Friday, July 29, 2005

On a Similar Note

I had, until just now, missed this comment from someone named Max Harris, in response to my question as to whether we can all agree that an unprovoked nuclear attack on Iran should be off the table. Max's answer, in short, is no.

Max Harris said...
End States Who Sponsor Terrorism

It would not be an unprovoked attack. (Hostages, Beirut attack on American marines), huge state and intellectual sponsor of terrorism.)

States like Iran have no right to exist. Wiping Nazi Germany off the map was a moral action; erasing Theocratic Iran out would be just as good and moral.

There you have it.


The Greatness said...

Folks like Max have a secure home in the Republican party, because bombing the hell out of everybody who pisses us off, or at least talking about doing so, is a widespread sentiment and a favorite sport at Republican gatherings. In fact it's probably the only kind of "interventionism" that would be supported by the base.

His justification is interesting, however, for the challenge it poses to a unified Democratic rebuttal. When, in fact, is it moral to invade another sovereign nation? Taken case by case, my gut feeling is that most Democrats would say yes to Nazi Germany, Korea, and other UN-sponsored peacekeeping actions, and no to Iraq, Vietnam, Grenada, etc. But I suspect there are some pacifist or otherwise principle-guided members of the Democratic base who would demur with those as well. To say nothing of the Soviet Union...

Adam P. Short said...

Well, at the risk of inciting further gobbledygook on the matter from Uncle, I think the tests are, or ought to be, pretty clear.

First, we should be morally comfortable with the action; that is we should be able to honestly say that we would find the same action to be acceptable if the situation were reversed, that is, if the action were being taken against us by another nation in similar circumstances.

Most interventions fail this test, for obvious reasons. The standard we would like others to observe with regard to bombing our homes tends to be rather higher than the standard we ourselves observe with regard to bombing the homes of others.

When we adopt this standard we find that there really is no "clear case" for military attack on another nation - every such decision should be undertaken after agonizing deliberation, and with a heavy heart.

Nazi Germany is as close as it gets to a clear case, at least by my lights - if the United States were invading countries one after another and declaring our intentions to destroy the continent with tanks while purifying the land of all mongrels, I would certainly find it perfectly reasonable for other countries to intervene, including with aggressive firebombing of my hometown, etc.

Extended beyond that fairly singular case, examples of morally justified military invasion are very hard to find. There are a lot of cases you can make in the abstract, if you ignore a lot of salient historical facts.

One of the few that probably passes this test, at least nominally, is the Kosovo intervention under Clinton. It was undertaken to stop some government-sponsorod racial pogroms that were occurring at the time, a laudable goal on its face. We'll come back to that one in a minute, though - it holds up poorly for other reasons.

The second test is to ask whether the intervention fits into the prevailing legal framework. In the case of great powers like the United States, this is usually a pretty easy test to pass; in fact in the case of the Iraq invasion it took some work to alienate the security council.

The final test is the most obvious - we should ask whether the attack is likely to produce the desired outcome.

This third test creates something of a paradox, in many cases, because the least justifiable wars tend to pass it while the more morally acceptable ones tend to fail. The most likely reason is that war is a pretty effective tool for achieving selfish, practical goals, but a fairly poor one for achieving altruistic ones.

An interesting example is the war in Vietnam, which was either a success or a failure depending on your view of what the war's true objectives were. If the objective was to help the Vietnamese population by turning Vietnam into an open, capitalist society, or to stop the spread of communism, then obviously the war was a failure, since in the end the US withdrew and the country was taken over by Maoists.

However, if the objective of the war was to simply punish Vietnam for defying the West, thereby making an example of the country to frighten other nations away from trying to choose their own path, the war was actually a success. After all, the US invasion killed millions of people and destroyed the country's ability to develop or even to sustain its own population at a subsistence level.

Afghanistan is an example of a war that, if we are very generous with accepting the official (pre-war) rationale for the invasion, we might be able to justify it on moral grounds. If a country is actively harboring someone who is orchestrating massive attacks on the United States, certainly the United States has a moral right to invade.

The trouble with the Afghanistan war, as was noted at the time by numerous folks who were all but laughed out of the public discourse, is that war is a pretty poor way to apprehend somebody. An army is a sledgehammer, not a scalpel.

Invading Afghanistan was never particularly likely to result in the completion of the stated task - apprehending Osama bin Laden. This leaves aside the question of whether the stated task was likely to further the goal of preventing terrorist attacks against the U.S.

Looking back, it seems quite clear that the US would have done well to entertain the offer of the Taliban at the time of the invasion to turn Osama bin Laden over to the Americans if they could provide some evidence that he was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Treating Osama as a law enforcement problem (as we are forced to do, with less chance of success now, since the invasion failed to apprehend him) would have had a better chance of success.

Possibly the most troubling example, from a moral point of view, is Clinton's bombing of Yugoslavia. The stated goal was certainly justifiable - Milosevic was condoning, if not ordering, massive displacements and probably executions of people based on their ethnicity. Something certainly had to be done.

Unfortunately, the action Clinton took - sustained aerial bombardment in advance of ground troops - was eerily similar to the early US strategy in Vietnam, and had a similar effect. The bombing radicalized the population still further, displaced even greater numbers of people and increased the bloodshed many times over.

Indeed, if you pay close attention to the war crimes trials of Milosevic and cronies, you'll notice that all of the very worst crimes they are accused of were committed after the bombing campaign began.

So, long story short, a military attack is justified if it is moral, if it fits into the prevailing legal framework, and if it is reasonably likely to succeed. You can perform the test for yourself; I imagine you'll find, as I have, that very few invasions pass all three tests.

Anonymous said...

One issue Max cuts to I would like to see discussed. He says an attack on Iran would not be unprovoked, because Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism.

Does direct support of an enemy make Iran an enemy?

Adam P. Short said...

Well, here we run into some moral problems, some legal problems, and some practical onces. Is state support for terrorism a sufficient condition to justify military attack on a country?

If we answer yes, we ought to be careful, since we are advocating the bombing of Washington, DC (where I live.) The United States has engaged in a great deal of sponsorship of terrorism over the years. To this day we harbor a man who is the prime suspect in destroying a Cuban passenger jet, possibly while in the direct employ of the US government. A better-known example (though still virtually unknown, except among people who study foreign policy seriously) is the sustained US-sponsored terrorist campaign against Nicaragua under Reagan, for which Nicaragua won a substantial judgment at the World Court (which was never paid.)

Which sort of leads into the next problem - under the UN charter, to which we are a signatory (making the treaty the supreme law of the land according to the US Constitution), there is an established method for getting what amounts to a "cease and desist" order if a foreign government is engaged in unseemly behavior.

Of course such a remedy is laughed at by the right, who abhor legalistic means in favor of violent ones. No one, presumably, would have laughed if Nicaragua had chosen to avail herself of our preferred remedies during the time when we were actively supporting one of the most massive terrorist campaigns in world history inside her borders.

The last problem, and as is often the case the most significant, is the practical concern. If US doctrine is truly to dictate that the US is going to try to eliminate international terrorism by invading countries that are its principal sponsors, it is worth asking whether this approach is feasible, much less if it is the best way to fight terrorism.

Of course, the 800-lb gorilla in the room that I am not discussing, because there really is no point, is the obviously insane (to anyone not afflicted by the malady) right-wing failure to distinguish between traditional warfare, dangerous enough, and thermonuclear war, which carries with it the very real possibility of bringing about the end of human life as we know it.

Uncle said...

The problem with discussing "moral" war is that it is an oxymoron. There is no moral war. People have for centuries attempted to justify violence for all manner of reasons, but anything but the most defensive of uses usually fails the tests you mention (and others as well). War, like violence in general, is what one does when they don't know what else to do. By the time one gets to a point where they seriously consider war, all the really good peaceful options have usually passed one by. War, in any context, is basically an expression of our imperfection. But in some situations, it's about all we know to do. But to get rid of it, one is going to have to figure out how to replace it, not just eliminate it. Peace isn't just the absence of violence. And to create peace, you don't eliminate the ability to act violently. Peace comes from having the ability, but choosing not to exercise it.

PhD9 said...

Are we missing the point that "Iran" is not an object which can be destroyed but is instead a large collection of individuals most of whom just want to live a life free from aggravation just like you or I?

Adam P. Short said...

Well, if there's any air between your position and mine, Unck, it's not really worth arguing about. We're mostly on the same page.

What would be much more productive is if someone who doesn't subscribe to the point of view that most military attacks don't hold up under any kind of serious moral scrutiny would come forward and assault what I've posted here. There's plenty here to take issue with.

Have at it.

The Greatness said...

Well, I don't disagree with your assessment -- wars are almost never moral actions -- but I don't think your questions directly relevant to deciding a war case unless one lives in a dictatorship. States are not moral agents, and the "moral mapping" that takes place between nationals and their nation is usually complex. Even in a democracy populated by mostly well-meaning people, the bar to justification of an invasion has been shown to be staggeringly low given enough diffusion of responsibility. When a President (or his direct reports) exercises his authority for unilateral action, we can judge the nation's actions as emanating from his morality and are not directly bound to it. But what about when his actions, at least ostensibly, stem from a resolution agreed to by two-thirds of the House and three-quarters of the Senate, as in Iraq? Near the time of that resolution, a poll was taken that suggests Americans would feel justified in invading Iraq. There was a sliding scale of Saddam's culpability, naturally, but it doesn't bear any resemblance to people applying your tests. Moreover, the data seems to suggest that people realized Bush was just going through the motions of diplomacy, but they didn't care.

Indeed, it would appear that either our population is not well-meaning or we feel little responsibility for the actions of our government. Are we qualified to decide, whether in altruism or national need, that "something certainly had to be done"?

I suppose you could cynically restate my question as "when does it look moral enough for chumps to rubber-stamp an invasion of another sovereign nation?" But I'm just trying to be realistic. I'm sure it comes as no surprise to you that there is a significant gulf of approval that separates you (and me, to a lesser extent) from the vox populi on matters of old wars. Generally all old wars seem to be treated with "God bless those boys" nostalgia, with a little "you don't understand, you had to be there" thrown in for Vietnam and Cold War antics.

It seems to me that, rather than finding justification directly from individal morality, we need to have more objective national guidelines for war which map injuries done us to injuries due them, clearly delineating how many pennies we are in for instead of waving the flag as we throw in the whole pound. Such a decision tree might not be a purely moral process, but (paradoxically) it would have a higher probability of being moral than our current system. As with your guidelines, whether such a paradigm is possible is not clear.

Uncle said...

"It seems to me that, rather than finding justification directly from individal morality, we need to have more objective national guidelines for war which map injuries done us to injuries due them, clearly delineating how many pennies we are in for instead of waving the flag as we throw in the whole pound."

You can try, and in the absence of any other choice, it'd have to be better than what we do now. But I'm reminded of the expression "if you plan for war, and hope for peace, you'll get war". We've just gone through an exercise in which folks were willing to "bolt on" the facts to justify what they wanted to do. In a process as you describe, you're merely being more specific about what facts need to be generated. The bottom line is that in order to pursue peace, one has to plan specifically for it, in the sense of replacing the functions of war so that people can choose one over the other and get the same results.

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