Tuesday, August 02, 2005

War and Morality Again

This post is a continuation of some comments in a previous post. To read them, click here.

I dunno who I agree with here, because there'a a place in my heart for both positions, really, but I think I'm inclined towards The Greatness' point of view at first blush.

I think first of all it would be a big step in the right direction if we could just admit that the concept of morality in foreign policy doesn't really exist, and never has, at least in recorded history. This would, somewhat paradoxically, eliminate a lot of the specious modern justifications for war, ostensibly based in ideas of morality.

From there, The Greatness' proposal is a logical next step, particularly if we are also going to disregard the international legal framework as it pertains to our own behavior (as we plainly are and have since its inception.)

If we are going to act unilaterally, disregarding external legal frameworks, there must be some objective internal framework for making the decision to make war.

Now, all this logicalness unfortunately leaves aside the most important question, to which we return - exactly why did a majority of the US population support the invasion of Iraq?

There's no single answer to that question, of course, since we're talking about the opinions of millions of people. But we can speculate, with at least some evidence, on what drove the people who were NOT in support of an Iraq invasion in the summer of 2002 (when support for the invasion was at best lukewarm, and restricted mostly to Republicans) to support the same invasion in early 2003.

Now, obviously the specific reasons, especially the administration's (now) plainly baseless claim that Iraq was close to developing a usable nuclear weapon, have been well explored.

But one overriding factor that hasn't been discussed much is one I tried hamhandedly to get into sometime in the recent past, while I was in a bad mood. I approach it again now, hopefully with more aplomb...

In U.S. intellectual culture, it is implicitly assumed that being wrong in opposing a war is worse than being wrong in supporting one. It's easy to see that in the case of Iraq, since every time the Iraq war seems to be taking a turn for the better, the Op/Ed pages are suddenly full of crowing, while no corresponding comeuppance ever seems to pour forth when war supporters' previous utterances suddenly become inoperative.

As free-market economists are fond of reminding us (though usually not in this context) people, including our great and shining intellectual elite, respond to incentives. When opposing a bad war carries with it no increase in credibility or esteem, and supporting a bad war carries no penalty, well, it's not that difficult to see why an intellectual culture like that would wind up supporting idiotic invasion after idiotic invasion.

10 comments:

Uncle said...

"In U.S. intellectual culture, it is implicitly assumed that being wrong in opposing a war is worse than being wrong in supporting one."

The usual expression is to "err on the side of caution". I'm usually fond of pointing out that this is still making a mistake. "Being on the safe side" is another. "We have to do something" or "we can't just do nothing" is involved here as well. The idea that acting, even incorrectly is always somehow better than not acting at all.

It is understandable where these ideas come from, for we probably have all been frustrated some time by "paralysis by analysis" at some point and just wished that the contestant would pick one of the damn doors so Monty could tell them if they won the booby prize. But your point is valid. There does have to be a booby prize.

We don't have a booby prize right now for folks who take us off into bogus wars. We can lose them to little if any effect. We can "win" them to little if any benefit. Our opponents in them have little if any capacity to bring home any real effect either.

The Greatness said...

I'm not sure how we would have a booby prize in today's unipolar military environment. How do today's Americans "lose" a war in any significant sense? When we were fighting the Japanese in WWII, there was a real sense that they posed a threat to our actual territory. Germany was more a threat to our allies initially, but it obviously was a gathering and potentially unbeatable threat long-term. Even the Soviet Union posed, though at arm's length, a palpable threat to our nation's continued existence.

But there's no such concern for such conventional definitions of defeat anymore. What we have, instead, is all manner of specious, slippery slope arguments for action that can never be disproven because they rely entirely on potentiality of an "enemy" action. Politicians love probabilistic arguments, because they can manipulate the thresholds (biased for action or inaction depending on the case) and write the equations.

Since my foreign policy leanings have heretofore been more hawkish than Ape Man's, it might be valuable to consider the arguments that mentally sifted to the top before the war in Iraq began. (I'd like to think that other, more obvious straw-man arguments did not sway me, but I can't be sure):

The Possible-Threat Argument - Saddam had weapons in the past. Saddam has shown interest in maintaining and expanding his arsenal. Saddam is not a nice guy. Saddam has said bad things about the US. Therefore Saddam = Iraq is a threat.

The Humanitarian Argument -
Saddam is not a nice guy. He runs a totalitarian state. His people are oppressed. Therefore, if we were to take out Saddam's regime, the lives of his people would also improve. Sovereignty isn't all that important when it's held up by the likes of him.

The Machiavellian Argument -
The Middle East is a region of immense geopolitical importance to the US. It's run largely by regimes that take our money but don't like us too much. Iraq is an important country in the Middle East. If we invade Iraq and convert it into a democracy, we can effect change in other places merely on the threat of further invasions -- which will be credible to our enemies because they will have seen it unfold in Iraq on CNN. And since Saddam is a bad guy, what's the harm in a little realpolitik side benefit?

The last argument is not morally defensible, but I'd be lying if I pretended it didn't accrue via my vestigial Republicanism. The second argument is somewhat flawed, but it's been used time and again for peacekeeping missions with no real military significance, so it's tried-and-true on the pysche. The first argument is the most believable, in my view, but was gradually eroded by the facts.

These arguments build up on each other, reaching a point that, in my mind, at first glance, did not personally justify the war. But for me it did have the effect of justifying those who were calling for the war. As long as other people felt it was right, maybe it didn't matter that I didn't find it met my personal threshold. Cowardly groupthink, to be sure, but probably a primary motivator in these matters.

And if I thought other people might be justified in calling for war, how could I possibly raise my voice against it? Everybody who was for the war seemed very sure... my middling sureness put me in a position to accept either outcome. If I said I was against the war, I would have to have good reasons to be against it. And those good reasons couldn't be purely academic or politically motivated or pacifist or the slightest bit socialist.

Adam P. Short said...

I think all this is basically right. What I would point out, though, is that it is only in a country that has been virtually untouched by the reality of war (that is, war fought in and around our own soil) for over a century that fighting a war could possibly be considered to be "erring on the side of caution." To most of the world's people, whose acquaintance with war is much more immediate, this idea would probably seem insane on its face.

Anonymous said...

no link to previous comments in your post. can you update?

Adam P. Short said...

Oh, good catch. Apparently if you put a hyphen instead of quotes in a link, it just puts it in as text. Weird.

Uncle said...

"To most of the world's people, whose acquaintance with war is much more immediate, this idea would probably seem insane on its face."

Many places have endured long wars, often multiple versions, between virtually identical adversaries. "Do it to them before they do it to us" is a more common form of "fight them over there....".

But we are kinda talking past two slightly different points. 1) Why do people accept bad wars. 2)Why do people accept war when it is demonstrably "unmoral". People's definition of "moral" or "ethical" ends up, especially as they age, as fairly "unideal" and far more pragmatic. They will try to be a bit dogmatic for a while, but ultimately they will not be able to accomplish something they want, or need, in a dogmatically ethical or moral way so they make an exception (a white lie). Then the justifying kicks in big time, typically when it is found that the behavior must be regularly repeated. Ultimately you get to the ethos of "everybody does it" and it becomes the new definition of ethical.

Wars have "fixed" things in the past and we have accepted them as useful so they become the new "moral" at which point "immoral war" becomes what other people do, not us, because by definition when we go to war we are being "right"

Adam P. Short said...

Hmm, well, you may be right, Unck, but I wonder what examples you are thinking of when you say that "many nations have endured long wars between virtually identical adversaries." This was certainly true before the 20th century. In the 20th century very few big wars occurred without significant pressure from superpowers (whose home countries were generally untouched by the fighting.)

Lord Lessismore said...

I fear chiming in here since I am generally well over my head when it comes to mixing a truly informed perspective on politics, rational thought, and morality in any shape or form.

Having said that, my perspective is that after WWII -- when the stakes of war climbed to civilization-threatening heights -- there was a pretty dramatic shift in the attitude toward war and that the American population in general rejected the idea of a moral or just war for several decades. My perspective comes from the characterization of the Korean War (not to mention operations in Grenada and Panama) as "a police action" and fighting in places like Nicaragua as "covert actions." And then you have the significant outrage about the Vietnam War.

My perspective is that Americans have a deep-seeded adherence to capitalistic thinking that plays out in their attitude toward war. It's basically a cost/benefit analysis -- how much will this action cost in people or other assets and what is the corresponding benefit. That's why (I think) we have not been moved to intervene in the numerous African conflicts (where intervention would most likely be considered "moral" -- stopping genocide being considered pretty darn moral in the scheme of thing). Since WWII, "stopping the spread of Communism" was so close to the cost/benefit threshold -- and the wounds from WWII were so fresh -- that policy makers had to change the whole way we went to war, slipping it in without outright declaration.

IMHO, what we're seeing with the "war on terrorism" is that the outrage and fear from 9/11 was so great and the cause seemingly so right and the perspective from Vietnam so faded, the reticence about war in general has eroded and largely disappeared. But, as the costs rise and the benefits become more elusive, and the support for the war disintegrates.

Uncle said...

"I wonder what examples you are thinking of when you say that "many nations have endured long wars between virtually identical adversaries." This was certainly true before the 20th century. In the 20th century very few big wars occurred without significant pressure from superpowers"

You make two distinctions I'm not sure are all that significant in the context of this discussion. "Big wars" and "20th century. I don't find that limiting ourselves to the 20th century has much significance in a discussion about human behavior.
And where did the qualification about "big" come in?

With respect to the first qualifcation, I'll offer the examples of the conflict in Vietnam which predated our direct involvement, and actually went back prior to WWII in terms of acts of violence. The conflict in Belfast Ireland has been on and off for the better part of 100 years. There are violent conflicts in Africa which have been virtually continuous for the better part of 40 or 50 years. The Afgan war, well after the exit of the Soviet Union continued right up until we got involved (and leveraged their conflict to our own ends) and effectively still continues today. And it would be hard to describe the conflict between Isreal and it's own indigenous population of Palestinians as anything other than open warfare.

There is a tendency amongst us to think of war as the conflicts of WWI and II. These were "unusual" wars in their structure and conduct. The vast majorities of wars were, and are, far more like the battles I've described. Civil wars are the worst. The US version where one side "surrenders" and everyone goes back to the farm is so unique in history as to be a complete abberation. Normally, they drag on for generations unless there is genocide involved. Even at that attempts at genocide have never been successful and some fraction thereof tends to remain to continue the "fight".

Adam P. Short said...

Indeed, your examples prove my point exactly, unless you would like to be more specific.

The fighting in Congo and Zaire, for example, is ongoing largely because the US has made heroic efforts to stamp out meaningful democracy in the Congo going back 50 years.

Certainly you would not assert that the Israel/Palestine conflict is free from influence by great powers?