Tuesday, August 14, 2007


James F. Elliott writes about Christopher Hitchens' eroding grasp of reality. It's a good post, and James is spot on regarding Hitchens' sad decline into dogmatism.

It's sad and ironic that an soi disant anti-authoritarian would support the war in Iraq and the Global War on (some people who use some kinds of) Terrorism, which has been the greatest boon to American authoritarianism, both in the Republican and Democratic parties.

However, one item in James' post struck me as not quite right:
Hitchens also, however, targets said apologists who characterize [al-Qaeda in Iraq] as "legitimate resistors of America's imperialist might" [my words]. ... Anyone who thinks this is clearly ignorant of the facts or else a fringe ideologue who should be roundly mocked until they go away.
Since it's manifestly the case that AQI is resisting American imperialism, the implication of James' comment seems to be that that AQI is somehow an illegitimate resistance. I think it's a mistake, however, to label our opinions about the goals of various actors on the world stage, notably al-Qaeda in Iraq, using the words "legitimate" or "illegitimate" in the first place.

Legitimacy is coherent only in an agreed-upon context, such as national or international law. Having stepped outside the bound of international law, there is no context whatsoever to confer or deny legitimacy to any party in this conflict. The U.S. war of aggression in Iraq is more than just a deeply and thoroughly immoral activity. It is more than simply an illegitimate activity. It has actually destroyed the notion of "legitimacy" in international relations.

Even the first Gulf war, itself entailing deeply immoral activities (notably the refusal to accept Saddam Hussein's surrender and the subsequent "Turkey shoot", the slaughter of retreating Iraqi troops), still preserved at least lip service to the notion of international legitimacy through the United Nations. Clinton likewise nodded towards legitimacy.

The rule of even a bad law is preferable to no law at all. A bad law can at least be discussed and changed; but there is nothing to discuss, nothing to change, when pure power is on the march. At this level, everyone is operating directly from pure immediate self-interest, with no thought at all towards abstract or global principles. No one in this conflict, neither the United States nor any but a few naive cannon-fodder teenagers, is fighting for anything but what they sees as their narrow, parochial self-interest. America is fighting for global dominance (and, happily, losing); the Iraqis are fighting for at best sectarian power and at worst individual personal power. Or perhaps I should characterize sectarian power as at worst: The chief goal of this sectarian power seems to be the power to slaughter those of different sects.

Formal definitions of legitimacy emerge from a balance of power. There is no such thing as a priori or objective notions of legitimacy. Moral "legitimacy" (including my own use of "immoral" above) without any explicit, formal definition is nothing more than personal opinion. Formal legitimacy emerges from competing self interest when no one's self interest can dominate by pure power. We agree to be bound by laws (and, more importantly, police and prisons) to refrain from murder, rape, theft, etc. because we do not have the personal, individual power to protect ourselves from these objectionable activities. But if I feel secure that I can protect my own self interest with my own personal power, what motivation do I have for acknowledging the rights of others? Abstract notions of morality by themselves have never proven effective at motiving behavior.

It should perhaps be unsurprising that formal notions of legitimacy are being eroded not only in international relations but in our domestic law. Two things happened. We went from an economically "open" system to a "closed" system: Unrestricted economic growth is no longer possible, and thus physical human labor is losing its value. (Only a fraction of people are capable of "soft", intellectual productivity, which is still relatively open.) Secondly, the balance of powers has been upset, both internationally, with no strong state or alliance to balance the military power of the United States, and no economic or social power to balance ultra-wealthy Americans.

What bugs me as a moralist, but even more as an engineer, is the sheer stupidity of our current problems. The almost half-trillion dollars spent on Iraq could have been better spent researching alternative sources of energy and making Iraq's oil wealth far less important. Our economic and political problems are caused chiefly by over production: We're fighting aburdly! because we have too much wealth. Control over physical wealth is no longer a way to enslave and control people... and we don't even really want to enslave and control others: Who wants anymore to be murdered by his butler? In the United States, at least, our entire social structure is running on pure delusional paranoid schizophrenia.

At some point, at an appalling cost in blood and wealth, some new balance will occur, and we will again turn our attention to abstract notions of morality and ethics, and develop a new formalism of legitimacy. Until then, we are doomed to a brutal competition of self interest that would shock even Machiavelli.


  1. Since it's manifestly the case that AQI is resisting American imperialism, the implication of James' comment seems to be that that AQI is somehow an illegitimate resistance.

    But this really isn't at all true. The targeting of American troops is largely because we are the props of the Iraqi state. Al Qaeda and its fellow-travelers, like AQI, require failed states in order to both operate and to meet their maximal goal of a caliphate-inspired feudal system. This is why, unlike the Shia militias (but like the Sunni militias and Baathists), AQI targets critical infrastructure. They are eroding the confidence of the people in the state to deliver even proximate health and security. They're laying the groundwork to replicate what Hezbollah has been doing in southern Lebanon for years.

    AQI's "resistance" to the U.S. shouldn't be categorized as such precisely because of the semantic legitimacy that word entails. "Resistance" in the context of Iraq de facto implies a struggle for Iraqi sovereignty, which is patently not the case with AQI (indeed, sovereignty is not the goal; at least, not in the way Westerners have understood it since the Treaty of Westphalia).

    "Resistance" is only properly used if one is trying to create, say, a sports metaphor of one team resisting the offensive of another. They're struggling over the same ball (Iraq's geography and population) in the same field (said geography) but with entirely different scorecards, tactics, configurations, and goal posts. The fact that there are other teams on the same field -- the various Iraqi state and nonstate actors -- confuses the whole thing further.

    But one must be sure not to conflate AQI with the Iraqis. AQI is a primarily non-Iraqi organization. As we have seen in Anbar Province, they do not operate in any sort of harmony even with their sectarian cohorts (other Sunnis). If the U.S. was absent from Iraq entirely, AQI would be targeting what was left of the nascent Iraqi state.

    I think this is a matter of misinterpration: If one interprets America's actions and goals as naked imperialism, it does not necessarily follow that AQI's targeting of American soldiers is "resisting American imperialism."

  2. James: I mean to say that, for whatever reasons of immediate self-interest, AQI is in fact directly opposing our imperialistic activites; I mean "resistance" in the physical sense, not the legal or ethical sense, i.e. in the same sense that a criminal might resist arrest.

    I don't mean to conflate ordinary Iraqis with AQI, which is as you note an outside element in Iraq. Thanks for clearing that up.

  3. Barefooted One - well written as usual. I agree about Hitchens and find this aspect of him disturbing. It's harder to listen to the legitimate points he makes when the back of my head keeps reminding me that he supports this war. I know that's a logical fallacy but still bothers me greatly.

    And I share your concerns about the rule of law and legitimacy. In fact, these are my main concerns with this war. The loss of life, both American and Iraqi is tragic. But what the administration has done to "rules", both nationally and internationally, will have far reaching consequences. I don't think we have seen the worst yet.


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