The Breakfast Table

Beyond Realpolitick


Ireland was actually the second leg of the trip, after Morocco–and what a contrast: from heat and dust (and the thoroughly–and rather horrifyingly–medieval city of Fez) to cool drizzle and green fields. And I must say that the prosperity and peace of a place like modern Ireland gives even a cynic like myself a sort of emotional lift: It shows that a country can transcend a terrible history, that the human condition really can improve. On the other hand, the papers there were full of dire stories about the potential breakdown of the Northern Ireland peace process, which has barely rated a mention here (but see this CNN story).

Anyway, back to U.S. news. As I read your remarks about how Kosovo reverses the usual left/right roles on intervention, I found myself wondering what Noam Chomsky–who epitomized the left-wing view that all bad things are the result of Western intervention–is saying now. Well, I couldn’t find anything about the current crisis, but thanks to the miracle of search engine technology I did find some remarks about Bosnia, which are pathetic but revealing: First he tries to blame it all on the Western Right, then suddenly gets all judicious and practical. Here’s the article.

The truth, I think, is that the very success of America–our emergence as the world’s overwhelming superpower–creates a set of moral dilemmas for the left. (The Right–which at a fundamental level believes that man is not his brother’s keeper–does not suffer to the same degree). There are now very few clear and present dangers to the United States itself; for the most part Realpolitik does not compel us to intervene in other countries’ affairs. On the other hand, there is a great deal of evil in the world, and the United States often could do much to limit the damage. Doesn’t this mean that we have a moral obligation to do so? If you believe that Americans should be willing to pay higher prices in order to ensure that sweatshop workers in Indonesia are paid better (which is not entirely clear–see my old Slate column “In Praise of Cheap Labor “), how can you deny that we have a moral responsibility to prevent genocide when we can? Not to put too fine a point on it: A few thousand Marines could probably have saved 800,000 lives in Rwanda–but we did nothing. When I see college students get worked up over the wages Nike pays in Southeast Asia, I can’t help but feel that they have chosen a remarkably safe target.

Of course, I don’t want to end up sounding like a standard right-winger either–I’m an equal-opportunity curmudgeon, with some nasty things to say about the developing campaign of Bush the Younger. But let me save that for a later missive.