Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Aaro on Burma

The issue isn't whether we have the right to intervene - because the consequences of vicious dictatorships usually catch up with us in time - but whether or not, practically, we can.

All one can really say about this is "tell us more about this 'considering the practical consequences' idea of yours Dave, we on the anti-war left find it strangely fascinating". It comes at the conclusion of probably the worst Aaro piece in at least a year - it isn't even noticeably better written than the equivalent Nick Cohen one.

By the way, is it me or has the entire pundosphere just completely bracketed out Hurricane Katrina? I suspect that the Chinese Ambassador to the UN threw them a curve ball by comparing the Burmese government's failure to deliver the goods in terms of flood relief to the French government in the 2003 heatwave, but there is surely to hell a more relevant comparison, and it measures pretty badly for Dave's blithe assertion (based, I suspect, on a bit of half-remembered Sen, and delivered before) that horrible regimes have problems with natural disasters because they're not democracies. Terrible responses to natural disasters can happen anywhere; on the other hand so can competent ones.

But anyway, reading up the piece, if this is meant to be "Burma - The Case For Intervention", it doesn't really make a case, does it? I suspect Aaro has been poorly served by subs here and idly wonder what title he chose himself. He's done enough research to be aware that most of the actually existing calls for "intervention" are gum-flapping calls for logistic impossibilities (dropping aid out of the back of a Hercules is a dangerous and wasteful business when done over flat plains in Africa; to suggest something of the sort in Burma is just not paying attention). But nonetheless, he "admires the sentiment" of that nice young Mr Cameron. We've discussed on a few occasions whether Aaro's a Decent but I maintain that he is for this reason; for him as for Paul Berman, as for Michael Walzer, as for the lot of them, the real world is an optional extra.

See also his excursion into "blame America first"ism, in the course of a particularly savage kicking about at straw men (including someone sharing a platform with Aaro in Great St Mary's Church who was too postmodern to assume that the Burmese necessarily ate food - I mean really man, chinny reckon, are we idiots here?).

There has been, right from the first day of this crisis, a wing of the anti-interventionist movement that has sought to shift blame for the aid debacle from the Burmese generals to the West in general and America in particular. I first heard it from some professor interviewed on the Today programme, and have read it several times since. The junta (this apologia suggests) is just paranoid, this paranoia is justified because of the West's hostility, and therefore it makes sense from the Burmese point of view not to admit foreign aid workers, who might be CIA spooks


Notice the slip back and forth between "the Burmese junta are paranoid", "the Burmese junta's paranoia has a basis in fact", "the Burmese junta are right to be paranoid" and finally "the Burmese junta are justified in refusing visas for aid workers". Partly in the service of smearing people who attempt practical explanations of difficult problems and partly in the service of pretending that the most important thing is the moral stance which one takes toward something rather than what one does. It is like Michael Walzer's opposition to the Iraq War; Aaro actually pretty much agrees with this professor on the question of what can you do, but does so with such a loftier tone.

Meanwhile, check this out (in the sidebar), from the morally serious government of Canada, with the full support of possibly the most morally serious man in the world, Michael Ignatieff
HALIFAX–Prime Minister Stephen Harper cautioned yesterday that he'll only send Canadian humanitarian aid to Burma if he's sure the supplies aren't being used to support the military regime.

"Canada is ready to help, we want to make that clear. We want to do whatever we can do to pressure the Burmese government to accept that aid," Harper said.
However, the Prime Minister said the aid won't be flown into the country if the military junta is using the food and supplies to win political support.

Good God. As far as I can see, what the generals are doing is pretty bad. Aar is wrong to imply that they are actually refusing aid shipments (which are in fact arriving, but they are control freaks and suspicious of foreigners, and so they are demanding to organise the distribution of aid themselves[1]. As a result of this, the distribution is clearly much less efficient than it should be and a real concerted international effort as was made post the 2004 tsnuami is impossible. That is, indeed, pretty bad.
But what the hell can you say about what Stephen Harper is threatening? The policy of the government of Canada is that it is going to refuse to provide humanitarian aid to people who desperately need it, based on a political condition. Is that not disgusting? The point of view here appears to be that the humanitarian crisis in Burma is bad enough to warrant threats of military intervention, but not bad enough to prioritise the delivery of aid over Decent grandstanding. Talk about "the situation is desperate, but not serious". And I don't even think that this is much of a strawman; I suspect that you could get a lot of the Decent Left to simultaneously agree to it.

But anyway, Aaro's stepped back from the War Room this time. To what end? To, apparently, widen his sights and look for bigger game. The impossibility of an intervention in Burma right now is to be the foundation of a general case for the threat of intervention anywhere at any time, whenever a government is judged[3] to be lacking in Decency. Because unless we roll forward democracy throughout the world (via solidarity with bus drivers if possible, but with white phosphorous if necessary), there will be disasters which resemble Nargis everywhere at some time. This is the argument from hypothetical humanitarian crisis and about all that you can say in favour of it is that it's not noticeably worse than the argument from counterfactual humanitarian crisis (the Hitchens/Uday/Qusay one).

Parenthesis: Aaro is basically wrong about the history of the planned economies too - one can see this most clearly in the case of the Koreas, where there are plenty of old South Koreans who remember being sent food parcels from their relatives in the richer North back in the 1960s and early 1970s. Something (something not very well understood, but probably having to do with the birth rate) went very wrong with the Communist economies in the mid 1970s, and it is true that a lot of their subsequent economic statistics were faked, but the post-war growth of the planned economies was not illusory and you can't, for example, brush off the early Soviet lead in the space race as something that never really happened.

[1] I have a couple of links to stories about the US doing something similar during Hurricane Katrina, but of course to draw any such comparison would be unserious and disgusting. The argument I suppose is that the USA is a first world country which can handle a 1 million refugee problem without people actually starving to death, and so it can do what it likes when a natural disaster hits, while Burma is a poor country and so is morally obliged to take whatever it can get on whatever terms offered. I can see a reasonable utilitarian case for this being a criterion, but "one law for the rich and one law for the poor" is precisely what it is and as such it is unlikely to command widespread support.[2]

[2] Decent explanatory footnote: "It is unlikely to command widespread support" is a factual assertion about whether poor countries are likely to vote en bloc for any interpretation of the "responsibility to protect" which holds that their national sovereignty is non-existent in times of natural disaster, while that of rich countries is not, with the decision to be made by the rich countries. It is not a statement about what policies poor countries should adopt in natural disasters, still less an endorsement of any non-democratic third world government anywhere.

[3] By who? I have nominated Norman Geras for the role of judging which regimes "violate human rights in an appalling way" but I still suspect that the actual decisions will be made by the Pentagon and State Department.

15 Comments:

Blogger ejh said...

but of course to draw any such comparison would be unserious and disgusting.

Worse - I suspect it's "moral equivalence".

5/13/2008 01:10:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

I think when he's talkling about paranoia he is simply stating the case of the professor, not himself?

The Cameron bit is a classic, though. Setting deadlines which you have no means or way of enforcing, and know that you have no such power, is not something to be applauded.

5/13/2008 01:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

...whether or not, practically, we can

That really is very odd. I suppose in the Decentverse the entire argument is conducted on the level of abstract principle, so the only counter-argument to "intervene everywhere now" is "never intervene anywhere". In fact one of the main counter-arguments all along has been about whether or not, practically, we can with any reasonable expectation of making things better rather than worse - the rules of international law are much more rules of thumb, drawn up in the knowledge of what happens if you ignore them, than they are tablets of stone.

5/13/2008 02:19:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

"horrible regimes have problems with natural disasters because they're not democracies."

I remembered that Mark Steyn had written something like that - pre-Katrina. Though actually his argument critiqued here was intended to be more anti-Statist. Still nonsense though.

5/16/2008 05:36:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Didn't Cuba cope rather well with its hurricanes round about the time of Katrina?

I'm not saying there's no truth in the thesis, but at the same time there's a lot more to it than that.

5/16/2008 07:20:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

A slightly off-topic question, but can anybody locate online the extract from What's Left that was originally on the Guardian/Observer in January 2007?

5/16/2008 08:44:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

I would have thought it would have had more to do with how much the regime cared about the people suffering, and its organizational competence.

The US obviously doesn't care much for its poor (particularly if they are black), Burma's generals couldn't give a damn about the people as anything more than a source of (personal) wealth, whereas Cuba is a very paternalistic dictatorship. Democracy makes this more likely only to the extent that the leadership is accountable to those affected (or cares about them). Which with Katrina they weren't.

As for organizational competence. The idea that that is related to democracy is pretty silly. Bureaucracy is rarely democratic, is it. And armies?

5/16/2008 10:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Horrible regimes have problems with natural disasters because they're not democracies."

This is a very simplistic. Holding elections doesn't magically make a nation better able to deal with emergencies and disasters. In an emergency, individualistic logic needs to be replaced by collective action. The logic of the free market in an emergency is to hoard grain, fuel, roof sheets, shovels, blankets etc while collective survival may require that these be mobilised and used. Individual logic in an emergency may be to start looting, while collective survival may require that this is prevented. This requires strong institutions that can prevent hoarding but be trusted to use them on behalf of collective survival. In modern societies, an institutions would be some kind of state institutions, though it could mean community or traditional institutions. Key factors include: previous experience of dealing with emergencies, trust, open communication and strong collective institutions.This is linked to democracy, but simply holding elections is not going to necessarily mean that people start to trust the State to act on their behalf.

I was intrigued by Steyn's phrase "institutions of liberty". When is an institution an institution of liberty and when is it an institution of repression? All institutions are based on rules and norms that restrict the actions of individuals, so to some extent all institutions are repressive. What is Steyn's criteria for saying that an institution is an institution of liberty (apart from the obvious one of - ours are institutions of liberty, their's are institutions of repression).

Moussaka Man

5/16/2008 11:00:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Well, up to a point. But then again armies aren't necessarily very efficient. Business, however, is anything but democratic, and it prides itself (too much, but not always without reason) on its efficiency.

It's reminiscent, I think, of the argument (is it from Amayrta Sen?) that there's no widespread starvation in democracies. It's probably true, and it probably does have something to do with democracy. It also probably has something to do with the fact the democracy finds it much easier to thrive (in general, of course there are exceptions either way) in countries where there is relative affluence. And in disasters, it's always the poor who die in numbers.

5/16/2008 11:00:00 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

"A slightly off-topic question, but can anybody locate online the extract from What's Left that was originally on the Guardian/Observer in January 2007?"

Justin - it's here

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,1995028,00.html

or rather it isn't. It was removed after many of us pointed out it claimed that Azar Nafisi dedicated her book to Paul Wolfowitz, when in fact she dedicated it to her late mother in Iran, and it was probably libellous.

5/16/2008 02:02:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Ah. I thought it had probably been removed but I didn't know if that was for copyright reasons or because of inaccuracies.

5/16/2008 03:18:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Definitely inaccuracies as they also removed his column from October 06 or so when he said it first.

5/16/2008 03:31:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

I went looking for an extract from What's Left? too, and came across this one in Open Democracy. God, it's terrible. It's distorted and often wilfully ignorant. And this hatred of 'intellectuals' he has. I know they're hardly an endangered species, but isn't hating intellectuals the sport of people like .... Hanns Johst?

5/16/2008 04:40:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

As previously observed:

A certain philistinism can be detected in their output, perhaps reflecting a dislike and distrust of intellectuals, who may be suspected of relativism.

5/16/2008 05:28:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

Justin:
I think it is perhaps more accurate to state that business propoganda lauds their efficiency. You only have to glance at the business press, management literature, etc to realise that nobody really believes it. They probably believe (without good reason) that they're more efficent than the state, but they'd see that as a pretty low bar.

It also probably has something to do with the fact the democracy finds it much easier to thrive

Well democracy tends to break down in conditions of starvation, or even severe economic decline. And there are plenty of democracies where a significant chunk of the population live in a state of food insecurity, if not actual starvation. And in the third world one of the significant contributions to inadequate diet has been the capitalist takeover of agriculture which has created a monoculture and mono-diet far poorer than the subsistence diets that preceeded it. So for example, you'll hear a lot about the problems in Asia due to lack of Vitamin A and how this relates to poverty (and how GM food is the answer to this), but nobody much wants to talk about how this is a very recent problem caused by the industrialisation of agriculture in these countries.

5/16/2008 11:33:00 PM  

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