A reed in the wind
I confess: the idea that the rebels winning at this stage represents some sort of a mea culpa-inducing event– when the person making that claim himself voiced many arguments that have nothing whatsoever to do with who wins– is simply bizarre to me. (Perhaps Andrew could tell the sub-Saharan Africans currently being disappeared by the Libyan rebels that the only question that matters is who wins and who loses. That ought to comfort them.)
So let me ask you all this question. I’ve read some Oakeshott, and I’ve read some Burke, but obviously I’m no expert. Can someone, pretty please, articulate any argument– any argument at all– that Oakeshottean or Burkean conservatism could ever support the Libyan war? I am truly straining to imagine any space whatsoever for such support. Perhaps the more informed among you could explain it to me.
Of course, I think neither conservative icon could support the kind of thinking that is so endlessly fungible as Sullivan has displayed these last few months, either. But what power have Michael Oakeshott or Edmund Burke against the cult of Obama?
I have a great deal of respect for Andrew, and much of that is because I see in many of his struggles some of my own. Also, because I have a great admiration for a conservatism of doubt, for that Oakeshottian conservatism that Andrew is drawn toward. I am drawn toward it as well, especially in matters of foreign affairs.
Indeed, many of Andrew’s best qualities emerged in the (very brief) run-up to the Libyan war, and in its first days. It is looking more and more like Andrew will discard this initial Burkean impulse, and let his passion carry him. Make no mistake, some of his best writing comes from those moments of passionate disregard. But that’s a dangerous line to walk.
In his response to Freddie, Andrew writes:
Those arguments stand. I would not have initiated this war at this time in this way for these reasons. But it is perfectly possible to take that position, yet realize it’s now a fait accompli and be glad that Qaddafi is no longer able to massacre thousands by brute force.
Or to put it another way: If one has failed to help prevent a war, that does not commit you henceforth to hoping for its failure, or not being relieved when it temporarily prevents mass murder.
But this misses Freddie’s critique entirely. Nobody is suggesting that critics of the war should not be glad that civilian deaths were avoided, or that Qaddafi’s proposed slaughter was diverted (though at this point, the rebels seem well poised to meet out their own slaughter soon enough, if the tide really does turn in their favor).
The point is, Andrew is not merely saying “Hooray, the rebels are beating back Qaddafi!” Rather, he is admitting – through his various ‘meep, meep’ posts and the ‘eating crow’ comment – that he was wrong in his opposition to the war in the first place. Unless I am greatly mistaken, that is the textbook definition of ‘eating crow’.
There is a vast divide between cheering on the successes of the military campaign (we can all hope it goes forward with as few civilian deaths as possible, even those of us who are unequivocally opposed) and the admission that you were wrong about your opposition to the war in the first place. Hell, there is even a point at which an opponent of the war might say something along the lines of “you broke it, you buy it” and consistently oppose ending the war prematurely, as many critics of Iraq and Afghanistan have done (a position I myself took for a while, though no longer).
Critics of the Libya war do not have to commit ‘henceforth to hoping for its failure’. That’s rubbish, and rubbish foisted endlessly on Iraq critics as well. We can hope for the best outcome, while sticking to our guns about the wrongness of the war in the first place. Success is not justification enough for the military invasion of another country.
See also: Freddie’s open letter to Juan Cole, one of the more vociferous pro-war voices this time around.
P.S. Andrew quotes Edmund Burke:
“A more mischievous idea cannot exist than that any degree of wickedness, violence and oppression may prevail in a country that the most abominable, murderous and exterminatory rebellions may rage in it, or the most atrocious and bloody tyranny may domineer, and that no neighbouring power can take cognisance of either or afford succour to the miserable sufferers.”
Unless I am greatly mistaken, I believe Burke was referring here to the French revolutionaries. I don’t believe he ever wrote in favor of overthrowing the French monarchy and aiding the rebellion there. Indeed, his cause for concern was with the very radical and violent overthrow of the monarchy in France and the possibility of that spilling over into Great Britain.
Pause for a moment here and examine the very different nature of the threats in these two scenarios. Burke may have wanted to forcefully put down the French rebels, but that was because they presented a very real threat to the English crown and to the heads of many of Burke’s friends and family remaining securely attached to their bodies. He was right to be worried. Not long after, Napoleon Bonaparte swept across Europe. And Napoleon was a moderate compared to Robespierre and some of the other charming figures in that revolution.
How is this at all like Qaddafi in Libya? Does the violence from the oppressive Qaddafi regime threaten to spill over into Great Britain?
No, I would say that Burke would be more threatened by the “murderous and exterminatory rebellions” than by the Qaddafi regime.
It’s all well and good to talk philosophy, but we would do well to incorporate historical context into the conversation.