Sunday, September 25, 2011

On the Meaning of Political Support

In the closing pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt notoriously claimed that “politics is not like the nursery; in politics obedience and support are the same” (p. 279). Her point was that whatever Eichmann’s motivations or beliefs might have been ultimately, he had made himself a “willing instrument in the organization of mass murder;” and ethically and legally speaking, that fact was all that mattered. To support a regime (especially a murderous one) could be nothing more and nothing less than to act in whatever way the regime asks you to.

There is something harsh and uncompromising about this view. We often seem to want to distinguish between support and obedience, or at least to excuse some forms of obedience on the grounds that such obedience was not granted willingly or not grounded in genuine support. We might speak of “preference falsification” and attempt to separate overt obedience, given out of fear or lack of options or greed, from the “real” or “baseline” support that would have been given in the absence of ignorance, coercion, peer pressure or other incentives. (I have often written in this way, and find it a useful shorthand for thinking about things like cults of personality). And when we think about questions of responsibility in coercive regimes we sometimes engage in a complicated moral calculus that balances the inculpatory force of actual obedience against the exculpatory force of morally objectionable incentives (partially) underlying that obedience. Here I take it that our usual intuitions indicate that negative incentives for obedience (like threats of violence) are more exculpatory than positive incentives (like jobs or money), and positive incentives are more exculpatory than “intrinsic” preferences. The man who falsely denounces his neighbour on pain of seeing his son put in prison and tortured may do a wrong, but the wrong is partly excused by the threat of violence (perhaps he does the lesser of two evils), whereas the man who denounces his neighbour in exchange for money behaves less excusably (even if he really needs the money), and the man who denounces his neighbour for fun is a simply a monster. (And what about the man who supports a coercive system because he thinks it is the right system? Here our intuitions seem inconsistent, or perhaps depend on what we think about the source of the belief). In other words, we typically believe that obedience gained at gunpoint expresses less “genuine” support than obedience gained by an appeal to material interest, and that the most genuine support is manifested in purely “disinterested” obedience or collaboration.

I want to put aside for a moment the moral questions about responsibility and exculpation, and just focus on whether we can speak about “support” independently of obedience, i.e., about some “real” level of support underlying a person’s obedience to or collaboration with authority. And here I think Arendt was on to something: to ask about “real” motivations in politics is often fruitless, and sometimes positively perverse. The only way to demonstrate support in politics is by obeying, collaborating, or otherwise doing what the group one supports expects of you; the demand for additional proofs of support can only result in socially destructive (if sometimes individually advantageous) signalling games (see here, here, and here for some examples in this blog; Arendt’s favourite example was the destructive politics of purity during the terror in the French revolution). And the inner world of motivation and belief is too obscure (even to the agent) and fragile to survive the light of publicity, as Arendt repeatedly stressed.

More precisely, I am not sure that it makes sense to speak of political support independently of the institutions that condition obedience and collaboration. For purposes of analysis, we can (sometimes) separate out various “inputs” of what we might call the obedience-production function – coercion, monetary incentives, peer pressure and so on – and call the residual “real or genuine support,” a pure preference for collaboration with or obedience to a group or leader. This is basically what you get in Kuran’s classic analysis of preference falsification and its consequences, which I quite like (in fact, I use it constantly); but it is at best a simplification of the complex phenomenology of belief and motivation, especially when coercion and other external “incentives” dominate over whatever “intrinsic” preferences one may care to postulate. For one thing, in environments where coercion and other incentives are large enough, this residual preference is itself likely to be at least partially produced by all the other forces at work and is likely to be quite small in magnitude; and perhaps more importantly, it won’t always make sense to speak of this residual as a “preference” for the leader or the regime (or as a belief in its legitimacy, for that matter).

These ideas came to mind when reading Robert F. Worth’s superb and disturbing NY Times piece on the last days of the Qaddafi regime:

Unlike Benghazi, the old opposition stronghold in eastern Libya where the rebellion began in February, Tripoli had been a relative bastion of support for Qaddafi. Even the bravest dissidents, who risked their lives for years, often posed as smiling backers of Qaddafi and his men. Now the masks were off, but another game of deception was under way. At all the military bases I visited, I found soldiers’ uniforms and boots, torn off in the moments before they had, presumably, slipped on sandals and djellabas and run back home. Even the prisoners I spoke with in makeshift rebel jails had shed their old identities or modified them. “I never fired my gun,” they would say. “I only did it for the money.” “I joined because they lied to me.”

Everyone in Tripoli, it seemed, had been with Qaddafi, at least for show; and now everyone was against him. But where did their loyalty end and their rebellion begin? Sometimes I wondered if the speakers themselves knew. Collectively, they offered an appealing narrative: the city had been liberated from within, not just by NATO’s relentless bombing campaign. For months, Qaddafi’s own officers and henchmen had quietly undermined his war, and ordinary citizens had slowly mustered recruits and weapons for the final battle. In some cases, with a few witnesses and a document or two, their version seemed solid enough. Others, like Mustafa Atiri, had gruesome proof of what they lived through. But many of the people I spoke with lacked those things. They were left with a story; and they were telling it in a giddy new world in which the old rules — the necessary lies, the enforced shell of deference to Qaddafi’s Mad Hatter philosophy — were suddenly gone. It was enough to make anyone feel a little drunk, a little uncertain about who they were and how they got there.

Were these people deceiving themselves or others? Did the soldiers really support Gaddafi in the past but now do not? Do some of these people support Gaddafi still? The question makes less sense to me than it once did. It is clear that they once obeyed Gaddafi and now do not; and that the change from obedience to non-obedience must be explained as a result of a changing configuration of “inputs” to the obedience-production function, so to speak (changing configurations of coercion, monetary incentives, peer pressure, views of the rebels, etc.); but to attempt to determine if, in their heart of hearts, these people supported Gaddafi then (net of all of these forces) and now do not seems slightly absurd. Their obedience and disobedience, support and lack of support are nothing but the vector product of all the forces (threats of coercion, positive incentives, beliefs about Gaddafi, idiosyncratic likes and dislikes, moral convictions, obscure and half-formed ideas about the future, etc.) operating through them. It may make sense to attempt to disentangle these forces if we are interested in legal or moral responsibility, or in the private tragedies of everyday life in Libya, but it does not make sense to me to attempt to figure out if Gaddafi enjoyed some “genuine” level of support (independent of coercion, money, etc.) as a separate explanatory factor.

But didn’t some people love Gaddafi? And doesn’t such love make a difference? (This is basically the old “fear and love” problem). I do not think it makes the explanatory difference it is sometimes thought to make: those with more “love” for Gaddafi were not necessarily those more committed to the defence of his regime, for example. Here is another passage that jumped out at me in the piece (but really, read it all, though some of the stories are quite disturbing):

Of all the former Qaddafi loyalists I spoke with, only one offered a rationale that went beyond money or compulsion. His name was Idris, and he was a handsome 21-year-old medical student with a downy wisp of beard, a pink T-shirt and jeans. Idris (he asked me not to use his full name) talked about Qaddafi’s loss in a baffled, crestfallen way. We drove to a cafe not far from Algeria Square — since renamed Qatar Square by the rebels, in deference to Qatar’s support for the Libyan revolt — and got a table. I was amazed to see that Idris still had an image of Qaddafi on the screen of his cellphone. “I’ve been passionate for Qaddafi ever since I was born,” he said. His parents felt the same way, though he insisted they had not held any position or drawn any special benefits. “Libya is just a bunch of tribes, and there are blood feuds,” Idris said, when I asked him why. “We see Qaddafi as the only wise man with the power to stop the feuds. If he fails, there will be no one to mediate.” I asked what he thought of Qaddafi’s apparent support for terrorists and his reputation as a maniac in the West. “We see him as a brave man who speaks out against American bullying, as other Arab leaders do not,” Idris said. “So they accuse him of these things.” Idris conceded that Qaddafi made the mistake of surrounding himself with bloodthirsty people like Abdullah Senussi, his security chief and brother-in-law. He also said, like many loyalists, that he was misled about the rebels by Libyan state television, which portrayed them as terrorists. Yet he gave no ground in his love for Qaddafi. When I asked how he felt about Tripoli’s fall, he said: “Devastated. It’s like someone you love, and they’re gone.”

Our conversation began to draw interest from two men sitting at a nearby table, and Idris was getting nervous. We got back into the car and drove to his neighborhood, Abu Selim, a stronghold of support for Qaddafi. The neighborhood is known for criminals and immigrants — a ready base of support for the regime — but Idris’s area was more middle-class. As we drove down his own street, he pointed derisively to the new rebel flags hanging outside the houses. “This was all green flags until last week,” he said. “They love Qaddafi. They haven’t opened their shops, everything is still closed. They are afraid.” Later, he added: “Honestly, before February there was no such thing as pro- or anti-Qaddafi. Only those people who were directly affected, the prisoners or the very religious men, had any view.” We drove past the stalls of a local market, blackened by fire in the final days of fighting. Idris gazed out sadly. “Change is not worth this kind of destruction,” he said. On one wall, I saw the words “Who are you?” It was a satire, like so much of the graffiti, aimed at one of Qaddafi’s recent speeches, in which he repeatedly asked the rebels who they were. But in this neighborhood, full of silent and resentful young men like Idris, the words took on a very different meaning.

I think Idris inadvertently hits on a couple of important points. First, it is interesting to note that when one strips away all the other “inputs” to the production of support – money, coercion, peer pressure, etc. – we are forced to speak of things like “love” (for Qaddafi!). But this love is hardly comprehensible as a preference for Qaddafi over the alternatives, or even as a belief in the “legitimacy” of Qaddafi’s regime; it is obscurely wrapped up with a person’s identity and understanding of the world, and its political consequences appear not to have been significant. (Idris does not appear to have fought for Qaddafi when things got tough, despite his love for him, unlike many other people who were loyal to Qaddafi out of a variety of pragmatic considerations of interest and fear). As a side note, I suspect that one cannot normally speak of beliefs in legitimacy except in the Hobbesian sense of beliefs that converge on particular rules or persons as sovereign. To believe in the legitimacy of a regime is simply to expect that other people will obey its rules and officials and collaborate with its authority; when that expectation disappears, so does the regime, but this is obviously very different from something that can be measured by means of opinion polls, and it seems to have very little to do with the personal feeling that someone like Idris might have had for Qaddafi.

Second, Idris is right to note that before people were forced to take sides, “there was no such thing as pro- or anti-Qaddafi. Only those people who were directly affected, the prisoners or the very religious men, had any view.” The public act of taking a position obviates any question of “inner” support, since the public act is a clear signal of support. And without that public act, there is really no such thing as pro- or anti- Qaddafi “support” other than the ordinary collaboration of everyday life. It is only when people are called upon to do something one way or the other – to shoot prisoners, as some of the people whose stories are told in the piece were called upon to do, or spy on their neighbours, or anything that actually puts them at risk – that we can speak of support (or lack of support) in politically significant ways. And here Arendt is obviously right: obedience and support then are the same; to support the regime was to fight for it, whatever complex motivations one might have had for doing so. It is worth understanding the complexity and tragedy of these motivations (the story of Furjani, in the article, gives a glimpse of the tragic situation in which some people are placed when coercion is the dominant input the obedience-production technology), but from the point of view of explaining the maintenance and fall of the regime these will add very little beyond the obvious facts that most people supported the regime because they thought it was in their interest to do so or were afraid to do otherwise. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Just War Theory and Other Philosophical Responses to Warfare (A Footnote on Aquinas, Erasmus, and Machiavelli)

(Warning: a rambling disquisition about the point of just war theory in history. Tries to articulate some thoughts I've been nursing for the last couple of months, and some things I've tried to say in my class on political philosophy and international relations). 

How should one respond to the fact of war? I do not mean how we ought to respond to this or that war, but about the enduring fact that human beings engage in warfare: what should we do about this fact, at the most general level, if anything? And in particular, what constitutes a proper philosophical response to the fact of war?

One common response to the fact of warfare is articulated by the theory of just war. Just war theory presupposes that war is an unfortunate but sometimes unavoidable aspect of the human condition: given some general facts about human psychology (for example, the fact that at least some people lust for power or strongly believe that particular ideologies must be imposed on others), we must expect war to flare up from time to time, though its frequency may wax and wane for a variety of reasons (demographic, technological, cultural, etc.). Yet some of these wars will be justifiable: there will be good reason for (some people) to fight them in order to protect important values. The proper response to the fact of warfare thus involves articulating the principles and rules that distinguish between justifiable and unjustifiable wars (and between justifiable and unjustifiable conduct in war), and appealing to or forcing those who engage in that practice to regulate their conduct according to these principles and rules; and at least the first task necessarily involves philosophical reflection.

The ideal here is not the elimination of war, but the reduction of unjustifiable war through the moral (and sometimes legal) regulation of the practice. And though this regulation may take institutional form (as it does, imperfectly, nowadays), it need not: all the just war theorist presumes is that most people are relatively receptive to moral argument, at least when such moral argument appeals to relatively noncontroversial principles and is presented in a clear way. And even if such appeals sometimes fall on deaf ears, the just war theorist assumes that they are not entirely ineffectual. One can appeal to the conscience of those in power, even if sometimes they have trouble hearing its voice, or at least force them to pay a decent respect to the opinions of others, and one can train those who actually fight to be responsive to moral precepts that constrain what they can do in the heat of battle.

The basic principles of just war theory seem to have a certain universal appeal, given that they have changed little since Aquinas articulated them in the 13th century. (And he was merely systematizing ideas that were even older, going back to Cicero and the Stoics in the late Roman Republic). We still discuss ius ad bellum in terms of the basic triad of proper authority (who can authorize a war?), just cause (is there a good reason to fight, and in particular a reason that can justify the collective use of armed force?), and right intention (is the just cause merely a pretext for more nefarious purposes, or do the people waging war genuinely intend to protect some important values by going to war?). Other principles – like “reasonable chance of success” – sometimes enter the discussion, but the basic framework remains ancient. Witness the debate about the recent intervention in Libya, for example. Disagreement about the morality of the intervention revolved around the questions of who had the authority, if anyone, to permit the use of armed force against Gaddafi’s government, whether Gaddafi’s actions to put down a rebellion against his government gave other countries a good reason for engaging in war against him, and whether NATO members genuinely intended to protect Libyan civilians and/or help the Libyan rebels overthrow an oppressive regime (or were, on the contrary, acting to secure control over Libya’s oil or Western influence in the Middle East). Similarly, debates about the morality of particular tactics in bello (e.g., the use of precision munitions to attack particular people in urban areas) all revolve around the basic triad of principles of innocent immunity (is the target a civilian or a combatant?), proportionality (are the means proportionate to the end, or are they “overkill”?), and double effect (are the deaths of civilians a genuinely unavoidable result of the use of proportionate means?). Though the full articulation of the principles of ius in bello is of somewhat more recent vintage (they are more sketchily described in Aquinas than the principles of ius ad bellum, for example), they are still quite old and broadly accepted.

But though the basic principles of just war theory are widely accepted, the fact of disagreement obviously indicates that their application is much more controversial. The more one moves from broad principles to specific rules and even more to particular judgments the less arguments about the justice of particular wars or tactics will be convincing. Arguments come to depend on distinctions that are far less obvious and much more contestable. For example, the US Air Force consistently argues (and I’m sure mostly in good faith; as far as I know, American soldiers do receive explicit training on the principles of just conduct in war) that its use of precision munitions respects all the basic principles of ius in bello: such munitions are used only against people which intelligence indicates are “combatants” and responsible people attempt to minimize “collateral damage” (i.e., apply the proportionality and double effect principles). Yet many people vocally disagree with them about all aspects of this argument, including the weight that should be given to the evidence of combatant status (what is the acceptable false positive rate for a target?) and whether the use of 500 pound weapons in urban areas represents due care for the lives of non-combatants (what is the acceptable rate of civilian death from attacks on genuine military targets?).

The problem is not that there is no right answer to these questions, but that no particular answer can depend on premises that are all widely acceptable. Many if not most positions can muster plausible arguments (I get a glimpse of this every year when I ask my students to write essays applying the principles of just war to various recent military conflicts). Even sincere attempts by serious and well-trained thinkers to apply these principles to particular conflicts lead to ambiguous results. When one reads Vitoria’s exhaustive examination (in the 16th century) of what would count as a just cause of war against the natives of the Americas (and hence would justify conquering them and taking their land), it is hard to say for sure whether he supported or opposed the conquest; though in private made it clear that he was appalled, he thought that there could be (and perhaps were?) circumstances in which the conquest would have been justified.

The pervasiveness of disagreement, and the fact that such disagreement is necessarily entwined with important (even existential) interests tends to make moral argument about just war appear as a form of rationalization, and worse, as legitimating the designs of the powerful. The suspicion arises that in trying to distinguish between justified and unjustified forms of war we merely enable more warfare; and that we would all be better off if the considerable intellectual energy spent on making these distinctions were instead spent on delegitimizing warfare as such. Already in the 16th century, when the School of Salamanca was at the height of its influence (the Valladolid debates on the justice of the Spanish conquest of the Americas were not just for show!) and just war theory had evolved into a highly sophisticated discourse, there were people who thought precisely that. In his Dulce Bellum Inexpertis, Erasmus railed against what he saw as the enabling role of theologians in justifying too many wars. For him, just war reasoning was corrupting: it turned theologians and philosophers into advocates of their patrons’ predatory projects. The correct philosophical response to the fact of warfare, in Erasmus’ view, was not to help regulate it by articulating the principles and rules that can justify particular wars or practices within wars, but to deploy the full power of rhetoric to depict the horror of warfare and to delegitimize it as much as possible. (It is worth noting that the Dulce Bellum Inexpertis was a sort of 16th century best seller. The printing press was still relatively new in Europe, and Erasmus was very good at making use of it to publicize his views).

The point is not that Erasmus thought that no war could ever be just (he does suggest here and there that some wars could be justified), but that asking which wars are just is (most of the time) the wrong question, since most wars will not be just. Intellectual energy is better spent delegitimizing warfare as much as possible by depicting its material and moral costs as vividly as possible, denouncing its general injustice, and indicating potential alternatives. (This is implicitly an argument about the “responsibility of intellectuals,” though of course the point is never put that way by Erasmus). In this way, if wars must be fought, they will tend to be fought less often, and with more restraint; the use of rhetoric to delegitimize warfare as such will if nothing else tend to “ratchet” up the restrictive force of just war principles, increasing the rhetorical cost that must be paid to start or wage a war. Whether this is in fact the case is difficult to tell; there does seem to have been a gradual, if haphazard, “tightening” of the restrictive force of just war principles over time, though whether this “tightening” is at least partly due to the efforts of people like Erasmus is anybody’s guess. For example, whereas Aquinas in the 13th century thought that almost any “wrongdoing” that could not be redressed by the political authorities of a single political community could constitute a just cause of war, we now treat suspiciously any form of warfare that is not obviously defensive. And this “tightening” of the principles of just war has been correlated (I’m not claiming causality, however) with apparently large declines in the overall frequency and murderousness of war. (Yes, there are exceptions, and very long-term trends obscure significant variation over shorter periods of time. But the overall trends are striking, despite the greater destructiveness of modern technologies of warfare. At any rate, one only has to read Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War to understand that the modern era is not particularly inhumane in its way of waging war).

The 16th century also gave rise to a very different response to the fact of warfare. Here the exemplary figure is Machiavelli, and the problem is not what to do to reduce warfare (should one help regulate it, or delegitimize it?), but how to use warfare to accomplish important goals. Warfare is not seen as a uniquely awful experience, but as a tool of politics; and one must study “The Art of War,” not because one ought to avoid war, but because one must learn to use it efficiently. Machiavelli (among others, though he most of all) wants to study the “economy of violence,” in Sheldon Wolin’s useful phrase, to put war to use, and in particular to put it to use for purposes that are internal to political life (the achievement of power, the foundation and preservation of political communities, etc.). Machiavelli’s thought is especially original not so much because he wants to study the economy of violence, however (there are many precedents, and Machiavelli’s advice in this respect, though generally acute, is not always great), but because he thinks that the standards by which we must judge the use of violence are themselves internal to the practice of politics: greatness rather than goodness. The point is to learn to do memorable and admirable deeds, and the most admirable deeds are those which produce lasting authority structures (founding religions and political communities, for example), not those that are most in keeping with conventional moral rules (or are accomplished with the least amount of violence). (I might write more on this point. It’s something I’ve been thinking about).  But even if one disagrees with Machiavelli that these are legitimate goals, and that reducing warfare is much more important, one might still think that doing so requires understanding the economy of violence and using it judiciously: that seems to me to be the genuine moral core of “realism” as a kind of consequentialist theory. 

Though the Machiavellian response is not a direct reaction to the development of just war theory, it is nevertheless a logical response to the same concerns that led Erasmus to move away from just war reasoning. It’s interesting to me that the European experience of the 16th century produced these entirely divergent responses to war, despite the fact that all of the writers who were operating in these traditions had similar understandings of what war entailed (war was after all a very common experience in their world). None of them were especially naive about human beings and their limitations, and many had real influence with those in power. Yet these three responses seem to be fundamentally different, and the difference is not always rooted in radically different understandings of human nature (though they do differ on this point, especially Erasmus). In my class, I sometimes put the point in slogan form: just war theory says (about war) “regulate it,” Erasmian pacifism says “delegitimize it,” and Machiavellian political science says “study and use it.” 

Yet which of these responses is the best one? And how are they related to one another? Are they complementary responses, such that a division of intellectual labor between their proponents is possible, and capable of promoting important values over time? (Just war theory and Erasmian-style pacifism do seem to me to be related in something like this way, but to be in tension with Machiavellian political science). Or are they ultimately incompatible, so that we must choose among them? And does the development of just war theory typically necessarily generate, in a “dialectical” fashion, these alternative responses to war? I suspect that it does: as just war theory becomes more complex, it comes to seem more futile, giving rise both to Erasmian-style “delegitimize it” responses Machiavellian-style “study and use it” responses, and yet it never fully disappears; and perhaps just war theory itself becomes more relevant after periods where both Erasmian and Machiavellian responses seem to fail (perhaps the period after WWII).

[Update 9/22: fixed some typos and made some minor wording changes]