An article is being circulated among the Republican base that attacks John O. Brennan, the Obama administration’s nominee for director of the CIA, for having apologized for tyranny thirty-two years ago, in a master’s thesis he wrote for his MA in government and Middle Eastern studies from the University of Texas.
The clear implication of the article is that you, the reader, should oppose this nomination, because you believe in individual rights, freedom and democracy, and the nominee is opposed to all these things. But what is the thesis actually about? In effect, it is an extended argument circa 1980 for moderating Carter’s policy of being tough on our allies for their human rights violations, at least as regards Egypt. Presumably, US and Israeli interests are better served by dealing with a benevolent dictator than a full democracy whose foreign policy might reflect the aspirations of the Egyptian people, which presumably include the aspiration to drive the Israelis into the sea.
But first, we need some notion of what Egypt’s human rights performance is like, and in the course of trying to produce some way of operationalizing this notion, the thesis reviews the history of philosophical arguments about natural rights. What the article does, then, is take these arguments out of their argumentative context, in order to convey the impression that the thesis defends tyranny as an end in itself.
Now that alone is misleading, of course, but it isn’t hypocritical. What’s hypocritical is that the view the nominee’s 1980 thesis expresses is the Republican party line in 2013. Well isn’t it? I could hold a national conference of Republican enthusiasts for Arab Spring in my living room (it’s not a very large living room). OK, I wouldn’t call that limitless hypocrisy. But how about this: only a few short weeks before, the party sunk another nominee, this time for the alleged Benghazi scandal. Now set aside the fact that Benghazi is in Libya, the only country thus far to represent a successful application of the Bush Doctrine’s notion of democratization of Middle Eastern countries through force. The real subtext of the pseudo-scandal is that if only the administration wasn’t pussyfooting around with the Islamofascist terrorists currently running Egypt, if only it hadn’t “lost” Egypt, the US ambassador might be alive today. But, alas, the administration’s hesitant endorsement of Egyptian democracy shows where its true sympathies lie, vis a vis Israel, terrorism, everything. If only the administration’s policy had been the policy defended in the CIA nominee’s master’s thesis, in other words.
Well, at least they haven’t gone as far as to criticize targeted drone killings of Islamofascist terrorists.
Postscript: the original Daily Caller essay on occasion misrepresents the content of the thesis itself. For example, they claim that he cites Bentham and Burke in defense of his own claim that there are no such things as rights. It is clear from the text that they are only being cited in a survey of the history of opinions about the nature of rights. Their central argument, however, is that the philosophical chapter provides adequate evidence that Brennan does not regard human rights claims as binding because they are culturally relative or subjective, and that this explains his tolerance for rights-violation elsewhere in the thesis. As I read the text, it seems more confused than sophistical, let alone clearly committed to a subjectivist or relativist view. The gist of the discussion is that when it comes to legal rights, ascertaining whether they exist and what they are is relatively straightforward, as one can consult the relevant legal materials, but when it comes to human rights, matters are complicated by the fact that they are not just artifacts of our legal systems but moral concepts. Thus, we are presented with an epistemological problem: given that there are such rights (which the thesis acknowledges) how do we find out what they are? One answer is that historical experience, community consensus, etc. serve as evidence for a claim that something is a human right. There is a further question of whether a particular human right is reliably enforced in a particular setting. The defect of how the thesis treats these issues is that it is simply unclear whether he is reducing the rights to the evidence for them, so that community consensus constitutes the right, or whether he merely thinks it serves as evidence for the right. Thus it is actually quite difficult to tell what he means by such sentences as “Since it is the morality of a person or a society that determines the existence of such rights, it will be the same morality that will determine what actually constitutes these rights” (emphasis mine). Existence in what sense? In the sense of the validity of the moral claim, or in the sense that the claim is recognized and enforced? It is important to realize, however, that the purpose of the preliminary discussion is not to create a notion of rights sufficiently flexible to permit their disregard in special circumstances. Rather, his purpose is to operationalize the concept of rights so that the concept of rights-violation can itself be measured. Later in the thesis he will argue for tolerating rights-violation, but this presupposes that he has already secured a notion of rights-violation determinate enough to excuse. In short, “it’s OK what Egypt does because rights are subjective (or who’s to say what rights there are)” does not appear to be the gist of his argument. Rather, it is “it’s OK for Egypt to do what it does, despite the fact that rights-violations are involved.” Of course, a philosopher would not be overly impressed with the level of clarity in the philosophical chapter, but it is worth remembering that this was a government thesis, not a philosophy thesis, and as Brennan himself says, “The purpose of this essay is to evaluate four political goods rather than define them …” (p. 68).
Last but not least, it is an irony worth appreciating, several ironies in fact, that the closest Brennan ever comes to making a clear statement of where he stands on these issues is in the very last paragraph, where he says, “If nothing else, this study has shown how difficult any human rights analysis is. The fact that absolute human rights do not exist (with the probable exception of freedom from torture) makes the analysis susceptible to innumerable conditional criticisms” (p. 113, emphasis mine). Indeed.