Wednesday, January 17, 2007

More on "wars of choice"

Picking up this thread, the estimable Ellis at Disambiguation argues:
"I'm inclined to think that if we have to choose a set of principles, they should be wholly pacifistic. Allowing for particular exceptions seems far less dangerous to me than allowing for general exceptions. The problem with this, of course, is that it means that we have to consider every potential war as a particular case. But we already do this."
If each war as a "particular case," we end up in the pragmatist position of doing a cost-benefit analysis that might go something like this: is war in a given situation likely to produce a better result than refraining from war, or conversely, is it likely to result in less overall harm? Clearly such an analysis is based on principles, but those principles can't be determined in advance and they can vary widely depending on the nature of the conflict and the alternatives.

My critique of the Kaiser article was founded some of the traditional principles of evaluating what constitutes a "just war"--a concept that would never include a "war of choice" such as the one in Iraq. But is a defensive war the only kind of war that can be justified? I argued that , in extreme situations, military intervention on humanitarian grounds (which may sound like an oxymoron) can be justified based on moral necessity.

Later I'll get back to the "principled pacifism" that Ellis supports. From this perspective, surrender may be the preferred option in response to an attack (as the Danes usefully demonstrated in 1940). But first I'd like to place the categories of military conflict on a rough continuum:

1. A strictly defensive war fought as an inescapable response to actual aggression (as fought by the Poles during the blitzkrieg of 1939);

2. A pre-emptive war in response to a clear and imminent threat of aggression (the ground asserted by the Israelis during the Six Day War of 1967). The difficult question is: how imminent does an attack have to be before a military response can be justified?

3. A preventive war designed to defeat a hostile nation before it can launch an attack at some indeterminate date in the distant future (the putative ground for the Operation Iraqi Freedome in 2003).

4. A humanitarian intervention, authorized by the United Nations in response to genocide or other large-scale and systematic atrocities that can't be stopped by such means as economic sanctions (which provided the basis for the NATO interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo).

Only the fourth category, preventive war, would always be an impermissible "war of choice," as I argued.

It's difficult for me to refer to "humanitarian" military action without gagging, but I think the concept has some utility in an era when ethnic or sectarian "cleansing" seems to be increasing. The arguments against initiating military action on strictly humanitarian grounds are usually founded on principles of pacifism, national sovereignty and (I admit) logic.

The basic components of modern just war theory were recognized, for example, in a declaration of the 1993 U.S. Catholic Conference. It stated that the "strong presumption against the use of force" can only be overcome "to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations..." [my emphasis].

When does a "violation of the basic rights of whole populations" become so "massive" that a government essentially loses its right to exist? Stated differently, when does the claim of sovereignty become subordinate to the greater claim of protecting civilian populations from outrages like ethnic cleansing and systematic persecution? Can violence ever be justified in the name of reducing violence, given how unpredictable military conflict can be (as the Iraq war demonstrates by the day)?

The "presumption against the use of force" should not just be "strong": it should be nearly insurmoutable. But it's not difficult to come up with real and hypothetical situations where the presumption fails.

Imagine Germany in 1939, for example, before the war began in September. Suppose that Hitler had been deterred from attacking Poland, at least temporarily, but decided to accelerate an extermination program of "racial hygiene" and political repression within Germany's borders. Suppose the targets of this domestic Holocaust were identified as "Jews, Roma, homosexuals, Freemasons, political dissidents political dissidents, priests, preachers, religious opponents, and the disabled."

Under the Catholic bishops' formulation, such a "massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations" would clearly overcome the presumption and justify outside intervention to stop the program. Or, more specifically, the statement provides:
  1. "In situations of conflict, our constant commitment ought to be, as far as possible, to strive for justice through nonviolent means.
  2. "But, when sustained attempts at nonviolent action fail to protect the innocent against fundamental injustice, then legitimate political authorities are permitted as a last resort to employ limited force to rescue the innocent and establish justice."
The problem with outside intervention and "limited force," of course, is the unpredictability of the result. If the intervention produces a general European war, with fifty million deaths, was it justified? On the other hand, can governments and international organizations like the United Nations simply look on in dismay while thousands are killed, tortured or imprisoned by dictatorships in places like Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur or Kosovo?

Humanitarian interventions are likely to succeed only where there is a large disparity in force: in other words, where military action is likely to succeed quickly and decisively. Military intervention with a limited chance of success is likely to only add to the sum total of human misery, since a protracted war or total failure might result.

So I close, for now, by conceding that Ellis makes a strong point in his arguments in favor of "principled pacifism." As he concludes:

So how do we avoid the next war? Try not to elect idiots, and try to keep idiots from acting out their war fantasies when we do. Take it to the streets, and take it to the ballot box. That's the best we can do.


1 comment:

ellis said...

I don't think we really disagree about much, here, but I would take a little bit of issue with the description you give of the outcome of my position:

"If each war as a "particular case," we end up in the pragmatist position of doing a cost-benefit analysis that might go something like this: is war in a given situation likely to produce a better result than refraining from war, or conversely, is it likely to result in less overall harm?"

While this is strictly-speaking true, I worry about this way of framing it, because we are very bad at making these calculations. It's not enough, as Comrade Max pointed out, that a war be aimed at some kind of tangible benefit--it has to be a really, really big and important benefit, like survival. The point of my "principled pacifism" is that I think it would be better to have a general rule that we don't even bother making these calculations. In particular cases where the benefits would be absolutely overwhelming and (crucially) indubitable or at least widely agreed-upon, we could make exceptions.

The trouble with this, of course, is that it's always possible to argue that your own pet war fits these conditions. If my version of "principled pacifism" were to be widely accepted--ha!--this problem might become less acute, though, since it's usually laughably obvious that pet wars don't fit these conditions if you start out with even the slightest skepticism toward solving problems militarily.