Trevino: The Commentariat at War
Guest post from Josh Trevino:
Simone Weil once asked, “Who were the fools who spread the story that brute force cannot kill ideas? Nothing is easier. And once they are dead they are no more than corpses.” She would have known, living as she did in the first decades of the 20th century: the era that saw the triumph of brute force over ideas of good and evil. Weil is invoked today, if at all, as a harbinger of modern leftist Christianity. But this is unjust on two levels: she respected the Church, and she grasped great moral contests with a clarity that the modern left does not. In this past week, nowhere is that failure of the left — and its incomprehension of Weil’s dictum — more evident than in its reaction, as expressed in blogs and media, to the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.
As I have explained, this invasion began half a year ago, and is only now entering its latest phase, as the Ethiopians transitioned several days ago from a static defense of Baidoa to an active campaign of conquest. But because this transition has taken the pundit class by surprise — they don’t pay much attention, it seems, to things that are not shiny and loud — one gets a lot of comment that is the distilled essence of glib ignorance. Take, for example, The American Prospect’s own Matthew Yglesias, who has, in the course of three days, managed to write a great many foolish things about this war. Yglesias doesn’t care overmuch about defeating Islamism per se; but he is very interested in attacking his partisan opponents. That he appears to conflate these opponents with the United States of America in toto is as untroubling to him as it is to, say, John Kerry. Yglesias demands to know what specific terrorists the Somali Islamists are harboring, and whether the United States has exhausted all diplomatic options before endorsing Ethiopia’s war. He then proceeds to spin a theory that the Ethiopian invasion was meant to forestall the deployment of a Ugandan-led UN force that would have supposedly prevented the elimination of the Islamists.
The absurdity of Yglesias’ statements ought to be self-evident. Among his false assumptions:
Matthew Yglesias deserves specific intelligence information. (He doesn’t.) The intelligence information that Matthew Yglesias deserves is the sine qua non of rational American support for this war. (It’s not.) The Somali Islamists have not invited in non-Somali jihadists. (They have.) Non-Somali jihadists have not entered Somalia in significant numbers. (They have.) There is a meaningful chance of peaceful coexistence with the Somali Islamists. (Given their endorsement of “Greater Somalia,” the concurrent re-appearance of “Greater Somalia” insurgents, the experience with every other Islamist polity ever, and the fact that the Somali Islamists declared jihad on Ethiopia some time ago, there probably isn’t.) The Ethiopians only entered Somalia after the UN peacekeeping force was approved. (They entered long before.) The present campaign was initiated by the Ethiopians. (It wasn’t — the Islamists attacked Baidoa first, following a declaration of anti-Ethiopian jihad weeks ago, prompting the Ethiopian decision to go on the offensive.) The United States bears the primary moral responsibility for events in the Horn. (It doesn’t — Ethiopia has its own reasons for war, and has a long record of making war as it pleases. Yglesias compatriot and source Spencer Ackerman, who also appears to subscribe to the theory of wholesale African non-volition, outright blames America, in the tradition of Islamist apologist Salim Lone, of having “instigate[d] a regional war.”)
Once Yglesias has his answers, it is implied that he will support what he assumes is his country’s support for Ethiopia’s support for the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia. Or something like that. (Update: Yglesias got his answers, and now concedes that the “Somali terror nexus isn’t something invented out of whole cloth.” The reality-based community in action! Still, darned if he’s going to support this anyhow.)
We should note two things: First, Yglesias’ softness on the Somali Islamists is not a new phenomenon for him. He’s a lukewarm advocate of accommodation with the Taliban as well, apparently on the theses that jihadist fanatics are susceptible to ivory-tower rational-actor behaviors, and that some really smart people think it’s worth a shot. Second, he’s of the same class that rather loudly complained of America’s failure to “do something” about the Taliban prior to 9/11. Weirdly, that “something” in Yglesias’ book was apparently negotiation — although that doesn’t stop him from from taking partisan potshots from the high ground of anti-Taliban purity when it’s convenient. Still more oddly, when Yglesias does the latter, it is in a resigned tone: once the Taliban, he writes, “have substantially re-entrenched themselves … there won’t be very much we can do about it except just kind of hope they don’t once again start playing host to terrorists plotting to attack America.” This is here, to Yglesias, a bad and foolish thing — and he’s right, as it’s a bad and foolish thing objectively. The question, then, is why it’s terrible in Yglesias’ eyes to allow Islamists a statelet in Waziristan, but it may be perfectly fine to allow them one in Somalia.
The answer, of course, is that it’s not about Islamism, less about patriotism, and still less about America: it’s about the relentless advancement of his political party — the opposition to which is, it seems, inseparable from the whole of his nation abroad.
It’s easy to pick on Yglesias, but we should be fair and note two other things: First, we do so because he is, unlikely the bulk of his fellows in the leftosphere, neither intrinsically ignorant nor obscene. Hence critiques of his arguments are critiques of things that matter and have meaningful currency beyond him. Second, we do so only inasmuch as he’s a representative of the broader journalistic and pundit class, which has been doing quite badly in this war to date. On that count, regrettable examples abound:
Der Spiegel cites German print media as joining Ackerman in the belief that Africans do not possess independent volition: “German media commentators … see the conflict as opening up a new battlefield in the American-led global war against Islamic extremists.” (On the same note, the IHT prints a letter from an irate reader denouncing Bush’s “illegal proxy war of aggression to topple the Islamic leadership in Somalia.”) S