Challenges of Justice, Peace-Making & “Those People’s” “Endless Conflicts”

Assistant Secretary Moose was away from Washington, so Prudence Bushnell, the acting assistant secretary, was made the director of the task force that managed the Rwanda evacuation. Her focus, like Rawson’s, was on the fate of U.S. citizens. “I felt very strongly that my first obligation was to the Americans,” she recalls. “I was sorry about the Rwandans, of course, but my job was to get our folks out … Then again, people didn’t know that it was a genocide. What I was told was ‘Look, Pru, these people do this from time to time.’ We thought we’d be right back.”

From Samantha Powers’ “Bystanders to Genocide” about the American embassy’s response to the genocide in Rwanda

In the VP debate on Thursday one of Senator Biden’s little-remarked gaffes (yes, their name was legion) was his claim of how the Sunni and Shia in Iraq have been at daggers drawn for over 700 years. This is wrong on the facts – most of what became contemporary Iraq did not have a Shia majority presence until mass conversions in the 19th century. For much of their shared history the Sunni and Shia Arabs of Iraq were not hostile to one another. But this is more than just trivia. Senator Biden’s wrong-headed understanding informed his plan for an “ethnic partition” of Iraq he attempted to impose last year on that country (which also missed the small fact that there is no ethnic difference between the Sunni and the Shia since they are both Arabs – Sunni and Shia are religious differences that cut across ethnic and tribal lines for the Arabs, Kurds and Turcomans in Iraq). Senator Biden’s recent contention that Iraqis are captive to an all but unbreakable cycle of violence is meant to ease the American public’s sense that, having invaded Iraq and overthrown Saddam Hussein’s thoroughly corrupt and repressive (but functioning) B’ath party-state, we have no further obligations (or even possibility) to establish an effective government there. However, as bad is his mixture of incorrect history and de facto endorsement of ethnic cleansing, Senator Obama has gone further still, arguing last year that he would consider a U.S. withdraw necessary even in the face of a genocide breaking out in Iraq.

To help further guild this lily (or nightshade), one of the main complaints that both Senators Biden and Obama repeated was that while the United States was spending $10 billion/month to fight in Iraq, the Iraqi government had over $70 billion in oil revenues upon which it was sitting (even though the $3,600/per capita of Iraq is 12 times smaller than the U.S. figure– and these oil revenues are the only significant resource Iraq has with which to address the critical reconstruction and economic development problems that years of war and over a decade of sanctions imposed upon Iraq – “pardon widow, I need that mite of yours to help buy some fuzzy dice for my jaguar”). It appears that for both Senators Biden and Obama it should be Iraqis who primarily pay for and die in any conflict that the U.S. invasion and occupation of their country has precipitated. As Sen. Obama reminded Gen. Petraeus last year, the U.S. budget was “hemorrhaging” money that he has since then asserted would be better spent on U.S. domestic concerns ( a similar logic pervaded Senator Obama’s triumphal tour of Europe where he seriously argued to our NATO allies of vastly more heavily taxed countries that they should step up their commitment to Afghanistan to allow the U.S. government to spend less on Afghanistan and offer U.S. citizens tax relief – strangely enough our NATO allies were unmoved).

Such reasoning and its impact is not new. A similar pessimism about what he took from a book by Robert Kaplan to be the “endless conflicts” in the Balkans apparently played an important role in President Clinton’s decision to delay intervening in Bosnia for over two years. The result was not only hellish for the people of Bosnia but contributed to the radicalization of Muslims throughout the world, such as the London bombers, who looked at Western indifference to the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims as another sign of their need to embrace a more radical Islam. To his credit then, Sen. Biden encouraged President Clinton not to be paralyzed by the logic of the impossibility of ending an endless war. Now, however, in spite of having voted for the war, Senator Biden is willing to serve under and defend the policy prescriptions of someone who, in spite of U.S. treaty commitments to the contrary concerning genocide, regards preventing genocide as immaterial to the issue of withdrawing US forces from Iraq. Unlike Rwanda however, where policymakers from the White House to Capitol Hill at least tried to deceive themselves through clever word games behind closed doors about whether to term the events in Rwanda genocide, in our current election Senator Obama has been up front about accepting and justifying to the American public that genocide is an acceptable consequence of his policies.

The Culture of Death takes many forms and facets. While I believe that abortion is the most crucial manifestation of the CoD, indifference to genocide has to rank as an issue of near equal, if not equal, gravity – probably even higher, if only because there is no controversy even among those who would de facto enable it genocide is a grave crime. Whatever one thinks of the reasons and rationalizations for our invasion and occupation of Iraq, even if, in Sen. Biden’s words “the past is prologue” it cannot be determinative. As Colin Powell argued before the intervention, the “Pottery Barn” rule applies to our presence in Iraq – “you break it, you own it.” Budgetary surpluses or their lack, our own fatigue with a long and difficult struggle, and worse yet, fallacious history or fancifully murderous exit strategies based on political calculation cannot be allowed to shake us from our duties – even if those duties are onerous and were undertaken rashly or wrongly – because, it is not just about us.

Our al Qaeda enemy has turned Iraq into the central front in the war on terror and has established itself there the better to destabilize both that country and the Middle East through encouraging the kind of intra-religious violence and butchery Sen. Biden wrongly regards as simply hard-wired into Iraqi culture. We as a people have a responsibility to ensure Iraqis do not fall victims either to how our enemies have pursued us into Iraq or our domestic politics. As a Catholic and an American the idea that my country can confront both its solemn treaty obligations and the reality of genocide and instead of replying “Never Again” say – “well maybe this one too,” with the blood of 800,000 Rwandans on the conscience of many U.S. policymakers is astounding and frightful. While it might seem to cost too much to save 30 million people from their own (and other countries’) demons, even if Sen. Biden apparently believes they deserve to be handed over to them because they have “always (or for 700 years) been killing each other” – though they haven’t – I believe as an American Catholic it is unacceptable to contemplate such a course. I am willing to be corrected but my reading of sacred history is that Pontius Pilate’s efforts to wash his hands of innocent blood while ordering crucifixion did not effectively absolve him of responsibility.

As we heard in the first reading of the Mass this Sunday, if ever a vineyard would merit tearing down for its inability to produce anything but wild grapes, it would be one like our own that took upon itself the responsibility for determining the future of another, smaller and weaker state and then decided to treat that challenge as if it were allocating any other budget item. (And such a course would include a willingness to sign death warrants for the lives of the many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have trusted our promises and bled with our soldiers, as well as betraying those who died either fighting beside our troops or innocently at our soldiers’ hands through the tragic mistakes of war, but who, along with their loved ones who survived them, hoped to see a better future for their country born from their sacrifices – if that is acceptable it would be unethical to ever want peoples in other countries to ever cooperate with us again). There is an exit strategy for Iraq, but it is the long one of taking as seriously the human dignity of Iraqis and their longing for a better future as we take our own desire for a better country and a better world. It seems to me that we can only leave Iraq when the possibility of genocide is small to non-existent and Iraqis are on the road to an order that is at least as stable and much more happy and prosperous than that of the B’ath regime that we overthrew. It would seem to me that it is precisely those who regard the war as a blunder or a criminal enterprise who should most fully own the need to set right what we have broken, rather than sneer at the Iraqis propensity for domestic conflict,  leer at their painfully accumulated surplus, which is less than 1/30th our own governments or assert that the loss of several hundred U.S. and coalition soldiers/year should weigh decisively more on our decision making than the deaths of many tens of thousands of Iraqis a year.

What kind of people are we, what is the nature of our responsibilities toward the world and how should our faith inform these questions? This strikes me both as a question of national and international honor, and even more importantly, national and international ethics that we cannot afford to get wrong and for which divine guidance is necessary. At the very least, however, I believe we must not allow ourselves to be deceived either by Sen. Biden’s “innocent” gaffes and sophomoric understanding of Iraqi history or Senator Obama’s cold-blooded, clear eyed murderous “realism” regardless of whether or not we find his rhetoric “soaring” instead of petty and sordid. If we cannot regard as shameful and intolerable both Senator Biden’s calumny of Iraqi history and the implied washing of our hands of our brothers’ blood, as well as Senator Obama’s desire to abandon even to genocide a people and a country whom we claimed to want to launch on the road to freedom (or, if you will, whose fragile unity we broke apart for base reasons) then we will have demonstrated a further triumph of the culture of death in our relations abroad as well as at home. While I cannot join in with the kind of exuberance and joy that Senator Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Wright, evinced when he crowed “God Damn America”, I fear we will be quite a bit more damnable for seeing genocide of a far away people about whom we know so little as part of the price we need to pay for “change we can believe in.”

6 Responses to Challenges of Justice, Peace-Making & “Those People’s” “Endless Conflicts”

  1. There’s a weird conflation of a sort of just war thinking with pragmatic realism which we seem to see pedaled in some quarters. Obama’s quote about, “If we’d stay in Iraq to prevent genocide — why aren’t we in Congo” seems a classic example of that.

    Taking it that there is genocide going on in a given country in the world, and that our military efforts could reasonably be expected to end that genocide and bring the country back to a decent level of stability, it does not seem clear to me how one could argue it would be morally wrong for us to intervene.

    Now, from a pragmatic point of view, we clearly do not have the resources to intervene everywhere, and indeed pragmatism suggests that we should only take the risk of intervening in those countries in which we have a very strong self interested motive for doing so.

    However, that pragmatic imperative only aligns with just war doctrine, it seems to me, to the extent that just war doctrine requires a reasonable expectation of success — and pragmatism suggests that the country will only devote the resources to be successful in a situation which is heavily in its self interest.

  2. John Brooks says:

    To be fair to Sen. Obama, his comments about genocide in Iraq (in the link provided) were made in July 2007. The situation in Iraq has changed signficantly since then, as the levels of violence have dramatically decreased, and an orderly exit is beginning to look like a relatively short-term possibility. Even he has had to admit that the surge was successful. Hopefully (why is it always ‘hope’ with him?) he would take a more responsible view of the situation today. At least, that is what I’m telling myself as I look at the poll numbers….

  3. Tito Edwards says:

    I would hope that Senator Obama would take a more responsible look at it today, but I’m afraid that politics will invade his decisions.

    If a stereotypical minority is being attacked by a stereotypical and easily identifiable villain like say Bosnia where the poor Muslims were being slaughtered by the (villainous) Christian White Serbs, then I would see Senator Obama act appropriately.

    It’s all wait and see if and when Senator Obama becomes the next elected President of the United States.

    In Jesus, Mary, & Joseph,


  4. David Curp says:

    And the fact that we are “hoping” in relation to the question of what a candidate for U.S. President will do in the face of a genocide where we have forces in theater (and where it can be plausibly argued that our presence has increased tensions locally) shows just how the culture of death has come to dominate our national conversation.

  5. John Brooks says:

    Agreed. It is odd that many of the people who profess to be very concerned about Darfur seem relatively unconcerned about genocide in Iraq (and in fact have advocated poliicies that make genocide more likely in Iraq).

  6. […] Finally, my concerns are not only abstract, philosophical or based upon a disembodied understanding of cultural and political evolution (or devolution). I believe that among most historians and Americans (as well as many Europeans) there is a consensus that the last time a culture embraced the concept of Lebensunwertes Leben/life unworthy of life, or sought to be “purified” of genetic ailments by abortion and sterilization* things didn’t go so brilliantly. (And just to preempt the Nazis only opposed birth control for the eugenically superior among Germans – they were enthusiastic about birth control, abortion and sterilization for their own defectives and the many tens of millions of their Slavic neighbors and other inferiors, just as some of our best and brightest judge are arguing that the poor and less valued already are doing us all a great deal of trouble by not being born). We are not Nazis of course (but then, in all fairness most Germans were not in 1933) but we are growing more callous and cost conscious all the time – a very bad combination for the weak at home and abroad and one likely to end not only in a moral, but also cultural, political and international calamity. […]

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