• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Back Yards

Another kind of European reaction was expressed sharply by a leading British political commentator, after Mrs. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s most recent London sermon. “When Mrs. Kirkpatrick claims a satisfactory moral basis for all American actions,” David Watt wrote in the London Times, “she is on to a hopeless loser. The only possible defense for some of them must be on a quite different line: ‘Yes, it is wrong but it is necessary.’ Simply, ‘the end justifies the means.’ ”

The end justifies the means.” But isn’t that the tag we pin on Soviet conduct abroad? There is more confusion about this phrase than about almost any other. For it should be obvious that some ends do justify some means. A bullet fired at a murderer is not morally equivalent to a bullet fired by a murderer. The terrible means of modern warfare were justified to defeat Hitler. When we apply the tag to Soviet policy, however, we have in mind what could be called the “doctrine of the transubstantiation of means.” The doctrine states: “Our end—communism—is so great, so high and noble, that any means, however apparently vile and ignoble, are not merely justified by it; they are sanctified and transubstantiated by it. The means themselves become good.” Hence the grotesque Orwellian inversion by which war is called “peace,” exploitation “emancipation,” conquest “liberation.” The Soviet empire may be the last European empire; it is certainly the first to justify itself by the rhetoric of radical anti-imperialism.

But the United States is also historically distinguished from corrupt old Europe by its claim to principled opposition to empire. Anticolonialism was the ostensible basis of the Monroe Doctrine, and of subsequent US interventions in Latin America. American policy makers have ever since been concerned to prove, at every turn, that their ends are not the ends of other imperial powers; and if the means sometimes look the same (bullets, bombs, napalm), well, look again: the ends justify them. Or is it sanctify them? Congressman Jim Wright told us that the Salvadorans, having held their truly wonderful election, must not be denied “sufficient ammunition to protect the sanctity of the process.” There is a dangerous ambiguity in the precept: “What the United States does must always be good.”

Of course the moralistic distortion is neither as extreme nor as consistent nor (usually) as cynical as the communist inversion. Black does not become white even in the mouth of Jeane Kirkpatrick. But brown becomes off-white.

Insofar as the moralistic distortion consists in claiming that the bad-but-politic is good (as with the Kissinger panel), this is distressing to liberal-minded Western Europeans. The fact that American statesmen are speaking a familiar rhetoric rather than a strange one does not make this less distressing; it makes it more so. They feel their own values are being misappropriated. They smell humbug. Insofar as the moralistic distortion consists in actually believing that the bad-but-politic is good (as Jim Wright apparently does), insofar as it is self-deception rather than humbug, it is also dangerous for American policy making, since it leads to confusion about ends and means. Nowhere is this confusion more apparent than in recent US policy toward Nicaragua.

It may be instructive to speculate what the Soviet Union would do if it were faced with a challenge comparable to Nicaragua in its own “back yard”: a nation espousing a hostile system and, at best, international nonalignment. With Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1981, the Soviet Union has given us the answer: it would never have allowed Nicaragua to get away in the first place.

The Soviet Union justifies its armed interventions in Central Europe by reference to two principles: ideological legitimacy and security. The first (and historically novel) principle holds that the requirements of international socialism override what Pravda in 1968 called “an abstract, nonclass approach to the question of sovereignty and the right of nations to self-determination.” The wheel of history may never be rolled back. Once socialist, always socialist. This principle is rooted both in Marxist-Leninist theory and in a practical (and entirely justified) fear of the example that might be given by any socialist country adopting any other system. The second principle is more traditional: an exaggerated notion of what is “necessary” for the “security” of Mother Russia, that oftinvaded victim of European history. Soviet foreign policy is distinguished by the consistency with which it has acted on these principles in Central Europe. The label “Brezhnev doctrine” is a misnomer, inasmuch as this was also the Stalin, Khrushchev, Andropov, and is no doubt the Chernenko, “doctrine.”

What distinguishes American foreign policy, by contrast, is the striking inconsistency with which it has pursued its principles in Central America. The Soviets’ consistently exaggerated security needs are matched by the United States’ variously, successively, or simultaneously under- and overestimated security needs. Instead of the ironclad wheel of history there is the vague and elastic notion of “credibility”—that strange rubber balloon, now inflated to cover most of the world, now shrunk to a mere hemisphere, now “on the line” in far-off Asia, now in closest Central America. “But this inconsistency is the result of democracy,” you may object—and rightly. In this, as in other respects, the United States has les défauts de ses qualités. Inconsistency can be the sign of a truly democratic foreign policy. But it remains a fault.

American policy toward Nicaragua is a prize example. Having allowed the Sandinistas to win, the US is now apparently prepared neither to overthrow them nor to live with them. Instead, it is fighting an undeclared war against them. (The label “secret war” is a ridiculous misnomer.) This dirty little war gives the United States the worst of all worlds.

US officials list four main goals of the policy: externally, the Sandinistas are to be persuaded to cut their ties with the Soviet Union and to stop supporting “subversion and terrorism abroad” (i.e., Salvadoran guerrillas); internally, to reverse their military buildup, and to move toward pluralism, free elections, respect for human rights, etc.

On the two internal points, the undeclared war is not merely ineffective—it is counterproductive. Naturally enough, in response to increased contra aggression the Sandinistas have increased, not reduced, the militarization of their country. The war, far from encouraging “liberalization,” has brought in its train more suspensions of civil liberties, more censorship, more repression—all “legalized” by a state of emergency introduced when the contras blew up two major bridges in early 1982.

It is possible, even probable, that the Sandinistas would have moved in this direction anyway. They say their revolution is distinguished from previous socialist revolutions by “nonalignment, a mixed economy, and pluralism.” “Pluralism” is the most important claim, being the only effective guarantee of the other two. It is also the least convincing—whether one looks at the position of the other political parties, the working of the new mass organizations, the trade unions, the press and radio, or relations with the Church.2 If you ask Lenin’s vital question—who holds power over whom?—the answer is plain: the Sandinistas, over everyone else. Military and security forces are answerable to nobody except the FSLN. All major political decisions are taken by the National Directorate. At least three of the comandantes (Tomás Borge, Bayardo Arce, Henry Ruíz) are Leninists, who have a rather clear idea of what they want to do.

On historical precedent one would expect them, in any circumstances, to win out against advocates of a “third way” like Daniel Ortega, who have a rather vague idea of what they want to do. The opposition movement led by Arturo Cruz survives, but only under steady harassment. In the political system the Sandinistas are trying to build I can so far find no convincing institutional mechanisms for the devolution, separation, or transfer of powers; no internal checks or balances which, in the longer term, might prevent this revolution going the way of most previous “successful” revolutions: spontaneity degenerating into bureaucracy, openness into secrecy, idealism into self-interest, emancipation into oppression.

But the undeclared war is forcing this development. It is supplying arguments to the Leninists, hastening the drift of the Nicaraguan revolution toward another national variant of Leninist dictatorship. In this respect, Nicaragua’s situation is comparable to that of Cuba twenty years ago. The impact of the war on public opinion seems to be double-edged. The Sandinistas’ support is stronger in the countryside, where peasants have gained land, than in the towns, whose inhabitants bear the brunt of shortages and rationing. But the FSLN representative at the Sandinista Defense Committee (CDS) meeting says, “we have no beans, no powdered milk, no toothpaste—and all this is the fault of the US government.” An untruth—but the undeclared war gives the Sandinistas the excuse for mismanagement. The Sandinistas’ support is stronger among the young than the old. But two-thirds of the nation is under twenty-five, and youth has been swept along in the patriotic fervor that President Reagan is helping the Sandinistas to sustain. There is discontent with conscription; but at the same time the army is a powerful instrument of political mobilization and indoctrination. No doubt the Sandinistas would anyway have used the “Yanquis” as the external threat justifying internal repression, censorship, and shortages. But Reagan has made their propaganda more plausible.

As for foreign support of the regime, here too the undeclared war may be counterproductive: arguably the greater the pressure from the contras, the more the Sandinistas need Soviet and Cuban arms, and the more dependent they become. On the other hand, it can plausibly be argued that US pressure has prevented the Sandinistas from converting their passionate rhetorical support for the heirs of a Farabundo Martí (“If Nicaragua won, El Salvador will win” they chant at the CDS meetings) into effective military support. But this political judgment (which at best deserves a Scottish verdict of “not proven”) leaves unasked the essential moral question: even if the United States’ chosen means (including the use of force) were moving things toward the stated ends, would those means be justified by those ends?

Commenting on Western European reactions to the invasion of Grenada, Mrs. Kirkpatrick told us: “We found it truly unbelievable that countries which were themselves liberated by force from the occupying troops and Quisling governments of Nazi tyrants, or who participated in that liberation, should have been unable to distinguish between force used to conquer and victimize and force used to liberate.” This is indeed a vital distinction. But Mrs. Kirkpatrick begs an equally vital question: Who decides what is conquest and what liberation? After all, whenever the Soviet Union uses force outside its frontiers it is always “liberating.” It is currently “liberating” the people of Afghanistan, as it “liberated” the peoples of Central Europe. Are we simply to repose our trust in the word of one national government rather than another? Why should we?

To his credit, Caspar Weinberger addressed precisely this question at the Oxford Union. His answer was: American democracy. United States foreign policy, unlike Soviet foreign policy, depends on the “consent of the governed.” If the majority don’t like it, they can change it. Witness Vietnam. Contrast Afghanistan. That is the moral difference. It is an argument as round as it is simple—a first principle.

But if the consent of the majority at home is a necessary condition for a democratic foreign policy, it is not a sufficient condition. In the 1770s the majority in Britain opposed American independence. Hitler’s foreign policy had the support of the majority of Germans in the mid-1930s. It is possible that, if there were to be a genuinely secret ballot tomorrow, the majority of Russians would support Soviet policy toward Poland. As Mr. Weinberger was asked by an Oxford student: “Do you think that an immoral act becomes less immoral because we have the choice to do it or not?…Do the people who are tortured and killed and terrorized by those regimes [in Latin America] think it is a more moral act because Congress approves of it…?” (Loud and prolonged applause.)

So a second principle is needed for a truly democratic foreign policy: that of respect for the wishes of the majority in the country affected as well. This is surely the moral principle behind the Salvadoran election. This is the principle by which, as I believe, the United States would be morally justified in using force to help the Poles defeat General Jaruzelski—if that were possible without risking a war in Europe and a nuclear holocaust, which of course it is not. That the majority of Grenadans welcomed the Marines is central to the democratic justification of that invasion. Presumably this would be the justification used for an invasion of Nicaragua. But it would be wrong. After being there, I would judge that the majority of Nicaraguans currently deplore the United States’ undeclared war against their country, and would not support an invasion as the Grenadans did. This is the stated position of leaders of the conservative opposition, such as Arturo Cruz. An invasion tomorrow would therefore be conquest, not liberation.

President Reagan says, “We should not—and we will not—protect the Nicaraguan government from the anger of its own people.” To describe financing, arming, and training the contras as “not protecting the Nicaraguan government from the anger of its own people” deserves the Mua’mmar Qaddhafi prize for humbug. On this principle, Reagan should ask Congress to vote $21 million for the IRA—and then let him see the reception he gets in Ireland.

Mrs. Kirkpatrick may consider that the Nicaraguans do not know what is good for them. They cannot anticipate the totalitarian horrors that are just around the corner. She may even be right. But we have to let them find out for themselves. The right to do what in the end may not be good for us (smoking, drinking, writing this article) is a fundamental human right. To deny it, to impose upon other people what we consider “objectively” in their best interest, to “force them to be free,” is at best paternalism, and at worst the philosophy of the Soviet Union.

At this point I must meet the neoconservative objection that, whereas traditional “authoritarian” dictatorships are transitory and changeable, Soviet-type “totalitarian” dictatorships are immutable and eternal. This is of course the Soviet view: the wheel of history can never be rolled back.

Certainly, Leninism is the guiding principle of some of the toughest, most durable dictatorships in history. Leninists tend to win out in most “successful” socialist revolutions for the same reason that Lenin won out in the Russian revolution: the single-minded, ruthless concentration on the issue of power before all others. That is one reason Leninism suited Castro so well. What is unconvincing in such arguments is the overestimation of the intrinsic efficacy of the Marxist-Leninist political system—its elevation, by Marxist-Leninists on the one hand and neoconservatives on the other, to the status of a superhuman force; its deification by the former, and demonization by the latter.

The plain fact is that Leninist “totalitarian” dictatorships would long since have been dismantled in all the countries of Central Europe (East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia) were it not for Soviet armed force. The only thing that prevents the wheel of history being rolled back in Poland today is the Red Army. Solidarnosć finally demonstrated (if more demonstration were needed) that the wheel of history is bunk. In the case of Vietnam, and even of Cuba, one is bound to ask where the Marxist-Leninist regime would be without large-scale economic and military support from the Soviet bloc. Nicaragua is very close to the United States and very far from the Soviet Union. If the Sandinista regime does degenerate into a Leninist tyranny, if the abuses of this system do finally destroy the Sandinistas’ patriotic legitimacy, if the majority turns against them—then this regime could be overturned. Where the Soviet military writ does not run, a “totalitarian” dictatorship can be overthrown like an “authoritarian” one—Sandinistas as well as Somozas.

To decide where armed intervention for that purpose is morally justifiable—where conquest becomes liberation—is, of course, very difficult. At least four circumstances greatly complicate the ideal simplicity of the two principles expounded above.

First, all dictatorships try to shut their citizens up, and totalitarian dictatorships try to shut them up totally. Therefore it is often extremely difficult to know what the majority in an unfree country actually does want. Poland during 1980 and 1981 was a shining exception. Second, rulers may violate the fundamental human rights of a minority with the (active or passive) consent of the majority. Hitler’s persecution of the Jews is the classic example in our times. There is then a powerful moral argument for external intervention, to override the persecuting majority. Third, governments may, with the consent of the governed, threaten or violate the rights of neighboring peoples. Hitler again provides the best and worst example. Finally, the military presence of another power may significantly affect the global strategic and political balance.

All these considerations have been raised in the case of Nicaragua. The last three clearly involve conflicts of “moral interest,” in the peculiar language of the Kissinger commission; and it is frustrating to find so many American politicians blithely pretending (like Kissinger) or mawkishly believing (like Jim Wright) that they don’t.

In my view, none of these considerations would yet justify armed intervention in Nicaragua. While the Sandinistas make valiant efforts to fool visiting journalists, in the manner of the Soviet bloc, and while they have forbidden independent public-opinion polls, it is still possible to get a good sense of public opinion there. The Sandinistas’ treatment of the Miskito Indians was horrible, but I do not believe that this regime has since produced the kind of systematic barbarism that would justify overriding the principle of national self-determination.

I am unimpressed by the evidence that the US government has so far produced of Nicaraguan arms supplies to the Salvadoran guerrillas. (At a briefing before the Salvadoran election, a US military adviser proudly produced one North Korean cartridge.) In any case the legitimate military answer to such supplies is surely interdiction and containment, in Honduras and El Salvador. Finally, I am unconvinced that Nicaragua is becoming a Soviet satellite and military base. I think the United States has a right, and indeed a duty, to prevent any serious Soviet military buildup; but I think that this point has not been reached, and that there are means of preventing it short of armed intervention by proxy. I do not think you are justified in using force against a country because it is going to vote against you at the United Nations.

That is my personal judgment. It is a judgment shared by many friends in Western Europe. Many of my friends in Eastern and Central Europe violently disagree. They argue that the fourth consideration—the global struggle with the Soviet Union—overrides all others. In my experience, President Reagan and Mrs. Kirkpatrick are as popular in Eastern Europe as they are unpopular in Western Europe. So who finally shall judge?

For almost a century now, liberals (especially American liberals) have sought ways of establishing the democratic will of the international community. If we could only establish that—a world majority, so to speak—it would surely help formulate a truly democratic foreign policy. We have not got very far. We still live in a world of old-fashioned nation states—those political dinosaurs. Indeed, there are many more of them now, and very few are democratic or free. For the government of the world’s largest democracy, the process of international consultation is therefore as messy and piecemeal a business as it has ever been—a business of talking to the democratically elected governments of free countries; to their peoples; and, where possible, to the free peoples of unfree countries like Poland. And their judgments, too, will not be pure ones; they will be partial, colored by history and national interest. Often there will be no consensus.

Yet just occasionally there will be a clear majority among the free nations you consult. For example, they, like most Nicaraguans, will condemn the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors, criticize the undeclared war, and call for a negotiated regional settlement as proposed by the Contadora group. If you then ignore them and continue on the same path, you are behaving undemocratically—even when you have majority support at home. And if, at such moments, America believes that its government alone is behaving both democratically and morally, then it is like the proud but silly mother at her cadet son’s parade, exclaiming: “Look! Ronnie’s the only one keeping step!”

Of course there are Western Europeans who will never be satisfied; who embrace other ideologies; whose anti-Americanism has irrational, historical, and cultural roots. But among those Oxford students who voted against Mr. Weinberger, there are certainly some—perhaps many—who simply measure the United States by its own proclaimed moral standards. They are rightly dismayed by the prospect that the US will righteously promote violence in Central America. They have, indeed, that “abstract, nonclass approach to the question of sovereignty and the right of nations to self-determination” which Pravda so eloquently deplored in 1968. They admire that “proclamation of and dedication to the liberal creed” which is so singular a part of the American national identity. They just want less proclamation and more dedication.

Letters

The Spirit of Croly January 17, 1985

  1. 2

    This bald assertion is justified at greater length in my article “The Undeclared War” in The Spectator (London), May 5, 1984, pp. 8–10.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print