Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 December 2009

Just War


The President’s Nobel-Prize-acceptance speech garnered universal praise and very little criticism. Conservatives who busy themselves with incessant (and often ridiculous) jibes at everything the President says and does were strangely silent or even admiring. Liberals who would love nothing more than to see us forsake the AfPak region entirely in favor of strenuous nation-building here at home held their fire.

Our whole nation seemed to bask in rare warmth as the weak sunlight of the world’s respect broke through eight years of wintry gloom clouds. If nothing else, the speech renewed the bond between the rapidly growing free world and the single nation that, for all its faults and lamentable recent history, is still the best candidate to lead it.

The President earned this renewed respect in several ways. He began his speech with humility, disclaiming deserts for the Prize and promising to work hard for it retroactively. He shunned comparison with great men like Schweitzer, Marshall, King and Mandela. He acknowledged that the arc of his own life’s work was just beginning.

Yet in so doing Obama paradoxically moved closer to those great men. We all know whom we most admire, whether in sports or life in general. It’s not the braggarts, chest beaters and trash talkers, no matter how great their talent. It’s men and women of humility and quiet confidence, who praise their helpers and their competition even as they take the prize. That America—the one whose self-effacing hard work, sacrifice and example helped win the worst war ever and keep the peace for sixty years afterward—seemed on its way back.

Another good thing came out of the speech. More and more people, both here and around the globe, began to realize what an extraordinary leader we were smart enough to pick. Professional skeptics in our punditry began to express open admiration. All of us re-learned what it means to have a smart, careful, thoughtful and deliberate leader who thinks twice and thrice before he acts. We have greater confidence in our own abilities and greater hope for the future, and the world has greater confidence in us in turn.

So far so good. But the Prize was a Peace Prize. One would have through the speech would have been about mostly about peace. On the contrary, it was mostly about war.

I know, I know. Just as in authorizing the AfPak “surge,” the President did what he had to do. He had to let the world know that neither he nor his people are wimps or appeasers. He had to send a strong message to enemies, fence sitters, and dispirited admirers around the globe. He had to declare that pax Americana will persist, at least until we declare bankruptcy or the Chinese foreclose.

But did he have to say, “I — like any head of state — reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation”? That statement is correct, of course. But many listening might have doubted the magnitude of the change from the previous administration.

My own breath stopped for a moment after reading that line. What I had hoped to hear from our most intelligent, best educated and farthest-sighted president in generations was a new vision for achieving peace. I had hoped to hear a bit about how he planned to wage a war against war.

After recent careful biographical work, we now know that Ronald Reagan wholeheartedly shared Barack Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world—even as he embarked on an expensive arms race as one paradoxical means to achieve it. President Obama mentioned this goal in his speech but said little about how to reach it. If he has any specific new ideas, he appears to be keeping them to himself.

Although adamantly opposed to every fiber of Reagan’s domestic and economic policy, I had supported his arms race at the time. I knew it would achieve its goal because the Soviets could never out-invent or outspend us. I figured Soviet Russia, having suffered the worst devastation in the last war, would never strike first. I concluded that the whole Cold War would fade away as soon as the Russians recovered from their postwar paranoia and realized we had and have no designs on them, their territory or whatever silly economic system they choose to adopt. That’s precisely what happened, sped up perhaps by Reagan’s legendary affability and Gorbachev’s undoubted assessment that Reagan wasn’t clever enough to be dangerous.

But the Cold War was a unique situation. The adversary we most feared happened to be the very one that had suffered the most in the greatest war in history and therefore most feared war in general. Despite all its trash talk and bluster, the Soviet Union wasn’t about to start another world war. Even our own nuclear allies and other adversaries (including China) had all suffered far more than we did in the greatest war. None of them were or are trigger happy.

Now we have an entirely different situation. Nuclear weapons are falling into the hands of much smaller nations whose dreams of power and glory are unchastened by real and recent experience with war. Born of the Holocaust, Israel is unlikely to strike first. Oddly enough, the same is true of Iran, which suffered the greatest war (with Iraq) in most recent history anywhere on the globe. Millions of Iranians alive today—including many nonclerical leaders—suffered enough in that war to have little desire to repeat the experience.

The greatest danger comes from North Korea and its isolated and unstable dictatorship. Its lack of contact with the outside world leaves all of us to guess what it might do—guesswork that Kim willfully exploits to maintain his twisted hold on power. While Pakistan is far more stable and reliable than most Americans believe, all terrorists have to do to change the world for the foreseeable future is steal just one of its nukes. That makes the AfPak region a big danger zone despite Pakistan’s general promise.

The same is true of the Middle East. While Iran’s nuclear status may present less immediate danger than is generally assumed, that status might encourage an arms race among a number of nations, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey. That race, in turn, would pose risks of miscalculation and disaster far greater than any we have seen since World War II.

I would have liked to hear the President’s vision on how to reduce and eventually eliminate these very real risks. Instead, the President gave us a graduate seminar on “just war” theory. Professor that he was, he gave us only as much as he thought we could digest. “The concept of a ‘just war’ [has] emerged,” he said, “suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”

But of course the President himself must have realized that this is nonsense. No lawyer’s list of simple abstractions can capture what wars are worth fighting and what are not. The President himself acknowledged as much later in his speech. “There is no formula here,” he said. We must judge every war on its own merits, case by case.

Just or not, the most salient point of any war is the decision to start it. Wars don’t start by themselves. Leaders and commanders have to issue orders. The facts and reasoning behind their justification for war (or any decision to escalate an ongoing on) are of the essence. Good leaders probe deeply into their own motivation for war and the facts on which they base that motivation. They examine minutely and realistically their adversaries’ capabilities and intentions.

Self-defense is a useless criterion. Why? Because any hostile act can serve as an excuse for war, no matter how small or how little endorsed by an adversary’s real leaders. We fought the Spanish-American War because of an explosion on the Battleship Maine that historians now believe was an accident. We escalated our involvement in Vietnam dramatically after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which everyone now believes was greatly exaggerated, and which some scholars believe was largely falsified.

In World War II we made the opposite mistake. We waited too long to declare war, let down our guard, and suffered a devastating surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. Yet we took from that failure the wrong lesson: shoot first and ask questions later. We escalated mightily in Vietnam and suffered our first clear defeat—all to no lasting geopolitical harm, except to our reputation. We did the same thing in invading Iraq: instead of seeking more accurate intelligence and greater precision in our estimates, we conjured up mushroom clouds made by an embattled dictator whom we had once supported and who had abandoned attempts to make nuclear weapons years ago.

Is Afghanistan any different? The jury is still out. We are waging “war” there not against our original enemies, who planned 9/11. We are fighting a loose coalition of motley, mostly illiterate native groups calling themselves the “Taliban.” Why? Because in 2002 one leader of this fractured group, Mullah Omar, harbored bin Laden and refused to give him up when asked. Our then leader, in true John Wayne fashion, said “you’re either with us or against us” and launched another major phase in the thirty years of war that Afghanistan has experienced, much of it under our influence or command.

This last point reveals another glaring error in the lawyer’s list of vapid abstractions that the President recited: the time element. How long a war lasts has a definite bearing on whether it is worth fighting and whether we are waging it appropriately.

We beat the scourge of slavery in our own land in less than four years. That war was still our bloodiest ever, and no one doubts its justness. We took less than four years to defeat fascism and military despotism in the greatest war ever. Our own War of Independence—our longest war until Vietnam—lasted only about seven years.

Yet recent wars have gone on much longer, in part because we proclaimed their “necessity” but devoted only a fraction of our nation’s resources to them. Our sole unambiguously losing war, in Vietnam, is so far our longest, at ten years or more, depending upon how you count. At present we’ve been in Iraq for six and a half years, and in Afghanistan for eight and a half years and counting.

War tends to take on a life of its own. Many men fighting in Afghanistan have known nothing but war for their entire lives. It’s easy (and far from deluded) for them to blame their hideous plight on foreigners, including us. It’s also difficult to train or retrain them for peaceful pursuits, which many of them have never known.

As we consider whether what we are waging in Afghanistan is a “just” war, we surely must consider the time element. Turning an ancient society into a gigantic killing field for two generations is nothing to be proud of. The fact that some of its indigenous customs are themselves primitive does not make that outcome any better.

If General McChrystal’s new strategy and our surge can stop the killing and bring peace and stability, town by town, it may be worth it. But if that strategy stumbles we should aim a few final blasts at Al Qaeda, get out and let the Afghans solve their longstanding problems in their own way. We should know within the year.

So my take on the President’s Nobel speech is mixed. On the one hand he showed the humility and restraint that mark him for greatness. He did what he had to do, showing the world that our economic difficulties have not seriously impaired our might or dimmed our resolve to protect our modern, global society against dangerous fanatics. On the other, he did not acknowledge the serious mistakes we have made in our use and misuse of military force. Nor did he present a detailed and realistic vision of a nuclear-free world. And his speech did little to advance the global public’s understanding of what constitutes a “just war” and whether what we are doing in Afghanistan falls into that category.

That latter failure was a sorely missed opportunity. For I suspect that our own leaders and planners, including the President himself, have put far more thought into the last question than appeared in the speech. Maybe they are hoping that military success will improve the picture in the next nine months or so and bring retroactive justification.

In his justifiably famous speech on race, the President refreshingly treated his countrymen and women as adults. He doesn’t seem to have been prepared to treat the global public similarly in Oslo. At least he didn’t tell us what we most need to know: a “just” war requires not only a just cause, but just means, methods and results as well.

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