The premise of Gerson’s entire column, and one that seems to undergird his every thought and word, is that outrage compels action, and that if you aren’t acting — now, dammit — you aren’t outraged. In Gerson’s world, if you’re not outraged, you are paying attention, and you deserve whatever load of scorn, insult, and invective that will inspire you to do good.
This is right, but there is another aspect to this: this is always outrage about what some other government or group is doing, and the more remote and unrelated to us the better, and it must never, ever, apply to the outrageous things done by our own government in the name of national security. Hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq from the invasion, and millions more displaced? Gerson’s seemingly inexhaustible weepy compassion is not moved by this in the least. These Iraqis, no doubt, are deemed to be “better off” or their suffering has been “worth it.” One of the convenient things about being willing to meddle in everyone else’s affairs is that you appoint yourself a competent judge to determine whose lives are worthwhile and whose are worth sacrificing for some future goal.
This is something that I generally find strange about outrage directed at foreign governments or peoples for what they are doing to their own: the people who believe it is a matter of shame to neglect “doing something” about various evils overseas are usually equally confident that our government is more or less beyond reproach in whatever it does overseas or in the name of national security. Those who insist that “we” hold such-and-such regime accountable rarely want to apply the same standards or demand the same accountability from the one government they are obliged as citizens to hold to account. The perfect expression of this lopsided “morality” was probably the Albright standard concerning the consequences of the Iraq sanctions regime. Not only was the death of hundreds of thousands “worth it” in the twisted calculus of responsible, do-gooding activism abroad, but it was also not the responsibility of the “responsible” foreign powers imposing the sanctions–it is always the fault of the target of such treatment. Thus, what our government was doing could not have been something that would outrage Gerson–it would probably have confirmed him in his desire to “do something” more to overthrow the Iraqi government. I sometimes imagine that the government encourages outrage over the abuses of other governments to preoccupy citizens here with other crimes about which they can do little or nothing (except to lobby our government to “do something,” which usually means imposing sanctions or dropping bombs) to keep them too busy to pay enough attention to what our government does and, better still, to provide pretexts and ready-made propaganda to justify the next intervention. That would be all together too cynical, right? Maybe not.
This would be ugly enough if it were simply exploitative and imperialistic, but Gersonism requires that you wrap up this arrogance in smiling reassurances that it is all for a greater good. It is still a matter of a more powerful party imposing its will on another people because it can and wants to, but now we are obliged to pretend that it is being done for humane and lofty reasons. This is different from the mission civilisatrice because we really mean it this time; our hearts bleed much more genuinely than did those of the French. Besides, as Max Boot (who here represents the neo-imperialist underbelly of humanitarian interventionism) would say, there is no other way to “solve” many of these problems. As James has suggested, and as my argument against optimism says, we need to stop thinking of these situations as problems to be solved and start thinking of them as realities we face and with which we cope.
Take the case of Somali piracy, which far too many people seem to think is a perfect case for intervening. Somalia has become an ideal base for pirates because it has no functioning government. Indeed, what government it did have was deemed unacceptable and was smashed by an Ethiopian invasion we backed and armed. I was far too sanguine about the Ethiopian invasion when it began, but I see well enough now that the last attempt to “solve” the problem of Somalia’s Islamists has helped create, or has at least exacerbated, the problem of Somalia’s pirates. It is worth noting that the “restoration” of the Somali Federal Government, which had been in exile and was considered the official, recognized government of the country by all relevant international institutions, completely failed to fill the void, because all of its international legitimacy counted for nothing in Somalia. What would fill the void that would also pass muster with foreign intervetionists?
Striking at the pirate bases would be, at best, a temporary “solution” that will not make Somalia stable or governable again anytime soon. The current situation is a more or less direct result of our indirect meddling in the internal affairs of Somalia. Who honestly believes that there will be an enduring “solution” if we have another round of intervention? A “simple” plan to eliminate pirate havens today soon enough will become an enormously complicated, multi-year project to stabilize the entire Horn of Africa–mission creep is inevitable once you have granted the assumption that someone must “do something” to provide order in this part of the world and have acknowledged that this someone is usually going to be our government. This is exactly what happened the last time we were involved in a “limited” mission in Somalia, and it will happen again if we allow ourselves to get sucked back in. So accustomed are we to being told that we should be outraged by this or that in every other country that I suspect that we will never be satisfied with any outcome in Somalia (or Congo, or Sudan, or wherever) and will soon enough find something else in one of these countries that we want to stop. That this ultimately prevents the development of effective local government and necessitates continued dependence on outside powers is rarely mentioned, but it is one of the worst things about this do-gooding.