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War and Peace

In my last two postings about war on Iraq, I tried to set out the moral grounds for using military force against another country, as well as distinguish between civilians and combatants. The blogosphere had already been teaming with opinions, moral or otherwise, about the war on terror, Iraq, the US military power and its proper use. when Steven Den Beste posited the conflict as more than a mere ‘war on terrorism’ but rather clash of cultures and civilisations in his article last week.

The majority of reactions were, predictably, based on the respondents’ previously established positions. Some agreed because they agree with Den Beste and his ‘Hollywood-style patriotic wanks’ that make them feel good about themselves and the country they live in 1. Some disagreed for the sake of disagreeing; some may have even had genuine grounds for dissent although I am yet to see a counter-argument that would rise to the challenge. We at Samizdata have taken, ehm, a rational approach, and judged his ideas on their merit. We found that we could not disagree with the fundamental points of the treatise and were ready to admit it openly. Long live our unbiased and rational intellects!

Most of the analysis of the Arab World certainly made sense to me despite the occasional twinge of disagreement. It still did not add up to opposition in principle and I have continued to seriously think about Den Beste’s ‘Modest Proposal’ to subdue and transform Arab Traditionalism, to find out why I agree or why, if at all, I disagree with him. Re-reading the piece point by point did not yield conclusive result. I decided to re-examine my own fundamental reasons (both moral and practical) for supporting the war on Iraq.

This means that I will not fisk Den Beste’s proposal for his opponents’ benefit, nor will I please those who wish the world to agree with their ‘champion’. It is perhaps aimed at those who may share his conclusions but not the journey to it. The article makes sense, its conclusions being predicated on the correctness of Den Beste’s analysis of Arab history, culture and mentality. It occurred to me that there have been have others whose writings were seen by their contemporaries as supremely rational and beyond logical fault and yet ended up with their conclusions shaken by subsequent events. The most memorable is Norman Angell, author of the worldwide bestseller, The Great Illusion. Angell claimed war was useless and unlikely in the modern economic era, given the complex financial and commercial interdependence of the world’s leading powers. So far, so good, except that this analysis was made in 1909…

No, I am not inventing a new argument against my opponents – “your thesis is too logical and consistent and therefore you’ll be proven wrong by history” (an argument not without its merits, perhaps a crafty analysis could be used to support it – merely putting forward a view that historical analysis can be a poor guide for the present and even poorer for moral decisions. And so it pays to look further.

As if the above line of attack was not enough to demolish a worthy opponent (fear not, it isn’t), I came across Den Beste’s explanation of his mindset he brings to his thinking about the war on Iraq.

“And as an engineer I’m extremely pragmatic. The general approach in engineering is to be assigned a problem to solve, to analyze the environment in which the solution must exist to determine what constraints there are, to evaluate the resources available to apply to the solution, to craft a plan for creating a solution which is good enough even if not ideal (for ideal solutions are exceedingly rare), and then to implement it. And though humans are passionate, it’s essential that this process be as dispassionate as it can be, because the result is invariably better. Passionate engineers tend to make stupid decisions, to choose answers which are not actually optimum.

That’s the mind set I’m bringing to this war. I have been for a long time attempting to understand why it is that we were attacked. But it’s a dispassionate and utilitarian analysis. I’m not interested in blame; I’m only interested in trying to learn enough about those who oppose us to try to understand both what they may do next and what would be needed from us to make them cease to try to harm us. Issues like ‘justice’ and ‘guilt’ and ‘blame’ don’t enter into this analysis because they don’t contribute to a solution … This war has nothing to do with morality or justice, it’s entirely about survival.”

This is where I dissent. Engineering approach is appropriate and good for most problems we encounter in everyday life. I do not agree with the last sentence because if this war has nothing to do with morality or justice what, on earth, does? Would anything qualify as a ‘problem’ that would include morality or justice in his world? I’d say most acts that affect or impact human beings in a significant way have something to do with morality and justice. Isn’t war, even defensive one, sufficiently disruptive of others’ lives to deserve consideration of its moral and just grounds?

I have seen tremendous confusion about these issues. Shifting grounds, confusing logic or lack of it, category errors, ad hominem arguments, points completely missed, to name a few. Searching questions along the lines of “self-defence may be necessary and even justified but shouldn’t we leave the good Iraqi people alone?”… and “what right do we have to interfere with their lives, judge their culture, values, way of life, etc and anyway, the US foreign policy caused the hatred and may have brought terrorism on ourselves blah, blah, blah…more socialist ramblings and confusion blah, blah, blah…only the UN has the mandate/moral platform/other international law rubbish to approve and launch such attack…blah, blah, blah…more Tranzi spewings.

It seems to me that many engaged in the debate have come to expect a pragmatic argument (for example from self-defence) to provide them with a total moral justification for whatever decision or action the pragmatic solution may entail. Yes, there may be a need for action but there may also be penalty for inaction. Such situation provides motivation to examine the moral implications and moral context of available choices. A moral context defined and shaped by such doctrines as ‘just war’ and ‘double-effect’. The pragmatic and the moral are not always comparable. The saying ‘end does not justify the means’ attempts to capture the potential conflict. There is always room for moral ‘checks and balances’, especially when the consequences can be fatal to ourselves and others.

Who are the others? Saddam and his cronies, the soldiers fighting them or the soldier fighting on their behalf, civilians assisting them, our business and trade…? Recently, there has been a lot of talk about the Iraqi people too. That is quite appropriate and it is the perspective I wish to take not as an ‘engineer’ but as someone who lived under an oppressive communist regime and wondered why the West ‘tolerated’ it for so long. I have watched commercials on the Austrian television seeing the soft-focus version of the West, its superior products and standards of living. I have witnessed not only the cruelty of a socialist regime but also the frailty and inefficiency of a socialist economy. I listened daily to the Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America informing us about what was really happening in my town, country and in the world beyond, telling us to carry on, encouraging us to endure… And I, together with others like me, could not understand why my country had been ‘sold’ in 1939, left alone in 1948 and 1956, and abandoned to Soviet invasion in 1968… We wondered why it was taking so long, why the people living in those free and marvellous countries out there were not on our side, if not at our side, taking the totalitarian monsters down, surely they had to know enough by now to have realised the full horror of our lives, they must understand and they would help us…

I have written the above not to invite various analyses of international relations and political situation at the time. I have done that myself under a watchful and unbiased gaze of the western academia. I have looked at my experience dispassionately hoping to transform it into an insight, a perspective of an individual caught up in defining historical events.

It has taken me a while to use this understanding in the debate on Iraq. It was the article in the Sunday Telegraph that has given me a glimpse of what I needed in order to draw a parallel with the Cold War:

The country’s war-weary people are, by contrast, readying themselves for another conflict. “Nothing we do will make any difference now. America is determined to attack us because they want to dominate our region and our oil,” said a university lecturer. “They say they want regime change, but first they will have to change the Iraqi people. Saddam Hussein is our leader and we need his strength now.”

“There are plenty of people out there with guns and scores to settle,” said an envoy from another Muslim state. “I wouldn’t fancy being a senior member of the Ba’ath Party or the Special Republican Guard if Saddam is overthrown.”

Not everyone bemoans the prospect of war: among the young there are some who believe that the risks and bloodshed would be worthwhile. Out of the earshot of others, a university student said: “Of course I’m scared, but let them bomb us if it brings change.”

The above tells me several things. There are people who believe in Saddam’s leadership, just like there were people who believed in the communist regime, mainly because they had carved their own place in it, they perpetuated it and would lose if the situation changed. The regime is based on oppression, corruption and elitism. All I needed to hear was that one voice of dissent, cautious and heard only ‘out of the earshot of others’ to be convinced that the war on Iraq has a moral objective2.

For me, the ultimate assessment is carried out at the level of the individual. Do I want a war on Iraq? No. Do I want to eliminate any chance of an attack on the US soil or anywhere else? Yes. Do I want to support a state action carried out in the name of national or other political interest? No. Do I want the military (paid from my taxes) to protect me and do their job? Yes, Do I want Iraqi civilians to die? No. Do I want them to have the freedom to make an informed decision about their lives? Yes. Do I believe that Saddam Hussein or any other political leader in the Arab world is providing such options to their population? No. Do I think that we have a moral obligation to take this into account when deciding whether to attack Iraq or anyone posing a threat to us and their ‘subjects’? Hell, yes.

This is what it means to me to be a libertarian and to believe that freedom is the fundamental right of human beings. For the purposes of a practical action, it does not matter how this right is derived – a natural right or a positive right that evolves with civilisation and social progress, I can argue about that later. This is about an obligation that we have towards those whose liberty is trampled upon, their freedom of choice denied, their ability to make informed decisions impaired. I am certain that Iraq contains many such individuals and I have begun to wonder how many are thinking thoughts similar to mine about 15 years ago.

Note 1: My decent upbringing goes out of the window after reading statements like this: “we” are the United States, which is the most successful of the western democracies by a long margin. America is the most successful nation in the history of the world, economically and technologically and militarily and even culturally.”

Note 2: It doesn’t matter, if politicians ordering the armies to Iraq do not share my motivation, to me it is important that there are people who are eagerly awaiting change. Knowing what such change can mean, I support anything that will increase their chances.

9 comments to War and Peace

  • NC3

    Regarding Note 1:

    Somebody must be number 2. Deal with it.

  • MC

    Well said. I agree completely. But I also agree with Den Beste completely.
    It appears that your arguments are the flip side of the coin. One side is practical and utilitarian (Den Beste), the other moral and idealistic (Cronin). The significant fact is that the opposite approach yields basically the same answer. To my mind, this indicates that an invasion of Iraq is the proper course of action.

    Regarding note 1: Those kind of comments are a little over the top, but also, pride in country, culture and achievements is a universal human impulse and not necessarily a bad thing. So take it all with a grain of salt and recognise that maybe, perhaps, we do have at least as much to be proud of as anyone else.

  • Perhaps Den Beste’s greatest failure is the overt switch to “social engineering” and “cultural engineering” as a rational plan to attain the objective: no further terrorist attacks. Yes, the Arab world has a number of distinctive cultural traits that we find appalling and harmful to our interests.

    But, any attempt to engineer society will fail, due to the complexities of human cultures, and the unfailing ingenuity of people to surprise.

    Why has Libertarian samizdata not picked up on the underlying flaw in his argument? Social engineering always has atrocious unforeseen consequences, usually due to government intervention.

    Only one approach will work: widening the space for political and economic liberty in the Middle East and promoting free trade amonst the Arab cultural community.

  • Dale Amon

    I think this is either a misue of the term “social engineering” or else we need a new term for what you do to reconstruct a devasted enemy into a peaceful and democratic society. It’s an all together different story when one is in the position of MacArthur in 1945…

    Social Engineering doesn’t work; but reconstruction most certainly does. [see Japan, Germany]

    I believe Den Beste was suggesting reconstruction. Afterwards.

  • Auguste

    NC3. Pff. So US is bigger and stronger but so what? I deal with this just fine. If you allow state to rob you to make somany airplane and tanks, that is your foolishness not mine. But please to avoid sickmaking hand on heart stuff with flag. As for culturally most advanced which this Den Beate says, oh you must be joking. All hail Mickey Mouse, haha.

  • Auguste

    And what is patriotic wanks? I know must be bad but not in dictonary.

  • Mon cher Auguste,

    Veuillez trouver ci-joint, la resolution de votre enquete: branler, se polluer, astiquer sa queue, tripotir son machin.
    Je vous prie, Monsieur, d’agreer de l’expression de sentiments les plus distingues.

  • Hamish

    Oh my God, THAT is funny!!!

  • Molly

    Another amazing article, Adriana.

    btw… I wish I had not failed french 🙂