Intervention in General
With kind permission, the following article, originally posted on ZMagazine is reproduced here. It provides a number of questions and answers on the issues of the war on terror, and the increasing threats of war on Iraq. This article can be found at its original location, http://www.zmag.org/45qairaq.htm.
45 Questions and Answers
By Stephen R. Shalom and Michael Albert
9 October 2002
Part A. Intervention In General
A1. Do anti-war critics automatically and reflexively reject any U.S. use of force?
Pacifists will of course reject any use of military force. Many anti-war critics are not pacifists, however. Do they automatically and reflexively reject any U.S. use of force?
Consider a similar question: Should we automatically reject any Russian, Iranian, or Indonesian use of force? No doubt there are hypothetical situations one can construct where any sensible person would endorse an invasion of some other country by Russia, Iran, or Indonesia. But surely such situations would be extremely rare, and anyone making a case for such an intervention would bear a very strong burden of proof to demonstrate that in the particular case all the general reasons to be skeptical of Moscow, Teheran, or Jakarta should be set aside. And the burden of proof would be even more difficult to meet if the question were rephrased to: "Should we automatically reject any Russian, Iranian, or Indonesian use of force where that use of force is illegal under international law, or unilateral, or opposed by most neighboring countries who are the intervention's supposed beneficiaries?" Even here, nothing should be ruled out automatically, but it would make sense to have an exceedingly strong presumption against any such intervention and to insist that its advocates make an incredibly convincing case.
Of course, one might reply that the United States cannot be compared to these other countries; the U.S., after all, is one of the world's most advanced democracies. One notes, however, that many other nations, even more democratic than the United States, such as Sweden, don't endorse unilateral U.S. military actions. More generally, being a democracy at home doesn't necessarily prevent being oppressive abroad. Britain when it was the world's dominant power and the United States since World War II have both combined a relatively high level of internal democracy with a violent imperial foreign policy.
A2. Are you saying it's impossible that United States officials could ever act in the world out of decent motives?
It's not a question of what hypothetical United States officials might do in the future. It's a question of what these United States officials will do now. People can change. And governments can change. And whole systems that determine the behavior of both can change. But that's very different from saying that the same United States officials, propelled by the same institutional relations, carrying out or supporting atrocities in one part of the world are likely to be motivated by humanitarianism in some other part of the world at the exact same time.
Thus, if one asks what the Clinton administration's motives were in Kosovo, the claim that it was driven by concern for the rights and self-determination of ethnic minorities is hardly credible given that the same Clinton administration was backing Turkey's much worse oppression of its Kurdish minority. The point is not (just) that U.S. concern, when convenient, for some victims of atrocities or repression (Kosovar Albanians, Afghan women, Iraqis) is utterly hypocritical, but that as a practical matter it is extremely unrealistic to expect those who turn a blind eye to, and even participate in, serious human rights violations in various places around the world to act for moral reasons to prevent human rights violations elsewhere.
The worst brute in the world might undergo a conversion experience. But it would surely be foolish to count on humanitarianism from a brute in the midst of a bloody rampage. Is there any reason at all to believe that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Company have undergone conversion experiences? Is there any reason to believe that their pre 9-11 commitment to greed and domination or opposition to women's rights, global justice, and the rule of law has diminished? If anything, their behavior since 9-11 in all these realms suggests that their commitment has become bolder and stronger.
A3. Where rightwing supporters of U.S. intervention claim that the United States seeks nothing but justice and humanitarianism in the world, left supporters of intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Kosovo acknowledge the ugly motives of U.S. policymakers. But, they ask, isn't it possible that people or countries with bad motives might take actions that will have good results, and should we support such actions?
Clearly the consequences of an action are not determined by the intent of the actor. A consequence of Washington's arming and training Osama bin Laden and other fundamentalists in Afghanistan in the 1980s was 9-11, but surely that wasn't the intent of U.S. policymakers. A consequence of Japan's attacking Pearl Harbor was that Western colonialism is Asia was fatally wounded, leading ultimately to freedom for millions of people - but few left interventionists applaud the Japanese attack. One benefits from food bought to feed one's family, even if it is purchased from a merchant whose only intent is to make a tidy profit. But the point is not whether actions taken for bad motives can ever have good results. Rather, the point is that an actor's motives tell us much about how the actor is likely to behave, and therefore help us foresee and judge likely outcomes.
A United States going to war for humanitarian purposes would conduct that war very differently from a United States waging war for immoral reasons. If the U.S. were acting out of humanitarian concerns, it would not have targeted Iraq's civilian infrastructure in 1991, or undertaken bombing in Kosovo in 1999 that predictably made the situation worse for Kosovar Albanians, much less risked mass starvation in Afghanistan by bombing that country. Nor would it have explicitly and blatantly refused to explore diplomatic solutions to each of these crises.
Pro-war leftists sometimes write as if by their endorsing a war, their motives will determine the conduct of the war, in place of the motives of the U.S. government determining the conduct. But in the real world, when Washington (or any other state) goes to war, its motives, not those of pro-war leftists, prevail. Sometimes we might conclude that even with the horrible ways a war will be fought, it is still worth fighting. Thus, we might conclude it was worth supporting World War II to defeat the Axis powers despite the immoral U.S. terror bombing of Dresden, the nuclear assaults on Japan, the crushing of popular resistance forces throughout Europe, and the restoration of colonial and rightwing regimes in the third world. But one can't back a Bush war without acknowledging that the war will be fought the way Bush administration motives and morals dictate (unless, of course, opposition beats back Bush's agenda). This doesn't mean that Bush knows what the results of a war will be - wars are inherently unpredictable and hence should be undertaken only after meeting a very high burden of proof, especially when, as here, we know that the motives of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld will be operative.
A4. Rather than saying that past U.S. crimes with respect to Iraq (or anywhere else) make U.S. action in Iraq hypocritical and inappropriate, couldn't we say that these U.S. crimes give the U.S. a special obligation to take action?
The United States government does bear a special moral burden in countries where it has caused great human suffering. But that doesn't mean we should ask for intervention from a U.S. government that does not recognizes any moral debt, but is instead still intent on pursuing the same immoral agenda that gave rise to that debt in the first place.
The Iraqi government surely owes a special moral debt to the people of Kuwait. Should we therefore urge Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait to end a corrupt and undemocratic monarchy?
If there were fundamental social change in the United States bringing to office a new government committed to offering reparations for all the international misdeeds carried out by previous U.S. governments, then one might reasonably argue that some U.S. military action might set things right in some part of the world (though even in this case, there might still be many reasons to reject intervention). But when the Bush administration -- whose only criticism of past U.S. policy is that it has been insufficiently ruthless -- goes to war, it is obfuscation to treat this as reparations.
A5. Aren't anti-war people being hypocritical in condemning the U.S. for acting outside the strictures of the UN while at the same time condemning the 1991 Gulf War (which had Security Council authorization) or an Iraq war, even if the Security Council should come to back it?
Not at all.
If Bush announced that he was unilaterally abolishing all taxes on the rich, we would certainly denounce his illegal action -- legally, only Congress has such authority -- but that doesn't mean we therefore have to accept everything Congress does. If Congress went along with Bush in abolishing taxes on the rich then the action would no longer be illegal, but it would still be contemptible. To condemn illegal actions for being illegal doesn't preclude condemning legal actions for being contemptible.
Moreover, when an action is formally legal only because members of Congress or the UN Security Council have been bribed or coerced, withholding approval is that much more warranted. Washington used such bribery and coercion to get support for the 1991 Gulf War, and it is trying the same thing now (offering, for example, France and Russia a stake in Iraq's future oil industry only if they go along with the U.S. war).
Even a freely given Security Council authorization is problematic. The Security Council, after all, is an extremely undemocratic body, where certain influential players are given veto power. The Security Council puts some mild check on the prerogatives of powerful states, and therefore it can sometimes play a useful role, and deserves a degree of attention and support. But given its undemocratic nature and its susceptibility to improper influence, its decisions certainly shouldn't be above criticism.
A6. How can anti-war critics seriously equate the intentional slaughter of innocents (whether in the World Trade Center or in a Tel Aviv bus) with the unintentional and regretted killing of civilians by U.S. forces in Afghanistan or by Israeli forces in the Occupied Territories? Surely, U.S. officials don't seek out Afghan wedding ceremonies to bomb, nor do they cheer upon learning of such tragic errors
The law distinguishes between premeditated murder and accidental killing. But, as Arnold Chien has noted, quoting law professor Michael Tonry,
"An action taken with a purpose to kill is no more culpable than an action taken with some other purpose in mind but with knowledge that a death will probably result. Blowing up an airplane to kill a passenger is equivalent to blowing up an airplane to destroy a fake painting and thereby to defraud an insurance company, knowing that the passengers will be killed. Both are murder."
And both are murder even if the bomber regretted the fact that innocent passengers had to die in the second example. Nor would the bomber be absolved if he expressed regret for the slaughtered passengers and then did the same thing again and again. Or say the bomber doesn't know that passengers will be killed -- the bomb may go off in the luggage hold before the passengers board -- but is indifferent to the passengers' fate. Again, it is morally reprehensible.
Admittedly the U.S. military could have killed more Afghan civilians if it wanted to. But that doesn't refute the claim that Washington showed a morally unacceptable disregard for the lives of Afghans. Consider some analogies. Suppose al Qaeda could have targeted a sports stadium to kill more people than in the World Trade Center, but chose the WTC for its symbolic value. Would we say that this makes the WTC attack not terrorism? Suppose a Palestinian bombed a passenger bus to kill an Israeli soldier riding on the bus, but in the process killed dozens of civilians. Isn't this terrorism?
Is it worse to kill a person eagerly than out of indifference? Perhaps, but that's not the relevant comparison raised by the Afghan war. Despite warnings from many food aid organizations that the U.S. bombing put hundreds of thousands or millions of Afghan civilians at increased risk of starvation, the United States continued with the bombing. So the question becomes is it worse to kill 3,000 people eagerly or to risk the lives of an immensely greater number of people out of indifference?
A7. Are you setting a standard for a just war that could never be met, that would make any war impermissible?
No. Our criteria for a just war are no different from those of conventional just war theory which demands that any war meet the criteria of necessity and proportionality.
The necessity criterion asks whether there is an alternative to war. In Afghanistan, we do not believe that alternatives were actively pursued, and advocates of war have been distinctly silent as to why various less violent options should have been rejected out of hand - such as the suggestion by the Taliban that bin Laden could be turned over to a third country, or the plea by Abdul Haq, a leading anti-Taliban Afghan figure, to stop the bombing so that the Taliban could be defeated from within with less suffering.
The proportionality criterion does not bar all risk to civilians. (After all, even when you build a hospital, some innocent lives are endangered.) But it does demand, among other things, that the potential harm to civilians be weighed against potential benefits of the war. There is no automatic cut-off number here, but if what makes September 11 stand out as a particularly heinous crime is the huge human toll; then a comparable toll ought to count as huge when considering Afghan lives as well. And when the numbers of Afghans put at risk is massively greater than the World Trade Center toll, the proportionality criterion is clearly violated.
One other principle is relevant to just war theory, the principle of universality, which says that: whatever criteria we think justify a war on the part of one country justify as well wars by other countries in the same situation. So if the United States is justified in bombing Afghanistan for providing sanctuary to terrorists, then other countries have comparable rights. Thus, Nicaragua or Cuba, which have been victimized by terrorism planned and supported by Washington, would be justified in bombing the United States. Militarily, of course, such a response would make no sense, but in terms of justice it is no more unwarranted than the U.S. action in Afghanistan.
A8. Don't extreme circumstances -- such as the need to stop genocide, as in Kosovo in 1999 -- require that we drop our objections to U.S. intervention?
Extreme circumstances may call for revising all sorts of general rules. But one needs to make sure that the circumstances are being accurately described, and are not just propaganda claims masking other motives and interests.
In Kosovo, before the withdrawal of the observers and the beginning of NATO bombing, there were serious human rights abuses on the part of Serbian security forces, but 2,000 deaths on both sides amid fighting over the previous year does not come close to the level of genocide, and violations of previous agreements were committed by both sides, according to the observers. The large scale ethnic cleansing, the driving of Kosovar Albanians out of the country, was precipitated by the bombing, not thwarted by it.
In Afghanistan, Taliban rule was horrendous. But before 9-11, few of those who later endorsed Bush's war were calling for the United States to go in and overthrow the government. Many called for strong international sanctions against the Taliban regime, but not American bombers. This indicates that the situation was not so extreme as to call for overruling the usual prohibition against foreign military intervention.
A9. Adam Shatz quotes Don Guttenplan saying that for a small but vocal section of American radicals, "there is only one imperialism, and if it isn't American it's not imperialism." Is this your view?
Not at all. During the Cold War, Soviet imperialism in Eastern Europe or Afghanistan was as much a reality as U.S. imperialism in Latin America or Vietnam. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States is far and away the world's most powerful nation and, therefore, its imperialism is far more dangerous than that of lesser powers. But lesser powers can still be imperialist and we condemn all these imperialisms: among them Iraq (in Iran and Kuwait), Israel (in Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories), Serbia (in Bosnia), Russia (in Chechnya), and China (in Tibet). Opposing U.S. imperialism doesn't mean one has to be blind to the imperialism of others. But war supporters ought to be careful that their opposition to Iraqi or Serbian imperialism doesn't lead them to ignore U.S. imperialism.
A10. Is the "war on terrorism" a just undertaking -- a just war, warranting just interventions?
So far the "war on terrorism" has been a massacre, as in Afghanistan and as proposed for Iraq, rather than a fight with two armed combatants battling one another. In that sense the label "war" is actually a euphemism when applied to endeavors like the "Gulf War," the "war in Yugoslavia," the "war in Afghanistan," or the currently proposed "war on Iraq," in which cases the U.S. military wipes out targets while taking virtually zero casualties.
Alternatively, "the war on terrorism" has been a campaign, not a violent struggle, aiming to reduce civil liberties, expand arms trade and production, and legitimate assaults on any targets deemed unfriendly. In this regard it is like the earlier Cold War. The idea is to name an enemy, generate fear of it, and then employ that fear and associated anger to justify all kinds of government actions that would otherwise be rejected -- arms deals, taxes, repressive laws, etc.
The massacres and policy alterations that together constitute the "war on terrorism" haven't been about reducing terrorism, by and large. First, the largest number of civilians killed since 9-11 have been Afghans and Iraqis (the latter, victims of U.S.-backed sanctions). Reducing a phenomenon rarely includes overtly expanding it. Second, the actions undertaken, even in the view of the FBI, are not only unlikely to reduce even that portion of terrorism that is directed at the United States. They are likely, instead, to fuel the resentment and grievances that lead to such attacks.
So rather than a just war, the "war on terrorism" is a means of rationalizing illegitimate interventions abroad and repressive and predatory policies at home, without reducing terrorism.
This article is part of the following collection:
- War on Terror FAQs
- 45 Q & As: Intervention, Afghan and Iraq
- September 11th and Terrorism FAQ
- 47 Questions and Answers on the War in Afghanistan
- Questions and Answers on September 11 And Its Aftermath
Back to top