Human Rights Imperialism: Leftist Satire or Moral Collapse?

Response in the Guardian

Kinzer's diatribe did not go unrebutted in the pages of the Guardian. Sohrab Ahmari counterpunched with a devastating essay called Beware those who sneer at 'human rights imperialism':

Imagine what Kinzer's proposals would mean in practical terms. Can human rights activists be expected to ignore the plight of a woman being stoned in Iran for adultery or a journalist tortured in Mubarak's jails? ("Terribly sorry, but we wouldn't want to judge your oppressors by the meter of our culturally determined, imperialistic standards – tough!")

And consider, too, the impact of this brand of relativism on the moral imagination of the left, which, at its very best, stood firm on the principle that people divided by geography, culture and language can empathise with and express solidarity with each other.

If the isolationist, provincial left manages to convince us that the blessing of liberty is to be allocated randomly – along geographic lines and according to the accident of birth – will the heart still beat on the left?

"Will the heart still beat on the left?" Ahmari asks. Not with Kinzer leading the charge. I no longer detect a pulse.

Three Cups of Whoop-Ass

Kinzer's moral collapse is the culmination of an untenable paradox that has been bedeviling the modern left for quite some time. This paradox is epitomized by the career of progressive humanitarian Craig Mortensen, author of the bestselling book Three Cups of Tea, in which he details his efforts to build girls' schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mortensen's project has received lavish praise from some mainstream liberals, who after all are in favor of education and women's rights. Mortensen's "soft" approach to modernizing the backward areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan is seen as the morally superior nonviolent alternative to the harsh military tactics of the U.S. government and its allies:

“Schools are a much more effective bang for the buck than missiles or chasing some Taliban around the country,” says Mr. Mortensen, who is an Army veteran.

Each Tomahawk missile that the United States fires in Afghanistan costs at least $500,000. That’s enough for local aid groups to build more than 20 schools, and in the long run those schools probably do more to destroy the Taliban.

I applaud Mr. Mortensen's efforts in that they undermine the oppressive nature of fundamentalist Islam -- but he's fooling himself if he thinks his school-building project could survive on its own without the menace of Western military might looming in the distance. If you walked alone into Taliban country and simply announced to the tribal chieftains, "I want to educate your women so they can break free from your cruel dominance and become more sexually liberated!", you probably wouldn't meet with much success, much less live to tell the tale. But if you instead announced, "Look, if you let me build a girls' school here, the U.S. military will regard you as friendly allies and spare this area; but if you kick me out and embrace the Taliban, expect a rain of bombs and missiles," then you'd likely encounter more cooperation.

Now, of course, the conversation is never that overt, but the carrot-vs.-stick dilemma is present even if not vocalized. It's a "good cop/bad cop" routine played out on a grand scale; villagers get a taste of the "bad cop" Western military, and then in come "good cop" do-gooder progressives offering a more appealing alternative, saying, "You don't want to deal with that bad cop again, do you?"

But the "good cop/bad cop" dynamic doesn't work if you have only a "good cop." Without the threat of a more dire outcome, the subject has little motivation to consent to the smiley-face cultural imperialism of the do-gooders.

Yet here's the part that the progressives don't like to admit: The good cop and the bad cop always have the same goal. The "routine" is just that -- an act. In a police setting the goal is to get a confession using psychological trickery. On the world stage the goal is to bring human rights to oppressed peoples using humanitarian progressivism as the loving alternative to war. But the "good cop" is actually on the same team as the "bad cop," despite appearances.

I can't say for sure because I haven't really followed his evolving attitudes, but it seems to me that Mortensen has himself had a second "A-ha!" moment and softened his opposition to military strength, realizing that the U.S. armed forces are on the same side as he is: his most recent book, Stones into Schools, details "his friendships with U.S. military personnel, including Admiral Mike Mullen, and the warm reception his work has found among the officer corps." Even Nicholas Kristof, linked above, noted in 2008 that "The Pentagon, which has a much better appreciation for the limits of military power than the Bush administration as a whole, placed large orders for Three Cups of Tea and invited Mr. Mortensen to speak. 'I am convinced that the long-term solution to terrorism in general, and Afghanistan specifically, is education,' Lt. Col. Christopher Kolenda, who works on the Afghan front lines, said in an e-mail in which he raved about Mr. Mortensen’s work."

So: Greg Mortensen, the U.S. military, and I, all agree: We should use our full civilizational "arsenal," whether it be helping-hand do-gooderism, or Predator drones launching Hellfire missiles, or a combination of the two, to bring Western values to the backward areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But you know who disagrees with us? The Taliban and their fellow Islamists, who have issued fatwas calling for Mortensen's death, blown up girls' schools when they could get away with it, and militarily opposed the post-Taliban government.

And you know who else disagrees with us? Stephen Kinzer and his ilk, that's who. Realizing that we can't bring human rights to oppressive patriarchal societies without wreaking violence, whether actual or metaphorical, on traditional cultures, Kinzer now proposes that we abandon the attempt altogether.

So, on one side, you have human rights activists and the U.S. military; and on the opposing side you have the Taliban and the morally unhinged Stephen Kinzers of this world.

Which side do you choose?