The Tension Liberals Can’t Avoid

It is gratifying to see Glenn Greenwald – one of President Obama’s harshest critics from the left – write in defense of the Iran nuclear deal against neocons who are trying to sabotage it.

As usual with neocons, they are being deceitful about their actual intent. They don’t want a “better deal”: at least not one that’s plausible. They want to keep Iran isolated and demonized and ultimately to depose its leadership through war or other means of aggression. They hate the Iran deal precisely because it’s likely to avert that aggression and normalize the world’s relations with that country, making the war they’ve long craved much less likely.

That is probably the closest you’re going to get to a Greenwald statement in support of an Obama foreign policy position. So it’s worth noting.

But paying attention to what Greenwald has to say about the Iran deal is instructive for the bigger picture as well. That’s because almost three years ago he wrote a scathing critique of the strategy that was used to get Iran to the negotiating table in the first place: sanctions.

So horrific is the human suffering brought about by such sanctions regimes that some are beginning to argue that killing Iranians with an air attack would be more humane. That was the argument advanced several days ago by the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, Blake Hounsehll, who mused that he was “beginning to wonder if limited airstrikes on Iran may actually be the more morally sound course of action.”…

In essence, the same mentality that drives Democratic support for drones sustains Democratic support for sanctions: they tacitly embrace the unexamined assumption that the US is inevitably going to engage in aggression and kill Muslims, and then pat themselves on the back for cheering for the way that kills the fewest (I support drones because they’re better than full-scale invasions; I support sanctions because they’re better than air strikes). They are seemingly incapable of conceiving of a third alternative: that the US could or should refrain from killing innocent people in predominantly Muslim countries…

Even if it were true that sanctions produces less civilian harm than all-out air strikes on Iran, that would not justify sanctions. But as evidence of the sanctions-caused human suffering in Iran mounts, even the premise of that claim, irrelevant though it is, seems less and less convincing.

It would be interesting to hear Greenwald’s thoughts on that today.

But I’d like to take this farther than simply pointing out the inconsistency of Greenwald’s position. That’s because his earlier critique, as measured by the final result, is something that all liberals must grapple with when we confront real world challenges.

The question we must face is whether a deal with Iran that “normalizes the world’s relations with that country, making war much less likely” would have come about without the sanctions. I can’t imagine anyone making the argument that it would. And so we get into the messy reality of justifying one form of human suffering in order to avoid much worse human suffering (an argument Greenwald casually dismissed in the middle paragraph up above).

A few years ago I wrote that I’d like to introduce Greenwald to Reinhold Niebuhr – the philosopher who is most commonly known for suggesting that we have to live in the world as it is, rather than as we want it to be. Here’s how I ended that article.

Niebuhr would tell us that facing the world as it is involves giving up the comfort of surety and learning to live with the tension, doubt and collateral damages of our choices…all while remaining resolute in our commitment to our ideals.

Considering actions that lead to human suffering as a way to avoid worse human suffering is exactly where the tension and doubt enter…as they must. It’s an awful prospect to have to consider. But ultimately the only way to escape it is to retreat from engagement and cling to pure ideals while the world rages on. In the face of fascism, Niebuhr was unable to do that – and so he ultimately gave up his commitment to nonviolence.

Here is how President Obama addressed this tension in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another — that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier’s courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths — that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.

I believe that this is why Obama reveres Abraham Lincoln as our greatest president…because he struggled so deeply with the tension between the horror of slavery and the horror of war. There was no path of purity available to him. He had to make a call – knowing that it would mean human suffering on a massive scale with no guarantees of success. That’s what it means to lead in the world as it is. And that’s the tension that liberals can’t avoid.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.