MD Understanding Quality And Power

From: Mark Steven Heyman (
Date: Sat Dec 11 2004 - 18:20:57 GMT

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    In my talk this morning, I elicited the response 'we're just as bad
    as Saddam was'. So even if 'intelligent progressives' don't make the
    argument, it is a 'mood' in certain quarters.

    msh says:
    You may be taking the thoughts of your congregation too lightly. You
    might want to ask some questions to see if they are really using the
    moral equivalence argument, as you defined it. It could be that
    their thinking goes something like this: Hussein killed or
    disappeared 300,000 of his people in 25 years. We've managed to kill
    over 100,000 Iraqi innocents in a year and a half. In this respect,
    it's hard to see where the US/UK coalition can claim the moral high
    ground. Unless you're saying the MOTIVES for our actions stem from
    some higher morality, which assumes the conclusion. That is, this is
    what we (you and I) and they are trying to figure out.

    In general, there's nothing wrong with saying that WE are no better
    than Hussein, in some important respects. This is not the same as
    saying we are absolutely morally equivalent, that life under Hussein
    would be no less pleasant that life under Blair or Bush.

    On the question of what constitutes a 'system-wide' threat:

    > msh says:
    > Yes, this is a valuable question. Since the destruction of the
    > American system by an external power would involve nothing less
    > a full invasion and occupation of the homeland, such as what is
    > occurring in Iraq, I'd say that there is no power on earth capable
    > of accomplishing it. So the question is moot, and is raised only
    > a scare tactic in trying to persuade the American population to go
    > along with the expansionist agenda of its leaders. Sadly, this
    > tactic seems to be working.

    Don't agree that the question is moot, although I do agree that the
    US system is extremely robust and something like 9/11 is a
    comparative pinprick as a threat. I think it would be quite useful to
    try and outline what sort of thing might qualify (eg, would a
    terrorist group like Al Qaeda, in possession of several nuclear
    weapons on US soil, exploding one, then threatening to blow up the
    others in unspecified cities unless certain demands are met, would
    that qualify?

    msh says:
    First, I think if we're going to use the phrase "terrorist group"
    we'll probably need to agree on a definition of terrorism My
    position is that terrorism is a tactic employed by entities trying to
    achieve political goals, and that such tactics are by no means
    limited to loosely defined groups like Al Qaeda. In fact, there
    appears to be a direct relationship between the level of terror and
    the level of military power available to the political entity.

    We can go down this road, if you like. Or we can agree that terror
    is a violent tactic used to one extent or another by EVERY political
    entity in trying to achieve its goals.

    Regarding your hypothetical situation above, as it would be a direct
    and sustained attack on the homeland, I think it might well qualify
    as the beginnings of a system-wide threat. I'm just not sure how
    much time we should spend discussing such unlikely scenarios,
    especially when there are groups who unequivically possess more than
    enough NW to pose a real-life threat of human extinction. Since the
    post powerful of these groups steadfastly refuse to relinquish their
    attempts to accumulate still more of such weapons, I think our
    energies might be better directed toward achieving world-wide nuclear

    > sam:
    > I think the argument is invalid (in other words, I don't believe
    > that this was the motivation for the USG to act as it did), but I'm
    > not sure the reasons you give are the best, for the 'consistency
    > over time' point that I mentioned before. In other words, it's not
    > logical fallacy for the USG (or one of their defenders) to turn
    > around and say 'we've changed' - this is the neo-con argument,
    > it?
    > msh says:
    > Yes. I left open the the possibility of the neo-con response to
    > what you might make of it. You seem to be aware of the argument's
    > obvious invalidity, so great. That saves us a lot of time.

    Hang on a second - that's a very condensed comment you've given
    there, and there is an ambiguity about what 'the argument's obvious
    invalidity' refers to. I think the brutal dictator argument is not
    the true justification for the action against Iraq (which we agree
    on). I haven't made up my mind about the neo-con argument yet (which
    we may well not agree on) - the latter being the argument that USG
    policy has changed since 2000 and is, indeed, going to be concerned
    with establishing truth, justice and the american way throughout the
    world. That's a caricature of the view, and I'm wanting to go deeper
    into it (eg by exploring Leo Strauss) but I don't want you to be
    misled here.

    msh says:
    You seemed to recognize that ungoing USG support for brutal dictators
    invalidates any attempt to argue that Iraq was attacked in order to
    remove Hussein because he was a brutal dictator. Am I wrong here?

    As for the neo-con argument, I don't see how anyone can take it
    seriously when obvious steps towrd a New Humanism (such as those
    mentioned by myself below and William Blum) are systematically

    > msh said:
    > I don't see how, if the argument is invalid, it can have even
    > supplementary value. But as long as we can agree that the "brutal
    > dictator" argument is worthless when advanced by an aggressor who
    > clearly supports brutal dictators, then I'm happy.

    Psychological rather than logical support forms the supplementary
    value. Although there's a quibble at the back of my mind that it can
    be logically valid, that is, an argument can lend weight without
    being conclusive or viable on its own.... I need to think about that
    a bit more.

    msh says:
    That's all I can ask. Thanks.... :-)

    > msh says:
    > Well, I think it's wishful thinking to believe that the leadership
    > of the West, after more than 500 years of deliberate and very often
    > extremely brutal power concentration, has suddenly experienced a
    > humanitarian awakening. And there are realpolitik explanations for
    > the west's actions in both Kosova and Sierra Leone.

    This would be worth pursuing. I think a strong argument can be made
    for precisely this assertion, that the governments of the West are
    indeed more concerned by humanitarian concerns than their
    predecessors. That doesn't mean it's their main concern, or that they
    shouldn't be even more concerned than they are, it means that present
    governments are better than the governments of 100 years ago, and
    significantly better than governments of 400 years ago. Would you
    disagree with that?

    msh says:
    I think an absolute yes or no is impossible. I think in many
    respects the USG is motivated by public opinion to behave more
    humanely than it did, say, during the Vietnam War. This is one of
    the reasons the government in its attacks against fledgling Central
    American democracies had to go underground (cf The Iran Contra
    Scandal). If they had gone in and started bombing the way they did
    in SE Asia, a public sensitized by US war crimes committed in
    Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, would have been outraged.

    On the other hand, how can we say that the recent near unilateral
    invasion of Iraq is "significantly better" than anything that came
    before? In what sense is this action "humanitarian," when world
    opinion was 10 to 1 against it? How can you ignore the objections of
    90% of humanity and call your action "humane?"

    msh before:
    > So I think a lot of skepticism is warranted. Were this truly the
    > age of the New Humanitarians, I would expect to see at least these
    > events in short order: Cessation of support for Israel in its 37
    > year history of brutal occupation of illegally held Palestinian
    > territories;

    The Israeli/Palestinian situation deserves a thread of its own - can
    we agree to put it to one side?

    msh says:
    Absolutely. :-)

    > immediate discontinuation of all financial, military and
    > business support of all totalitarian governments, not just Cuba and
    > North Korea;

    Actually I think Cuba should be immediately reintegrated into the
    world economy. I would have realpolitik qualms about, say, abandoning
    Musharraf, but in principle, agreed.

    msh says:
    Agree about Cuba. Just wanted to make the point that the only
    totalitarian governments we seem to have a problem with are those of
    a "leftish" persuasion.

    msh continues:
    > immediate and continuous support of all majority UNSC
    > and UNGA resolutions.

    Don't agree with that. You'll need to be more specific about the
    resolutions and their legitimacy - but again that might take us a
    long way from where we are.

    msh says:
    Here, even I don't agree with myself. Of course, we'd need to
    evaluate specific examples. However, I think that some steps can be
    taken toward egalitizing the whole UN voting process. For example,
    the one vote veto of UNSC resolutions has GOT to go. We should
    certainly require a majority of permanent members in vetoing Security
    Council resolutions. This is something that has been talked about,
    but is flatly rejected by the New Humanitarians. Even GA votes tend
    to show a very disconcerting trend, with the US-Israel vote the lone
    dissenters. So even as such resolutions are passed, they are not
    recognized or supported by the US, which has a hughly damaging
    effect on efforts toward a new humanism.

    <SNIP some stuff about Fisk and Pilger, mostly agreed>

    Then Sam said imperialism wasn't bad by definition,

    > msh says:
    > This is a bit sly on your part.


    > I don't think we should quibble
    > amount the meaning of imperialism as violent conquest in the
    > pursuit of material gain versus a rare benevolent imperial act. >
    Do you?

    Actually yes. But this one might fit better in the capitalism
    thread. Have you ever seen Monty Python's "The life of Brian"?

    msh says:
    Ok. But let's always look on the bright side of life. Dee dum, de
    dum, de dum de dum de dum...

    > sam:
    > I am wholly with you that the issue is about a properly rational
    > analysis of threat and response. I am not convinced that it is an
    > accurate description of current US military action in Iraq to call
    > it "consciously murdering the Bathist regime's VICTIMS".
    > msh says:
    > I agree that my point was made too poetically, with a little dose
    > exaggeration for effect. Hussein's victims are not being
    > consciously murdered in the sense that this is the purpose of the
    > attack and occupation. As I've said before, the USG and UKG would
    > have been delighted if all the innocent civilians had simply left
    > the country prior to the aggression. The murder is conscious in
    > sense that the aggressors KNOW that their tactics will lead to the
    > death of large numbers of innocents, and they nevertheless proceed.

    The question is one of proportion. I don't believe that killing one
    innocent in order to achieve a legitimate military objective makes it
    wrong. But if the one person becomes a hundred, or a thousand, then
    the balance starts to shift.

    msh says:
    Well, I've never quite understood the acturarial principles behind
    this argument. Pick whatever objective you like. Are the methods of
    achievement moral at the cost of 2000 lives but not 2100?

    And this leads to something that will come up again later. It's
    clear to me that the "morality" of the action is not determined
    solely by the number of innocent lives taken. A very important moral
    consideration appears to be WHOSE innocent lives are taken. Do you
    believe the aerial bomardment of Bhagdad would have occurred if the
    city had been filled with the families of US Congressmen instead of
    innocent Iraqis?

    You know the answer as well as I. In this regard alone, the US/UK
    slaughter in Iraq is morally indefensible.

    sam before:
    So I would dispute your use of the word 'murder'. I think for murder
    to be the correct term there needs to be the clear intention to kill
    civilians, and that hasn't been established.

    msh says:
    I addressed this idea of intention with my bus-missile analogy, which
    you responded to below. Or it might be in the next post. Still only
    half way through your first response.

    > Also, I mentioned the OK City attack because I want you to make
    > of the difference in the way the USG went about apprehending and
    > trying the domestic terrorists versus their full-scale attack on
    > countries in response to 9/11. This obvious difference is evidence
    > in support of my position that some innocent civilians are regarded
    > as more valuable than others.

    Noted and agreed: the USG is more concerned with US civilian
    casualties than with Iraqi.

    msh says:
    Good. Then you'll see where this applies in my argument above. I'll
    wait for your answer.

    > msh said:
    > You might find the others worth looking into. Lots of info
    > available on the net. Richard Clarke is the Bush insider who blew
    > the whistle on the fact that the Bush and previous administrations
    > were looking for reasons to invade Iraq long before 9/11. A day or
    > two after 9/11 he was just about ORDERED to find a connection
    > between the WTC attacks and Saddam Hussein, though he knew none
    > existed.

    It's quite clear that the neo-cons wanted to tackle Iraq before 9/11
    happened, definitely agreed on that. But the problem would be the
    manipulation of information, not (necessarily) the motivation or
    rationale. (That is, the motivation and rationale might make perfect
    sense, but if the perpetrators of the act concealed the truth, or
    actively lied to cover up the truth, then that's the problem. Is that
    what Richard Clarke was exposing?)

    msh says:
    I think his point is that the Bush Administration was not interested
    in whether or not Hussein posed a genuine threat. This to me is a
    failure of government. Their intent was to attack Iraq, regardless,
    and they wanted to use the 9/11 attacks as an excuse for doing so.
    And I think we have already agreed that there was plenty of
    government deception in this regard.

    But google Clarke and 60 Minutes, and you can read the transcript for
    yourself. You can also find excerpts from his book on the web.

    Well, this is long enough. I still have half your original response
    to get back to.

    Again, I really appreciate the time you're taking with this.

    Mark Steven Heyman (msh)
    InfoPro Consulting - The Professional Information Processors
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    "Thought is only a flash between two long nights, but this flash is
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