Dissent Of The Day

A reader writes:

I hate to demonstrate the audacity of cynicism here, but isn't your Gandhi post and its implied take on "non-interventionism" a bit oversimplified? There is no doubt that Gandhi was a pivotal, symbolic figure, and that India in particular and resistance to colonialism in general owes a great deal to his influence. That said, it's rather difficult to discount the fact that it was only a British Empire massively weakened, financially and military (for reasons having more to do with German guns than with satyagraha...) that finally granted India its independence; that India was followed by a wave of new states claiming their independence not only from Britain but also from the French empire (and of course that many of these states were born as the result of a far bloodier process than what took place in India - see the Algerian Civil War, or Kenya's Mau Mau for instance), more than suggesting that factors extending far beyond the borders of India were pushing towards the collapse of these two empires at the time; and that the existence of liberal, democratic norms in France and Britain in the first place were fundamentally necessary for the success of Gandhi's "mirror" strategy?

Yeah - that was one sentence. Maybe that's how non-violence wins the day.

Does anyone seriously believe that, for instance, rallies in occupied France would have threatened Nazi rule to the same degree that the activities of the French Resistance achieved? What "world opinion" would Hitler have worried about when the only nations entering into his foreign policy calculations were either already at war with him or ruled by dictators of similar persuasions? Are we to suppose that inside every despot is a benevolent heart waiting to come out? To push the parallel a bit, who is going to hold Mahmoud Ahmedinejad up to a mirror when the reflection he hopes to see is there is the closest possible manifestation of Allah's will on earth, not the ruler of an open society? To the extent that his government cares what the world thinks, it does so solely because of other power's ability to inflict economic hardship - or worse - on his country.

I understand that you would not fully agree with the more radical implications of Gandhi's philosophy, but I think the point bears making all the same in light of the profounds effects the Bush administration's foreign policy bungling has had on your views and the views of many Americans who have undergone similar intellectual conversions. While we as a country have surely learned an important lesson in caution, I fear that there has also been a great blurring of moral clarity. Even if we hesitated to say so, many of us who supported the invasion at the time were in no small part moved by the idea of our nation - finally standing up and confronting the sheer, government-sponsored evil that usually goes without comment in less remembered parts of this world - making it clear that we really do believe the universal values upon which our nation was founded are, well, universal - cleaning up our unfinished business with a mass-murdering despot to show our recognition that the actions of the mass-murdering despots on the other side of the world, and the societies they breed, do in the end affect us all. In retrospect, it seems likely that we attacked the wrong man, in the wrong place, in the wrong time; in any case, the utter mismanagement of the occupation yielded such a disaster that perhaps we'll never really know what might have been (though the surprising effectiveness of the surge makes this point far more of a question mark than it might otherwise have been for the moment.)

But the bungling of the invasion doesn't erase the challenge that produced it in the first place. We've acquired a fairly good idea of what doesn't work, to be sure. We could respond to this by sinking into a comfort zone somewhere in between the relativist platitudes of the multiculturalist left that we can't judge what takes place in other cultures and the crotchety declarations of the paleocon right we'll be fine and safe leaving well enough alone within our (well-fenced) borders. Of course, our doing so won't make it any truer for the nation that will remain the preponderant economic and military power in the civilized world for the foreseeable future; but we can do that. Or we can recognize, as Americans of all people out, that courage in defense of freedom is a brave and noble thing; that relativism of the sort that would equate resistance to tyranny and genocide with the acts themselves is reprehensible; and that it remains one of the great challenges confronting our generation to figure out how, without losing cognizance of our own limitations as a nation, we can continue to stand firmly in defense of the freedoms we enjoy, in solidarity with those who would enjoy them elsewhere. It is the question that confronted us throughout the Cold War in our dealings with the Soviet Union; and need I remind you that Reagan’s denunciations of the Evil Empire surely had a far greater effect with the amplification provided by his massive arms buildup, or that we must also deal with the legacy of his actions in Latin America… Was that the right balance then? What is the proper balance today, as the same dilemma that once confronted us in the Eastern bloc now confronts us in all the areas of the world we wrote off to autocracy while we were preoccupied with the importance of confronting Communism? I wish I knew. But I do know that closing our eyes and hoping the problem will disappear if we elect a more likeable President, while gently enjoining future Saddam Husseins to look themselves in the mirror, is no answer at all.