I always wonder what happened in Western political thought when the defenders of dictatorial regimes and advocates of the status quo are cheered on as leftists and peacemakers, while those who stand in solidarity with the oppressed and seek the spread of Enlightenment values are painted as neoconservatives and advocates of militarism. Somehow, for me to support the liberation of 50 million fellow human beings in Afghanistan and Iraq has become a reflection of my naiveté, while those who argue for ignoring fundamental violations of human rights and dignity are able to wrap themselves in the shroud of “peace.”
But what does it mean when the peace that they promote is one in which Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services are free to kidnap, torture and murder people in the darkness of night? Or in which the Taliban are able to flog young women for being out in the streets with a man who wasn’t her family?
When debating these issues surrounding the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq, there was a time when I identified myself as “conservative.” Being caught up in the dichotomy of the left vs. the right, I accepted the idea that if the left was standing against the liberation of Iraq, that I must, with my incongruous stance, be standing somewhere on the right. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that the inconsistency in arguments was not mine, but was instead the lefts’. It wasn’t that I had changed my views on the universality of human rights, the dignity of the individual or the importance of Enlightenment values; but rather it was the left that started cherishing isolationism and cultural relativism, and had started to turn a blind eye to human suffering.
If it were up to the left, they would be perfectly content to abandon the women of Afghanistan to their fate under the Taliban and disregard the suffering of those trapped in Saddam Hussein’s torture chambers. For them, esoteric discussions about international institutions and the power of the United Nations was a good way to turn the topic away from needing to think about the actual human suffering that occurred under those former regimes and that still goes on in places around the world.
The values I hold and the freedoms that I enjoy are not mine alone. They do not belong to me, nor are they only bestowed onto citizens of the United States or only the province of the West. They are universal. It is despicable to make excuses that history will not allow some cultures and societies to operate with democratic governance or embrace the values set down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
What the left seems to forget is that the universal solidarity that they once claimed is not merely derived from words or slogans shouted as they march on the White House. For those words to mean anything, they must be backed by the willingness to take action. The left can claim to care about the people of Afghanistan or Iraq, but when it came to the decision between liberation and maintaining the status quo–well, we saw their decision.
Does my desire to see the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq make me an adherent of militarism and a lover of war? I don’t think so. No one in their right mind wants war. It is not the only solution, and it does not solve everything. However, I also refuse to deny that there are situations where the use of military force is necessary. President Barack Obama acknowledged this when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in December:
And this becomes particularly important when the purpose of military action extends beyond self-defense or the defense of one nation against an aggressor. More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.
I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That’s why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.
Obama also reminded listeners that when force is used and the military might be applied, “…No matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.” These actions, though, also create an opening for societies that have long been oppressed to be able to chart a different path–one based not on the fanciful whims of a cruel dictator or a committee of religious fanatics.
Peace, as Spinoza said, isn’t just the “absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” Those that claim to support peace, yet stand idly aside as others suffer horrible wrongs, have misunderstood not only the true meaning of the word but also the true price of achieving it. In fact, this thirst for peace, this desire to see this virtue spread to all peoples of the world, is something quite possibly worth fighting for.