Put Out the Fires or Stop Fueling the Flames
This morning’s Up With Chris had an amazing discussion of Libya and Mali, and the role of the United States and the French in North Africa. [Update: this segment can be viewed here.] One point that came through strongly was how the decision to enter the Libyan civil war (what is commonly, and I think misleadingly, called ‘intervention’) was never litigated. That is, the US didn’t have a discussion about it in public before the decision happened.
Today’s episode included a great discussion of all this, including voices that rarely get heard on my television, and I learned a great deal as a result. I wasn’t the only one watching this discussion who praised Up for this.
But this reminded me of another frustration I’ve had for a long time that I haven’t seen many others articulate. Our discussions of what the US, or NATO, or the UN, or ‘the West’ should do in response to violent conflict seem only to happen in response to moments when it seems as though action must take place quickly to head off tragedy. These are episodic, and brief. What we don’t have is discussions about two other things – first, what can be done to identify problems and head them off before they get to the boiling point, when presumably violence would not be the top solution on the agenda, and two, what policies of the US, public and clandestine, that contribute to these problems.
The clandestine part is central to understanding the problem. Chalmers Johnson made this point is his class Blowback. Because American activity around the world is at least formally secret, it is very difficult for Americans to discuss and understand them. The targets of these activities often know that the US is behind it, and the dissident press generally has plenty of details. But most Americans will never be exposed to it, and if they are, it will be so dissonant with what they see and here in the corporate press and the mainstream discourse that it sounds off the wall. Massive secrecy inhibits democratic accountability and active citizenship.
But it’s not just that. It’s also the language we use when we do discuss these things. ‘Intervention’ may be the most glaring example. The term ‘Intervene’ works to obscure. Giving money, training, sending weapons, aerial bombing, invasion are not all one thing. Usually when we are discussing it, we mean some combination of the latter two, since the former things tends to happen entirely secretly. We shouldn’t ask ‘should we intervene?’ but ‘should we go to war?’ But letting Americans know clearly what is being considered is inconsistent with getting to do it.
In the end, the claim that violence is the only answer depends heavily on circumscribing discussions around the crisis moments rather than having that larger conversation. My guess is that if we did that, average Americans would demand a rather drastic change in how the US operates in the world. If I ran this zoo, we’d be doing just that.