Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Very good breakdown of the weaknesses of the pro-war arguments by Junius yesterday. I'll quote some of it here, then add my own comments: (Edit: Edited for quotation clarity.)

The case for war against Iraq is very weak. It has two components, neither of which stand up to serious examination. The first is that the US is entitled to make war as an act of pre-emptive self-defence. This clearly fails both because no-one has established that Iraq represents a credible threat to the US and because the putatively justifying doctrine, if generalized, would permit states to engage in actions which no right-thinking person would wish to sanction. Most obviously, a right of pre-emption as loose as that needed to justify a war against Iraq would also justify either an Indian first strike against Pakistan or a Pakistani first strike against India. (We philosophers would therefore say that this principle has counterintuitive consequences.)
I'd argue that they're counter-intuitive only to the absurdly narrow-minded, but I agree with Chris on the problems with the pre-emption doctrine being taken as justification by various regimes for various dubious military enterprises. I think Chris misses the point, however, in that the pre-emption doctrine is clearly meant by its creators to be applicable solely and exclusively to the United States, not to any other regime (whether democratic or not.) In this, it's far less of a expression of what the United States would consider to be good foreign policy and far more a simple declaration that the United States government can and will intervene whenever and wherever it sees fit, not caring about international law, international bodies, allies (who are allies only as long as they do not oppose the U.S.; witness the reaction of the Bush administration and its policy satellites to naysayers on Iraq) or even public opinion. If anybody else attempts to employ the doctrine, the U.S. can (and probably will) respond that the preemption doctrine is a privilege solely of the U.S. government, as it alone has the power and the moral authority to wield it. (Look at the "we will allow no rivals to appear" part of the Doctrine. It only makes sense if one believes that the only state with the right to hegemony or even Great Power status is the United States.)

A variant of the pre-emptive self-defence doctrine would emphasize not the direct threat posed by Iraq, but an indirect one: Iraq might give "weapons of mass destruction" to terrorists. But despite 18 months of trying, no real evidence of Iraqi-Al Qaeda co-operation has been produced. Again, a doctrine that justifies war against anyone who might give weapons to terrorists would also justify far too much. It would, for instance, have justified military action by a number of states against the US in the past, since the US has provided military assistance to a variety of irregular insurgent forces.
Heh. An angle I hadn't truly considered, but valid enough. Also addressable by the "American-exclusive" aspect of this; no other power has the moral authority to use preemptive force, and thus the United States cannot, by definition, be justly attacked using this doctrine. (Unless, of course, it attacked itself.)

The second main strand is the Saddam-is-evil/democratization argument. Saddam is evil, no question about that. This is a much better set of arguments in principle, but fails because, given the dramatis personae, there is no good reason to believe that the war will actually pursue democracy. I'm not a supporter of the view that it is never justifiable to intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Sometimes such intervention can certainly be justified. A case in point was the ousting of Pol Pot by the Vietnamese (where did Dick Cheney stand on that one, by the way?). But an intervention in the name of democracy or human rights has to meet a very high bar of justification: after all this is a highly coercive use of state power which is certainly going to deprive many Iraqis of their lives, liberties and estates and others of their limbs and loved ones.
Indeed it is, which is why my reaction has always been "it's a power that is best agreed not to be used"; attempts to do so in the past led to the idea of sovereignty in the first place. It's easy to say that "Saddam is a bad, bad man and should be thrown out"... but the problem is that in making that decision as a leader, you therefore open up that decision to be made about others, and about your own government. This can lead to several, if not dozens of states invading others "for the good of the citizens"... chaos, and lots of it.

The United States government (and, yes, many Americans; American exceptionalism, good or bad, is an empirical reality) obviously thinks it's above that; that it has the ability and right to make this decision. The problem, however, is that all of a sudden the missteps of the U.S. government in the past and the power it wields now on the world stage can become justification for warring against it as a power acting unilaterally and illegitimately beyond its own borders. American exceptionalism is an idea that doesn't spread that much farther than the borders of the U.S. itself, so that justification isn't going to wash. Others will question it, and may even threaten it, using their own criteria of "good" and "bad" regimes. It may have a lot of military and economic power, but does it really want to spend those trying to escape a noose it tied together through its own badly conceived policy?

The human-rights-and-democracy argument currently looms large in the rhetoric of the pro-war faction, but it there any reason to expect that a war will bring democracy to the middle east? On past evidence, which is pretty much all we have to go on, no. The major players in the current US administration do not have a proud record of promoting and defending either human rights or democracy. They cannot be trusted. Cheney is a good example: he opposed Nelson Mandela's release from prison and the recognition of the ANC. What is more, their past engagement with the region, both with Saddam (pre-Kuwait invasion) and with the Saudis suggest that democracy and human rights are very low on their list of desiderata for the region. Ten years ago, they fought to throw Saddam out of Kuwait: the result was not a more democratic regime in Kuwait but the restoration of the status quo ante. The open contempt of the administration for "nation building" in Afghanistan also suggests that talk of democracy and human rights in Iraq is strictly a public relations exercise.
Again, this could become a serious problem if the "preemption doctrine" is turned against the United States; if the whole thing hangs on the moral superiority of the United States (which it assuredly does), then threats to that moral superiority undermine the entire enterprise, as it eliminates the exclusivity of the Doctrine.

All of this brings me to the predicament of British advocates of war. Max Hastings in the Sunday Telegraph is a good example. He concedes that the case for war is so weak as to be almost non-existent. But he is convinced that the US will embark on a war anyway and argues that it is better to be on-side with a superpower than carping on the sidelines. Strictly from the point of view of national interest, that may be right. But even if that is so, a doctrine that justified engaging in or participating in a war whenever it was in a country's national interest would again justify far too much. It would certainly justify, for example, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan whilst the US is preoccupied with an Iraqi invasion. An unpalatable conclusion? I think so.
Oddly enough, I actually disagree with this conclusion. In the eyes of the U.S. it wouldn't justify the invasion, because the Doctrine is solely reserved for the U.S. In the eyes of China this justification is hardly necessary; I'm sure that when given the opportunity they'll take it, and I think that it would rankle at the proud Chinese to be forced to adopt foreign doctrines in order to (as they would see it) return Taiwan to the fold.

As for the question of the Brits, though, it comes back to the idea of American exceptionalism. As long as the Brits stay in line with the U.S., they can grow as powerful as they wish as a part of the American-led military organization. If they contradicted the U.S., and remained powerful, they might be percieved as a threat; the power without the Right to go with it. I doubt they'd want that.

(By the way, for those wondering why I'm not overly fond of American exceptionalism right now, I was rather surprised to discover that the American U.N. Ambassador, Kevin Moley, defined the human rights standards by which countries should be asked to fulfill by pulling out a red book, pointing it to the cameras, and saying, "The best guarantee for human rights in the world is the Constitution of the United States." It may have played well at home. It was still an insult to each and every country that reveres human rights but does not accept the American Constitution as the best or final definition of such, and to hear it coming from the American Ambassador to the U.N., a body which has its own definition of human rights in a charter that the U.S. is a signatory to? If that isn't proof of the total embrace of American exceptionalism, what is?)

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