Friday, January 26, 2007

Liberal-hating Liberal disease?

The great pundit-god Yglesias observes:
[I]n today's offering [Thomas Friedman] is still playing what Greg Sargent has dubbed the "conditional shuffle" responding to Bush's proposals by listing scenarios under which he could support them rather than facing the reality that Bush isn't going to do any of these things. The trouble, obviously, is that were Friedman to acknowledge that Bush won't, say, hold a regional peace conference, he'd have to admit that the right thing to do in Iraq is withdraw.

And, of course, once you don the Moustache of Understanding you'll realize that in order to be a Serious Person it's important that you never agree with liberals.

It's easy for me - as a liberal on foreign policy - to believe that Friedman is undergoing these contortions because he is emotionally averse to adopting the left-wing opinion on matters of foreign policy but surely people who don't hold my left-wing foreign policy position won't find this kind of explanation terribly compelling. I'm curious how they explain this kind of rhetorical two-stepping on the part of Friedman.


Aaron said...

Wait, since when do doves have a monopoly on being called "liberals"?

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I never said they did. There does however, seems to be enough agreement among self-identified liberals on redeployment of some kind that it seems fair to me to describe this position as the "liberal" one.

Similarly, the liberal position on abortion is the pro-choice one though not every single liberal agrees on that.

If it bothers you that so many liberals believe redeployment is the best option perhaps you should marshal some arguments in favor of another course.

Aaron said...

Well, I guess I'm more wondering what/who the liberal oracle is that decides which positions on various issues are the "liberal" ones -- and, more importantly, why there can't reasonably be more than one "liberal" position on important matters. The exact strength of liberalism, after all, is that it's not a monolithic doctrine. Working backwards from the most popular position of the moment seems like an awfully Andrew Jackson-esque way to manage the philosophies of your movement.

Paul said...

I think the "exact strength" of liberalism is, or ought to be, its actual rightness, not its pluralism. If we're measuring the merits of an ideology in terms of the diversity of viewpoints it can accommodate, the strongest one quickly ceases to be an ideology at all.

In reality, I doubt that liberal ideology actually says much about Iraq, it's just that, as Tom said, liberals tend to feel a certain way about things. What's important for Friedman, at the same time, seems to be disagreeing with liberals. Which is what Tom said. Not liberalism, mind you, liberals.

Aaron said...

Well, saying that a particular ideology's biggest strength is in its diversity of opinion is not the same thing as saying that said ideology should necessarily accommodate every possible viewpoint on everything. Nor do I think that "rightness" is a particularly useful category to apply to ideologies in general. Most aspire (or at least pretend) to accuracy; again a monolithic fixation on being right usually leads people to value purity over diversity, which presents problems all its own.

Aaron said...

seriously guys, just google "liberalism first principles"

Paul said...

But what is supposed to be the virtue of accommodating a diversity of viewpoints as such? How is that a strength of any sort beyond being politically convenient?

As for the Google search, it's entirely unclear what we are supposed to take from it. It might be helpful if you spell these things out, instead of just taking it for granted that Google will persuade us.

Paul said...

I guess I can take a shot in the dark and talk about the Rawls results you get in the Google search, though I don't know that's what you mean. In terms of Political Liberalism, that book is awfully uninfluential, and in any case, you have to distinguish between an ideology covering a wide range of differing viewpoints and an ideology maintaining that the institutions of society ought not to discriminate against people who hold differing views. A good liberal might maintain that people be legally allowed to hold racist views without wanting to grant that racist views are part of liberal ideology.

diego said...

Paul is right, and his last post highlights the difference between the liberal political philosophical tradition and the set of people called "liberals" in the US. The philosophical discourse, like all others, encompasses different conceptions. But they all basically agree that 1) people by nature desire freedom 2) optimal societies are ones that minimize the constraints on that natural/innate/intrinsic/(whatever) characteristic. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a pretty good discussion about this.

The more or less peaceful mediation between the different wishes of free people is the central internal function that democratic institutions are designed to perform.

Anyway, this should be distinguished between the positive goals of liberals in the US, many of who could be accurately identified as having statistically probable liberal viewpoints despite not knowing anything at all about Locke, Rousseau or Berlin.

But this isn't what Tommasso meant to get into. Having done a little journalism, I think that Friedman isn't trying to be cool or appear tough when he takes non-liberal positions in Mideast defense debates. Its seems that his contacts in the region tend to be with pretty well-educated and or successful people - the regional bourgeoisie, if you will (don't spazz-out. I'm no Communist. just think that's a useful concept). His upper-strata contacts are probably what lead him to believe that there's material in the region for smart, virtuous leadership - defined, it goes without saying, as leadership that promotes and perpetuates the values of those people, which can be pretty consistent across cultures.

That's fine. However, it might prevent him from fully appreciating the formidability of the other sentiments, actors and movements in the region – which elections in the region are showing to be quite strong. It seems to me that the ultimate irony of the democratic electoral solution to the problems that the regional transformation school perceives exist in the region is that a liberalist apparatus is giving illiberal and/or unfriendly outputs.

However, an argument could be made that provided partly that apparatus survives and becomes entrenched, it will eventually begin to give more palatable outputs.

Aaron said...

Actually the article that I was hoping that you guys would find was this one; I can't testify to anything about Rawls, who I haven't read.

My only point is that values often compete and that there is an axis on which ideologies tend operate: purity vs. diversity. To take this back home, when Tom refers to the liberal position on something (and then uses only demographic data to back that up), it makes me wary because it suggests a vision of liberalism heavily skewed towards purity: that there is an ideal, platonic version of liberal belief out there and that all deviations are heretic. Liberals believe in some basic fundamental tenets and have a relatively (but not infinitely) diverse set of policy beliefs that result; that's to our credit, I believe, because it avoids a Bush-like scenario where you put all of your intellectual eggs in one basket. I'm somewhat surprised that this point is so controversial.

And ultimately as far as Friedman goes, I don't think that his columns or his books really provide a great deal of evidence that he disagrees with liberals just for the sake of disagreement; you'd have a much easier time making that charge stick against, say, Hitchens or Brooks. Sometimes policy disagreements are in fact genuine.

Paul said...

It's only controversial because you said it was liberalism's biggest strength. I find it odd that anybody would deny that a belief system's biggest strength is the extent to which it matches up with reality. Otherwise, what's the point of holding those beliefs in the first place?

Of course, good liberal ideology will take into account the fact of reasonable pluralism - I don't think that's controversial. It also wasn't your initial claim.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

It seems we have two separate issues.

1. The first issue concerns Friedman. Friedman seems to have accepted a certain set of beliefs about how screwed we are in Iraq. Unlike, yourself, Friedman seems to believe that it's not worth staying in Iraq unless we do X,Y, and Z. The vast majority of people who hold these beliefs take them and the fact that Bush isn't going to do X,Y and Z and conclude that we should oppose continuing the war. Friedman doesn't. To me it seems clear that he is prevented from drawing conclusions because he has lib-hating lib disease. I'm curious what people who *don't* agree with me and Friedman think.

2. The second issue concerns my use of the phrase "liberal position". I could have just as easily have said "the position most liberals hold" and avoided this whole side-quest. Still, I don't think using the word "liberal position" is the same as a litmus test.

This seems to be a reoccurring issue with us, Aaron. If I recall correctly, you had similar fears of torch-wielding crowds leading ideological purges during the primary election in Connecticut. I hope that I have never given you reason to believe that I don't consider you a liberal even though you often apply the same liberal principals I hold to reach positions I disagree with.

You're just going to have to believe me. So instead of pouncing on every phrase which could be interpreted negatively wait till I say something which clearly contradicts the position I stated above: you can still be a liberal without agreeing with the majority on every issue.

Aaron said...

Well, Tom, to be fair, your second comment did a lot to promote this side-quest, which I think has actually been pretty fruitful. And my fear regarding Lieberman wasn't Connecticuters with pitchforks, it was the stupidity of pushing somebody out of the party for ideological differences on one (albeit important, but hardly all-encompassing) issue -- of purity utterly dominating diversity, in other words. That seemed (and still seems), well, illiberal.

And, Paul, I feel that you've got the equation somewhat backwards: one values ideology (or at least I do) because it provides an effective means for approaching truth, not because it has truth -- which is slippery and oftentimes relative -- hard-wired into it.

Aaron said...

Also, does Friedman really say that we shouldn't stay in Iraq unless we do certain things? My understanding was that his position was basically that we should in fact stay in Iraq because the alternative would be worse.

But even if you're right, it's not at all clear to me that a man who pitches every sentence that he writes directly at liberals is taking a position out of animosity rather than, say, confusion.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I'm not knocking the side-quest buddy. That's my favorite part of final fantasy. I just wanted to separate the two issues.

As for ideological purity, when most people see a politician voted out of office because (s)he holds a position which is out of step with their constituents they call that "democracy" and not "illiberal".

Aaron said...

Right and that's clearly what happened with Lieberman ;)

Paul said...

When I have a belief that X, that just amounts to me thinking that X is the case. I don't know what it means to say that ideology is a means for approaching truth.

Aaron said...

Roughly the difference between the words "outlook" and "religion".

Aaron said...

Or, if you prefer, the difference between approaching something with a set of principles vs. a set of foregone conclusions.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I should really watch my language around you. How about this:

As for ideological purity, when most people see people working to defeat a politician for holding a position which is out of step with their constituents they call that "democracy" and not "illiberal".

Even if they fail that doesn't validate the smear of illiberalism.

Paul said...

Well, sure, outlooks beat religions hands down. But if I've got a set of (moral) principles that constitute my outlook, I believe they match up with (moral) facts about the world. Ideally, I'm less uncritical of those principles than I would be if they constituted my religion, but I still evaluate them on the basis of their truth.

Aaron said...

Tom, if you look at the election results in Connecticut, Lieberman ended up beating Lamont by about 10% despite being flanked on the right by a Republican candidate that took another 9% or so of the vote. However Lieberman's constituents felt about Iraq, they clearly felt that he was representational enough of their views to warrent reelection by a fairly handsome margin. That's also how democracy works. My complaint certainly isn't with the primary process, it's when interest groups try to sabotage candidates on narrow-minded ideological grounds while -- and here's an important qualifier -- also purporting to speak for the party as a whole. And furthermore, nobody's questioning the legal right to do this, but that doesn't mean that it's not also kind of ugly for the reasons that I've already described.

And Paul, all that I'm saying is that, in my opinion, the greatest strengths of liberalism is the diversity of opinion that results from essentially common moral ground; that diversity, in turn, makes liberalism an unusually flexible ideological framework.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Aaron, the fact that Lieberman won the election doesn't mean it was *illiberal* to oppose him in the first place. You can certainly say it was strategically a bad move, but saying it's *illiberal* is just a slur. That kind of thing should really be beneath you.

Thinker said...

Aaron wrote, However Lieberman's constituents felt about Iraq, they clearly felt that he was representational enough of their views to warrent reelection by a fairly handsome margin.

According to the CNN exit poll (, 27% of self-identified liberals voted for Lieberman, while 66% of self-identified conservatives did so. Do you really believe that the overwhelming vote of conservatives for Lieberman means that they felt that he represented their views on things other than Iraq? If so, it seems to me that Lieberman is not the liberal people think him to be. If not, conservatives must have supported him for another reason. What might that be?

Aaron said...

Tom, listen to yourself. I'm not saying that opposition to Lieberman -- or to any candidate -- is illiberal. I'm saying that there's something deeply ugly about the attempt of (ill-defined) special interests representing one singular viewpoint to claim that it so totally represents a party that it has the license to punish deviation with exile from said party. You can dress that up as "the democratic process" all you want, but it's not like the Kos people were supporting Lamont on his merits, of which there were few.

Thinker, a better question is: with an honest-to-god Republican in the race as well (and nobody of any real consequence to Lamont's left), how is it possible that Lieberman won such by large margins? It suggests either that Connecticut isn't as wildly liberal as the Kos people were presenting it as, enough liberals thought that Iraq wasn't a deciding issue and that Lieberman did represent them, that Lamont was a lousy candidate or some combination of the above, possibly all.

Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron said...

I mean, let me put this another way: when the NRA dumps truckloads of money on crappy conservative candidates in order to punish other politicians for deviation from their party line, that's "the democratic process," too and it's 100% legal. It's also repulsive and perverse -- although at least the NRA doesn't have the stupidity and the ugliness to claim to be representing the entire Republican party when it does so.

Diego said...

I spoke too soon. I hadn’t read “Running on Empty” before posting, and responded to what I presumed was defense of the overarching Bush Iraq plan.

I agree with Aaron and think that Friedman is better understood not as rejecting the typical liberal position on Iraq not out of some kind of ideological self-hatred but as a genuine policy difference with the liberal mainstream. I agree with Friedman that holding a regional conference could be hugely beneficial, and it disappoints me greatly that what seems to be keeping the administration from attempting to form one is its fear of losing face. But I might be wrong about this last bit. I’m curious to hear what others think might be the reason/s.

On a different note, I have yet to see a detailed discussion of what the negative ramifications might be of withdrawal. Obviously, there is the risk of the current sectarian schism expanding. But could this hypothetical be articulated in more detail?

Here’s my contribution:

It seems to me that a full-scale war would be out of the question. The Sunni’s don’t have structured military forces resembling an army, whereas the Shiites not only have militias, they are being trained by US forces. While, the forces being trained are multi-sectarian, I imagine that Sunni’s would quickly be marginalized or purged as potential saboteurs in the event of meaningful US withdrawal in the context of continued sectarian conflict. Assuming the newly disenfranchised Sunni’s retained their will to fight, the resulting conflict would look much more like a guerilla or asymmetrical war than a conventional one. In that way, it would not be dissimilar from the current conflict, other than the Shiites would have to do all or most of their own fighting.

Assuming the situation was to unfold this way, I think the incentives for the Shiites to make their behavior palatable to an American audience would drop dramatically if not disappear altogether. In other words, I would expect a huge spike in violence, the result of which would ultimately be roughly a Shiite victory, although it could have different qualities (which can be speculated about).

If the US withdrew, would it take a side in what the consensus seems to be a civil (guerilla war)? Certainly the Shiites wouldn’t technically be dependent on US military support. It would presumably continue to have the Iranian backing it currently enjoys, at least initially. A recent report cited a leading Shiite leader saying that the US could withdraw sooner if it supplied arms more quickly (I didn’t tag this story, but I’ll look for it). I understand this to mean that at least some Shiites are willing to take on the fight they would face on their own. And I’m certain that if they lost US support, Iran would quickly fill the vacuum. This is key incentive for the US to stay the course. Administration rhetoric warns against a civil war, but such a war, in my opinion, would have no uncertain outcome. There are two possibilities I see here, 1) withdraw and support Iraqi Shiites, 3) withdraw and support no one, 4) withdraw and support Sunnis.

The danger the US perceives is of the emergence sooner or later of a Shiite bloc. What would be the danger posed to US interests by such a bloc? Maybe somebody with a little more patience could do the research and math, but it seems it could roughly be quantified, 1) in terms of the energy resources that that bloc would sit above relative to other allied Gulf states (Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, principally), and 2) in terms of the military danger posed by that bloc to those allies as well as Israel.

Tentatively, I do not see any reason for a hypothetical Shiite bloc to have a desire to attack a Sunni state. It would have plenty of resources and the revenues there from. Besides, it would have to contend with the US as their staunch ally, and no state in the region has ever deliberately provoked a fight with the US. Iraq I think is better understood as having under-appreciated US vehemence, particularly after 9/11. The threat to Israel, however, would rise significantly, by the existing proxy means. How should Israel’s welfare relate to other US calculations? In defense of Israel, the US begins to steer away from realpolitik into something more closely resembling idealism (although this can be debated), especially since the end of the Cold War. Clearly, Israel complicates US material interests in the region, as a purely technical matter.

Some problems and questions:

1)Is it reasonable to assume the Shiites would act in unity? What is the likelihood of significant intra-Shiite conflict?
2)Is it reasonable to assume that a Shiite Iraq would form a bloc with Iran?
3)Would the US be willing to side with Shiite Iraq in a civil/guerilla war?
4)Would US material interests be threatened by such a conflict? Would the oil keep flowing? Could the predicted conflict be sustained at a low-intensity?
5)Is there any possibility of the US siding with Iraqi Shiites if it were to withdraw?
6)Is there any indication that events in Iraq are evolving toward reconciliation and a stable unity government? Chalabi, for example, is back from England helping to reintegrate former Baathists.
7) How does the Kurdish north figure into everything?
8) If you had to create death squad made up of pro-war politicians, on which the outcome of the war depended, who would you choose?

Diego said...

The above assumes that a US withdrawal would not involve any meaningful multilateral efforts like the ones suggested in the strategic redeployment (Kautilus/Korb) and withdrawal (Conetta) plans Tommasso submitted, and that global or regional multi-lateral efforts would not otherwise be forthcoming.

Both the RED and WITH plans provide an alarmingly grim picture of the situation on the ground (although the redeployment plan is old) and how US policy actively contributes to it, but I find they have two main flaws. They either don’t seriously address US responses to the potential escalation of the sectarian conflict, and they place over-optimistic hope on some broader, united international intervention or mediation.

My question to Kautilus/Korb and Conetta would be: Given serious US movement toward withdrawal prior to any significant change in the status quo, would Shiite Iraq have more incentive to invite international assistance, or carry forward as an independent sovereign state assured of its ability? I personally believe an attempt at creating the framework for a multilateral diplomatic solution would be smart and necessary, and I would advocate one, although I’m currently trying to think through contingencies without favoring any particular policy.

In a bit of a side note, I don’t think withdrawal would significantly reduce the inducements to extremism, although it would provide more resources to combat extremism (actually, I hate this word extremely, but you get the point). The substantial US military presence in the entire theater of operation (bases in Diego Garcia, Kuwait, Iraq, etc.), our regional alliances and the structures of the societies of some of those allies, and our obviously fundamentally self-serving interests in the region will continue to foster extremism.

In this light, Kautilus/Korb’s insistence on better PR seems silly. And considering the increasing anarchy in the last year and a half, their call for improved reconstruction seems fanciful.