Preemptive War Revisited

I discovered this post deep in my queue of unpublished drafts. It rounds off two posts of mine about preemptive war:  “Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves” and “Continuation of ‘Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves’“. (Other related posts are listed at the end of this one.) I had commented on Micha Ghertner’s post at Catallarchy, “Moral Relativism Isn’t What You Think It Is” (July 27, 2005). Joe Miller‘s comment on my comment led me to follow up with a hypothetical and some related questions. Joe replied thoroughly and thoughtfully to those questions, and then posed some of his own. This post documents our exchange.

PART I

This part reproduces my hypothetical and the related questions (roman type, flush left), Joe’s replies to those questions (italics, indented), and my response to Joe’s replies (bold, double-indented).

The hypothetical:

1. In Country A (just as in Country B), the armed forces are controlled by the state. (I don’t want to get off onto the tangent of whether war is more or less likely if defense is provided by private agencies.)

2. The only restriction on the liberty of Country A’s citizens is that they must pay taxes to support their armed forces. Country B’s citizens own no property; their jobs are dictated by the state; their income is dictated by the state; and all aspects of their lives are regimented by state decrees.

3. Though Country A’s armed forces are underwritten by taxes, the members of the armed forces are volunteers. The members of Country B’s armed forces are conscripts, and Country B’s armed forces are, in effect, supplied and equipped by slave labor.

4. Country A would liberate Country B’s citizens, if it could. Country B would subjugate or kill Country A’s citizens, if it could.

The questions (all of which I answer “yes”):

1. If Country B attacks Country A, what limits (if any) would you place on the measures Country A might take in its defense? Specifically:

a. Are civilian casualties in Country B acceptable at all?

1. a. Yes, provided that Country A doesn’t directly intend those casualties, that it takes pains to minimize such casualties, and that it ensures that said casualties are proportional to military gains.

I don’t know how to evaluate proportionality. Perhaps an empathetic decision-maker might make a seat-of-the-pants judgment that “enough is enough” or “the particular objective isn’t worth the cost in human life.” Do you have a more precise metric in mind?

b. Are civilian casualties in Country B acceptable if they’re the result of mistakes on Country A’s part or the unavoidable result of Country A’s attacks on Country B’s armed forces and infrastructure?

1. b. Yes, but see 1a. for caveats.

See my comment on your answer to 1.a.

c. Is the deliberate infliction by Country A of civilian casualties in Country B acceptable as long as Country A’s leaders reasonably believe that the infliction of those casualties – and nothing else – will bring about the defeat of Country B? (Assume, here, that Country A’s leaders try to inflict only the number of casualties deemed necessary to the objective.)

1. c. Maybe. I think that there are two components to supreme emergency. One is that there must be an imminent danger of losing and the second is that losing must be catastrophically evil. Worldwide Stalinism probably would count. I’m not sure, from your quick description of Country B, that it really meets the second part of that criterion.

It would always be a judgment call. I suppose there are many libertarians (not to mention pacifists) who would rule out any deliberate infliction of casualties, even under the circumstances I’ve outlined.

(Assume, for purposes of the next 2 questions, that Country A inflicts casualties on Country B’s civilians only to the extent that those casualties are the result of mistakes or unavoidable collateral damage.)

2. Should Country A attack Country B if Country A concludes (rightly or wrongly, but in good faith) that Country B is about to attack, and if Country B strikes first it is likely to:

a. win a quick victory and subjugate Country A?

2. a. Yes. I’ve no objection to preemptive strikes, provided that it really is the case that Country B is about to attack. If you and I get into a fight, I see no reason that I’m obligated to wait for your first punch to land before I can defend myself. Once I see that you’re going to throw the punch, it’s okay if mine lands first. I can’t see why that ought not apply in war, as well.

b. inflict heavy casualties on Country A’s citizens?

2. b. Yes, again. It’s not the winning or losing or the casualties that matter here. It’s a question of aggression. The scenario you describe makes Country B the aggressor, regardless of who actually fires the first shot. That said, finding real cases of preemption isn’t easy to do. Israel in the Six Day’s War comes closest. (Or is it Seven? Hard to keep up with countries that keep winning wars in less than a week.)

3. Should Country A attack Country B if Country A concludes (rightly or wrongly, but in good faith) that Country B is developing the wherewithal to attack, and if Country B strikes first it is likely to

a. win a quick victory and subjugate Country A?

3. a. Nope. Here’s the analogy I like to use in class. Suppose that you and I really don’t like each other. In fact, we really hate one another. As it happens, right now, I’m stronger than you and know a bit about fighting, so I’m not really in much danger from you in a fight. But now suppose that I see that you’ve taken out a gym membership and signed up for Kung Fu classes at the Y. Am I justified in beating you up now on the grounds that, in a few months, you might possibly decide to beat me up? The same has to hold true for nations, I think. The mere fact that Country B doesn’t like Country A and is arming itself doesn’t imply that Country A will actually attack Country B. After all, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. actively didn’t like one another and actively armed against one another without ever actually directly shooting at one another. Possibility of future attack doesn’t justify preventive war. Imminence of attack does. When Country B makes it clear that they actually mean to attack, then they’ve aggressed against Country A and war is justified.

Assume this situation: Country B is developing a devastating weapon that, if used, would kill half of Country A’s inhabitants. There is no way to defend against the weapon if Country B decides to use it. Country B hasn’t said that it would use the weapon, but the mere existence of the weapon poses a grave threat to Country A’s citizens. Country B has demonstrated through its past behavior that it is unreceptive to pleas, negotiations, and offers of economic “assistance” (i.e., bribes). The only way to ensure that Country B won’t use the weapon when it’s built is to destroy the weapon in a preemptive attack, while the weapon is still under development. Country B has deliberately placed the development site so that a preemptive attack would result in the deaths of one-half of Country B’s citizens. What would you do? I know what I’d do, given my opening statements about Country A and Country B: I’d launch the preemptive attack, as long as it had a reasonable chance of success (say 50%) and as long as I had the wherewithal to launch at least one more equally potent attack.

3.b. inflict heavy casualties on Country A’s citizens?

3. b. Same as 3a.

See my comment on your answer to 3.a.

PART II

Now we switch to Joe’s questions (italics, flush left), my answers (bold, indented), and Joe’s replies (italics, double-indented):

1. I’m not sure that we’re in all that much disagreement about whether it’s a
good idea to arm. I’m hardly a pacifist; if anything, I think that I make my
liberal friends a bit nervous with my defense of intervention. I suspect that
we’re in pretty broad agreement about why the U.S. is worth defending. We’re
both liberals in a broad sense, and both of us, I think, see freedom/liberty
as worth defending. I’m not really all that worried about or interested in
trying to convert pacifists; I tend to think that’s pretty much a lost cause.

Right. I think our disagreements are about how best to defend liberty. It seems to me that real pacifists (as opposed to isolationists or those who object to the way we’re going about fighting terror or those who simply oppose Bush for the sake of opposing Bush) have to ask themselves why they put pacifism above liberty, especially when pacifism can lead to the loss of liberty. Come to think of it, isolationists and those who oppose Bush for the sake of opposing Bush have to ask themselves the same question.

Agreed. I find pacifism to be more defensible than isolationism, actually, because there are at least some principled reasons for being a pacifist. If one really is an absolutist of a certain sort (i.e., one who holds that it’s never right to do wrong to do right) and also believes that killing is wrong (e.g., takes Jesus’ injunction to turn the other cheek seriously), then pacifism follows. I don’t accept the position, but it’s hard to know what to say about it, exactly. Isolationists, however, just strike me as deeply confused, holding a flawed pragmatism that fails to adequately address long-term consequences. Opposing Bush for the sake of opposing Bush is a political strategy (and maybe not a terrible one in terms of short-term political gain), but it’s not a philosophical position, so I’m not really all that interested in wrestling with it.

2. I wonder what you make of the question of aggression. I tend to think
that aggression is the international crime. I don’t much hold with
libertarians who try to make aggression the only crime period, but I think
that in international affairs, it probably is the only crime. So most of my
discussion of just war theory revolves around aggression. Based on some of
what you’ve written, I get the impression that you might think that aggression
(meaning something like willfully violating a nation’s sovereignty) is okay if
doing so is necessary for (or even useful for?) the defense of the U.S. Am I
reading you correctly there?

My reading of those libertarians who think that aggression is the only crime is that they find a way to push every crime — even non-violent crime (e.g., theft and fraud) — under the heading of aggression. I have no real problem with that, but instead of focusing on aggression, I focus on what liberty is all about and why it’s so important. (The short version: Liberty enables individuals to fulfill their potential. Potential isn’t a zero-sum game; your ability to fulfill your potential enables me to fulfill mine.)

Liberty is the name of the game; non-aggression is just a means to the end of liberty, but not necessarily the only means or the best means. Non-aggression works reasonably well in a society that is bound by an agreed and enforceable code of behavior. But the world at large isn’t bound by such a code; the United Nations isn’t a larger version of the United States or an Amish community. The question then becomes, how best to preserve or foster liberty. If the answer, in some instances, is to attack those who have shown that they would suppress liberty, so be it. Is that aggression or defense of liberty? I call it defense of liberty.

Thus, why not destroy or decimate the Third Reich’s military might before Hitler begins to dominate Europe? And why not destroy the USSR’s burgeoning nuclear arsenal before Stalin checks the power of the U.S. and forces communism on much of Europe? Hitler and Stalin, if unchecked, would have used the resources of their “empires” against the U.S. That’s why I wouldn’t consider preemptive attacks on the Third Reich or Stalin’s USSR to be aggression. Hitler and Stalin were aggressors in that they opposed liberty, not only for the people of other nations but also for their own people. Striking at aggressors isn’t aggression.

Interesting. I’ll start at the end and work backward. I think that part of the difficulty in waging preventative war is demonstrated in the examples that you give. Yes, it clearly would have been better, in retrospect, to have destroyed the Third Reich before Hitler. Your example with Stalin is much harder. Yes he was a bad guy, maybe even worse than Hitler. And yes the world would have been a better place had Stalin not come to power. But the question is not whether the world would be better without Stalin, the question is whether the world would be better without Stalin or without the massive war that would have been necessary to prevent Stalin from dominating Eastern Europe. As it happened, Stalin didn’t use the resources of his empire directly against the U.S. OTOH, invading Russia is rather notoriously difficult to do. Maybe the U.S. would have succeeded where the Germans had failed just a few years earlier. I don’t honestly know enough about the period or about the relative capabilities of the two sides to say. It strikes me that it would have been tough, especially while at the same time trying to rebuild Germany and Japan, and with the rest of Europe trying to rebuild itself.

This, I think, leads us to what will likely be a point of fundamental disagreement. I do agree with you in thinking that liberty is an important value. I’m a consequentialist, though (a utilitarian, specifically), so I don’t think that liberty is the only important value, nor do I think that liberty is intrinsically valuable. In other words, I think that there are other values that have to be weighed into our decisions. In the international arena, sovereignty is one of those other values. Arguably, sovereignty and liberty aren’t entirely unconnected. If a person has a right to be self-determining, then a collection of people surely ought to be accorded that same right. And what is sovereignty if not the collective right of a body of individuals to be free from outside interference. Now I might very much dislike what it is that some body of people decides to do with that sovereignty. I might also attempt to convince them to do something different (by, for example, refusing to trade with them unless they clean up their act). But I don’t see it as legitimate to force that group of people to do anything. Thus I have a pretty strong presumption against war.

That said, I’m still not a pacifist. When nation A violates the sovereignty of nation B, then A has now violated the rights of B. That is morally wrong, and opens A to a response from B…and also from C, D, and E. The international arena is more like (the romanticized version of) the old west before the town gets around to appointing a sheriff. Or rather, there is a sheriff (the U.N.) but he’s woefully unequipped to take on any really serious bandits. When the bad guys come around, then, the sheriff can (and does) deputize pretty much anyone with a gun to go stop the bad guys. So aggression (or the violation of a state’s sovereignty) is a crime that can be met with force. In the international arena, then, I’m pretty much a libertarian (gasp!)

This is all a long way of saying that I think that there must be some actual act of aggression, some real violation of sovereignty, before war is justified. Preemption is justified when you know (or at least have really good reason to believe) that the other side will strike soon. Prevention, or war with a nation that might just possibly plan to attack at some as-yet undetermined future date and which might be harder to defeat in the future, is not a response to aggression at all, and thus violates the rights of the citizens of some nations to hate me while building a big army.

3. So we’re on the same page, what is your criterion for a just war? Or, to
ask the flip side, what is your criterion for an unjust war? You point out
(half-joking I think) that liberals tend to like on the Revolutionary War, the
Civil War and WWII. I do like all of those (depending on which side we’re
taking in the second), but I happen to think that WWI, Korea, and Gulf War I
were all just as well (though the former was sort of pointless as it was
mostly over when we got there). I’d offer the Spanish-American War, the War
of 1812, and, of course, Vietnam as examples of unjust wars. The former all
involved responding to aggression (on behalf of someone else in each case, but
that’s okay too). The latter three all involve acts of aggression on our side
(we made up an act of war for the first, invaded Canada in the second, and
intervened on behalf of a puppet government that didn’t have enough support
from its citizens to stand on its own in the third).

A just war (for the U.S.) is one in which (1) the actions of the U.S. are aimed at defeating or neutralizing a threat to the liberty or well-being of Americans, whether or not that threat is imminent, and (2) the cost (to the U.S.) is worth the likely long-term benefits. By those criteria, I like the Revolutionary War, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War (but only because it ensured an end to slavery), World War II, the Korean War (because it was necessary to respond to communist aggression, after having practically invited it), and Gulf War I. The Vietnam War was entirely unnecessary, but having committed ourselves so deeply it was a grave mistake to cut and run.

Hmmm. This sounds a lot like a realist positions (attaching labels is an occupational hazard for philosophers). Perhaps this would be the place to focus, as it might really get at why we disagree. I worry that this sort of position really amounts to egoism nationalized. Micha sometimes posts on something similar to this at Catallarchy: the objection here is that there don’t seem to be any non-arbitrary reasons for thinking that one ought to favor the interests of Americans over the interests of non-Americans. To put the question a different way, why should the well-being of Americans be a reason for harming non-Americans? Maybe the “well-being” part is just a throwaway, but it strikes me that it leaves things pretty wide-open. If India keeps taking American jobs (I don’t endorse this position; I like free trade, but let’s just go with this for a moment), then mightn’t we make a good case that it is harming the well-being of Americans? Or if Saudi Arabia cuts back its oil production, doesn’t that harm Americans’ well being?

I suppose that I also wonder whether the two-part just war criterion you sketch here really is consistent with the value that you place on liberty. If liberty really is your core value, then doesn’t everyone’s liberty count the same? What then justifies acting only on behalf of American liberty or only when America benefits from the action?

4. Not to be flip here, but is there anyplace that George Bush could invade
that you would find objectionable? Conversely, is there anyplace that Bill
Clinton could invade that you wouldn’t? Again, I don’t mean to come across as
flip, but I detected considerable scorn when you talked about some of
Clinton’s military actions, particularly in his missile attacks during the
whole blow-job thing. The irony here is that those were actually aimed at
terrorist camps, unlike Iraq whose only terrorist camp was actually in
territory controlled by the Kurds, whom we were protecting from Saddam. It’s
probably fair that I answer the reverse of the question. So, for the record,
I supported the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. I also thought that Bush I
was right to intervene in Somalia and Clinton wrong to withdraw. Clinton
should have intervened in Rwanda, Bush in Liberia.

The short answer: Any president (authorized by Congress) should invade or take other “aggressive” action, whether military or not, whenever the action meets my criteria for a just war (previous answer).

Just to be flip, I would object to George Bush’s invasion of Austin, Texas, even though it is a left-wing stronghold. Seriously, my problem with Clinton’s military actions is that they seemed half-hearted. Halfway measures show a dangerous lack of resolve, which I think was the hallmark of Clinton’s presidency — except when it came to getting re-elected and avoiding conviction by the Senate. To be honest with you, I so distrusted Clinton that I found it hard to swallow anything he had to say about anything, military matters included.

I opposed Clinton’s intervention in Kosovo, and would object to Bush’s intervention in Liberia, because I’m opposed to humanitarian interventions. The commander-in-chief should be focused on defending Americans (as defined in my previous answer); helping others should be confined to those instances where it serves the purpose of defending Americans or protecting their well-being. Bringing down Saddam and helping to foster some sort of representative government in Iraq is good to the extent that it makes it less likely that Iraq’s oil will be turned against or denied to the U.S. It’s also good to the extent that it discourages state-sponsored terrorism or the spread of state-sponsored terrorism. The nation-building/humanitarian aspect of the Iraq War is desirable (in my view) only to the extent that it advances our ability to defend our interests in the Middle East.

I didn’t know that left-wingers were allowed in Texas. Surely in such a gigantic state, it’s okay if we congregate in one city? I might point out that Forbes’ ranking of the best places to do business are pretty much dominated by cities that are dominated by liberals (2004’s top five: Madison, WI; Raleigh-Durham, NC; Austin; DC; Atlanta). I guess that’s another story, though.

In this answer, my worries about the consistency of your view become more evident. If liberty is really the central value, then what’s the difference between military action designed to protect American liberty and military action designed to protect Kosovar liberty? Some interventions are surely imprudent (say, intervention on behalf of Chinese liberty). But again, I would ask why American liberty is so important?

5. To what extent do you think that war makes the world safer? You mention
in your post “War Can Be the Answer” that you think that U.S. could learn from
Israel in fighting terrorism. I’m inclined to agree, but probably for a
different reason. The only place that Islamic terrorists would rather bomb
than New York is Tel Aviv. Despite committing what I think are horrific war
crimes against Palestinian civilians (or perhaps because of), terrorists
continue to throw bombs at Israeli soldiers and blow up Israeli coffee shops.
It’s not clear to me that blowing up cities in retaliation for blowing up
buildings has been a successful strategy overall. This is not to say that we
shouldn’t hunt down terrorists, but do you think that the Army is always the
best way to do that?

War makes the world safer to the extent that it kills bad guys and deters other people from acting bad. I’m not persuaded that killing bad guys actually generates more bad guys. I think they’re already out there, looking for an excuse and opportunity to do bad things. If killing bad guys does generate bad guys, then killing good guys ought to generate good guys. We killed a lot of “bad guys” in WWII and it worked. In fact, for a long time, many “bad guys” became “good guys.” But it takes victory to do that. Which is one of the reasons we shouldn’t leave Iraq until it’s clear that the “good guys” are in charge.

Yes, you’re absolutely right that sometimes killing bad guys is the only way to make the world safer. Part of the difficulty, though, is that in a traditional war between nation-states, most of the people being killed are neither bad guys nor good guys specifically. The average German killed in WWII wasn’t a monster or a war criminal. He was a guy who thought that he was fighting for his country. Yeah, chances are that he was a pretty serious racist. The odds are that the American soldiers on the other side were, too; Americans just hated a different group of people for an arbitrary reason. Now I’m not claiming moral equivalence between Nazi racism and American racism. I’m only claiming a rough moral equivalence between the average German soldier and the average American soldier. In WWII, the really bad guys weren’t the people Americans were killing during the war. The bad guys are the ones we hanged at Nuremberg after the war. Victory there was necessary because that was the only way to get to the really bad guys who actually needed to be stopped.

It’s not so clear to me that this is the case in the Israel-Palestine contest. There are genuine bad guys (on both sides, I think). But bombing cities or sending tanks to demolish entire quarters isn’t the way to get at the really bad guys. In traditional war, armies fight other armies, and typically, when the war ends, the two armies stop fighting. In Israel, you have an army fighting against the general public. There is no way for one side to officially surrender, and it requires only the actions of a single lunatic fanatic to restart the entire conflict. That, I think, calls for a different strategy entirely.

Israel is in a “fight or die” situation, and forbearance hasn’t worked when it’s been tried. The bad guys keep showing up. Targeted killings and surgical strikes can do only so much damage to the terrorist element. Given the proclivity of Palestinian terrorists for mingling with Palestinian civilians, I’m inclined to blame Palestinian terrorists for the deaths of Palestinian civilians. Yes, Israel takes the blame, and it inflames Palestinians. But what’s the alternative?

I think that a good start would be more police work, and fewer tanks and missiles. Terrorism is really bad stuff, but mostly it’s criminal activity and not war activity. There are some exceptions, like 9/11 where you have what amounts to a state that sponsored the attacks (or at least knowingly and willfully harbored the attackers). Mostly, though, I think that the sort of terrorism we’re worried about today would be something in between an army and a police force, perhaps an entirely new entity. I have in mind something like a law-enforcement agency with a pretty serious military arm, but a military arm that consists largely of special-forces and light infantry types—the sort who did most of the work in Afghanistan. I worry that a lot of what is really needed in hunting down terrorists is law-enforcement types of skills, and while our military is, hands down, the best in the world, it’s not particularly good at law-enforcement jobs, because, after all, that’s not what it trains for. OTOH, law enforcement types rarely have the skills necessary to take on heavily-armed terrorist cells. That’s the sort of thing that the military is good at. To use a (probably bad) analogy, the army is a broadsword, the FBI a scalpel. What we really need is a good saber.

There are lots of ways to fight terrorists. The best way depends on where they are and how they’re operating. (That’s trite, isn’t it?) Military force wouldn’t be the answer inside the U.S. unless, for example, we happened to find a large training camp in the wilds of Colorado or a major munitions depot on a farm in Michigan. As for the use of military force overseas, large-scale military operations may be an effective means of combating terrorists when they’re massed for some purpose (e.g., in training camps or drawing on large munitions caches). Small-unit and special-forces operations are more effective in the pursuit of small bands of terrorists. In any event, good tactical intelligence is a key to success (as it is in any war), and that’s simply harder to come by when you’re fighting an enemy who blends into the populace and whose weapons are easily concealed and easy to transport. But, again, what’s the alternative to trying to find and kill them? Ignoring them doesn’t work, and the truly dangerous ideologues won’t be mollified by peace and prosperity.

No, you’re right that the truly dangerous ideologues won’t be mollified by peace and prosperity. But I’m not really trying to convert the ideologues. I’m worried about the disaffected who are more likely to be swayed by ideologues when they’re poor and miserable than they are when they’re driving shiny new Hondas and building TVs to sell to Americans. It’s going to be a lot harder to find suicide bombers when the average citizen knows that Americans buy the stuff his factory makes. After all, it’s not the real ideologues who strap on the bombs, it’s the disaffected youth who turn to ideologues who offer a scapegoat for their own misery.

The main difference between Israel and the U.S. is that Israelis (for the most part) realize that they’re fighting for their survival. Americans were more inclined to believe that right after 9/11, but the rage has subsided.

Not to sound too cynical here, but are we really fighting for our survival? As bad as 9/11 was, it’s not like it really threatened the very existence of the U.S. There are close to 300,000,000 in the nation. Fewer than 3,000 died on 9/11. The murder rate is somewhere around 7.4 per 100,000. We’re killing ourselves at a far faster rate than terrorists are managing.

I don’t mean to belittle the problem, but I do think that reaction to 9/11 was a bit overblown. It’s not like large-scale terrorism came into existence in September 2001. It was just new to us. I suspect that the biggest threat to American survival lies not in what terrorists can do to us but rather in what we can do to ourselves. I’m going to sound like a left-winger here maybe, but it seems to me that a lot of what we did in response to 9/11 was to make ourselves less liberal (in the broad sense that you and I share).

Let’s suppose that we do prevent another 9/11. What cost are we willing to pay to do that?

I’ll put the point another way. Andrew Sullivan pointed out a few months ago that, relative to their population size, Iraq was experiencing the equivalent of a 9/11 every day. That got better for a while, but it’s back to being pretty bad again. Despite all that horror, no one really questions whether or not Iraq will survive. Given that the U.S. is in almost incomparably better shape than Iraq, it’s hard to imagine that America’s survival is actually at stake.

And before you mention it, yes, the nuclear threat is a different story entirely. There’s a nice quote from the movie The Peacemaker, in which Nicole Kidman’s character says, “I’m not afraid of the man who wants 10 nuclear weapons, Colonel. I’m terrified of the man who only wants one.” Well, I’m also afraid of some men who want 10, since lots of them are the sort who wouldn’t mind having only 9 and selling the other to the lunatic who just wants one. It thus puzzles me deeply that we’re spending so much money to stabilize a place formerly ruled by a lunatic who had no nuclear weapons and wasn’t close to having any while completely ignoring another lunatic who does have nuclear weapons and cozying up to a bunch of criminals who have access to thousands of them.


Other related posts:
9/11 and Pearl Harbor
Vietnam and Iraq as Metaphors
Wisdom about the War on Terrror
Why Sovereignty?
Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism
Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
More Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
Riots, Culture, and the Final Showdown
A Rant about Torture
What If We Lose?
The Best Defense . . .
A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism
Defense as the Ultimate Social Service
Not Enough Boots: The Why of It
Liberalism and Sovereignty
The Media, the Left, and War
Getting It Wrong and Right about Iran
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
Delusions of Preparedness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
Transnationalism and National Defense
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Preemptive War
Preemptive War and Iran
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
My Defense of the A-Bomb
Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War
LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty
Terrorism Isn’t an Accident
The Ken Burns Apology Tour Continues
Planning for the Last War
The Folly of Pacifism

Presidents and War

This post is prompted by a recent exchange with former think-tank colleagues about H.R. McMaster‘s Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I’ve just started it, having until now steadfastly eschewed rehashes of the Vietnam War since its ignominious end. My assessment of LBJ’s handling of the Vietnam War is based entirely on my knowledge of the war as it unfolded and unraveled, and subsequent reflections on that knowledge. I’ll review McMaster’s book in a later post.

The president’s role as commander-in-chief is a two-edged sword. It was wielded ably by Lincoln and FDR (until the end-game in Europe), and badly by Truman, LBJ, Bush I, Bush II, and Obama.

Starting with Bush II, I believe that he made the right strategic decision, which was to bring the Middle East under control instead of leaving it hostage to the whims of Saddam. (Some will say that Saddam was contained, but — in my view — he was a threat to the Middle East if not to the U.S. as long as he was in power.) That may not have been what Bush intended, but that’s what he could have achieved, and would have achieved if he had committed the forces necessary to bring Iraq firmly under control. Instead, he followed Rumsfeld’s do-it-on-the-cheap advice for too long. Anyway, Bush got bogged down, much as LBJ had done with his “signalling” and gradualism in Vietnam. The 2007 surge might have turned things around, but Bush had run out of political capital and couldn’t commit the forces needed to stabilize Iraq for the long haul (and neutralize Iran), even if he had wanted to.

Obama then followed his anti-colonial impulses and converted potential stability into the mess that we see today.

Bush I set it all up when he declined the golden opportunity to depose Saddam in 1991.

Truman’s handling of the Korean War could be defended as making the best of a bad situation. But Truman’s decision to accept a stalemate instead of taking on the Chinese, as MacArthur urged, was a strategic miscalculation of the first order. It signaled to Russia and China the unwillingness of U.S. leaders to push back against Communist expansion. LBJ reinforced that signal in Vietnam. It took Reagan, who pursued a defense buildup in the face of chicken-little screams from the defeatist left, to push the USSR to its breaking point.

To paraphrase Andy Granatelli, you can pay now or pay later, but pay you will. I fear that the long-run price of the defense build-down under Obama will be high.

Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight

G.W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein — a decision that was approved by Congress — was justified on several grounds. One of those grounds was a humanitarian consideration: Saddam’s record as a brutally oppressive dictator.

But humanitarian acts have nothing to do with the interests of Americans, except for the mistaken belief that the “rest of the world” (presumably including our enemies and potential enemies) will think better of the United States for such acts. The belief, as I say, is mistaken. Our foreign enemies and potential enemies see such things as evidence of American softness, when they do not see them as ways of obtaining U.S. weapons for future use against American interests. Our foreign “friends” (the sneer is well-advised) see the humanitarian acts of the U.S. government as one, two, or all of the following: (a) substitutes for their own humanitarian acts, which may accordingly be curtailed or withheld, (b) evidence of America’s “imperial” aims, and (c) evidence of the willingness of Americans to expend lives and treasure, sometimes in vain, for elusive or illusory objectives.

From the point of view of American taxpayers, the commission of humanitarian acts by the U.S. government is almost always and certainly a waste of money. (I have elsewhere discussed and dismissed the proposition that such acts are morally superior to the alternative of letting taxpayers decide how best to use their money.)  It follows that now military operation can or should be justified solely on the basis of humanitarianism. And yet, that is the essential justification of Obama’s adventure in Libya.

Were Obama to come right out and say that our military involvement in Libya is really aimed at ensuring a continuous flow of petroleum from that country’s wells, refineries, and ports, he would be accused of waging a campaign of “blood for oil.” That, of course, was a leftist rallying cry against Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and Obama — as a man of the left and opponent of the Iraq war — does not want to be painted with the same brush.

Bush, too, sought to avoid the taint of “blood for oil.” But, in reality, it was in the interest of the U.S. (and other nations) to restore the flow of Iraqi oil to (or above) the rate attained before the imposition of UN sanctions.

Nevertheless, political discourse has become so mealy-mouthed since the end of World War II that no American politician dare speak of an economic motivation for the use of military force. And so, American politicians must adopt the language of hypocrisy, cant, and political correctness to justify acts that are either (a) unjustifiable because they are purely humanitarian or (b) fully justifiable as being in the interest of Americans, period.

In sum, American armed forces should be used only to preserve, protect, and defend the interests of Americans. To that end, American armed forces certainly may be used preemptively as well as reactively. And as long as it remains economically advantageous for Americans to import oil from other countries, it will be a legitimate use of American armed forces to defend those imports — at the source and every step of the way to this country. I would say the same about any resource whose importation is vital to the well-being of Americans.

The decision whether to use force to protect Americans and their interests, in any given instance, requires a judgment as to the likely costs, benefits, and success of the venture. For practical purposes, it is the president who makes that judgment, but he is ill-advised to commit armed forces without the backing of Congress. When armed forces have been committed, they should remain committed until the objective has been met, unless it becomes clear — to the president and Congress, the media and protesters to the contrary — that the objective cannot be met without incurring unacceptable costs.

A reversal of course sends a very strong signal to our enemies and potential enemies that America’s leadership is unwilling to do what it takes to protect Americans and their interests. Such a signal, of course, makes all the more likely that someone will act against Americans and their interests.

All of that said, I come to the following conclusions about current military engagements involving American armed forces:

  • Iraq was worth the effort, assuming that a post-withdrawal Iraq remains a relatively stable, oil-producing nation in the midst of surrounding turmoil.
  • Afghanistan is worth only the effort required to destroy its usefulness as an al Qaeda base. If that cannot be achieved, the large-scale U.S. presence in Afghanistan should be scaled back to a special operations force dedicated solely to the detection and destruction of al Qaeda facilities and personnel.
  • Libya is worth only the effort required to ensure that it remains a major oil-exporting nation. Aiding the Libyan rebels is likely to backfire because of the strong possibility that al Qaeda or its ilk will emerge triumphant in a rebel-led post-Gaddifi regime (as seems to be the case in Egypt’s post-Mubarak regime). Given that possibility, the U.S. government should withdraw all support of the NATO operation, with the aim of (a) bringing about the end of that operation or (b) forcing a “willing coalition” of European nations to do what it takes to ensure that a post-Gaddafi regime is no worse than neutral toward the West.

Earlier wars are treated here.

Related posts:
Libertarian Nay-Saying on Foreign and Defense Policy
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part I
Right On! For Libertarian Hawks Only
Understanding Libertarian Hawks
More about Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part II
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Non-Aggression?
More Final(?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
Thomas Woods and War
“Peace for Our Time”
How to View Defense Spending
More Stupidity from Cato
Anarchistic Balderdash
Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace
A Point of Agreement
The Unreality of Objectivism
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism