David Rieff Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Humanitarianism, the Human Rights Movement, and U.S. Foreign Policy: Conversation with David Rieff, author; March 11, 2003 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Realism vs. Utopianism

I get the sense that your moving out from the library and traveling to all these places, as you have in the last decade and more, [has made you] a realist in two senses. You've seen war: it doesn't necessarily work the way the planners think it will, on the one hand; and on the other hand, you're a realist in the international relations sense: using power wisely for the national interest. So if that is correct, how do you apply that to criticizing what is now the implementation of a neoconservative agenda? You've already touched on that, but is there anything else that you would like to say about that?

I am a realist. I'm absolutely a realist. I'm a realist who, Walt Whitman - style, thinks we should occasionally contradict ourselves. That is, in very exceptional cases, we should put aside our realism and do it anyway, rather like saying, "Well, you don't want to sin, but we're all sinners and we sin occasionally," which was the French view of the Kosovo intervention. It was illegal, but hell, we're all sinners and we all sin occasionally. I think we should have intervened in Rwanda just because we could have stopped it. It was the greatest slaughter in our time, and we could have prevented it. Almost a million people would be alive today if we had -- an extraordinary figure.

But I'm a realist, largely speaking. I think American realism is absolutely the best diplomatic tradition of this country. I also tend to share the very anti-Wilsonian view -- not of the left, who have this sense of genetic wickedness of the United States, which seems to me both adolescent and ahistorical. I have the view that the United States has committed great crimes as well as done marvelous things, like every great power. I think the Chomskys of this world are just American exceptionalists turned on their heads or curdled in the refrigerator. John Adams's contention that it was not the job of the United States to go out and fight monsters is very much my view. If we are going to fight, we should fight for reasons. Destroying the synergy of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan was perfectly rational and sensible use of American power, and to me, an absolutely inescapable one. Iraq seems to be a complete elective. And the notion "preemptive war" that the Bush administration had adopted contravenes every realist ambition that I can think of.

The utopianism of the administration is, frankly, what perturbs me the most -- on the one hand, the utopianism; on the other hand, a refusal to think in terms of interests. Any realist looking at the world today would say that solving the Arab - Israeli dispute, or at least advancing its solution, which it is within the power of the United States to do (solving it is another issue), would further the interest of the United States with much more certainty than dealing with Saddam Hussein, awful though he is. And I agree with the Bush administration's account of him.

What's happened is both on the right and the left has been a revival of this millenarian fantasy of American omnipotence. The human rights and humanitarian left thinks the United States can right all the wrongs in the world. And the hard Wilsonians, the right neoconservatives, think the United States can remake the world in its own image. Both of these things seem to me to fly in the face of history and reason. The United States is a great power, but no great power is omnipotent. That's, again, why the human rights left scares me as much, if not more, than the Bush administration.

You also worry about the domestic price that we're going to pay for this new global assertiveness in the war on terrorism. I heard you once talk about having witnessed some of that in Europe; that is, what the war on terrorism did there and what it might do to us here, domestically. By that I mean the threat to civil liberties and to our domestic politics.

The reason among the many reasons to think of war genuinely as a last resort, to lean away, to use Kagen's phrase (although, obviously, not in the way that Kagen would endorse), to lean away from the use of force, to think about the use of force as something that is exceptional, is that all wars brutalize you, even if you win them. The United States has a brilliant army. In many ways, it's one of the most interesting and dynamic and admirable institutions in this country. I know them well; I spent a lot of time in military circles. I admire them greatly. But for the civilian side, it seems to me the history of war is a history of the victors coming out brutalized. You can't tell me that World War II, with the firebombing and with the use of nuclear weapons in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, didn't make the United States a more brutal place. I feel that war is, by definition, lowering. Although again, I insist that there are times when you have to do it, as in Afghanistan.

But the terrorist war has a particular difficulty, which is that the temptation to break the rules -- to torture, to execute in a summary way, to assassinate, etc., all the tools of dirty war -- are almost inevitable in a terrorist war, partly because in a terrorist war there is a fundamental erasing of the boundary between war and crime. What's interesting about war, what's in a way admirable about the soldiers' vocation, is that there are rules. I mean, soldiers really can't do certain things. Do they sometimes disobey those rules? Absolutely. Are those rules always what they should be? Probably not. But a soldier can't just do anything. Whereas, once you're fighting people you don't accept are also enemy combatants, once you make them illegitimate the way the administration has declared our enemies in the terrorist war illegitimate, then anything is possible. And I see a kind of moral disaster.

To some extent, it's inevitable. I mean, once people pilot planes into your buildings and say that they're going to kill the "crusaders" and the Jews, and that there's no distinction between civilians and military people (which, after all, is what they say) ... In the words of Carlos the Jackal, the people in the World Trade Center were just "soldiers in suits and ties"; and I think that certainly follows bin Laden's view, with the Bali bombing and all these things. So there's probably some inevitability to it. But I think we're going to end up much the worse.

The more we view our remit as to transform the world in our own image, the more, in effect, we start down the road of this war being the essential defining characteristic of our society. Then I see the whiff of all the really dangerous possible transformations of our society. I mean, they haven't happened yet, and I think the hysteria over some of the things the Attorney General has done are, perhaps, a little overblown. But it could come. Certainly, there are people in the administration who would like it to come. And not only here, there are people in Europe as well. Everyone talks about the difference between Europe and the United States, but one good terrorist attack -- good, and very uncommon, as you know: had the Strasbourg Cathedral been blown up, I wonder whether the Europeans would be taking quite the view they're taking at the moment?

It's a very scary time. I think there was a lot of reason to be afraid that the post - Cold War world, the world of globalized, multinational capitalism, was going to be a lot less democratic anyway than what preceded it. And with terrorism, it seems to me the risk has now been ratcheted-up.

David, I regret to say we're out of time. I can't help quoting you quoting André Malraux. He said, "Utopianism is all well and good if it proceeds from a courageous appreciation of the world as it actually exists." I think it's fair to say you've done that here in this conversation and in your books. Thanks very much for joining us today.

Thank you.

Thank you. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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