorsed such a plan, I would be astonished.

We can actually test the suggestion above in a way, given that conservatives actually went beyond not supporting an invasion of such an imagined Iraq--they actually supported long as he was our ally, of course. When he was on our side, we gave him weapons despite his brutality; when he was no longer on our side, suddenly his brutality was not only wrong, but intolerable according to conservatives. That conservative attitudes toward Saddam changed in the way that they did shows that conservatives were motivated not by the brutality--which stayed constant--but by what they though was in our interest--which changed.

Which brings us to yet another relevant point: conservatives have, over the course of my lifetime, exhibited a willingness (in fact, something very much more like an
eagerness) to support even the most brutal dictators, so long as there was some even some distant possibility that this would be in our narrow national interest. That is: conservatives have been willing to pay even very high costs in blood--other people's blood--to secure even the most inconsequential possible advantage for the U.S. Life and liberty are cheap, so long as they are the life and liberty of others.

When someone professes to value A, but, in fact, he pursues A only when B is present...and, in fact, pursues A only when B is present...and, in fact, pursues B even when A is not present...well, only a fool will believe his profession. Actions speak louder than words. When liberals suggest using our power to do good, they are derided as idealistic fools. Conservatives themselves do often appeal to human rights--but only as a stalking horse. Their real goal is always something else. (And, as we've seen in Iraq, this something else need not even be in our national interest. Something in the ideological interest and fantasies of conservatives will do.)

We see this pattern playing out again now with regard to Russia. When the USSR was a serious military threat to the U.S., we heard much about the evils of the evil empire. And, though the evil empire was, in fact, evil, even casual observers had to wonder whether it was the evilness of the empire that really worried conservatives--or, rather, the fact that it was a threat to us. Now that Russia is no longer a threat, conservatives seem ostentatiously unconcerned about the fact that Putin is a brutal autocrat. (Something our president failed to detect when he looked into his soul.)

Here's a prediction: if Russia again begins to seem like a threat to us, we'll start to hear from conservatives about the problems of human rights in Russia, and about the evils of autocracy.

This merely instrumental use of appeals to human rights is cynical and despicable. And it is one of the many things that keeps most of us who genuinely care about human rights, and who believe that America should, in actual fact, be a force for good in the world, from identifying with conservatism.


Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

That intervention requires both that we be right and be in the national interest seems a reasonable position.

Now, for the record, the GOP historically has been the party of the both the isolationists and the warmongers. Big tent, so you can get them coming or going.

Clinton's Kosovo seems to be a Kantian thing, where intervention is only OK if it's right but disconnected from the national interest. Philosophically defensible, but perhaps not the best way to pursue a politics.

But there was plenty of chatter, even against Clinton, from the left over the years that the US should not be the world's policeman. [Tom Harkin used that term against the First Gulf War, for instance.] The sentiment isn't necessarily red or blue.

And of course the neo-cons came in and turned it all purple, the PNAC closing the circle with liberal idealist Woodrow Wilson and being quite comfortable with the role of world's policeman.

It's more a shifting spectrum than a turkey shoot.

3:33 PM  
Blogger lovable liberal said...

Taking a tangent here for the sheer entertainment of it...

Go see this post on the Inverse Square blog. I think you'll enjoy it.

10:48 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

This inspires me. I'm considering getting rid of my real name and christening [interesting etymology, that] myself likable leftist.

Then, should I deviate howsoever from the focus of the original post, it's not only permissible, but seen as even charming, not trollish, and would pass without outrage, notice or comment.

3:17 AM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...

On the not-totaly-unrelated topic of "American Principles, Ideals of Convenience, and Conservative Disregard for Civil Rights", let me note that the Senior Senator from Connecticut has managed to get the FISA bill pulled until January!

With a lot of work and a little luck, we may yet prevent the Telcoms from getting retroactive immunity for breaking the laws of our nation.

Karent Tumulty of Time blogs:
Dodd's campaign at 5:59 p.m. sent out an e-mail update with this subject line:


At 6:05 p.m., it sent out a corrected e-mail with this subject line:


I happen to think that the first statement was the more accurate one.

5:43 AM  
Blogger lovable liberal said...

TVD, a sock puppet might do you more good than what you've been trying so far. However, may I suggest compassionate conservative as your new handle? That one's not getting much use these days, and it beats the heck out of blessed Bushist.

Aside to jimbales - you could meet the proprietor of inversesquare. He's in building 14.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

jb: I KNOW! Was gonna post on it.

ll: The Kant thing is all over the philososphere. Pretty funny.

8:54 AM  

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