Bellicosity or Bargaining Strategy?

Yesterday, George Will doubled down on his previous invocation of the Nuremberg Trials. The first time, on December 8, Will opined that

[a] U.S. war of choice against North Korea would not be a pre emptive war launched to forestall an imminent attack. Rather, it would be a preventive war supposedly justified by the fact that, given sophisticated weapons and delivery systems, imminence might be impossible to detect….

It would be interesting to hear the president distinguish a preventive war against North Korea from a war of aggression. The first two counts in the indictments at the 1946 Nuremberg trials concerned waging “aggressive war.”

Now that John Bolton has been named Trump’s new national-security adviser, Will has again come off his hinges. This is from yesterday’s piece:

Bolton will soon be the second-most dangerous American. On April 9, he will be the first national security adviser who, upon taking up residence down the hall from the Oval Office, will be suggesting that the United States should seriously consider embarking on war crimes.

The first two charges against the major Nazi war criminals in the 1945-1946 Nuremberg trials concerned waging aggressive war. Emboldened by the success, as he still sees it, of America’s Iraq adventure that began 15 years ago this month, Bolton, for whom a trade war with many friends and foes is insufficiently stimulating, favors real wars against North Korea and Iran. Both have odious regimes, but neither can credibly be said to be threatening an imminent attack against the United States. Nevertheless, Bolton thinks bombing both might make the world safer….

Bolton’s belief in the U.S. power to make the world behave and eat its broccoli reflects what has been called “narcissistic policy disorder” — the belief that whatever happens in the world happens because of something the United States did or did not do. This is a recipe for diplomatic delusions and military overreaching.

Speaking of delusions, one died last week — the belief that this president could be safely cocooned within layers of adult supervision. Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster, wrote a brilliant book (“Dereliction of Duty”) on the failure of officials, particularly military leaders, who knew better but did not resist the stumble into the Vietnam disaster. McMaster is being replaced because he would have done his duty regarding the impulses of the most dangerous American.

Regarding Nuremberg, I wrote this on December 10:

The counts [in the indictments at the Nuremberg trial] refer to the aggression against Poland. There is no parallel between Poland, with its relatively primitive armed forces and lack of bellicosity, and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea….

Will himself has questioned the legality of the Nuremberg trials. It was an act of intellectual desperation to bring them into the discussion.

All in all, Will’s recent column is weak on the facts and weak as a matter of historical analysis. The main impetus for the column seems to be Will’s fixation on Trump. His doubts about Trump’s stability and soundness of judgment may be justified. But Will ought to have stuck to those doubts, and elaborated on them.

Will’s armchair psychologizing of Bolton (“narcissistic policy disorder”) is backwards. Bolton’s record — as I read it — is that of a person who wants the world to leave the U.S. alone, not that of someone who believes that whatever happens in the world is a consequence of something the United States did or did not do.

Will’s endorsement of McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty is misplaced. As I say here,

McMaster was derelict in his duty to give a full and honest account of the role of the service chiefs in the early stages of the Vietnam War.

The book’s focus is on the political-military machinations of November 1963 to July 1965. Most of the book is taken up with a detailed (almost monotonous) chronological narrative….

In the narrative and subsequent analysis, LBJ and McNamara come across as the real heavies, which is what I thought of them at the time….

Though McMaster goes into great detail about people and events, there’s nothing really new (to me), except for the revelation that the chiefs were supine — at least through July 1965. LBJ’s deviousness and focus on the election and his domestic programs is unsurprising. McNamara’s arrogance and rejection of the chiefs’ views is unsurprising. Service parochialism is unsurprising. The lack of a commitment by LBJ and McNamara to winning the war and devising a requisite strategy are unsurprising.

But there was something at the back of my mind when I was reading Dereliction of Duty which told me that the chiefs weren’t as negligent as McMaster paints them. It has since come to the front of my mind. McMaster’s narrative ends in July 1965, and he bases his conclusions on events up until then. However, there was a showdown between the chiefs and LBJ in November 1965. As recounted by Lt. Gen. Charles Cooper, USMC (Ret.), who was a junior officer at the time (and present at the showdown), “the chiefs did their duty.”

… Cooper’s story … is drawn from his memoir, Cheers and Tears: A Marine’s Story of Combat in Peace and War (2002)…. [Go here for a long, relevant excerpt.]

Will has nevertheless raised a question that is on the minds of many these days: Does the appointment of John Bolton, coupled with the replacement of Rex Tillerson by Mike Pompeo at the State Department, signal a change in Trump’s attitude toward involvement in foreign wars? Specifically, is Trump assembling a “war cabinet”, as several (left-wing) sources claim?

A much more likely scenario is that Trump is doing something that Barack Obama failed to do in his zeal to “lead from behind”, which is to say, in his zeal to undermine America’s strength vis-a-vis its actual and potential adversaries: Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea (to name a few). (I still maintain that Obama was guilty of “Presidential Treason“.)

Of course, it is risky to confront one’s enemies instead of lying supine before them. But it is no more risky than being kicked to death while one is lying supine. In fact, it is less risky because the upright warrior can do something to deter his enemies, or fight them if necessary; the supine warrior only invites abuse.

What I see, then, is the adoption by Mr. Trump of an upright stance — backed by a resolve that is made all the more credible by surrounding himself with men like Pompeo and Bolton.


Related reading: Roger Kimball, “Why John Bolton Is No Warmonger“, Spectator USA, March 24, 2018


Related posts:
Much Ado about Civilian Control of the Military
Presidents and 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
A Rearview Look at the Invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror
Preemptive War Revisited

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

A Rearview Look at the Invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror

UPDATED WITH AN ADDENDUM ABOUT SYRIA, 04/12/18

In a bombastic piece at American Thinker, Silvio Canto Jr. said this:

In a few weeks, we will remember the 15th anniversary of the Iraq War.  President Bush made a tough call, and I’m still supporting it years later.

Close your eyes and imagine Saddam Hussein running Iraq.

Over there, Saddam would be trying to compete with Iran for nuclear weapons.  Libya would still have them.

Israel would have probably gone to war with Iran or Iraq by now.

Oil would be $100 a barrel, at least.

Over here, John Kerry would be giving speeches that Pres. Bush left a madman in power.  He’d tell us about his vote to remove Saddam Hussein.

Hillary Clinton would remind us that her husband’s administration said Iraq had WMDs and connections to al-Qaeda.

Al Gore would argue that 9-11 changed everything and that the U.S. looks weak playing cat and mouse with Iraq.

I’m sure that a few other Democrats would tell us about their opposition to Saddam Hussein.

It was 15 years ago, and President Bush was right.  All you have to do is look at North Korea.  The lesson of North Korea is that you cannot allow these regimes to go nuclear.  You cannot give them the benefit of the doubt because they have no intention of complying with any agreements.

Saddam won’t be conducting any nuclear tests.  He is dead and gone.

Better than that, we don’t have to hear John Kerry say the Bush administration passed up an opportunity to take out Saddam before he conducted a nuclear test.

I forwarded the piece to a correspondent who is, like me, a veteran of the defense-analysis business. My correspondent takes the view that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was unnecessary because

Saddam [was] containable, and Iran was an agent in his containment. In the sense of keeping him boxed in, Iran was an ally of the US.

Nuke ownership is worrisome, but nuke usage is way more so. The world, with lots of hard work from us and others, has kept the cork in the bottle for 73 years.

Dubya’s mistake in Iraq was called by his SecState Powell a dozen years before; if ya break it, ya own it. Deposing a dictator isn’t so hard (see Noriega 1989) if you can do it at reasonable cost. Dubya didn’t.

As for what a bunch of faded Dem pols would be saying if Saddam were in power…yawn.

It is quite true that Saddam was unlikely to march his armies outside Iraq’s borders, especially given his quick and humiliating defeat in 1991. But is that containment?

North Korea is contained, in the sense that its armies haven’t ventured across the DMZ since the truce of 1953. But is North Korea really contained? Not at all. It has in its possession the means to blackmail South Korea into playing nicey-nicey. And South Korea — which is now under new, left-wing management — may be on the verge of succumbing to North Korea’s veiled threat. Kim Jong-un, like many a shrewd dictator before him, knows how to act crazy enough to make his opponents believe that he will attack them even if such an attack proves suicidal (for his country if not for himself). In the ability-to-act-crazy department, Kim may have met his match in Donald Trump, but Kim is a real dictator who can and might do something suicidal. Trump is only a crazy dictator in the eyes of hysterical women, feminized men, and leftists, who are projecting their own fascistic fantasies onto him.

Saddam was contained in the same way as Kim. But, like Kim, he aspired to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, at least to nearby countries if not all the way to the United States. Saddam’s dilatory response to UN-ordered inspections of his WMD programs was a casus belli in 2003. The uncertainty surrounding Saddam’s nuclear program is reflected in the following narrative, the source of which is the Brookings Institution — a left-of-center think-tank, and not the kind of outfit that would give aid and comfort to American “war mongers”:

[A] nuclear weapon is something Saddam almost surely does not now have, but that he might someday acquire—and that, if ever used, could clearly dwarf 9/11 in its effects. We don’t know if Saddam would use or threaten to use nuclear weapons if he had them. But to paraphrase Kenneth Pollack of the Council on Foreign Relations, letting Saddam get a nuclear weapon and then seeing what if anything he might do with it is a social science experiment we can live without. Simply having such a weapon could give Saddam “defensive cover” for aggression, fundamentally changing the balance of power in the region.

That, in a nutshell, is the case for a pre-emptive war. Whatever one thinks of this case, it should not depend on advocates producing a “smoking gun.” Evidence that Saddam is on the verge of building a bomb is unlikely to exist, not only because our sources of intelligence inside Iraq are highly imperfect, but because Iraq is probably still years away from any kind of nuclear capability….

… But Saddam is trying to get the bomb. And if that’s a persuasive reason for going to war—as it probably is, in the absence of rigorous inspections that would prevent him from acquiring one—it would make more sense to fight before he had the bomb than after.

… As is well known, Iraq was disturbingly close—perhaps only months away—from building a nuclear weapon at the time of Desert Storm [in 1991]. After Israel bombed its Osirak nuclear reactor a decade earlier, Iraq had embarked on a program to develop less visible technologies for enriching uranium from domestic and possibly foreign sources—its “basement bomb” project. In numerous ways, this effort resembled the difficult and tedious approach taken in the 1940s during the Manhattan Project in the United States, particularly the effort to build uranium-235 devices such as the one dropped on Hiroshima. U.N. inspectors found and destroyed most of the equipment believed to have been involved in Iraq’s effort before the Gulf War of 1991.

When [former chief bomb designer Khidhir] Hamza defected a couple of years later, Iraq’s nuclear program was still in a state of dismantlement. That said, Saddam kept together his bomb designer teams, putting them on other projects to ensure their continued availability and proficiency. By the mid-1990s at the latest, he also had a workable design for a bomb that likely would have been effective, if he had been able to get his hands on fissile material. He also had the capability to manufacture most other critical nuclear-weapon components, such as timing devices and properly shaped conventional explosives to compress the fissile material and initiate the explosion.

In recent months, as reported in The New York Times, U.S. intelligence has gotten word of Iraqi efforts to buy key nuclear-related components. In particular, Iraq seems bent on acquiring large numbers of sophisticated aluminum tubes that could be used to build centrifuges. Centrifuges spin uranium at high speeds, gradually separating the lighter U-235 from the heavier and more prevalent U-238 (which is not capable of supporting a chain reaction and hence not usable in a bomb)….

More worrisome, perhaps, is that Saddam might get access to U-235 or plutonium on the black market, most likely with Russian criminal elements as the original source. Thankfully, there is no evidence that the nuclear black market has yet involved large quantities of fissile material. But as Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likes to say, we don’t know what we don’t know. Any delay in pre-emption entails some degree of risk—and precisely what degree is hard to estimate.

Saddam probably could not hurt the United States directly with a bomb even if he had one. Even if he overcomes his most serious obstacle by obtaining fissile material on the black market, he would probably be able to build only a few nuclear weapons, and they would be big. That would make it hard to transport such weapons to give to terrorists or his own foreign-based operatives for use against a U.S. city. He might be able to sneak a bomb into Kuwait or another neighboring state with a low-flying aircraft, but the plane might well also get shot down. He probably does not have a missile big enough to carry what would be a fairly primitive and thus large nuclear warhead.

It is possible that Saddam would consider possession of a bomb a “regime survival insurance card” and undertake aggressive behavior as a result. For example, Saddam might try to take Kuwait’s oil field that was the original purported source of contention back in 1990, prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Or he might move forces back into Kurdish regions of his own country, aware that our airpower probably could not stop him and that we might be unwilling to risk escalation by moving in ground forces.

These types of worries are real, if not quite the equivalent of Hitler’s demands at Munich, as Bush administration officials have exaggerated in recent weeks. That said, a nuclear-armed Iraq is a serious concern, and we would be vastly better off without one. Even a war skeptic such as me must acknowledge that President Bush has a reasonable case when he describes the risks involved in Iraq’s nuclear program. Rigorous inspections and disarmament would, to my mind, be an acceptable solution. But to get that outcome, we may have to threaten war, and threaten it quite credibly…. [Michael E. O’Hanlon, “Saddam’s Bomb: How Close is Iraq to Having a Nuclear Weapon?“, September 18, 2002]

(PBS, another left-of-center source, offered a similar assessment.)

But threats of war were to no avail. And so Iraq was invaded, Saddam fell, and the threat of a nuclear-armed, Saddam-led Iraq was ended.

In that regard, consider the usual kind of reasoning against preemptive war, which appears in a passage of O’Hanlon’s essay that I skipped over. After saying that “it would make more sense to fight before [Saddam] had the bomb than after”, O’Hanlon adds this:

However, it’s not necessarily an argument for mounting a full-scale invasion now. That argument depends on how close Saddam really is to obtaining a bomb.

That kind of thinking baffles me. If one is going to preempt an enemy, the time to do it is when he is relatively weak. What is the point of giving him time in which to become stronger? Hope that he will change his spots? A survey of relevant historical examples would find few spot-changing episodes, except under duress (e.g., Muammar Gaddafi’s in the wake of Saddam’s downfall), which makes my point.

The O’Hanlons of this world can’t contemplate preemptive war, so they seize on flimsy excuses to delay or avoid it. The inevitable result is that the enemy eventually becomes strong enough that preemptive war then becomes too costly to wage — too costly for America, that is, in terms of blood and treasure.

Except that it took only three weeks to overthrow Saddam and subdue his armed forces. The mistake wasn’t in the doing of it, but in why and how it was done. The invasion of Iraq was really a piece of the Bush administration’s reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and should be evaluated as such. Mark Helprin does the job (my parenthetical commentary is in italics):

True shock and awe following upon September 11, when the world was with us, could have pitched the Middle East (and beyond, including the Islamists) into something resembling its torpor under European domination or its shock after the Arab-Iraeli War of 1967. That is to say, pacified for a time, with attacks on the West subsiding…. Instead, we exhibit the generosity of the soon-to-be defeated, otherwise known as concession and surrender. [Surely this blogger wasn’t alone in believing, at the time, that the response to 9/11 was too tepid and limited in scope. Nor that the “Islam is a religion of peace” mantra was exactly the wrong thing to say because it connoted conciliation and squeamishness where determination and massive force were called for.]

Comporting with the idea that if you’re going to have a war it’s a good idea to win it, and with the Powell Doctrine, General Eric Shinseki’s recommendations, the lessons of military history [including the failure of half-measures in Vietnam], the American way of war [through World War II], and simple common sense, an effective response to September 11 would have required an effort of greater scale than that of the Gulf War—i.e., all in. [This might not have been possible immediately after 9/11, given the defense drawdown of the 1990s, when Clinton — with GOP complicity — balanced the federal budget on the back of defense. But it would soon have been possible given the degree of support for rearmament in the wake of 9/11.] With a full and fully prepared “punch through,” we could have reached Baghdad in three days, and instead of staying there for a decade or more put compliant officials or generals in power … and wheeled left to Damascus, smashing the Syrian army against the Israeli anvil and putting another compliant regime in place before returning to the complex of modern military bases at the northern borders of Saudi Arabia. There, our backs to the sea, which we control, and our troops hermetically sealed by the desert and safe from insurgency, we could have occupied the center of gravity in the heart of the Middle East, able to sprint with overwhelming force within a few days to either Baghdad, Damascus, or Riyadh.

Having suffered very few casualties, our forces would have been rested, well-trained, ready for deployment in other parts of the world, and able to dictate to (variously and where applicable) the Syrians, Iraqis, and Saudis that they eradicate their terrorists, stay within their borders, abandon weapons of mass destruction, break alliances with Iran and Hezbollah, keep the oil price down, and generally behave themselves. These regimes live for power, do anything for survival, and have secret police who can flush out terrorists with ruthless efficiency. Such strategy, had we adopted it, would have been demanding and imperious, yes, but not as demanding and imperious as ten years of war across much of the Middle East. Our own economy and alliances need not have been disrupted, our polity not so severely divided, and far fewer people would have suffered. [Many Americans across the political spectrum would have blanched at this exercise of raw power, even though it was probably the best way to curb terrorism against Americans. This squeamish attitude ignores a main justification for the existence of the United States under a central government: the defense of Americans and their interests, which includes overseas interests, not the winning of popularity contests, and certainly not the invitation of further attacks through ineffective action.]

But rather than this approach, which is not, as the record will show, hindsight, the businessmen and business-schooled officials of the Bush Administration chose to run the war according to the business principle of doing the most with as little as possible. [This slam on Donald Rumsfeld and ilk is one that I believe my correspondent would say amen to.] Thus, although war demands surplus, reserves, and overkill, for it is never as predictable as selling widgets, it was deliberately and gratuitously a war of penury, and like most such wars it has lasted long and will bring a frayed and unsatisfactory end. [“The Central Proposition“, The Claremont Review of Books, September 13, 2011]

In any event, the fact remains that even George W. Bush’s botched job resulted in the removal of any threat posed by Saddam. I don’t understand why that fact is overlooked or dismissed. For, as I argue above, Saddam wasn’t really contained as long as he had (or could have had) a nuclear program (or other weapons of mass destruction).

Well, what’s another member of the nuclear club? There are already at least 9 members: the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Thanks to Barack Obama, Iran will soon join the club to make it a nice, round 10.

If 10 is all right, why not 15 or 20? Is it too many because such numbers represent too many opportunities for a “mad man” to let loose the dogs of nuclear war? When there were 8 club members, there were only 8 such opportunities. With 2 more (North Korea and Iran), the number of opportunities is 25 percent greater than it had been since 1998. How is that at all comforting? When the number goes from ten to 11, will that be acceptable because the number of opportunities will rise by only 10 percent? Or will it be unacceptable because there is yet another opportunity for a “mad man” to do something drastic? I take the latter view. One more club member is always one too many. Two was too many because the second to join was the USSR; one (the U.S.) was just the right number.

A nuclear weapon hasn’t been detonated in anger since 1945. That must prove something. All it proves is that a nuclear weapon hasn’t been detonated in anger since 1945. As my correspondent knows very well, intentional events aren’t random events, and therefore aren’t probabilistic ones. In other words, the past — in this case — isn’t necessarily prologue. All we know for sure is that the addition of members to the nuclear club means more opportunities for something bad to happen.

What about those (thankfully) faded Democrat politicians who probably would have second-guessed GWB if he hadn’t deposed Saddam, and Saddam had joined the nuclear club? Canto added some (perhaps gratuitous) rhetorical spice to a valid point by invoking the faded pols. His valid point is that GWB would have been second-guessed with good reason, because most Americans would rightly have been angry about Saddam’s entry into the nuclear club.

The angry Americans would include a lot of squeamish ones who want their defense but not what must be done sometimes to secure it. (Retrospective approval of the “unthinkable”, such as dropping A-bombs on Japan, doesn’t count as willingness to do what must be done.) This is an unrealistic approach to life with which I have no sympathy, and which courts disaster.

I speak from personal experience. In 1994, the budget of the think-tank where I was chief financial officer was slashed by Congress. The handwriting was on the wall: a few dozen employees would have to be fired. My boss, the CEO, resisted that course of action, in the vain hope that the budget cut would be restored. He finally relented in 1995, with the result that the continued employment of a couple of dozen employees had worsened our budget deficit. And so twice as many employees had to be fired — as I had told him from the beginning of the budget crisis.

To paraphrase Andy Granatelli, you can pay now or pay later, but pay you will. And the cost of deferring action is almost certain to be greater than the cost of having taking action when it was called for.

ADDENDUM

Excerpts of my messages in subsequent correspondence about the situation in Syria and its relationship to the Iraq War:

The thing about Iraq — beyond Saddam and what he might have done — is its central position in a major oil-producing region of the world. A military occupation — without “nation building” or any pretense of establishing democracy — was my preferred solution. A U.S.-controlled Iraq would have brought stability to the ME and sent a strong message to Iran and whoever else might have had ideas about messing with U.S. interests. Yes, the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds would have been at each other. But as long as they didn’t threaten U.S. forces and interests, they should have been allowed to kill each other. Attacks on U.S. forces and interests could have been dealt with promptly, forcibly, indiscriminately (they’re all “bad guys”), and without apology. If you’re going to conquer a country, then conquer it and don’t pussy-foot around. How long should the U.S. have stayed? As long as it takes — just as in Europe.

What about Syria? Leaving it to the Russians is fine by me, as long as there’s really a bright red line around it. But even if Trump were to somehow backtrack on his tough talk and strike a deal with Russia — Syria is your problem — the next president or the one after that is just as likely to be Obama II. That’s because the mushy center of the American electorate can’t make up its mind what it wants — limited government or unlimited goodies. There goes the bright red line, and possibly the whole ME with it. That’s my reservation about leaving Syria to the Russians.

Unlike the seize-and-hold strategy that I had hoped the U.S. would take with respect to Iraq, [my correspondent’s preferred] containment strategy would have left open a greater range of possibilities. It could have been interpreted as a signal that the U.S. would keep hands off a country (e.g., Syria) as long as its actions weren’t spilling over into U.S. interests (e.g., oil, Israel, stability in the ME). But that wouldn’t have precluded an uprising in Syria, and it might even have encouraged it. Without a strong U.S. presence next door in Iraq, Russia might well have decided to intervene in the hope of extending its influence in the ME. And we’d be exactly where we are now.


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

Will Unhinged

George F. Will, the pseudo-don of political punditry, began to unravel last year when faced with Donald Trump’s candidacy, nomination, and electoral victory. Inasmuch as I don’t read Will as religiously as I used to — when he had sensible things to say about Barack Obama — I failed to witness the point at which he became unhinged. But unhinged he is, as evidenced by a recent column in The Washington Post. It’s about the possibility of a Trump-ordered first strike against North Korea:

A U.S. war of choice against North Korea would not be a pre emptive war launched to forestall an imminent attack. Rather, it would be a preventive war supposedly justified by the fact that, given sophisticated weapons and delivery systems, imminence might be impossible to detect.

Will ends the column with this:

It would be interesting to hear the president distinguish a preventive war against North Korea from a war of aggression. The first two counts in the indictments at the 1946 Nuremberg trials concerned waging “aggressive war.”

The counts refer to the aggression against Poland. There is no parallel between Poland, with its relatively primitive armed forces and lack of bellicosity, and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea.

Further, though there was moral justification for war-crimes prosecutions of Nazis after World War II, the legal footing of the Nuremberg trials is on shaky ground. Here are some passages from the Wikipedia article about the trials:

Critics of the Nuremberg trials argued that the charges against the defendants were only defined as “crimes” after they were committed and that therefore the trial was invalid as a form of “victor’s justice”. The alleged double standards associated with putative victor’s justice are also evident from the indictment of German defendants for conspiracy to commit aggression against Poland in 1939, while no one from the Soviet Union was charged for being part of the same conspiracy. As Biddiss observed, “the Nuremberg Trial continues to haunt us. … It is a question also of the weaknesses and strengths of the proceedings themselves.”…

Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Harlan Fiske Stone called the Nuremberg trials a fraud. “(Chief U.S. prosecutor) Jackson is away conducting his high-grade lynching party in Nuremberg,” he wrote. “I don’t mind what he does to the Nazis, but I hate to see the pretense that he is running a court and proceeding according to common law. This is a little too sanctimonious a fraud to meet my old-fashioned ideas.”

Jackson, in a letter discussing the weaknesses of the trial, in October 1945 told U.S. President Harry S. Truman that the Allies themselves “have done or are doing some of the very things we are prosecuting the Germans for. The French are so violating the Geneva Convention in the treatment of prisoners of war that our command is taking back prisoners sent to them. We are prosecuting plunder and our Allies are practising it. We say aggressive war is a crime and one of our allies asserts sovereignty over the Baltic States based on no title except conquest.”

Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas charged that the Allies were guilty of “substituting power for principle” at Nuremberg. “I thought at the time and still think that the Nuremberg trials were unprincipled,” he wrote. “Law was created ex post facto to suit the passion and clamor of the time.”

U.S. Deputy Chief Counsel Abraham Pomerantz resigned in protest at the low caliber of the judges assigned to try the industrial war criminals such as those at I.G. Farben.

Will himself has questioned the legality of the Nuremberg trials. It was an act of intellectual desperation to bring them into the discussion.

All in all, Will’s recent column is weak on the facts and weak as a matter of historical analysis. The main impetus for the column seems to be Will’s fixation on Trump. His doubts about Trump’s stability and soundness of judgment may be justified. But Will ought to have stuck to those doubts, and elaborated on them.

What about North Korea?

A correspondent writes:

There is a time to hit the bear and a time to run. We’ve had many opportunities to hit the North Korean bear and have not, and are now left with poor choices.

I agree that the U.S. now seems to be left with poor choices, having failed to act decisively in the past.

I doubt that any U.S. president, even including Trump, wants to be responsible for the devastation that would follow a preemptive attack (of any kind) on North Korea. Therefore, I believe that an ICBM-equipped North Korea is probably in our future.

Does that mean a nuclear exchange with North Korea is in our future? It depends on whether Kim Jong-un is actually crazy or just a canny loudmouth. (I suspect the latter to be true.)  However, if Kim does get trigger-happy, the resulting war will be a short one. North Korea will be devastated; South Korea will suffer greatly; and there may be collateral damage to Japan, Guam, Hawaii, and even the U.S. mainland.

How far the damage spreads will depend on how soon Kim pulls the trigger. The sooner he does, the less time there will be for the installation of effective missile defenses, but the less time there will be for Kim to deploy effective long-range missiles. So if he is going to pull the trigger, it’s probably best (at least for mainlanders) if he pulls it sooner rather than later.

But if Kim is really canny, as I suspect, he will never pull the trigger. Instead, he will use his growing offensive capability as blackmail in any military or economic confrontations with his Asian neighbors. The fact that he seems crazy gives him an advantage in such situations; it leads people to believe that he will actually pull the trigger.


Related posts:
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
Rating America’s Wars
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
Patience as a Tool of Strategy
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Preemptive War
Preemptive War and Iran
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
The World Turned Upside Down
The Old Normal
My Defense of the A-Bomb
Pacifism
Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War
Much Ado about Civilian Control of the Military
Presidents and War
LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty

Thinking the Unthinkable about North Korea

Propositions for discussion:

1. The U.S. and South Korea jointly launch preemptive attacks on North Korea’s nukes and the conventional forces that could unleash a retaliatory attack on South Korea.

2. North Korea’s subsequent retaliation against South Korea is likely to be less damaging to South Korea than if North Korea had launched first.

3. North Korea’s retaliation against the U.S. and other countries (e.g., Japan) is likely to be less damaging to the U.S. and those other countries than if North Korea had been allowed to further develop its nukes and then launched first.

4. Preemption by the U.S. and South Korea therefore comes down to four calculations:

a. Could the U.S. and South Korea act swiftly and surely enough to effect an overwhelming preemptive attack, or would preparations for an attack trigger devastating preemption by North Korea?

b. What is the likelihood that unfettered development of North Korea’s nukes would lead to their first use, either directly or as backing for military-economic blackmail?

c. What is the likelihood that the PRC would respond militarily to preemption by the U.S. and South Korea, and what would be the scope of such a response? (I assume away economic retaliation absent military retaliation. If the Chinese are truly bent on intervening, they are unlikely to settle for a half-measure that would severely harm the economy of the PRC.)

d. What would be the effect of preemption on “world opinion” toward the U.S. and South Korea. (Not that I believe in the importance of “world opinion or give a rat’s ass about it, but there are those who do — even some in Trump’s administration.)


Related posts:
Parsing Peace
The Best Defense . . .
The Media, the Left, and War
Delusions of Preparedness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
Preemptive War
Preemptive War and Iran
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Pacifism

Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War

A reader named Bill K. offered some thoughts and questions about my post, “Preemptive War.” Bill’s offerings are reproduced below (in italics), followed by my responses (in bold).

On the one hand, it bothers me that one could read the UN charter, as you summarize, “to proceed to war only in the case of self defense, and then only until the UN had decided what to do about the situation.” With this in view, though your argument seems strong in demonstrating precedent in our government holding the US Constitution superior to the UN Charter, as a nation, we could find ourselves standing alone against world opinion should we act on what we know and are unwilling to divulge to others.

I am unperturbed by the prospect of “standing alone against world opinion.” I quote from my post, “Liberalism and Sovereignty“:

Americans — as a mostly undifferentiated mass — are disdained and hated by many foreigners (and by many an American “liberal”). The disdain and hatred arise from a variety of imperatives, ranging from pseudo-intellectual snobbery to nationalistic rivalry to anti-Western fanaticism. When those imperative lead to aggression (threatened or actual), that aggression is aimed at all of us: liberal, “liberal,” conservative, libertarian, bellicose, pacifistic, rational, and irrational.

Having grasped that reality, the Framers “did ordain and establish” the Constitution “in Order to . . . provide for the common defence” (among other things). That is to say, the Framers recognized the importance of establishing the United States as a sovereign state for limited and specified purposes, while preserving the sovereignty of its constituent States and their inhabitants for all other purposes.

If Americans do not mutually defend themselves through the sovereign state which was established for that purpose, who will? That is the question which liberals (both true and false) often fail to ask. Instead, they tend to propound internationalism for its own sake. It is a mindless internationalism, one that often disdains America’s sovereignty, and the defense thereof.

Mindless internationalism equates sovereignty with  jingoism, protectionism, militarism, and other deplorable “isms.” It ignores or denies the hard reality that Americans and their legitimate overseas interests are threatened by nationalistic rivalries and anti-Western fanaticism.

In the real world of powerful rivals and determined, resourceful fanatics, the benefits afforded Americans by our (somewhat eroded) constitutional contract — most notably the enjoyment of civil liberties, the blessings of  free markets and free trade, and the protections of a common defense — are inseparable from and dependent upon the sovereign power of the United States.  To cede that sovereignty for the sake of mindless internationalism is to risk the complete loss of the benefits promised by the Constitution.

Bill K. does not strike me as a “mindless” internationalist, but his worry about “world opinion” plays into the hands of that breed.

*   *   *

On the other hand, it also bothers me that your first summary point, “…to protect Americans’ liberty interests, broadly understood, by preventing a foreign state or entity from acquiring the means by which to attack… or… from deploying…” is a judgment call requiring reasonably accurate knowledge of both capabilities and intentions.As fallen men with imperfect knowledge and judgment, there is the possibility that we might make a mistake in proceeding with preemptive attack.

Mistakes cut both ways. Inaction could be a mistake. In the end, one has to rely on those charged with responsibility for national defense to execute that responsibility prudently. Although the parallel between preemptive war and capital punishment is inexact, I take the same attitude toward both, namely, that it is never a good idea to rule out in advance an option that might prove to be the best one, in certain circumstances.

*   *   *

It would seem to me that should the US preemptively attack Iran, we will face both reactions above – other nations disagreeing with our right to act preemptively, showing disgust in perhaps tangible ways, such as cancellation of treaty & trade agreements, as well as those within our own country who will demand to ‘see the evidence’ and ‘judge for ourselves’, resulting in internal strife, particularly if the preemption started a war requiring sustained effort.

I agree that the possibility of reactions by foreigners that could adversely affect Americans’ interests should be considered and weighed in taking a decision to wage preemptive war. But if the case for preemption is strong, the possibility of internal dissent should not make a difference. War will almost always yield dissent, and it will be vocal. So will a child’s dissent from just punishment be vocal.

*   *   *

[L]ooking at your necessary conditions in bullet points, the ones I have some disagreement with are points #1 & #5:

#1: “Undertaking to harm American’s interests through unilateral actions (e.g., shutting off a major supply of oil)” – Would you agree with me that this would be a necessary condition only if such a shut-off were likely to bring the US military to its knees, fuel-wise? That a substantial rise in the price of fuel would not be sufficient? I’d like to think that the US in such circumstances could well turn to other suppliers as well as develop its own reserves to counteract such a strategy without resorting to preemptive war.

To begin at the end, turning to other suppliers will not reverse a substantial rise in the price of oil, unless those suppliers are able to increase their rate of output dramatically. Further, existing transportation and pipeline systems must be able to accommodate the related geographic shifts in supply, without much delay.

If by “develop … reserves” Bill means that the federal government should buy and hold oil against the possibility of a cutoff, there is already the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The development and maintenance of that reserve is costly, both in terms of outlays on facilities and their operation but also in terms of the effects of government purchases on the price of oil. It may be prudent to maintain the SPR so that U.S. military operations are not hampered by a sudden reduction in the output of foreign oil. But, for the reasons discussed, the SPR is no boon to the domestic consumers of oil.

If by “develop … reserves” Bill means that the federal government should encourage exploration and production in the United States and its littoral waters, good luck with that. On the one hand we have global-warming alarmists, environmental extremists, the not-in-my-back-yard mentality, the lobbies for the subsidization of “alternative fuels” and “renewable energy,” and their allies in the Democrat Party. On the other hand we have average Americans whose interests will continue to be sacrificed on the altar of sanctimony unless and until the Republican Party of Calvin Coolidge returns to power for a long time.

Returning to the beginning, I cannot agree that “a substantial rise in the price of fuel would not be sufficient” grounds for preemption. The circumstances leading to the substantial rise would indicate whether or not rise is aimed at coercing the U.S. government or severely damaging the American economy. If it seems clear that those responsible for the price rise have one or both aims in mind, then they will have effectively committed an act of war against the U.S. and its citizens. War is war, and it ought to be thought of as such, regardless of the means by which it is conducted. A military strike against the perpetrators might not be the best course of action; as I say in “Preemptive War,” preemption should be a last resort. But to eschew the use of force as a response to economic warfare is to invite it.

*   *   *

#5: “Otherwise engaging in a persistent course of provocative opposition…” Your examples of this behavior, Cuba, NK, USSR, with the exception of Saddam, are all examples that we have lived with and handled by other means (embargo, competitive military spending, foreign base agreements). Saddam was different because he embarked on conquest of an ally. Do you believe that should we decide to preemptively strike Iran, we should do so upon their assembly of a nuclear warhead, and attack NK at the same time? If we were to hold off on NK, given that they have demonstrated a test detonation, why so?

Context is important. What I say in “Preemptive War” is that

preemption is appropriate when several conditions are met. First, it must be clear that the target of preemption is an enemy of the United States. A foreign state or entity can be an enemy without having any immediate or specific plans to attack Americans or their interests. Thus a foreign state or entity can become an enemy by….

  • otherwise engaging in a persistent course of provocative opposition toward the United States, which opposition might consist of pronounced ideological enmity (as in the cases of Cuba and North Korea, for example), supporting efforts by third parties to harm the United States (as was the case with Saddam, doubters to the contrary), or engaging in efforts to harm the United States through economic or diplomatic machinations (as did the USSR during the Cold War).

Such conditions are necessary but not sufficient for preemption.

North Korea, despite its anti-Americanism and provocative behavior, is much less of a threat than Iran is to American interests. If a strike against Iran would stop or significantly delay its development of nuclear weapons, and if all other conditions for preemption were met, I would favor a preemptive strike on relevant Iranian facilities. As a reminder, here are the other (sufficient) conditions that I list in “Preemptive War”:

  • the failure of diplomatic efforts, which may include the United Nations but need not depend on the UN’s course of action (see the later discussion of treaty obligations)
  • the failure of economic sanctions and military threats
  • the likelihood that preemption would not cause a breakdown of diplomatic, military, or economic relations with foreign states, where such relations are important to the well-being of Americans
  • the prospect of a successful preemption, where the costs (in life, limb, and money) are judged to be less than the costs of failing to act
  • an open debate resulting in an authorization by Congress, where events do not require swift and even clandestine actions, which should be taken in accordance with the War Powers Resolution of 1973.

Preemptive War and Iran

My post, “Preemptive War,” is mainly a general argument for preemption, where American’s vital interests are at stake. But it was prompted by ” the imminent acquisition by Iran of material with which to produce nuclear weapons.”

The authors of “Why Obama Should Take Out Iran’s Nuclear Program” (Foreign Affairs, November 9, 2011) see the wisdom of preemption:

The November 8 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report casts further doubt on Iran’s continual claims that its nuclear program is intended solely for peaceful use….

…[T]he Obama administration has downplayed the findings of the new IAEA report, suggesting that a change in U.S. policy is unlikely. Yet this view underestimates the challenges that the United States would confront once Iran acquired nuclear weapons.

For example, the Obama administration should not discount the possibility of an Israeli-Iranian nuclear conflict….

Beyond regional nuclear war, Tehran’s acquisition of these weapons could be a catalyst for additional proliferation throughout the Middle East and beyond….

…Iran’s rivals for regional dominance, such as Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, might seek their own nuclear devices to counterbalance Tehran. The road to acquiring nuclear weapons is generally a long and difficult one, but these nations might have shortcuts. Riyadh, for example, could exploit its close ties to Islamabad — which has a history of illicit proliferation and a rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal — to become a nuclear power almost overnight….

The closer Iran gets to acquiring nuclear weapons, the fewer options will be available to stop its progress. At the same time, Iran’s incentives to back down will only decrease as it approaches the nuclear threshold. Given these trends, the United States faces the difficult decision of using military force soon to prevent Iran from going nuclear, or living with a nuclear Iran and the regional fallout.

But the Obama administration — more accurately, Barack Obama — seems committed to a perverse foreign policy in the Middle East. This is from “Panetta Assures Iran It Has Little to Worry About” (Commentary, November 11, 2011):

If the leaders of the Iranian regime were worried about Jeffrey Goldberg’s prediction that Barack Obama would confound the world and launch a U.S. military strike designed to save Israel from nuclear destruction, they can now calm down. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made it crystal clear at a Pentagon news conference yesterday he has no intention of supporting an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities….

…But by publicly throwing cold water on the idea the United States is ready and able to militarily squash Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Panetta has sent a dangerous signal to Tehran that the Pentagon intends to veto any use of force against them. Combined with Russia’s pledge to block any further sanctions on Iran, the statement should leave the Khameini/Ahmadinejad regime feeling entirely secure as they push ahead to the moment when they can announce their first successful nuclear test.

This — combined with Obama’s dubious support of Israel, his unseemly withdrawal from Iraq, and his reluctant and easily reversed decision to “surge” in Afghanistan — confirms Obama’s position as the Jimmy Carter of the 21st century. Where is the next Ronald Reagan when we need him?

The “loss” of the Middle East and its relatively cheap oil would be a disaster for America’s economy. Further, it would leave an opening for an ambitious and increasingly powerful China.

Does Obama care about such things? Evidently not. He is too busy trying to remake the U.S. in the image of Europe: defenseless, bankrupt, and hostage to enviro-nuts.

See also “Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War.”

Preemptive War

What should be done about the imminent acquisition by Iran of material with which to produce nuclear weapons? This is a question that the president of the United States and Congress must face because Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons will threaten vital U.S. interests in the Middle East, namely, access to about one-third of the world’s present output of oil. That alone — even if Iran would not strike U.S. allies in Europe or the U.S. itself — should cause the president and congressional leaders to entertain the possibility of a preemptive strike on the Iranian facilities that could produce material for nuclear weapons.

This is not a new subject, and my aim here is not to assess the chances of a successful strike or the political fallout from a strike, successful or not. I want to explore different aspects of preemption — aspects that, so far, have drawn relatively little attention — namely, its morality, the conditions under which it should occur, and its constitutionality.

A MORAL CASE FOR PREEMPTIVE WAR

Here is my argument, in brief:

1. Any sovereign nation (A) has the right to act preemptively against any other sovereign nation (B) to prevent B from harming the ability of A‘s citizens to enjoy liberty and its fruits. In fact, if A could afford to do so, and if it would serve the interests of A‘s citizens, A might act preemptively against B to prevent B from harming C‘s citizens because of the resulting harm to A‘s citizens.

2. If A‘s preemptive act results in A‘s violating its treaty obligations, A simply has put its reason for being above an obligation that was supposed to serve its reason for being, but which patently does not. A nation dedicated to liberty is obliged, first and foremost, to take the course of action that best serves its citizens’ liberty and their enjoyment of it.

You should note that harm (or prospective harm) is not just bodily harm. There is more to liberty than the preservation of life and limb. What are life and limb without the ability to own property and pursue happiness? Theft is a denial of liberty, no matter where the theft occurs, that is, whether it takes place in the U.S. or overseas? If it is not theft to disrupt America’s economy by force or threat of force, and to make Americans poorer by denying them (among others) access to oil pumped from the ground in Middle Eastern countries, then what is it?

The only other thing it can be called — with good reason — is an act of aggression against the liberty of Americans. If there is good reason to believe that the aggression will occur, if not prevented, then it is the duty of the American government to act preemptively to prevent the aggression and thus the harm that would flow from it.

Given the preceding, I cannot exempt any nation or foreign entity as a legitimate target of preemption. Nor can I rule out any form of action against Americans’ interests as a legitimate cause of preemption. Harm is harm; the question is how best to respond to the certain prospect of harm.

Now, if you remain opposed to preemption, you should ask yourself whether you are willing to acquiesce in the aims of a foreign entity. For, to believe that the United States should not act against aggression — except where the evidence of impending aggression is weak or doubtful — is tantamount to acquiescing in the aggression. I can see it no other way.

But, as outlined below, a decision to preempt should not be taken easily.

PREEMPTION IN PRACTICE

Criteria for Preemption

The case for preemption must be met by answering six questions:

1. What is the object of preemption?

2. Who can be the target of preemption?

3. When is preemption the appropriate course of action?

4. Must preemption be limited to a “proportional” response?

5. Do treaty obligations trump preemption?

6. Is preemption unconstitutional?

What Is the Object of Preemption?

The object of preemption must be to prevent a foreign state or entity from acquiring or deploying the means of attacking Americans’ liberty interests, as discussed above, where the foreign entity’s behavior clearly indicates that an attack is almost certain to follow from said acquisition or deployment.

Who Can Be a Target of Preemption?

Does that formulation mean, for example, that the United States should act preemptively if good intelligence indicates that (a) the Saudi regime is about to drastically curtail oil production, (b) a terrorist organization has co-opted the Saudi regime, or (c) the terrorist organization is about to launch a massive attack on Saudi oil facilities?

The first scenario might lead to preemption, if certain other conditions are met, as discussed below.

The second and third scenarios would almost certainly warrant preemption because of the potential harm to the well-being of Americans. It is one thing if Americans lose jobs and income through the normal fluctuations of the business cycle. It is another thing, entirely, if Americans are likely to lose jobs and income because of what would amount to an act of aggression by a foreign enemy. If we would not stand for the sabotage of oil refineries on American soil, why would we contemplate the sabotage of overseas facilities that provide oil which is refined in the United States?

Americans are not “entitled” to oil. But they are entitled to ply trade with willing partners who provide oil. The principle applies to any product or service. The question is not whether the United States might legitimately conduct preemptive operations in defense of free trade, but under what circumstances such operations are warranted.

When Is Preemption the Appropriate Course of Action?

Given the foregoing, preemption is appropriate when several conditions are met. First, it must be clear that the target of preemption is an enemy of the United States. A foreign state or entity can be an enemy without having any immediate or specific plans to attack Americans or their interests. Thus a foreign state or entity can become an enemy by

  • undertaking to harm Americans’ interests through unilateral actions (e.g., shutting off a major supply of oil)
  • threatening or attacking allies of the United States upon whom we depend for trade (e.g., Iraq in 1990)
  • threatening or attacking nations whose defeat might jeopardize the security of the United States (e.g., Hitler’s declaration of war on Great Britain in 1939)
  • threatening or attacking overseas areas of strategic importance to the United States (e.g., the oil fields of the Middle East or South America, the Suez or Panama Canal)
  • developing, or planning to develop, the wherewithal to acquire weapons that could enable an attack the United States, harm Americans’ interests, attack our allies, or attack strategically important nations or strategic areas
  • otherwise engaging in a persistent course of provocative opposition toward the United States, which opposition might consist of pronounced ideological enmity (as in the cases of Cuba and North Korea, for example), supporting efforts by third parties to harm the United States (as was the case with Saddam, doubters to the contrary), or engaging in efforts to harm the United States through economic or diplomatic machinations (as did the USSR during the Cold War).

Such conditions are necessary but not sufficient for preemption. Sufficient conditions are:

  • the failure of diplomatic efforts, which may include the United Nations but need not depend on the UN’s course of action (see the later discussion of treaty obligations)
  • the failure of economic sanctions and military threats
  • the likelihood that preemption would not cause a breakdown of diplomatic, military, or economic relations with foreign states, where such relations are important to the well-being of Americans
  • the prospect of a successful preemption, where the costs (in life, limb, and money) are judged to be less than the costs of failing to act
  • an open debate resulting in an authorization by Congress, where events do not require swift and even clandestine actions, which should be taken in accordance with the War Powers Resolution of 1973.

Must Preemption Be Limited to a “Proportional” Response?

Preemption should be limited to the military means necessary to accomplish the object of preemption, no more and no less. No more because excessive force can harm the standing of the United States with its allies others upon whom it might depend for moral and military support in future contingencies. No less because failure or perceived failure (as in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, and Gulf War I) can embolden enemies and potential enemies to act against Americans’ interests.

Do Treaty Obligations or the Constitution Trump Preemption? (Iraq as a Case Study)

Opponents of the war in Iraq argued, among other things, that the war was illegal because the United States was not acting under a resolution of the United Nations that specifically authorized the war. That argument hinged on a reading of certain provisions of the U.S. Constitution and the UN Charter. First, there is Article VI, Clause 2, of the Constitution, which says:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

Then there are these provisions of the UN Charter:

All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered. (Article 2, Clause 3)

The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security. (Article 39)

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defense shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security. (Article 51)

All of which has been read to say this: Treaty obligations are legally binding on the United States. Our treaty obligations under the UN Charter therefore required us to proceed to war only in the case of self defense, and then only until the UN had decided what to do about the situation.

On the other hand, there is Article II, Section 1, of the UN Charter, which states that the UN “is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.” From that principle comes the authorization for the invasion of Iraq (Public Law 107-243, 16 October 2002):

SEC. 3. AUTHORIZATION FOR USE OF UNITED STATES ARMED FORCES.

(a) AUTHORIZATION. –The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to —

(1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and

(2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.

(b) PRESIDENTIAL DETERMINATION. — In connection with the exercise of the authority granted in subsection (a) to use force the President shall, prior to such exercise or as soon thereafter as may be feasible, but no later than 48 hours after exercising such authority, make available to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President pro tempore of the Senate his determination that —

(1) reliance by the United States on further diplomatic or other peaceful means alone either (A) will not adequately protect the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq or (B) is not likely to lead to enforcement of all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq. . . .

The Security Council resolutions referred to are those that had been passed in the years preceding the invasion of Iraq. It is clear that PL 107-243 contemplated military action without a further, authorizing UN resolution.

Absent PL 107-243 the invasion of Iraq might be found illegitimate under the doctrine enunciated by Chief Justice Marshall in The Nereide (13 U.S. [9 Cranch] 388, 422, 3 L. Ed. 769 [1815]), that in the absence of a congressional enactment, United States courts are “bound by the law of nations, which is a part of the law of the land.” But there was a congressional enactment in the case of Gulf War II. Therefore, under the Constitution, the issue of the legitimacy of the invasion of Iraq or any other preemptive act authorized by Congress becomes a political question.

A legal challenge of the legitimacy of the PL 107-243 (Doe v. Bush) was rebuffed, first by the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in a summary judgment, then by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit after hearing arguments from both parties. It was evident by the date of the appellate court’s opinion (March 13, 2003) that President Bush was on a course to invade Iraq without a specific authorizing resolution by the UN Security Council (the pre-invasion air bombardment began on March 20, 2003). The appellate court nevertheless ducked the issue of the war’s legitimacy under the UN Charter, claiming that that issue was not yet “ripe” for adjudication. The concluding language of the court’s opinion suggests, however, that the judicial branch is unlikely to rule on the legitimacy of military action unless such action is the subject of a dispute between the legislative and executive branches:

In this zone of shared congressional and presidential responsibility [for war-making], courts should intervene only when the dispute is clearly framed…. Nor is there clear evidence of congressional abandonment of the authority to declare war to the President. To the contrary, Congress has been deeply involved in significant debate, activity, and authorization connected to our relations with Iraq for over a decade…. Finally, the text of the October Resolution itself spells out justifications for a war and frames itself as an “authorization” of such a war.

It is true that “courts possess power to review either legislative or executive action that transgresses identifiable textual limits” on constitutional power…. But courts are rightly hesitant to second-guess the form or means by which the coequal political branches choose to exercise their textually committed constitutional powers…. As the circumstances presented here do not warrant judicial intervention, the appropriate recourse for those who oppose war with Iraq lies with the political branches.

Similar formulations can be found in Dellums v. Bush, 752 F. Supp. (D.C. Cir. 1990), and Goldwater v. Carter, 444 U.S. 996 (1979).

More about the Constitutionality of Preemption

I begin with Mr. Justice Black, writing for the U.S. Supreme Court in Reid v. Covert (1957):

Article VI, the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, declares:

“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land;… .”

There is nothing in this language which intimates that treaties and laws enacted pursuant to them do not have to comply with the provisions of the Constitution. Nor is there anything in the debates which accompanied the drafting and ratification of the Constitution which even suggests such a result….

There is nothing new or unique about what we say here. This Court has regularly and uniformly recognized the supremacy of the Constitution over a treaty. For example, in Geofroy v. Riggs, 133 U.S. 258, 267 , it declared:

“The treaty power, as expressed in the Constitution, is in terms unlimited except by those restraints which are found in that instrument against the action of the government or of its departments, and those arising from the nature of the government itself and of that of the States. It would not be contended that it extends so far as to authorize what the Constitution forbids, or a change in the character of the [354 U.S. 1, 18] government or in that of one of the States, or a cession of any portion of the territory of the latter, without its consent.”

In sum, a treaty (such as the UN Charter) may neither violate nor change the meaning of the Constitution. The UN, in other words, may not in any way usurp the authority of Congress (or the president) to decide when and in what circumstances the U.S. goes to war.

As long as Congress and the president have agreed a course of action, as in the case of the preemptive invasion of Iraq, U.S. courts are unlikely to rule that a preemptive military operation is illegitimate under the Constitution. Whether such an operation is illegitimate in the minds of its opponents or in the councils of the United Nations should be irrelevant to those who care about the liberty of Americans.

The decision to preempt is a political judgment in which Congress puts America’s sovereignty and the protection of Americans’ interests above putative treaty obligations. It seems unlikely that a court (the U.S. Supreme Court, in particular) would find that the constitutional grant of power to declare war, which is so fundamental to America’s sovereignty and to the protection of Americans’ interests, can be ceded by treaty to an international body that cannot be relied upon to protect our sovereignty and our interests.

SUMMARY

Preemptive war is morally justified if it serves to protect the interests of Americans. But preemptive war is not to be undertaken without careful consideration of its necessity, costs, and consequences. Any specific act of preemption must pass a five-fold test:

1. The object must be to protect Americans’ liberty interests, broadly understood, by preventing a foreign state or entity from acquiring the means by which to attack Americans’ those interests, or to prevent the state or entity from deploying those means if it already has acquired them.

2. The sovereignty and legitimacy of the target of preemption are irrelevant, ultimately, though such considerations should influence our willingness to strive for a diplomatic and/or economic solution.

3. Preemption should be a last resort, following our good-faith efforts toward finding a diplomatic and/or economic solution, and only then after an open debate in which the likely costs and benefits of preemption are weighed.

4. Preemptive military operations should not be undertaken unless there is a good certainty of success. Failure could prove to be more costly, in the long, run than inaction.

5. A preemptive operation must be carried out in accordance with the War Powers Resolution of 1973. But treaty obligations cannot trump America’s sovereign right to wage war for the protection of Americans’ liberty interests.

See also “Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War” and “Preemptive War and Iran.”

Transnationalism and National Defense

Ed Whelan of Bench Memos explains:

“Transnationalism” challenges the traditional American understanding that … “international and domestic law are distinct, [the United States] determines for itself [through its political branches] when and to what extent international law is incorporated into its legal system, and the status of international law in the domestic system is determined by domestic law.” Transnationalists aim in particular to use American courts to import international law to override the policies adopted through the processes of representative government.

Transnationalism is a manifestation of an attitude that seems to prevail among leftists and extreme libertarians. Such types advocate a kind of international legal order in which acts of aggression against Americans cannot be answered or avenged except through the observance of legal niceties. As if there are international tribunals that would dispense even-handed judgments where the U.S. is concerned. As if our enemies could be counted on to observe international laws against aggression.

This benighted attitude is found in this post by Don Boudreaux, an otherwise sensible libertarian:

One of the great tenets of liberalism — the true sort of liberalism, not the dirigiste ignorance that today, in English-speaking countries, flatters itself unjustifiably with that term — is that no human being is less worthy just because he or she is outside of a particular group.  Any randomly chosen stranger from Cairo or Cancun has as much claim on my sympathies and my respect and my regard as does any randomly chosen person from Charlottesville or Chicago.

The problem with such sentiments — correct as they may be — is the implication that we have nothing more to fear from people of foreign lands than we have to fear from our own friends and neighbors. Yet, as Boudreaux himself acknowledges,

[t]he liberal is fully aware that such sentiments [about “us” being different from “them”] are rooted in humans’ evolved psychology, and so are not easily cast off.  But the liberal does his or her best to rise above those atavistic sentiments,

Yes, the liberal does strive to rise above such sentiments, but not everyone else makes the same effort, as Boudreaux admits. Therein lies the problem.

Transnationalists equate sovereignty with  jingoism, protectionism, militarism, and other deplorable “isms.” Transnationalists ignore or deny the hard reality that Americans and their legitimate overseas interests are threatened by nationalistic rivals and anti-Western fanatics.

In the real world of powerful rivals and determined, resourceful fanatics, the benefits afforded Americans by our (somewhat eroded) constitutional contract — most notably the enjoyment of civil liberties, the blessings of  free markets and free trade, and the protections of a common defense — are inseparable from and dependent upon the sovereign power of the United States.  To cede that sovereignty for the sake of transnationalism is to risk the complete loss of the benefits promised by the Constitution.

It is for those reasons that I reject and despise leftists and extreme libertarians who have used the recent, justified, and laudable execution of Osama bin Laden as an occasion for spewing their venom. Noam Chomsky exemplifies the left’s moral relativism:

We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic.

Jeffrey Tucker exemplifies loony anarcho-capitalism:

I have some vague sense that many people are opposed to capital punishment, and for good reason, and especially when there is no trial and conviction, and yet we are expected uncritically to celebrate the death of Bin Laden at the hands of the U.S. state.

What Chomsky, Tucker, and their ilk have in common is their status as cosseted intellectuals who benefit from the existence of the very state that they profess to abhor. I have little doubt of the fate that would befall them should they venture into the wrong part of the world without a retinue of SEALs to protect them from what passes for “justice” among the savages.

Related posts:
Libertarians and the Common Defense
Libertarianism and Pre-emptive War: Part I
An Aside about Libertarianism and the War
Right On! For Libertarian Hawks Only
Conservative Criticism of the War on Terror
Why Sovereignty?
Understanding Libertarian Hawks
More about Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style
The Illogic of Knee-Jerk Civil Liberties Advocates
War Can Be the Answer
Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism
Conservative Revisionism, Conservative Backlash, or Conservative Righteousness?
Why We Fight
Getting It Almost Right about Iraq
Philosophical Obtuseness
But Wouldn’t Warlords Take Over?
Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves
Now, Let’s Talk About Something Else
Shall We All Hang Separately?
Foxhole Rats
Foxhole Rats, Redux
Know Thine Enemy
September 11: A Remembrance
September 11: A Postscript for “Peace Lovers”
The Faces of Appeasement
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part II
Torture and Morality
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Non-Aggression?
We Have Met the Enemy . . .
My View of Warlordism, Seconded
Whose Liberties Are We Fighting For?
The Constitution and Warrantless “Eavesdropping”
NSA “Eavesdropping”: The Last Word (from Me)
Privacy, Security, and Electronic Surveillance
Privacy: Variations on the Theme of Liberty
Words for the Unwise
More Foxhole Rats
The Fatal Naïveté of Anarcho-Libertarianism
Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
Anarcho-Libertarian “Stretching”
Recommended Reading about NSA’s Surveillance Program
Riots, Culture, and the Final Showdown
A Rant about Torture
More Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
QandO Saved Me the Trouble
What If We Lose?
A Footnote about “Eavesdropping”
Thomas Woods and War
More than Enough Amateur Critics
Moussaoui and “White Guilt”
Jihad in Canada
In Defense of Ann Coulter
In Which I Reply to the Executive Editor of The New York Times
Post-Americans and Their Progeny
“Peace for Our Time”
Anti-Bush or Pro-Treason?
“Proportionate Response” in Perspective
Parsing Peace
Taking on Torture
Conspiracy Theorists’ Cousins
Not Enough Boots
Defense as the Ultimate Social Service
I Have an Idea
September 11: Five Years On
How to View Defense Spending
Reaching the Limit?
The Best Defense . . .
A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism
Terrorists’ “Rights” and the Military Commissions Act of 2006
More Stupidity from Cato
The Military Commissions Act of 2006
A Critique of Extreme Libertarianism
And Your Point Is?
Anarchistic Balderdash
Not Enough Boots: The Why of It
Blood for Oil

Katie Couric: Post-American
It *Is* the Oil
Here We Go Again
Christmas in Iran: Foreign Affairs According to Planet Rockwell
Torture, Revisited
Waterboarding, Torture, and Defense
9/11 Plotters and the Death Penalty
Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace
The Media, the Left, and War
Torture
September 11: A Remembrance
The “Predator War” and Self-Defense
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars
Inside-Outside
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight

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

Getting it Wrong and Right about Iran

Jeffrey Miron, an economist who graces the halls of Harvard University and Cato Institute, has a new blog, Libertarianism from A to Z. There, Miron mirrors Cato’s approach to policy issues, taking a free-market line on economic affairs and a knee-jerk isolationist line on defense matters. Consider this passage from Miron’s post, “Iran: Engagement, Sanctions, or Nothing?“:

Let’s take as given that, other things equal, it is in the world’s interest that Iran not possess nuclear weapons. . . . Then the following propositions all seem plausible:

1. Continued engagement just allows Iran to continue developing its nuclear capabilites.

2. Sanctions might slow Iran’s nuclear development a bit, but since both Russia and China are not really on board with sanctions, this effect will be minimal. (UPDATE: Miron, in a later post, has more to say about the essential futility of sanctions.)

3. Military action to destory the Iranian nuclear capabilities will address the issue in the short term, but Iran will just start over. Plus, such military action might escalate into something far more costly.

Faced with these choices, my vote is to do nothing.

Note the glaring contradiction. Miron postulates that it is not in the world’s interest for Iran to possess nuclear weapons, but he prefers to do nothing about it. If it is not in the world’s interest for Iran to have nuclear weapons, then something ought to be done about it — and I don’t mean having a “serious, meaningful dialogue” with Iran, as our “glorious leader” proposes.

The time to deal with a serious threat is before it becomes an imminent one. So what if Iran might “start over” if we and/or Israel destroy its nuclear capabilities? Here, from DEBKAfile, is a realistic take:

Defense secretary Robert Gates hit the nail on the head when he said Friday: “The reality is there is no military option that does anything more than buy time. The estimates are one to three years or so.” . . .

The answer to this argument is simple: It is exactly this approach which gave Iran 11 quiet years to develop its weapons capacity. For Israel and Middle East, a three-year setback is a very long time, a security boon worth great risk, because a) It would be a happy respite from the dark clouds hanging over the country from Iran and also cut back Hamas and Hizballah terrorist capabilities, and b) In the volatile Middle East anything can happen in 36 months. (Emphasis added.)

What’s missing from Miron’s analysis of the situation is an assessment of the consequences (i.e., costs) of allowing Iran to proceed. That’s a strange omission for an economist, an omission which suggests that Miron, like many another libertarian, “adheres to the [non-aggression] principle with deranged fervor.”

Well, evidently it takes a law professor (Tom Smith of The Right Coast) to get it right:

A nutcase regime in Asia is about to get nuclear weapons and not long after that the missiles to send them to Israel, Europe, Saudi Arabia and after that, who knows. The regime is populated by religious fanatics who deny the Holocaust and profess the desire to wipe Israel off the map in all apparent sincerity. Normally, one could rely on the Israelis to take care of themselves, but in this case, the crazed regime has gotten too powerful for the Israelis to handle. Just to fill out the picture, the folks building the nukes just stole an election and are imprisoning, torturing and killing into silence their domestic critics. These leaders are backed up by a praetorian guard of fanatics, a Waffen-SS if you will, to switch to another entirely appropriate comparison, on whose secret bases (for what is a geopolitical villain without secret bases?) the nuclear weapons are being gestated.

So who ya gonna call? Obviously, patently, indisputably the only people who can stand up to these frightening thugs are us. But as luck would have it, we are presently governed by the party who strategy is to talk to death the people whose idea of dialog is to throw their opponents in prison and beat them with hoses until they change their minds.

What will happen if the U.S. continues to muddle along in a Chamberlainesque fashion? For starters, this:

By now, Iran has used the gift of time to process enough enriched uranium to fuel two nuclear bombs and is able to produce another two per year.

Its advanced medium-range missiles will be ready to deliver nuclear warheads by next year.

Detonators for nuclear bombs are in production at two secret sites.

And finally, a second secret uranium enrichment plant – subject of the stern warning issued collectively in Pittsburgh Friday by Obama, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British premier Gordon Brown – has come to light, buried under a mountain near Qom. Its discovery doubles – at least – all previous estimates of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

The price of a pre-emptive attack on Iran might be high, but the price of inaction will be even higher. Legitimate U.S. interests in the Middle East (i.e., access to oil) will be threatened by a regime that has proceeded thus far in the face of sanctions and is unlikely to be fazed by more sanctions. The economic hardships caused by the “oil shocks” of the 1970s will be as nothing compared with the hardships caused by Iranian dominance of the Middle East.

Where will Western Europe, Russia, and China be in our hour of need? Western Europe will be busy emulating Vichy France, in the hope that its obseqiousness toward Iran is rewarded by dribbles of oil. Russia and China will actively support Iran (covertly if not overtly), in the expectation of profiting from higher prices on the oil they sell to Western Europe and the United States. Eventually, Russia and China will exploit the inevitable decline of American military power, as our defense budget disappears into the maw of Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other misbegotten ventures.

It should be clear to anyone who thinks seriously about the state of the world that the time to act against Iran was years ago. That opportunity having passed, now will have to do. The Obama-ish left will cry “no blood for oil,” but the burden should be on the left to offer affordable alternatives to Middle Eastern oil in lieu of war. If the left cannot offer affordable alternatives, the left’s low-to-moderate income constituencies are likely to suffer disproportionately when Iran begins to squeeze the West, and — surely — the elite left does not want that to happen. (Actually, the elite left couldn’t care less about lesser mortals, as long as the elitist agenda of political and environmental correctness becomes writ.)

The rub is that the  left cannot offer affordable alternatives without relaxing its embrace of radical environmentalism. The left has thus far decried “dependence” on foreign oil as an excuse to pour money into ethanol, wind power, and solar energy — none of which is a viable alternative to oil. And, of course, the left opposes feasible and relatively efficient alternatives, such as nuclear energy, coal-fired power plants, drilling in ANWR, and additional off-shore drilling. That leaves us with no choice but to import a lot of oil, much of it from the Middle East. But the left is loath to defend our interests there.

The left’s irreconcilable positions with respect to Iran, oil, and the environment — like the left’s positions on so many other issues — epitomize the “unconstrained vision” of which Thomas Sowell writes. The left, like Alice in Wonderland, likes to believe in “six impossible things before breakfast,” and all the rest of the day, as well.

We are now at a point in history similar to that of England in 1935. If England had begun to rearm then, Hitler might have been deterred or — if not deterred — defeated sooner. Doing nothing, as Miron and his libertarian and leftist brethren would prefer, is a prescription for eventual economic disaster or a longer, bloodier war than is necessary.

P.S. Tom Smith says it all, far more vividly and vigorously.

P.P.S. Two relevant items, here and here.

Related posts:
Not Enough Boots
Defense as the Ultimate Social Service
I Have an Idea
The Price of Liberty
How to View Defense Spending
The Best Defense…
Not Enough Boots: The Why of It
Liberalism and Sovereignty
Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace
The Media, the Left, and War
A Point of Agreement
The Folly of Nuclear Disarmament