Two Prong Test

December 11, 2003

Just War and Realpolitik

During the Gulf War, you often saw people running around with signs saying "No Blood for Oil." Their underlying assumption was that, because the United States was stabilizing its energy supplies, the entire war must have been invalid.

During the Rwandan genocide, the United States did nothing. In part because we learned about it late, and in part because there did not seem to be a power payoff commensurate with the costs - financial and in American lives - of intervening.

The United States was late to get involved in the former Yugoslavia. We stayed out for a long time when it appeared that, like Rwanda, there were human tragedies taking place but there was no immediate threat to American self-interests. We only did get involved when national policy-makers decided that instability in former Yugoslavia was likely to spread, destabilize Europe, and thus cause serious harm to our Realpolitik interests.

There is a pattern to all three of these moments.

If you look over the past, the United States has gone to war - either declared or undeclared - only when two different sets of categories overlapped. The use of organized state violence must promise to deliver Realpolitik rewards in the short or medium term, and it must be possible to make a case that the use of organized state violence is a just war, a proportionate response to an evil intended to produce a net reduction in human misery. We have a two-pronged test for war.

So in the Mexican-American war, Polk pushed for war because he thought that the United States would do well if it seized the Southwest. He was guaranteed either a treaty giving up what is now West Texas and New Mexico, or a war he thought he could win. He provoked that war in such a way that he could claim that American troops had been attacked on American soil, and he then blackmailed Congress into declaring war and appropriating funds to support the soldiers already fighting. Congress hated him for it, which is one reason why Polk was a one-term President and one reason why Northern Congressmen supported the Wilmot Proviso.

In the Gulph War and the Korean War, we argued that we were responding against an incursion by a large state against a small state - the same argument that Britain made when entering the Great War in defense of "gallant little Belgium."

In Vietnam, as in most Cold War conflicts, the underlying humanitarian assumption behind U.S. intervention was that life under Communism was so terrible that anyone who wanted it must have been misled, and that the U.S. needed to save people from themselves, or from being intimidated into joining a terrible political/economic system.

In all of these cases what mattered was not that everyone agreed, because not everyone will agree. Rather, it had to be plausible enough to be argued. Voters, and their representatives in Congress, can and do measure these arguments. And, just as they cut through Polk's claims they tend to cut through bad humanitarian claims given time.

So, there is has historically been a two-pronged test for American military intervention: the intervention must be plausibly humanitarianism, and the intervention must serve the realpolitik goals of the nation.

What does this mean for the twenty-first century?

Lets look at Iraq first, then at possible future interventions.

I have seen three plausible humanitarian or just war claims about Iraq.
- The pre-emptive war was justified because Bush feared that Saddam Hussein posed a clear and future danger to the nation, and claimed that to delay intervention by more than a few months was to defer it forever. That clear and future danger was phrased in terms of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; Saddam Hussein had a once and future nuclear program, and everyone thought he had stocks of chemical and biological weapons.
- The war was justified as part of the War on Terror because the Bush administration either saw loose ties between Iraq and Al Qaida or feared future ties between the two.
- The war has since been justified because Saddam Hussein was a particularly brutal Stalinist with a history of mass murder against his people, especially when putting down uprisings after the Gulf War.

All of these claims are superficially plausible. The first two depend on highly accurate intelligence about other nations, and while the Bush administration claimed that it had that intelligence but could not share its findings without risking operatives, so far the level of detail has not held up. I am phrasing my critique carefully here, for chemical and biological weapon stocks are fairly small things on a national scale and we will continue to discover and inventory arms caches in Iraq for a very long time.

The third claim is what most of the war bloggers are currently focusing on. Every mass grave, every evidence of torture, every evidence that the regime had degenerated from a nationalist movement to a Stalinist thuggery to a kleptocracy is taken as proof that the intervention was morally justified.

The question then comes up, if the United States was morally justified in invading and reconstituting Iraq because its government was a violent, abusive, thuggery, is the United States then morally required to undertake a similar invasion and restructuring of all other violent and repressive regimes. Does Iraq, in other words, provide a precedent for invading Myanmar? Syria? The People's Republic of China?

The answer, of course, is that war requires both prongs. The realpolitik justification for invading Iraq was, IMO, much shakier than the moral justification. Further interventions without a clear connection to the War on Terror and without a higher level of awareness of international concerns will make the U.S. look a lot more like North Korea, Iraq, Napolean's France, or the barbarian hordes of the ancient world - rogue states that regard their neighbor's borders as navigational markers rather than stop signs.

I don't have a broad sweeping conclusion here. I do hope that folks who made it this far will remember to look for, and critically test, BOTH prongs of any future proposal to use American military force.

Posted by Red Ted at December 11, 2003 09:06 AM | TrackBack