It is no secret to anyone who follows headlines today that cries of extremism in various forms are on the rise in our politics and culture, slung forth from all directions: the right, the left, the middle and the Middle East. Our nation’s government is as polarized as we have seen it in generations and all the more so due to a rising contingent of vehement centrists– Americans who plead for an end to the argument but not an answer and who rapaciously deride those who uphold principles for their unwillingness to compromise. Unfamiliar with the spectacle of American politicians even making an honest attempt at moral consistency, most citizens decry it as unreasonable dogmatism. As each day’s reports relate the rapid escalation of conflicts here and abroad between peoples and their governments (as in the Middle East), governments and organized labor (as in Wisconsin, Indiana, New York, and London), and between the proponents of fiscal responsibility and the irrational defenders of an untenable course to failure, in deciding what policies to pursue and how, we must begin by resolving the struggle for our nation’s integrity– that is, the struggle for moral consistency.
We must begin by specifying our terms. What is dogmatism, and is it a threat to our political, economic, and/or physical well-being? We will distinguish dogmatism as an unyielding adherence to specific dicta operating on the level of concrete particulars without recourse to broader, transitive philosophical principles, e.g. “Whenever a disenfranchised people in a foreign nation rise against their oppressors, America should actively participate in deciding the outcome.” Such a statement proscribes an action– American intervention– based upon a broad set of conditions described only by their concrete particulars– a population rising against its oppressors– in disregard of abstractions and conceptual considerations such as the nature of the existing regime, what sort of regime the oppressed population proposes as an alternative, and whether either or both parties may ultimately pose a threat to us as Americans. It is a maxim-oriented approach which foregoes any reference to broader principles— that is, any reference to philosophy as such. The application of a dogmatic epistemology, stunted at the level of percepts, to moral issues by an individual amounts to a renunciation of his rational faculty and, ultimately, to neuroticism and self destruction. Manifested in a nation, it leads to statism.
America, at the time of this writing, faces two major conflicts: the recent development of the U.S.-led NATO intervention in the conflict between the Libyan rebels and the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, and the ongoing budget crisis which has left the United States with only a series of provisional resolutions for the first quarter of 2011 and under imminent threat of government shutdown. In the first case, Americans are witnessing an act of dogmatism errantly portrayed as moral consistency. In the second, the reverse. Both are distortions. I will address them both respectively in two portions of this essay.
I. Dogmatism and American Intervention in Libya
In the case of the American-led NATO airstrikes on Libya, we are again told as we have been in the past that it is the responsibility of our military to intervene in any third-world foreign nation where citizens come into conflict with their government. Time and again, this is the message given without qualification or stipulation to the American public. Without reference to the particulars of the conflict, e.g. what parties stand in opposition, what ideals they represent, potential ramifications which might threaten the lives of American soldiers and citizens, or even a detail as elementary as a clearly defined and rational purpose, it is insisted that America has a moral obligation to take part in the decision of the conflict.
What is at work in the decisions of President Obama and the advocates of intervention in Libya is nothing more than perceptually bound dogmatism and the desire to rally the American public to some noble crusade of undefined means toward an unidentified goal. From Eisenhower in Korea to Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon in Vietnam, this is nothing unique in the last fifty years of American foreign policy. What is unique is the degree of its political failure.
Americans appear broadly confused by the President’s sudden reversion of his long-standing policy of non-interventionism. Naturally, he and his supporters are eager to stress that it is not interventionism, as they desire no long-standing role in the region. Nor, they urge, are they interested in overthrowing the Gaddafi regime. Nor do they assert any particular claim of America having an interest in the result. The president has defended his decision on the grounds that our involvement is “humanitarian”, out of a willingness to aid the rebels. What has not been answered is the essential, “Aid whom, and to what end?” As of this writing, America does not know the nature of the rebel factions within Libya or what their victory may portend for our interests in the region. Perhaps the only valid indication of the factions at work there is evidence of al Qaeda operatives within the rebel ranks. Not to suggest that such contingents comprise a dominant portion of the rebel forces, merely that they seem as yet to be the only ones whose ideology and desired end can be verified. The forecast, one can easily see, is overcast at best.
Why, then, has President Obama directed us down this path? A number of possible explanations come to mind, not the least of which pertains to his approval ratings having comfortably nestled below 50% for months now and the past political advantages which heroic interventions have afforded former presidents. Libya, however, is no Kosovo. It is the making of a civil war, and a difficult one at that, but by no means is there yet evidence of a genocide or crime against humanity to merit our participation. Furthermore, the likelihood of the Libyan rebels’ goal being anything resembling an American system of individual rights is at this point unimaginable. That pundits voice their beliefs that Libyans seek “democracy” only recalls the failures of our policies in Iraq. That the president himself likens the factious, violent, as yet non-ideological uprising of a largely uneducated people to the highly intellectual, Enlightenment-fulfilling American Revolution is an abomination against the ethics on which our country was founded and evinces that he does not now, nor has he ever recognized the values which made it possible.
These circumstances– an American president intervening in a foreign conflict under the auspices of aiding an oppressed people– are not new. The novelty of this instance is in the American people’s response. For the first time in generations, we hear no significant voice among American citizens in support of our involvement. There are no student protests, no popular demands for diplomatic recognition of Libyan rebels, no outcry. To the contrary, the Left, who would usually invoke such demands, is conspicuously quiet. On the other hand, from various groups and individuals along the political spectrum there is an unusual number of voices challenging the notion of engaging in military action in such countries whose fates are not directly relevant to our own. The notion that American success and safety is dependent upon the outcome of such a nation as Libya, whose neuroticism has made it diplomatically and politically inconsequential for decades (if not having always been so), is a very hard sell to make and the president would need a far better approval rating to convince the American people of such an idea. The fact that he allowed the unprecedented duration of a week to pass between the first airstrike and his explanation to the American people tells us that he knows it.
The most fervent defenses offered by President Obama for his choice to intervene were two: that control of the operations would be swiftly handed over to NATO (a promise which, to his credit, he has fulfilled) and, above all things, that he was acting with the full support and assistance of the international community. To put it directly, if, when asked for a justification of military involvement in a foreign conflict, the very best that a president of the United States can offer its citizens are consolations that we have no cause to see it through to any definitive goal before withdrawal and, above all, that we did not act alone, then it pains me to tell you, reader, but the intellectual well has run dry.
What you have been given are not reasons but rationalizations– post-facto justifications for a foregone conclusion. We witness the application of a long-standing custom which proscribes that American administrations take responsibility for the fate of nations whose futures are wholly unrelated to our own. The more irrelevant to the lives of American citizens, the more they fear the political backlash of having failed to play a role in the conflict. Their rationalization, when pressed, is the blind assertion that by some inexplicable calculus, our freedoms depend on the success of some third world rebel faction. Their true morality, however, entails not a trace of rational ethics. It is the momentum of unthinking traditionalism driving a runaway train toward a cliff, and in the absence of an explicit morality of self-interest, the United States is without recourse.
This is the true implementation of dogmatism: the enactment of policy in the absence of moral justification, action precedent to thought, action merely to say that one acted.
Given the intellectual climate of our day and particularly within our government, one is brought to the question, “Is there, then, no hope?” The answer, assuming that men are willing to forego unthinking dogmatism and rise, instead, to the level of conscientious moral consistency is, “Of course there is!” Whether policymakers will choose to make that transition and respect the proper purpose of American military powers or remain servants to an irrational and dangerous political precedent is yet to be determined.