Cole On Knowing His Own History And

Cole on Knowing his Own History; and Isaiah Berlin

I don’t usually bother to reply at any length to my Neocon critics. Mostly this is because they are simply insincere, and say what they say maliciously and in knowledge of its falsehood. In some instances they have quite unethically subjected their opponents to harassment of a sort that is illegal in some states. They are purely political beasts, for whom all statements are instrumental, and therefore they can never engage in useful dialogue.

What Neocon has come out and said, “Ooops, we were wrong. The road to peace in Israel/ Palestine did not lie through Baghdad, as we kept telling everyone in 2002. Iraq did not pose a dire threat to Israel with its WMD in 2002. Iraq was not 2-5 years from having a nuclear weapon. The Iraqis didn’t welcome us with garlands. Baghdad isn’t going to recognize Israel and there isn’t going to be an oil pipeline from Iraq to Haifa. We did not realize that most Iraqi Shiites had turned to religious Muslim parties, several of them little different from Lebanon’s Hizbullah. We did not realize that the Iraqi Sunni Arabs would and could wage a years-long guerrilla war that had the potential for destabilizing the entire Middle East.” Virtually everything these people said was wrong, but none of them has owned up to it. They believe that the best defense is a good offense, so their response to their miserable failure as policy wonks is to systematically harass and hound historians at Columbia University, for all the world like offended Scientologists.

These people should read less Jabotinsky and Strauss and more Isaiah Berlin. Berlin made the key point that most ethical and social philosophers had assumed that a person could simultaneously pursue two virtues. That is, let us say that both beauty and truth are goods and we want them both. Berlin is saying that in the real world, there are situations in which you can only have the one or the other. The truth is ugly, and the prettied up beautiful story is false. So then you have to decide, do you want the truth? Or do you want beauty?

In the run-up to the Iraq War, I had two values. One was justice I believed that the Saddam regime was genocidal and that the international community had a responsibility for doing something about it. That is why I said that removing Saddam would be a noble enterprise. In and of itself, it was, and I stand by that.

But the other value is the rule of law. The United States is signatory to the UN charter, and can’t just get up in the morning and decide to go about invading other countries. I all along maintained that an Iraq war would be legitimate only if there were a UN Security Council resolution authorizing it.

Up until early March of 2003, I was not forced to choose between Justice and the Rule of Law because it appeared entirely plausible that the UNSC would pass a resolution authorizing the war, or that a majority, at least, would vote for it. It was during that period that I said I could not bring myself to protest the building war. It was because I knew Saddam’s mass murders, and thought there was still a chance that he could be removed within the framework of international law.

When the UNSC declined to do either, very late in the game, it became apparent that I could have either justice or the rule of law. At that point I chose the rule of law. I did not see the invasion, the war, or the subsequent occupation as legitimate.

Just because I chose the rule of law over justice, however, does not mean that justice as a consideration had evaporated. The US troops who gave their lives to depose Saddam and free Iraqis from his yoke were helping achieve justice, which any Kurd or Shiite in Iraq will tell you. I stand by that, and I assure every grieving parent who has lost a child in the Iraq war that it was a meaningful sacrifice, because the Baath system was monstrous. But this achievement was deeply flawed (and may yet be undone) because it was done illegally.

Bush’s turn to illegal aggression contained the seeds of the failure of his Iraq policy. If he had remained within international law, he would have either had to give up the invasion or he would have gone in with the full support the international community, which would have given him the kind of troop strength and administrative expertise that might have made a success of it all.

The Neocons cannot for the most part imagine such a thing as a fraught internal debate over ethics on the part of the individual. This because they are mostly, quite frankly, sleazeballs.

Isaiah Berlin knew that we often cannot have it all. We have to choose among virtues. We have to decide which one trumps the other. These can be fraught decisions. And that is why I do not fault those who chose justice over the rule of law among the liberal hawks like Ignatieff and Friedman.

The response to this posting on the part of my critics will just be more propaganda, more carping, more cheap shots, more obfuscation.

But for some perspective, check out this future timeline. Look especially at what happens 2 to 6 billion years out. Most problems won’t seem so big in that light.

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