Letters to the Editor
Letters from Democracy readers.
Rules of the Game
Charles Kupchan and Adam Mount should be applauded for acknowledging that the Western model of democratic capitalism and liberal internationalism is no longer the only game in town [“The Autonomy Rule,” Issue #12]. But despite the authors’ sober-eyed analysis of the current state of international politics, their prescriptions fall prey to precisely the type of wishful thinking that they try to avoid.
Their first error is in presupposing that rising powers need or seek America’s permission to exert influence in international affairs. The authors urge U.S. policymakers to “make room for the competing visions of rising powers,” as if America has a choice in the matter. The fact is that there are new and burgeoning sources of norm-building and rule-making in the non-Western world–such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the China-Africa Cooperation Forum–over which the United States has little or no influence.
The authors further conclude that American recognition of non-Western powers would somehow erase the serious and significant disagreements among leading countries about how the world ought to be governed. They write that, “Having affirmed the rights of all responsible states, Washington would be more likely to enjoy the backing of many of the world’s states” in confronting rogue and predatory regimes. There is simply no evidence for this claim.
The real choice facing American policymakers is far more insidious than Kupchan and Mount are willing to admit: Namely, should the United States confront rising powers, or is it willing to accept the consequences of handing over authority to illiberal and aliberal regimes? The authors punt on this gut-wrenching decision, and instead offer a version of liberal internationalism-lite, in which building a bigger tent will necessarily lead to an assimilation of multilateral goals with respect to issues such as genocide, weapons proliferation, and trade. This expectation is naïve at best.
War Over the War
It is a pity that Spencer Ackerman [“Passing on Petraeus,” Issue #12] wraps his writing in a cloud of invective, like a retreating squid shooting ink. Ackerman seems to argue that because Iraqis don’t want to be occupied (a point no one is debating), the shift in Iraq strategy was not… not what? Effective? Morally correct? It is hard to claim that we are not leaving Iraq today more stable, and with a greater chance of success, than if we had left in the midst of the killing fields of 2005.
On morality: Ackerman argues, basically, that the surge was wrong because the war was wrong. I believe the war in Iraq was like the proverbial bull in the china shop. The question we are discussing is not whether to have unleashed that bull, but what to do once it has run amok. Ackerman seems to think the correct response is to survey the damage and say, “Oh dear, horribly sorry, we’ll be going now.” It strikes me as more ethical to grab a broom and help with the clean up.
However, Ackerman’s repeated use of the word “occupation” points to the larger debate, one well worth having and one that has occurred for hundreds of years over the core values of progressive foreign policy. The left has always encompassed multiple strains of foreign policy thought. Alongside pacifism and realism stands the anti-imperialism Ackerman’s writing alludes to. Anti-imperialists see protecting weak states against the dominance of stronger powers as the great progressive cause. But others, myself included, believe deeply in human rights and see those values as the moral core of progressivism, at home and abroad. And therein lies the conflict.
A gut feeling of standing with the oppressed motivates many on both sides of the debate. But anti-imperialists and human-rights progressives take this feeling in two different directions. When I worked with microcredit NGOs in Uttar Pradesh, I knew I was also peddling an individualistic ethos that disturbed a local culture of debt bondage, in which landlords had enslaved entire villages. When I worked for a Palestinian domestic violence NGO in Nazareth, I was interfering with an aspect of local culture: fathers trying to kill their daughters for supposed breaches of honor. In both cases, I saw that dominant powers within the “south” can be just as oppressive as any power the U.S. holds over weaker countries. But I also believe that the values I was promoting–individual autonomy, gender equality–took the trump.
There is worth to the anti-imperialist argument. We should always think hard about the unintended consequences of cultural arrogance and power. That is why issues like human rights and democracy are best approached by supporting individuals within their own countries, not imposing ourselves from outside. At the same time, progressive foreign policy should not be hostage to abstractions. We should always be pragmatic in asking which policy would improve the dignity, hopes, and dreams of real people. Until I see anti-imperialists as upset about the African-on-African killings in the Congo as they are about U.S.-inflicted civilian casualties in Iraq, or as angry about Thai lumber contracts with Burma as they are about Haliburton contracts with the Department of Defense, I will continue to believe that they value bashing the West more than they value protecting real human lives.
Truman National Security Project
I was excited when I saw Jim Kessler writing about the need for “a new justice system that turns criminals into productive citizens” [“Making Crime Pay,” Issue #12]. Unfortunately, his article commits the same offenses of exaggeration and bad logic that have characterized the last 30 years of bungled crime policy.
Kessler’s basic premise–that we should prepare for a crime wave catalyzed by the declining economy and record releases of prisoners–fails to specify what kind of crime we should expect. It does little good to talk about the ups and downs of “crime,” since our understanding of crime changes constantly vis-à-vis laws, enforcement, cultural attitudes, and dozen other factors. Does he mean the drug crimes that have filled up our jails? White-collar financial crimes? Everyday fraud? Violent crime?
Some of Kessler’s wobbly predictions have been floated and debunked before. His suggestion that an increase in the number of Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 will also spur more crime sounds a lot like John DiIulio’s warnings about adolescent “superpredators” as juveniles left detention facilities in the 1990s. The “superpredators” never materialized.
Kessler’s notion that an increase in prisoner releases will fuel his “perfect storm” of crime also lacks factual support. The number of prisoners released from state and federal prisons has steadily risen over the last several decades, as has the general prison population. But crime rates have gone up and down. Kessler also doesn’t explain why these soon-to-be-released prisoners pose a threat. If they represent a demographic of natural-born bad guys, where were their predecessors in previous decades of lower crime rates and lower incarceration rates?
Even though Kessler talks about the need for a “new mindset” and “prevention,” his focus is on regular old law and order, spending more money on police, and prisons. He laments the declining federal commitment to “crime fighting,” and the lack of political will to fund law enforcement. He wants to increase prison labor, which is hardly a new idea, and “re-imagine parole,” though he doesn’t explain what that means. He asks for increased enforcement of crimes against illegal immigrants without quantifying whether those crimes have gone up or down. Even though he writes about “reconnecting the criminal justice and penal systems to society at large by creating better mechanisms for reintegrating ex-cons,” he ignores the important new research and political energy aimed at improving re-entry.
We must also look at who is sounding the loudest alarm about the coming crime wave. Kessler cites a “chorus of criminologists, mayors, and police chiefs.” He’s wrong about the criminologists, who have been largely cautious about predictions. But he’s right about the politicians and law enforcement groups, who have plenty to gain by making a stand on crime.
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