First, congratulations to Spain for winning its first ever World Cup! They definitely deserved the honor as the best team. This tournament got me thinking about nationalism and its many faces. After all, isn’t that what the World Cup is really about? It’s fun rooting for your nation – or at least the ones you like better if yours unfortunately gets knocked out. Also who doesn’t like rooting against France if you’re American or against America if you’re from anywhere else? Of course all major sports harness the allure of tribalism for the entertainment of its fans; but the World Cup, probably above even the Olympics, is the ultimate pastime for the nationalist. Sometimes fans take the in-group, out-group rivalries too far, but most recognize that it’s all in good fun.
In areas other than sports, nationalism has always made me a bit uncomfortable intellectually. After all, why should invisible arbitrary boundaries and the lottery of genetics make one human being more important or valuable than another? Even if one were to accept that certain states are more valuable as a force for good or that certain cultural values within specific nations are more moral that doesn’t mean that each individual within those borders is more useful or moral or valuable. My logic, informed as it is from the enlightenment, tells me that a person’s nationality shouldn’t press on scales of morality. Yet without wading too deeply into the usefulness of states as political entities, we should remember that the Treaty of Versailles enshrined the right to national self-government. This permits individuals, now citizens, who share common values to form a political and legal community of their choosing. Liberals such as John Locke can see the moral value in that; so can I. Thus, if we grant that nations usefully enhance the lives of individuals, can utilitarian hands reach and tip those moral scales at all?
Let me take a difficult moral question for me to juggle (like any good futbol player) with these ideas. The conflict in Iraq may have been a moral no brainer for many, but not me (which I’m often ashamed to admit). I may be the only person alive who initially opposed the intervention into Iraq but became more convinced of its positive moral case as the situation deteriorated. Before any readers confuse correlation with causation, let me say that it was not because the situation deteriorated. Obviously the intellectual debate raged on after Saddam fell and the reality grew worse. I began reading both sides of the debate including the moral cases built by many in favor of the war prior to its launch. Without rehashing the cases now, just understand that the liberal hawks and intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens had a profound and persuasive effect on my understanding of the moral value in attempting to liberate a people from a tyrannical and sadistic monster like Hussein.
During the horrible violence unleashed during the attempted building of democracy in Iraq, I read Peter Galbraith’s End of Iraq
(while traveling in Spain) which while revealing the most devastating catalogue of incompetency in America’s execution, it also instilled in me a deep sympathy for the Iraqis, especially the Kurdish minority, under the barbarous rule of Hussein. As it became obvious to people like Andrew Sullivan
and the majority of the American populous that supporting the adventure into Iraq had been a mistake, I began to wonder if the execution of the mission should carry moral weight about the rational to enter the conflict. After all, it is certainly possible that we had moral justification to try to aid the people of Iraq, but just did a terrible job. Or even if a noble mission is doomed to fail, can it be good?
Is Iraq worse off now? If so, will it be in the future? The dead Iraqis are clearly worse off. Many that were previously oppressed are now better off. In the calculation of the complete moral tally of the Iraq enterprise, the sum is unclear to me. When I judge the Iraq conflict now, I can’t help but view the situation through the lens of an American. For the United States, it seems an unqualified failure and mistake. This brings me back to my original point; should I be looking at this as an American as opposed to the perspective of, say, a Kurd who’s family was gassed by Saddam or a Shi’ite who would have been tortured and killed if Saddam remained in power? Nonetheless, if someone forced me to say if we should have gone into Iraq knowing what I know now, I’d have to say, ‘”no.” The neoconservative cheerleaders fail to acknowledge reality, but many opponents and reformed souls too often don’t like to admit the continued difficulty in the moral case for and against intervention. Anytime someone points to the number of dead Americans or cost to American taxpayers, I wholeheartedly empathize but the provincialism registers with me. I’m not discounting it or faulting it. I think those statistics are important, valuable, and persuasive measures for the ethical case against intervention. But if we were Iraqis fighting for our own home, would 4000+ dead servicemen and a multi-trillion dollar price tag be not worth the cost for the overthrow of a brutal dictator and the promise of self-determination?
These questions puzzle me as a liberal humanitarian. The case for nationalism here is powerful. The nation, as the political entity we’ve created to advance our individual interests, must seek its own self-interest. It is plausible to me that the invisible hand of self-interest works for nation-states causing a greater good for other parties. As for our political representatives, we elected them to represent our interests over others as long as we hold to basic human decency. So, shouldn’t I encourage them to value an American life over an Iraqi’s if that means greater good for all in a utilitarian calculation? If our nation weighted everyone in the world the same, it wouldn’t have the resources to improve as many lives. The combination of scarcity with the practicality of local action suggests that more people benefit by an individual state favoring its own interests.
As may be apparent now, a contrast exists in valuing all humans equally while thinking nations best serve individuals. I haven’t reconciled it yet. Iraq is not only a chockstone for the Middle East, but also precariously wedges together difficult moral precepts for me. The intervention into Iraq may be noble mistake, but both sides in the debate need to acknowledge that strong moral factors sit on both sides of the scale.
(photo 2: Me in Spain at a Kurdish kebab shop)