The Palestinian politician, Mustafa Barghouti, made an appeal to the world this week:
The international community should intervene to restrain Israel’s army, which has called up 40,000 reserve soldiers. World leaders must stop the escalation to protect the Palestinian people and prevent further slaughter, the like of which we have witnessed this week.
Surely Barghouti is fully aware that when it comes to pro-Israeli Western governments (along with their autocratic Arab allies), his appeal will mostly fall on deaf ears.
But if he expects to be ignored by those governments, he is also speaking in solidarity with his people and with those across the world who are right now protesting against Israel’s brutal use of military force in Gaza.
Even if these hopes and appeals might be in vain, who would now argue against some form of international intervention to halt the Israeli assault?
And yet, with much of the Middle East now in turmoil, there is a broad sentiment in the United States which views these interlocking conflicts as conflicts we can only make worse — that the best way of doing least harm is to do nothing at all.
This sentiment was recently articulated thus:
The United States and other liberal states would do a much better job of promoting their most cherished political values if they concentrated on perfecting these practices at home instead of trying to export them abroad. If Western societies are prosperous, just, and competent, and live up to their professed ideals, people in other societies will want to emulate some or all of these practices, suitably adapted to local conditions.
In some countries, this process may occur rapidly, in others only after difficult struggles, and in a few places not for many decades. This fact may be regrettable, but is also realistic. Trying to speed up a process that took centuries in the West, as the United States has been trying to do since 1992, is more likely to retard the advance of liberal values than it is to advance them.
These words could come from the Left or the Right, from Dennis Kucinich or Rand Paul — a call for a humbler America that resonates with every self-reliant, mind-your-own-business American — but they actually come from political scientist Stephen Walt.
Who can fault this do-no-harm and lead-by-example approach to foreign affairs?
It sounds good, but it seems to rest on a fictional representation of the world — a world in which people’s political aspirations are supposedly being driven by false hopes inspired by Western liberals.
because most liberals are convinced that their cherished beliefs are beyond debate, they fail to recognize that non-liberal societies may not welcome these wonderful gifts from abroad.
It’s easy enough to identify non-liberal rule — where there is little or no tolerance for political dissent — but what is a non-liberal society? A society in which there is a collective lack of interest in human rights? A society in which most people have little interest in being able to vote?
To characterize democracy as a “gift from abroad” has a decidedly colonial flavor — as though the natives couldn’t possibly develop these “Western” political aspirations without foreign guidance or inspiration.
Are we to imagine that Libyans would now still be living peacefully under the paternal care of Muammar Gaddafi were it not for the meddlesome interference of NATO and its misguided liberalism?
Why, I would ask, even if we had we minded our own business would Libyans also have ignored what was happening in Tunisia and Egypt?
The image that the anti-interventionists so often conjure up is one of docile native populations who apparently lack the capacity to rise up themselves without the misguided meddlesome hand of Western neoliberals.
Absent Western interference, people across the Middle East might still be enjoying civil tranquility, while their rulers used just enough discreet torture and well-established corruption to allow for government to operate smoothly.
It strikes me that many of the Western anti-interventionists are no less conceited and self-absorbed than the neoconservatives in seeing a world, powerless to shape itself, forever being molded or messed up by an all-powerful West.
If Walt really believes in this mind-your-own-business foreign policy he articulates, I’m curious how this translates to an issue in which he has shown great interest: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In an interview with the Harvard Gazette this week, Walt was asked: “What can and should the international community be doing right now to diffuse tensions?” He responded:
Unfortunately, the international community has rarely been willing to take bold action to end the seemingly endless cycle of violence. The United States and European Union have considerable leverage over both sides, but neither group has been willing to use its influence constructively. Halting the present violence will save lives in the short-term and would therefore be desirable, but only a genuine peace agreement will prevent it from breaking out again at a later date.
He acknowledges that the U.S. and EU do possess considerable leverage and would presumably support the application of that pressure as a form of intervention at the current time — he simply has no expectation that this is about to happen.
No doubt there are many Israelis who believe that democracy “suitably adapted to local conditions” requires the continuing occupation of Palestinian land. They regard the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank as “unready” for self-rule. They’d probably tell the Harvard professor to go mind his own business and if he was true to his anti-interventionist principles he probably should.
But frankly, the debate for or against intervention seems like a vacuous endeavor — it’s like arguing about whether you support or oppose the use of medicine.
But which medicine prescribed for what and taken for how long?
If the medicine turns out to be toxic because the diagnosis was faulty, that doesn’t make it bad medicine — it simply means it was used in the wrong way.