Thursday, July 24, 2008


Political Mayhem Thursday: When should America go to war?

Most of us would agree that something as important as war should be principled—that is, it should be engaged in only according to principles which can be articulated outside of any specific situation. One good thing to come out of the Iraq war has been an active debate over what these guiding principles should be.

As I see it, there are plenty of principles to choose from. For example, one might be willing to accept the costs of war in the following situations (listed from most to least restrictive):

1) never

2) only if the US mainland is invaded

3) only if the US mainland or an overseas territory (ie Guam) is invaded

4) only if United States forces are attacked here or abroad

5) only if the US or a key ally is attacked

6) only if the US or a key ally is attacked, plus to protect crucial economic interests

7) only if the US or a key ally is attacked, to protect crucial economic interests, or to change foreign regimes we find repugnant

Given the very high cost of war, which is the right principle? And have we engaged in unprincipled wars?

Another question would be, "what do you mean by 'war?'" Is it just a retaliation? Total annihilation and surrender of the attacker? Political and economic destruction? Overthrow of the current government? Congressionally declared war or simply a military intervention (or whatever we're officially calling it now)?

Furthermore, what defines an attack? One soldier fired upon by a soldier from another sovereign nation? An armed insurgency? Terrorist activities? Planned military activity by another nation that remains unacted upon?

I think that in today's modern military conflict lexicon, breaking it down into simply "war/not war" isn't politically feasible and it certainly doesn't reflect the reality of the tensions we face. I think military intervention is appropriate when there is a definite enemy, preferably a sovereign nation or organized militant organization (like al-Qaeda). I don't, however, think you can declare war on an ideology, like Terror or Islamic Extremism or any other abstract concepts where the enemy isn't clearly defined. Furthermore, I think that the labeling of enemy fighters should be done carefully, lest the U.S. seem reckless and unorganized on the national scale (despite what the Bush administration says to the contrary, there is a big difference between a terrorist and an armed in surgent fighting an occupying army).
It could even be argued that all wars are unprincipled, as it could be argued that all are principled.

One man's justification is another's moral deficiency.
There's no hard and fast rule. It's all dependent on context. Certainly I don't support wars of aggression or even pre-emption (because so often "pre-emption" just means paranoid suspicion). War is not something that should be done lightly, but it's very east for the rich, old and powerful to send the young, poor and destitute off to fight, so there's a disconnect between the reality of war and the desire to start them.

The only problem, however, is that in fighting, you never want to be on the defensive. There's a reason we reward sports teams that have superior defense: winning by defense alone is very rare. Attempting to manage aggressive nations by a purely defensive strategy is suicidal.

Ideally, we'd all realize that war is a stupid and pointless business that gets no one anything but pain, but as long as the major reasons for going to war (land or the lack of it, resources or the lack of them, and "them guys over there sure are different. Let's kill them!") exist, then war is going to exist.

So I don't know. I can't say when war is necessary. But, like Potter Stewart and naughty pictures, I'll know it when I see it.

"Ideally, we'd all realize that war is a stupid and pointless business that gets no one anything"

I think you'll have difficulty convincing European Jews, the Chinese, the Dutch, and the Philippinos that WWII was "pointless."

I think you'll have difficulty convincing South Koreans that the Korean war/conflict was "pointless."

I think you'll have difficulty convincing the Afghanis and MOST Iraqis that the current conflict was "pointless."

Not every war is good/just, but that doesn't mean that all wars are "pointless."

Civil war: Stupid or pointless?

I certainly don't think so.

Some principles and people are worth fighting for.
As long as it increases Halliburton's profits, it's ok by me.
Sun Tzu:

By "The Civil War" you of course were speaking of the war of northern aggression correct? Just want to make sure we are all on the same page.

In the 90s, when the US watched the Rwandan genocide take place, new it was taking place, and did nothing, there was a call from a number of activists and academics for the US to intervene.

Similarly, there are some today that want the US to become militarily involved in Darfur to stop a genocide from continuing.

Interestingly, most of the people making these arguments in both the Rwanda situation and the Darfur situation are left of center minded folks, who also criticize Iraq as a unilateral action against a country that never attacked us.

So, here is my question, WWII is always easy (good war, right war) because we were attacked and so forced to act. But, if we hadn't been attacked but knew about what was going on in Europe (mass slaughter of Jews, homosexuals, etc.) should we have acted anyways? Did we have a moral obligation to act?

If so, does the fact that we did nothing to stop the communists in Russia from killing hundreds of thousands of people make us morally culpable for those deaths? Same with Rwanda? Same with Darfur?

If you see a person beating up another person on the side of the street, and you know neither of them, should you step in to help? Or should you walk on by?

If the answer to those questions is "no" then the only time war should be used is to acquire resources for the US and stop aggression against the US.
The next time we go to war, I hope they resurrect the Powell Doctrine, which was to have a clear military goal and use overwhelming military force to crush all resistance.

The surgical strike nonsense in Afghanistan certainly did not work as planned. And the lightning fast takeover of Iraq in 2003 didn't either. What worked was grinding the Germans into the ground in 1944-45 (With the help of the Russians and Hitler's madness) and the utter defeat of the South in 1864-65. The losers were annihilated and unable to effectively rise back up to harrass the victors.
anyone else heard about the firing of John Lilley? I think if we are going to go to war, we should do it like the BU board of regents and just ambush them when they least expect it.

As a former PC student, I have experienced the Powell Doctrine. I agree: overwhelming force.
I struggle with my beliefs on this issue, too. My instinct is either "never"or önly when the US is invaded. But as many have said, the context is important . . .

And I have taught Afghan students, post-2001, who were very happy that the US invaded, because it meant they could come back from being refugees in Pakistan and, in the case of the female student, have a chance to go to school and go out in public and get a job. It's hard not to listen to people like that.

But I also feel very very strongly that we could avoid a lot of wars with smarter, less selfish, more forward-thinking diplomacy and foreign policy . . . I abhor the hypocrisy of the US touting how right we were to go into Afghanistan and topple the Taliban and bring democracy when we actually had helped bring in the Taliban just a few years before.

Why did it take 9-11 for us to suddenly get upset about the Taliban? And they weren't the reason we invaded Afghanistan, anyway. To posture as though we nobly saved the people of Afghanistan from the Taliban is really pushing it, it seems to me.

And the same with Saddam Hussein, from what little I know . . . we were involved in bringing him into power in the 80s . . . and twenty years later we're outraged at what he had done?

Again, he wasn't the reason we went to Iraq either (do we really know what the reason was?), yet we act all noble about "liberating"Iraq.

and there are many more examples. Saying we go to war for noble reasons is very often far, far away from the truth. Not always, but often it is.
Number 5. But never would be better.
Seems to me that if we're ever going to go, it should be to defend our country or our friends once we've/they've been attacked. (I guess that's #5)

With that said, I'm open to idea of being the World's Police or "humanitarian interventionists". The situations rrl pointed to strike me as ones where we could, through the use of our military, make folks better off who have no means of fighting for themselves. I think these are principled ideas that a principled doctrine could be formed around.

What worries me about this extension of justification for war, though, is its potential to be used as a guise for less noble motives. In this regard, for me, swissgirl hit it on the head.

If we're gonna be a roving band of bad-ass peacekeepers that stand up for the abused, the oppressed, and terrorized all over the world - cool, let's do it.

But if that's really our goal we wouldn't skip the Rwandas and the Darfurs so we can load up for the Desert Storm/Strikes, and Operation Iraqi Freedoms. I'm not saying we would never get to Iraq, but if humanitarian intervention was really our goal - it aint where we would start.

We should not go to war to protect economic interests.

Lilley wasn't ambushed. He led a clever 2 1/2 year campaign of self-destruction. In a remarkably short period of time, he aliented all factions of the regents, he angered and aliented BOTH factions of the faculty, he alienated and tried to embarrass the alumni association.
He ought to run for public office!
My response is to quote my two favorite Republications, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt:

"I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its
reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed."
-- Abraham Lincoln

"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." --
Theodore Roosevelt

I believe going to war is justified if it is to defend our lives, our rights, our freedoms, and our families. And preemptive strikes may be justified if motivated by the necessity to defend these principles.

If the US has to kill n people in order to save n people then we go to war.

The "greater good" mentally is behind this "just war" theory.

Craig, I guess you are wise enough to know n, such confidence is exactly the thing we need to repeat some of the worst horrors done in the name of the "greater good." I just hope you don't also slap some religion onto your "greater good"- then you will really show how little you understand the value of life.
Two words-- cat bomb.
Going to war is a very complicated endeavor. I am not sure a one-sentence rule of thumb will ever quite work. Thinking specifically about Iraq (which I have done plenty of for a long time), below is a recycled post from years gone by--rewound this last March.

Reasonable people can disagree, but below is why I think this war in Iraq made sense at the time--and continues to make sense even as we speak.

March 18, 2008

Restating the Rationale for War (once again)--and looking ahead

This week marks five years of our war in Iraq and counting. Looking back to 2002, those of us who supported American military action against Saddam perhaps expected "an easier triumph, and a result [quite frankly] more fundamental and astounding," but the war persists.

Please read this review of reasons that going into Iraq made sense at the time (re-recycled from previous posts for the sake of consistency). At the conclusion, there is also a question from a year or so ago (pre-surge), which asks, "Now What?" Thirteen months later, in the midst of a tumultuous presidential election year, this interrogatory remains the fundamental decision for our generation. Please read and comment. I would very much like to hear from you all on this.

Why did we have to go?

1. Saddam was bad. He deserved ouster, capture, trial, and execution. Twenty-five million Iraqis deserved an opportunity to take control of their lives free of Saddam's oppressive regime.

2. Saddam was at war with the United States and a threat to regional security. For more than a decade, we flew combat missions over Iraq and drew anti-aircraft fire everyday. Our forces were stationed in Saudi Arabia to neutralize the threat Saddam posed to the region. Our presence in Saudi (part of our essential commitment to preserving the peace) irritated the international Muslim community. In fact, Osama bin Laden cited our presence in Saudi Arabia as the casus belli for war against America in general and 9-11 specifically.

3. Saddam was contained--but only as a result of the costly military commitments cited above. In addition, Saddam was contained as a result of a United Nations sanctions regime. Before the war, several human rights organizations charged that the heartless US-driven sanctions policy had killed upwards of 500,000 Iraqis through malnutrition and lack of adequate medical attention. Later, we learned of massive corruption on the part of the UN in administering the sanctions against Saddam's Iraq. Moreover, by 2002, the flagging resolve of the French and other European powers threatened the entire sanctions program. Containment was a leaky policy taking on more water every day.

4. Saddam unbound meant a return to the status quo ante bellum in which he had threatened his neighbors and worked assiduously to manufacture and deploy weapons of mass destruction.

5. Saddam and 911? It is a long held article of faith in the mainstream media that "911 and Iraq were not connected." This is nonsense. What they mean to say is that Saddam and his regime were not complicit in the terrorist attacks of 911. Those two statements are not the same. Conflation of these two distinct ideas belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the task that confronts us.

Although there is very little patience for a nuanced discussion of Saddam and the dangers he posed in the Middle East, here is a review in a nutshell:

Saddam was our sworn enemy. We know that he supported terrorist networks in the Middle East, and he may or may not have been harboring al Qaeda operatives (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi--see note below); either way, his regime, inarguably, contributed to the continuing turmoil in the region. More importantly, our state of war with Saddam's Iraq, and the continued vendetta with him presented an insurmountable obstacle to progress in the region.

Saddam was connected to 9-11 in that the insecurity he created in the region contributed to the greater instability and discontent, which facilitated terrorism. The relationship between Saddam's Iraq and the cauldron of hostility that produced 911 was so obvious and internalized for so many of us that public opinion polls have consistently revealed a significant portion of Americans who connect Saddam and 911. Of course, many have taken those numbers as evidence that the Bush administration merely deceived the simple-minded. But that conclusion, once again, flows from the mistaken but foundational premise that 911 and Iraq cannot be connected; therefore, any person who makes that connection is: 1) wrong; 2) deficient in intelligence and 3) under the spell of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney.

The bottom line: If Saddam could be deposed, many of us believed that a new Iraq would emerge, which would begin a process that might lead to an era of reform in the Middle East, which might ultimately make Islamic terrorists as rare and irrelevant as Ku Klux Klan terrorists.

Yes. Iraq was a war of choice--but it was not a frivolous choice. Granted, now we face potential crises in the region of our own making that dwarf the old inconveniences. However, while it is tempting to view the past through the knowledge of the present, we must remember that the Iraq policy emerged from a long list of terrible choices. Doing nothing was an extremely unattractive option in the post-9-11 world.

All of the above is unalterable history. Now What?

Note for the Record: it seems abundantly clear today (more so than thirteen months ago) that AQI did not have a relationship with Saddam Hussein. However, as this assumption was never the basis of my argument, this fact does not alter fundamentally any of my above assertions.
Only if the U.S. or Allies are attacked.

I'm not sure "key" is a good word. If we have treaty obligations, we honor them.

I don't see interests as a point.
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