I recently submitted an essay in my academic life on the topic of the imperialism of ‘humanitarian’ intervention.
Unfortunately, my paper’s length went way over the maximum page allottance, so I had to cut out this section which critiques an absolutely incoherent attack on MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky from a paper published in 2003 by LSE professor, and part time professional red-baiter, Chris Brown.
Normally, I don’t let these sort of conservative anti-Chomsky attacks anger up the blood so much when I encounter them on the internet, but this sort of argument bothers me immensely when the author is able to get his or her work accepted by a peer-reviewed academic publication when even the most basic standards of decency show that this work is both fallacious and an ad hominem against another academic.
Thus, I have decided to reproduce selected quotes from this paper by Chris Brown along with my critiques of each quote. I must apologize in advance for the lack of footnotes or endnotes because for some reason WordPress strips them out (although if anybody would like the specific citations I use, you can feel free to ask and I’d be happy to give them).
The work being critiqued is:
Brown, Chris. ‘Selective Humanitarianism: In Defence of Inconsistency.’ In Ethics and Foreign Intervention. Edited by Chatterjee, D.; Scheid, D. Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 31-50.
At the outset of his work, Brown writes that:
“[A] second preliminary point that needs to be acknowledged is that many of those who charge the interveners with inconsistency actually have agendas of their own which are unconnected to this issue. Chomsky, for example, clearly would oppose any exercise of power by what he regards as the American Empire, and the charge of inconsistency is for the most part a rhetorical device designed to appeal to those who, while not accepting his wholesale critique of American society, are, nonetheless, concerned by the way in which American power is sometimes deployed.”
It is important to emphasize here that insinuating that one ought to discredit those who charge American ‘interveners’ with inconsistency (ex. intervening in Iraq for ‘humanitarian’ reasons whilst assisting in the US-sponsored Ethiopian invasion of Somolia currently underway or ignoring the crisis in the Darfur region of the Sudan) based on the existence of putative “agendas” is fallacious in three ways: firstly, it constitutes an ad hominem attack on the character of the author in question based on political beliefs without consideration of the merit of the argument presented. Secondly, it assumes that it is merely Chomsky et al. who have ‘agendas’ when it could just as easily be said of Brown’s work that it is no more and no less animated by ‘agendas’ (i.e. an anti-Chomsky ‘agenda’ or a pro-Wilsonian interventionist ‘agenda’ et cetera), than could be found in Chomsky’s work. Thirdly, the word ‘agenda’ itself is a weasel word intended to connote nefariousness or duplicity and thus is not suitable for academic discourse.
Brown goes on to offer a moral explanation or defense of inconsistency in US intervention policy. This argument states that:
“There is one possible answer to this question that would preserve the notion that the interveners where behaving consistently in accordance with some moral rule, and not simply selecting the case where they would intervene on the basis of non-moral criteria. Very crudely, it might be held that this particular case was chosen because it represented the most serious current violation of human rights or the situation where the most serious humanitarian disaster would follow from inaction — but this is, indeed, rather too crude because it ignores altogether issues of practicality. Better would be some notion of ‘triage’; thus, one might divide the world’s trouble spots into three categories — those where the difficulties are sufficiently minor such that forcible intervention would most likely always do more harm than good; those where the difficulties are of such magnitude that action would almost certainly be ineffective, either because of the scale of the problem (as, perhaps, with civil wars in the Congo) or because they are caused by states who have the power to turn any external military intervention into a full-scale war (as with Chinese depredations in Tibet, or Russian in Chechnya). [emphasis added]”
This argument is both morally coherent and extremely important. Indeed, if this formulation were true, and if the United States’ inconsistent interventionism was motivated along the same lines as ‘triage’ then not only would this justify inconsistency in humanitarian intervention, but it would actually go much further and make it so that it would be immoral for the U.S. not to behave inconsistently. If, in a ‘triage’ situation, you frivolously waste the limited medical resources available on just any patient, then you potentially cause significantly more suffering and fatalities than if you limited your attention to the cases where the limited resources can be of most benefit.
This formulation is also relatively simple to test. If it is true that a humanitarian ethics of ‘triage’ and efficacy is what animates the U.S.’s decision to intervene in a given crisis and not another, then there would be two factors which could explain specious arbitrariness both of which fall under Brown’s moral rubric of ‘triage’: First would be the scale of disaster, the second would be ease of remedy. So, if Brown’s ‘triage’ model holds up, one would expect that U.S. intervention to end human rights violations are avoided in situations which are likely escalate into a full-scale war against another hegemon such as China or Russia, and one would expect the actual cases of intervention to have occurred in situations which are easier to remedy and with less threat of an expansion of hostilities.
This ‘Ease of remedy’ notion — central to any ‘triage situation’ — can be interpreted in many different ways. It can have several factors, for instance:
-Geographic location (is the nation close to other co-operative allies?)
-Does there exist a definitive and coherent polis or political community that is being crushed by oppressors which, if left on its own, could establish itself as a viable state under international law’s so-called “principle of effectiveness”?
A cursory overview of the long history of U.S. interventionism clearly demonstrates that U.S. foreign action is not animated by any notion of ‘triage’.
Case studies to this effect:
#1) The U.S. decided to intervene in Kosovo despite massive Russian and Chinese opposition and eventual Russian land-based counter-intervention, thus greatly risking confrontation with at least one other major global hegemon.
#2) The U.S. decided to intervene in Panama at the dawn of the 20th Century and sever it from Columbian control, thus artificially creating a polis which did not exist previously and which was most certainly neither coherent nor viable under the ‘principle of effectiveness’. Indeed the evidence for this utter lack of its viability rests in the necessary presence of foreign (U.S.) battleships at port in Panama City for the declaration of independence and the outright mention of the United States as a protector and ally of Panama in state’s the new constitution — which, to my knowledge, is the only time ever in history that third party country other than victor and the country being declared independence from, is actually mentioned in such documentation.
#1) The U.S. chose not to intervene in Indonesia’s slaughter of the East Timorians which, between 1977 and 78 alone (although the oppression continued on into the 80s and for a majority of 90s as well), resulted in at least 200,000 dead, despite the extreme proximity of key U.S. ally Australia. Moreover, East Timor, by every account, meets the second criteria of a definitive and coherent polis which could achieve viability if left on its own.
#2) The U.S. chose not to intervene in the Kurdish regions of Turkey during their oppression, despite the extreme proximity of key U.S. allies Israel and Greece and the remarkable linguistic and social cohesiveness (not to mention territorially cohesive and contiguous) of the Kurdish regions. Moreover, on this subject, Miller writes that:
“In Turkey, in the fifteen years prior to the bombing of Serbia, the death toll of a conflict over Kurdish autonomy and suppression of minimal expressions of Kurdish identity (including Kurdish names and cassettes with Kuridish songs, much less Kurdish-language schools), was 35,000, according to a Human Rights Watch estimate…. in the southeast there are 2 million people left homeless. The previous year, the UN Committee on Torture endorsed an Amnesty International allegation of widespread and systematic use of torture.”
Lastly, in both of these two aforementioned cases it wasn’t just that the U.S. callously gave a proverbial triage RTS (Revised Trauma Score) score of zero to the East Timorese and Kurds of Turkey. The final blow to the ‘triage’ model is that during both of these crises, the U.S. actively engaged in assisting Turkey and Indonesia before, during and after the human rights violations in question.
Brown later goes on to give the most logically incoherent portion of his work when he poses the question:
“If to behave morally it is necessary to follow a non-arbitrary moral rule, then humanitarian interventions appear not to fit the bill — such is the charge made by critics to the evident discomfiture of supporters…. [But] is it always and necessarily wrong to be inconsistent or arbitrary in applying a moral principle?”
The context of this exerpt is extensive, but in this section, Brown is (correctly) making the argument that his critics hold the belief which, expressed using formal logic symbolism, would hold that:
moral behaviour → consistent behaviour
(“if moral behaviour then it must be consistent behaviour”)
However, Brown takes this logical formulation and attempts to deconstruct it by showing examples of inconsistency in US and UK tobacco, alcohol, drug and cannabis policy as a akin to US humanitarian interventionist policy. Thus, what he is attempting to demonstrate using the example of US and UK policy in this area is:
(¬ consistent behaviour ≠ ¬ moral behaviour) → opponents’ argument is flawed
(“if not consistent behaviour does not equal not moral behaviour, then the arguments of his opponents is flawed”)
However, the error Brown makes is that he assumes that ¬ moral behaviour = immoral behaviour in the same way that ¬ consistent behaviour = inconsistent behaviour.
In actuality, ‘not’ moral behaviour does not equal immoral behaviour since behaviour is not dichotomously moral or immoral. There are any number of examples wherein a person can behave inconsistently and still be neither moral or immoral. For instance, if, on the vast majority of days, I prefer to have sugar instead of sweetener in my coffee, my inconsistency one morning in asking for sweetener in my coffee is certainly, as demonstrated mathematically above, not moral behaviour, but it is also obviously also not immoral behaviour. My decision here would have been a pragmatic one — perhaps sweetener is less appetising, but also irritates my stomach less than real sugar — and thus was completely outside the dichotomy of moral and immoral behaviour.
Thus, what is clear is that inconsistent behaviour can be ‘not moral’ or outside of the realm of morality — which would fit within the formulation of Brown’s opponents. But inconsistent behaviour cannot be moral behaviour unless this inconsistency is itself morally justifiable. And, as the example of Brown’s ‘triage’ model demonstrates, Brown’s attempt to moralize the inconsistency of U.S. intervention simply does not coincide with reality.