More on International Interventions

So now that we’re deep into the heart of our NFL qualifying tournament, I can talk about how to affirm Resolved: The United States is justified in intervening in the internal political processes of other countries to attempt to stop human rights abuses, and I will in just a moment.


Most affirmative positions will be confused by how this resolution uses intents to justify actions regardless of consequences when real-world consequences tend to be disastrous. Really, the United States hasn’t closed Gitmo and got help from 54 other countries in abusing human rights — we shouldn’t be claiming that we’re justified in any interventions to prevent human rights abuses. But the mistake that the negative might make is thinking that just because an action isn’t justified means that it won’t be taken when we have a Long History of Bad Ideas playing out in a predictable fashion. What we have to understand is that an action may still be necessarily taken with a noble acceptance of guilt in lieu of justification. As Reinhold Niebuhr explains in The Irony of American History:

The tragic element in a human situation is constituted of conscious choices of evil for the sake of good. If men or nations do evil in a good cause; if they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice. Thus the necessity of using the threat of atomic destruction as an instrument for the preservation of peace is a tragic element in our contemporary situation. Tragedy elicits admiration as well as pity because it combines nobility with guilt.

In short, we can do everything the affirmative is going to say that we’re going to do, but do it accepting that we are causing harms that can never be fully justified but we instead choose to bear the guilt. And this is unavoidable due to the conflict between the group dynamic of a nation such as the United States and the externality of other peoples’ human rights. Indeed, our choice to intervene in other nations political processes is based not on their actual behavior, but rather how we want to think about ourselves. Niebuhr explains in Moral Man and Immoral Society that:

The growing intelligence of mankind and the increased responsibility of monarchs to their people have placed a check upon the caprice, but not upon the self-interest, of the men of power. They may still engage in social conflict for the satisfaction of their pride and vanity provided they can compound their personal ambitions with, and hallow them by, the ambitions of their group, and the pitiful vanities and passions of the individuals who compose the group.

Thus it isn’t the “attempting to stop human rights abuses” that would have us claiming our government was justified in intervening, but rather our belief in our government’s vicarious virtue that makes us feel it is justified. This subtle but distinct shift moves the affirmative case off of its alleged base and shows the resolution to be false.


The resolution is asking us to evaluate actions by intentions. Those actions — interfering in foreign affairs — aren’t our actions; they are being done by people in the executive branch of our federal government. And we either elected them, or elected the person who appointed or hired them into public service. And both at the point where they are employed in public service and/or elected by the public, we must necessarily expect that they have Good Intentions because that reflects back on the populous (us). But there’s a funny thing about having Good Intentions, and it is that a person with good intentions will believe that whatever they choose to do is justified by their good intentions — or, more to the point, their great, pure, and noble intentions which form (in their mind) the core of their character and are the basis for their public service. For example, former President Bush still thinks that his decision to invade Iraq was a good idea [saw it on the news a couple of days ago] because he believes he did it with great, pure, and noble intentions and to admit that it was a quagdebaclamire — a debacle stuck in the middle of a quagmire — would be to call his intentions into question, which then calls his identity into question, and any strong ego (like those of almost anybody, but certainly anybody who can get elected president) is going to reject that flat out: people will readily and continually lie to themselves about what they’ve done to avoid having to question their belief in who they are. So the thing is that if we want to work with these people, we have to expect their best intentions.

So we’re going to value the Expectation of their Best Intentions.  I expect that you judges have the best intentions of imparitiality coming into this debate and I thank you for your service to our education.  And I expect that my opponent has the best intentions in arguing that interventions are not justified because they so often have problematic side-effects and violate some notion of national soverignity et cetera. Similarly, we should be expecting the best intentions of our elected government, because we want to justify our ongoing democratic process instead of being compelled to open revolt.

And the criterion we’re looking at is which best intentions we’re talking about: claims to attempt to stop human rights abuses. After all, government officials may attempt to justify their actions via other claims — stopping terrorists is popular — but for the set of best expectations that they’re justifying in the current resolution, they’re necessarily going to be claiming to fixate on human rights abuses.

C1: Now we’re going to necessarily be horrified and outraged when things go wrong. And my opponent is going to tell us all about that. But what we have to understand is that if we want to change our leaders’ direction, we have to work with their claims of having the best intentions…

“Riccardo Orizio interviewed seven [other] dictators, including Idi Amin, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Mira Markovic… and Jean-Bedel Bokassa…  Every one of them claimed that everything they did — torturing or murdering their opponents, blocking free elections, starving their citizens, looting their nation’s wealth, launching genocidal wars — was done for the GOOD of their country. The alternative, they said, was chaos, anarchy, and bloodshed.  Far from seeing themselves as despots, they saw themselves as self-sacrificing patriots.” (from Talk of the Devil, summarized in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me))

Indeed, we can reasonably expect that Syria’s dictator Assad views himself as a latter-day Lincoln, struggling to preserve the unity of his nation. But if all of these horrible evil Other people can justify their actions by their belief in their inherent goodness and public service, how much more justified are the people we’ve elected (and are not in active revolt against) going to feel about their actions? They are always, always going to believe that no matter how badly an intervention goes, that at least they made things better than those Horrible Horrible Human Rights Abuses they went in to stop.

C2: And regardless of how this round turns out, there will be interventions. The whole “greeted as liberators” perfume that was doused on the Iraq invasion by a Republican administration was recycled from a certain Bay of Pigs fiasco that was ordered under the administration of Democrats. The government’s gallantly botching the use of power, both hard and soft, on the international stage is a bipartisan activity that’s been going on for almost certainly longer than anybody here has been alive. And it’s certainly going to continue because the one quality that tens of millions of Americans can agree that any presidential candidate must possess is strength of will, demonstrated by absolute decisiveness, which is just veneer for self-justification that allows them to give orders based on their best intentions. So the thing you have to bear in mind while my opponent is speaking is that while they’re going to be talking about how great it would be if we could respect other nations or the UN or whatever, America — the America that hasn’t closed Gitmo, the America that has expanded drone attacks to include killing American citizens without trial or even charge — is also the America that re-elected President Obama despite not closing Gitmo and secretly expanding the drone war, which should totally be unsurprising because it’s the same America that re-elected President Bush despite a lack of international support for the invasion of Iraq. Saying “that’s not justified” doesn’t make it stop, it just stops dialog because the person in power knows that we don’t respect their best intentions.

C3: So let me be clear on this point: my opponent is probably going to be correct in almost everything they claim in their case.  The problem is that they’re not going to be stopping these interventions, and indeed will make mitigating the negative effects which are totally obvious to them even harder:  As Tavris and Aronson observe in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

“Self-justification not only minimizes our mistakes and bad decisions; it is also the reason that everyone can see a hypocrite in action except the hypocrite.  It allows us to create a distinction between our moral lapses and someone else’s, and to blur the discrepancy between our actions and our moral convictions. … A president who justifies his actions only to the public might be induced to change them.  A president who has justified his actions to himself, believing that he has the truth, becomes impervious to self-correction.”

So, in affirming the resolution, we can work through a criterion of human rights while valuing the best intentions of our government, but only if we accept their belief that the action was justified. The negative dialog would be “that invasion wasn’t justified, get our troops out, and — by the by — you’re also a horrible person” and we’ll find that we’re still staying the course or even surging in Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever.  But the affirmative dialog would be “okay, so we’re trying to give them democracy and protect human lives, and those are noble goals: so let’s work harder to minimize civilian casualties, and maybe back off and let them form their own government instead of supporting some local elites to mimic our own?” And in order to have that dialog, in order to mitigate all of the negative side effects that my opponent will tell us about, we have to be willing to believe that our elected officials really do have the best intentions.

[Note: a clever negative may attempt to advocate Open Revolt to put an end to unjustified government action.  At this point, the negative becomes and enemy of the state and may be subject to targeted killing by a drone, which would be perfectly justified — claims the government in power — to protect the domestic tranquility of the nation, while also making it impossible to vote for the negative position in the long-term such that the debate cannot be permanently resolved in the negative. We do live in troubled times.]