Monday, January 15, 2007

"A war of choice?" Never.

After making some astute comparisons between the Iraq and Vietnam wars, Robert G. Kaiser of the Washington Post writes:
"How did this happen again? After all, we're Americans - practical, commonsense people who know how to get things done. Or so we'd like to think. In truth, we are ethnocentric to a fault, certain of our own superiority, convinced that others see us as we do, blithely indifferent to cultural, political and historical realities far different than our own. These failings - more than any tactical or strategic errors - help explain the U.S. catastrophes in Vietnam and Iraq."
But then, in the third-to-last paragraph of his column, he adds:
"What's the lesson to be learned? Modesty. Before initiating a war of choice, define the goal with honesty and precision, then analyze what means will be needed to achieve it. Be certain you understand the society you propose to transform."
What exactly is a "war of choice?" Since when is it a legitimate national purpose to "transform" another society by initiating such a "war of choice," whether we "understand" that society or not?

Kaiser assumes that a war to "transform" another society can be justified as long as we define our goal with "honesty and precision." So, by this reasoning, the invasion of Iraq might have been vindicated if the Bush administration had simply been more candid and specific about its goals, rather than hiding behind various pretexts.

International law lends no support to these interventionist notions, nor does history. Admittedly the NATO interventions in Bosnia (1994-95) and Kosovo (1999) were "optional" for the U.S. in the sense that its security interests were not directly threatened there. But in both cases, intervention was deemed necessary—and not really "optional"—to prevent further ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity. For the same reason, interventions in Rwanda or Darfur to prevent humanitarian catastrophes would not be "optional," either.

If war is ever a "choice," then the choice must always be to avoid it. The real question is: when is war necessary and not a choice at all? Aside from self-defense in the face of an actual or imminent attack, there are few situations where war can be morally, legally or politically acceptable. These situations only arise when there are egregious violations of international law in general, and the Nuremberg Principles in particular, and political, economic or diplomatic measures prove inadequate. For example:
1. When a government wages a genocidal war against its own population;

2. When a government attacks another country without provocation (as the Bush administration did in Iraq); or,

3. When a country is faced with a humanitarian crisis of such proportions that its own government is unable to respond due to internal instability or civil war.
Military responses in these situations are arguably necessary, and not merely optional. In each case, a collective response by the United Nations, or some regional group authorized by the U.N. Security Council, may be appropriate. Only in the most extreme situations can a government take unilateral military action, and never for the sole purpose of "transforming" the society that it attacks.

A "war of choice," in other words, can never be justified.

As for the notion of changing the nature of another society by force, the U.S. certainly helped to "transform" Japan into a modern democracy after World War II, but that conflict began as a defensive war rather than a "war of choice." Certainly one goal of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was to transform its society, but that conflict also began as an essentially defensive war. It's hard to imagine a situation in which a "war of choice" could be justified for the sole purpose of transforming another society, no matter how much one dislikes their leadership, culture or system of government.

A war of choice is, especially for "transformative" purposes, is precisely the kind of "aggression" condemned by Robert H. Jackson, the chief American prosecutor at Nuremberg:
"To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."
Unfortunately, Kaiser's position on "wars of choice" undermines his powerful arguments against an American foreign policy founded on arrogance, unilateralism and hubris.

PHOTO: Robert H. Jackson addressing the Nuremberg Tribunal.

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