Thursday, March 02, 2006

Saddam Hussein: dictator, tyrant...leviathan?

by Joe Miller

That seems to be the position of Robert Kaplan, at any rate. Writing in the Washington Post, Kaplan argues that
Because under Hussein anybody could and in fact did disappear in the middle of the night and was tortured in the most horrific manner, the Baathist state constituted a form of anarchy masquerading as tyranny. The decision to remove him was defensible, while not providential. The portrait of Iraq that has emerged since his fall reveals him as the Hobbesian nemesis who may have kept in check an even greater anarchy than the kind that obtained under his rule.
I'm not really sure just how useful it is to compare any actual states to the Hobbesian state of nature. As bad as Iraq is, I'm pretty sure that it hasn't really devolved into "a war as is of every man against every man." Indeed, the problem in Iraq is less that every single person lives in constant fear of every other person. Rather, the issue seems to be that big groups of Iraqis hate other big groups of Iraqis.

Minor quibbles aside, Kaplan's larger point is worth mentioning. The West, Kaplan claims, has had relative stability for such a very long time that we tend generally to focus on the evils of government. For many liberals (broadly understood), government is at best a necessary evil, an institution that tends toward despotism and that must therefore be kept in check at all times lest it begin to limit the very liberty it is supposed to provide. But what we Westerners must remember, Kaplan cautions, is that worrying about despotism is a luxury that is affordable only for those who can take order for granted. For much of the world, however, Hobbesian anarchy is a far greater worry than despotism. Thus, Kaplan argues,
For the average person who just wants to walk the streets without being brutalized or blown up by criminal gangs, a despotic state that can protect him is more moral and far more useful than a democratic one that cannot.
Rushing out to topple despotic states, particularly in the Middle East, may turn out to be a bad strategy. Instead
What we have to work toward -- for which peoples with historical experiences different from ours will be grateful -- is not democracy but normality.
Kaplan's position here seems to be directly at odds with Matt Yglesias' recent suggestion that perhaps the U.S. is a bit too cozy with Middle Eastern monarchies. Matt posits that a better strategy would be
to cut back both on the heavy democracy rhetoric and on the extent of our entanglement with these governments. It's possible to engage with governments without become [sic] their backers.
In one of those cool philosophy-meets-real-world moments that happen frequently sometimes...well, that happen, the dispute rather nicely parallels our discussion of Walzer and sovereignty (JSTOR link; subscription required) from class this week. Walzer argues that there is a certain fit between a nation and its government and that foreigners generally ought not try to second-guess the correctness of that fit. Unlike Matt, who is willing to tolerate Middle Eastern monarchies in the name of political necessity all the while making clear our disapproval, Kaplan seems willing, at least in principle, to endorse those monarchies as necessary for stability.

I suppose that I have the same worry about Kaplan's position that I have about Walzer's. It strikes me as a deeply troubling throwback to colonial attitudes wherein the "civilized" whites justify the sometimes brutal oppression of their nonwhite colonies with the excuse that the "poor savages" understand only despotism. Obviously Kaplan and Walzer are not arguing that Westerners ought to impose tyrannical regimes on Middle Eastern nations. Yet I fear that the underlying sentiment remains. That the despotism is internal rather than external strikes me as small consolation.


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