July 26, 2004

Credibility, Character, Cause

I stopped reading Andrew Sullivan a long time ago, when it became apparent that his reasoning skills were utterly subject to his emotional state on pet issues, so I only heard of Sullivan's endorsement of Kerry second-hand. From Stephen Green's fisking of Sullivan's post, it would appear that Sullivan has fallen into the Leftist meme of "no justification other than WMDs", and it is that which interests me.

There are three good reasons for for one nation to invade and occupy another: legal requirements, moral requirements, and self-preservation. Alternately, these can be stated as credibility, character and cause, for reasons I'll explore below. All three just causes of action were present in Iraq. (Actually, these causes go further, and also apply in cases of individuals doing violence upon one another.)

Legal requirements normally arise out of treaties, especially mutual-defense pacts. If a country has an ally which is attacked, there is generally a legal requirement to go to the aid of the ally. But there are other such cases, and the UN is a fine example. There is international agreement that the Security Council's decisions are binding, and as a member of the UN we are obligated to uphold those decisions.

In any case, legal requirements normally boil down to credibility: if you say that you will do some thing in a given case, you either do it or are held in contempt. France, Spain and the Philippines, to give some current examples, are basically held in contempt by their opponents, and the UN is also widely held in contempt. Without credibility, you cannot use threats to avoid the need for action, and thus future wars become much more likely for nations which bluster but do not act.

Iraq was in violation of a huge number of Security Council resolutions, and the fact that many of the nations that make up the Security Council were prepared to be held in contempt, and to have the UN held in contempt, does not obviate our obligation to act. Given that obligation, and President Bush's desire that the US not be held in contempt, we had a legal cause of action. And, in fact, this is part of the case that the President made, repeatedly, for taking on Iraq. The WMD case was a part of the legal case: it showed that Iraq had violated UN agreements and resolutions they were bound to uphold. Given that many people in the US and abroad have abandoned the moral case for war, and do not care if the US defends itself or not (frequently, they would prefer not), this is the argument which got the most emphasis.

Moral requirements for action arise out of classical liberalism: all people and nations have an obligation, within the extent of their capacity to do so, to help those less fortunate and more in despair than themselves. (There are religious foundations for this view, as well, which is why I believe that the militantly atheistic Left despises any moral structures not built on selfishness: such structures would tend to validate the religions most despised by atheists.) In State terms, a nation has a requirement to act to preserve or restore or create conditions of liberty and representative government in other nations. "Old Europe" has largely abandoned morality in world affairs, and most parts of the world never had it, but it is still a driving force in the US (and has become so in many other first-world nations which, oddly enough, map closely onto the "coalition of the willing" on Iraq).

In other words, this is a character issue: are you big enough to do the right thing even if it doesn't benefit you, and even though you bear the cost in blood and treasure? Would you turn away from Kitty Genovese, or would you step in to stop the attack? Would you overthrow a tyrant who is murdering his people, or let him go on as long as he hands out oil concessions to Total-Fina-Elf? The problem with throwing away morality as a cause of action is that you also have to throw out with it your humanity and empathy: to rid yourself of moral indignation requires becoming sociopathic (France) or opportunistic (the Democrats since at least 1972, and likely since 1964).

In Iraq, the moral reasons for toppling Saddam Hussein were tied to his oppression and tyranny at home, and his repeated invasions of neighboring countries. When people claim that no defensible case was made for war, they generally mean no moral case was made for war. Of course, that's not true: the President did make such a case. The fact that the press by and large ignored it for the easier-to-cover WMD allegations and legalisms does not remove the case. The problem we as a nation have to face is that a large part of our polity no longer believes in the possibility of a moral case for war. Without that, the entire idea of America is in some jeopardy.

The final just reason for undertaking an offensive war is self-preservation. If you know or strongly suspect that someone who has pledged to destroy you is in fact acquiring the means to do so, you can justifiably act to stop them. Self-defense does not require you to absorb the blow first. If you are not prepared to take aggressive action in your own defense, you will eventually be destroyed unless some benevolent outside power chooses to protect you. There is no power to protect the US in international affairs; the UN (frequently nominated for the role) is a debating society, not a reliable means of stopping unjust wars. Self-defense basically comes down to cause: do you have a reasonable cause to attack another nation, on the grounds that failing to do so will result in being attacked yourself?

For example, in 1967 the Israelis, who had been fighting a low-level war of cross-border artillery duels with their neighbors for years, became aware that those neighbors intended to attack Israel. Rather than absorb the blow, Israel acted first, and in six days destroyed the armed forces of all of its neighbors, absorbed some of their territory, and in the process set up the current template for the Middle East.

This was the least-made case for Iraq (see above about WMDs being a legal justification, not a self-defense justification), but also the most important. When it was made, it was usually in the context of "draining the swamp". In essence, because we had a legal and moral justification for taking out Iraq, and because we had forces available to do so, we were able to achieve a long-term defense against Islamist terrorism: provide Arab Muslims with an alternative to their generally-miserable lot in life, by creating a culture of dynamism, representative self-government, prosperity and hope where before were stagnation, tyranny, destitution and despair.

This is a long-term project, decades-long most likely, and it will be far from easy to ensure. Yet it is necessary, if we are to eliminate jihadis as a viable political and terrorist force. Iraq is an example, but other tyrannies will need to be brought down for the same reason (notably, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia). Those will also be long-term projects.

Sullivan would be a lot more credible if he considered such factors as more important than marginal issues.

Posted by Jeff at July 26, 2004 12:35 PM | Link Cosmos
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