Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Statement of philosophy-- Peace and War.

I've been in New Mexico for the last couple of days (coincidentally, both mine and my wife's birthday) and it's given me some time to consider a post dealing with what my philosophy is in the most important issue we are faced with, in this-- and any-- age, that of peace and war.

In general, I have been an outspoken advocate of peace in most wars, such as our present war in Iraq. However, I've been at odds with many of my friends on the left-- and for that matter, surprisingly in agreement with many who I normally argue with on the right, about the justification for the current invasion of Lebanon by Israel (though I will differ with some on the right by saying once again that I do not believe that people who oppose Israeli policy are anti-Semitic; Mel Gibson is anti-Semitic, not people who simply disagree with the current Israeli policy in Lebanon or for that matter towards the Palestinians).

Or put another way, last year when former President Jimmy Carter accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he said, "Sometimes war may be a necessary evil, but it is always evil."

And he is right. On both clauses.

Certainly no decision to enter into a war should be arrived at lightly, nor made if there is any chance of negotiating a lasting agreement between the parties. If a decision is made to go to war, then people will die, and that includes that civilians will die. Men will die. Women will die. Children will die. Babies will die. Many more will be disfigured, mentally damaged (and not just from physical trauma) and will suffer the loss of family members. Many more will become refugees and lose their homes. Huge amounts of resources will be wasted, and for no other purpose than to destroy what has been built, perhaps built over years, generations or even centuries.

For this reason, if it is possible to avert a war by means of negotiation between the parties, that is the best course to follow.

But then, is war sometimes necessary, and if so when?

The classic case that is always made of a 'necessary war' is World War II. And it is certainly true that the leaders in Europe, after their policy of 'appeasement' failed and gave Hitler Austria and Czechoslovakia without firing a shot, realized that his insatiable appetite for conquest required that war eventually be entered into. Even then, in the hours after Hitler invaded Poland, there were active debates within both the English and especially the French governments about whether honoring the agreement to defend Poland was worth going to war for, and in fact England declared war about twelve hours before the French. And it is certainly true that if they hadn't, Hitler would undoubtedly have simply absorbed Poland and continued to strengthen himself before conquering more and more territory, and that had he succeeded, much of the world would today be living in a scarcely believable Nazi hell.

On the other hand, that was sixty years ago and the world is much changed, so it is only worth bringing up as history that most everyone is familiar with. What about today's wars?

To begin with, a war which is justified may not be easy, and a war which is not justified may in fact be easy. So the idea of deciding whether a war is justified based afterwards on the course the war takes is the cowards way out. Examples of 'easy' wars which I believe were either never justified or in which U.S. forces should not have been committed include Grenada, Panama and Kosovo. These conflicts resulted in very low U.S. casualties (though there were many casualties among the civilian population, especially in Panama). On the other hand, the present conflict in Afghanistan is an example of a 'hard' war which I believe is nonetheless justified (though it has been fumbled and botched severely-- more on that later).

I believe that a war is justified only when a nation (or an ally which it is sworn to defend) is in fact attacked, not going to war pretty much guarantees more attacks, and there is no prospect of negotiating with the attackers to prevent more attacks. At the same time there must be an examination of why the war occurred in order to determine what can be done to prevent a repeat of it in the future.

To that end, I do (as I said earlier) consider that our present conflict in Afghanistan was necessary to enter into. Recall that prior to 9/11, Osama bin Laden had organized the African Embassy bombings, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole and a number of other terrorist incidents around the world. Clearly 9/11 was an attack on the U.S., and clearly bin Laden was not planning to stop his attacks (nor has he, as the murderous attacks in Bali, Madrid and London show.) And George Bush did one right thing-- he gave the Taliban, the regime that was harboring bin Laden, a chance to hand him over before ordering an attack.

From that moment, the war was mismanaged. Despite the fact that at that time we had nearly universal support from the world, George W. Bush made it clear that he was only interested in those who would pursue the whole war in his way, and refused to even consider advice from other foreign leaders-- some of whom know quite a bit more about Afghanistan than we do. Then, after making alliances with local warlords of dubious dependability (something the other leaders might have reminded him about) he sent them in to actually get bin Laden at Tora Bora instead of U.S. marines. This allowed bin Laden to spread enough of his influence and cash around to make good his escape. Then came the biggest error in Afghanistan. The biggest mistake we made there IS the war in Iraq. As Afghanistan slipped onto the back burner, and we were content with fighting a war of attrition, the mood palpably changed, and the dubious warlords began considering their options again. Our investment became an afterthought, returning Afghanistan roughly to the state it was in following the abandonment of the country after the Soviet War-- a society impoverished both economically and by its isolation, that allowed al-Qaeda and the Taliban to flourish the first time-- as they are starting to do again now. Our international backing began to dwindle (exacerbated by such events as when George Bush takes a country like Canada, which had lost five soldiers in a friendly fire incident supporting Americans in Afghanistan, and informs them that they are being punished for not backing us in Iraq). With attacks and hostility towards the Americans on the rise in Afghanistan, we may have lost our chance to create a model for the region. Right now, I believe that with a renewed focus on Afghanistan, there could still be hope, and as long as bin Laden is alive we should pursue him, but if the intent is to ignore Afghanistan some more (which seems to be the case with the recent announcment that we are disbanding the special unit tasked with hunting for him there), then we are in a downward spiral and in that case it might be best to withdraw. And Iraq is still going, which makes it seem as though this is the case.

In Iraq, there was no justification for war. Saddam Hussein absolutely did not attack us, and he was comfortably in the same 'box' he had been in since 1991. He didn't even control all of Iraq, as the Kurds had effective autonomy in about 10% of the country. The weapons of mass destruction we all heard about were not there. He tried repeatedly to negotiate. Even if you believe it was a ploy, shouldn't we have taken the time to check it out first? And shouldn't we have let Hans Blix finish finding out whether the WMD's were in Iraq? Yeah, I believed that they were there based on news reports of the day (though that in itself is no more a reason to go to war than it would have been a reason to go to war against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and it is not a good enough reason to go to war against Iran even if they do have a nuclear program), but now we learn that those news reports reflected only the view that the White House wanted us to see-- cherry picking of intel reports, and even going so far as to republicize the claim of Iraqi politician and colossal liar Ahmed Chalabi (who is still wanted in Jordan for bank fraud of over $25 million) that they could be ready to launch in 45 minutes-- the same Ahmed Chalabi who it later turned out was a double agent working for the Iranians (and the Iraq war clearly does have at least one winner-- Iran). The White House has a duty to consider all the intelligence available, including the reliability of such intelligence. And if we'd let Blix (who went to Iraq in accordance to a U.N. resolution that we pushed) do his job, he'd have discovered what we now know already. Then there is the claim that the war in Iraq is part of the war on terror. Yet, at the time, they came up with actually much less in terms of claims that Iraq had anything to do with terrorists (and in particular al-Qaeda) than our 'allies' in the region like Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Kuwait. Well, it may not have been about terrorists then, but it is now. And our presence is doing as much to fuel terrorism there as it is to fight it. So then it was about Democracy. That is why we now have elected fanatics in Baghdad leading anti-American demonstrations and burning American flags. So apparently the reason we've lost 2,500 American troops in Iraq is simply to lend the cloak of legitimacy to anti-American fundamentalists who may even be in Parliament in the morning and passing on information to those fighting us by the afternoon (as we discovered after Zarqawi was killed) Yeah, but remember-- no matter how much they hate us and support terrorists, they're elected. And we are fighting those who want to get rid of that same Parliament. Maybe Hugo Chavez has it wrong. Just convince George Bush to invade Venezuela, and we'll be paying American troops to fight Mr. Chavez' "anti-democratic" opponents. At this point, I believe that it is pretty much inevitable that Iraq, a creation of British and French Colonialists who divided up the Ottoman Empire after World War I without regard to cultural, ethnic or religious boundaries, will sooner or later fly apart as happened with the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. It is hard to see how the United States can prevent it, or for that matter exactly what we can achieve any more in Iraq. Best to follow the Murtha plan for withdraw and use any influence we have to ease the transition into three separate nations-- Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni, with as little bloodshed as possible.

So that brings us to the current war in Lebanon. Why do I support Israel's right to invade Lebanon to go after Hezbollah guerillas? Simple enough. Go back to what I said at the beginning of the article. Israel has been attacked across the border by the Hezbollah guerillas, if they did nothing then it is likely it would happen again and again and again (just like the small scale rocket and mortar attacks that have gone on for the past six years), and besides, how can you negotiate with someone whose stated objective is to wipe your country off the map-- literally? For that matter, Hezbollah is a Lebanese organization, so their original attack into Israel (from Lebanese territory that Israel withdrew from in 2000) could in no way be considered in the context of 'occupied territory.' It was squarely an attack across the border, with the prospect only of more down the road. I've seen some suggest that Israel should have been a 'punching bag' for Hezbollah and just 'suck it up' when attacked, as they did when Saddam Hussein's scuds hit them in the 1991 Gulf War. The difference of course was that at the time others were doing something about Saddam Hussein, whereas had Israel not responded, I doubt if I'd have seen many who now criticize their actions demanding that Hezbollah launch no more border attacks or return the captured soldiers. I could be wrong, but then I've not yet seen some of them even acknowlege that Israeli civilians even have the 'right' to not fear missile attacks. Nor do I fault Israel, as many have done, for the scale of their response. If anything, as the last few days have shown, the initial response was if anything too 'measured' (our own failures in Iraq and elsewhere should have convinced them that sooner or later they would need to commit ground troops). They have done everything they could to limit civilian casualties by their policy of leafletting, even though this makes their airstrikes inevitably militarily less effective, and have tried to target specific buildings. But let's keep in mind that they are fighting an opponent which chooses to set up military installations in apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, and wherever else they can hide behind children. So to not attack these places at all is in effect to not attack Hezbollah at all. That, and the fact that the Israelis have much more fire power, is why there are about 1000 deaths in Lebanon vs. 100 on the Israeli side. Yet it would be far higher if Israel was simply doing the 'indiscriminate bombing' that its opponents accuse it of (keep in mind that what you saw in World War II was true 'indiscriminate bombing,' when civilian casualties ran into the tens of thousands from a single bombing raid, and into the millions over the course of the war.) What about the proposal then that Israel simply accept a cease-fire and go back to their side of the border? Well, the answer is that they did exactly that in 2000, and you can see how well that worked-- namely, it didn't work. Unless the Lebanese army is bolstered internationally with weapons, training and perhaps some Egyptian or other units embedded in its ranks and is serious about keeping order, then Israel would be foolish to withdraw from Lebanon, and I will continue to believe that until someone can argue that this time it would be different from the last time. There is no question that Hezbollah has provided a much stiffer level of resistance than Israel had anticipated, but that does not change my assessment of whether this war was justified. You can lose a war and still be justified in fighting it (though it appears that Israel is scratching out a very difficult and small victory) . Now, as I said, 'occupied territory' is not any kind of issue in the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. However,

'Occupied territory' is an issue between Israel and the Palestinians, and clearly Israel as the occupier can't expect peace that doesn't include withdrawl from the 'occupied territory,' though again there are some on the Palestinian side who consider every square inch of Israel itself to be 'occupied territory' which is why there has not been any negotiation between Israel and the new Hamas-dominated government. Israel, as a test case of its new policy, withdrew from Gaza, and was quickly attacked. Nonetheless, it is a statement of fact that sooner or later, Israel is going to have to find someone on the Palestinian side who has the personal integrity, authority and ability to make an agreement stick and make and follow an agreement with them, and that such an agreement will include withdrawl from the West Bank as well as Gaza. This actually represents a slight modification of the position I held in December of 2005 when I wrote Abraham had two sons about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the post, I was quite critical of both Israel's wall and its West Bank settlement policy, but I also said that I believed that while the wall was wrong, it had stopped attacks on Israel. And it has stopped attacks-- by suicide bomber What this war has made clear however is that there are many ways to attack Israel. Hence the Sharon-Ohlmert policy of withdrawing behind the wall won't end attacks on Israel, and Tel Aviv is only a few miles from the West Bank. In fact, Israel has two secure borders-- with Jordan and with Egypt, but those are the result of negotiation with Jordan and with Egypt. Attacks across them are very rare indeed, and when they do happen (such as the occasional rocket that is fired into the Israeli city of Elat from the Jordanian city of Aqaba across the bay) Israel does not respond because they know the Jordanian authorities are right on top of it, and either catch the perpetrators or beef up police presence in the area to prevent another attack. These borders provide a model for how borders might eventually work. However, as a precursor, Israel must be willing to work with whoever the Palestinians choose to represent them (and as I blogged in February, that may well be Hamas someday. In fact, before the current war between Israel and Hamas broke out a month ago, Hamas had agreed to put their name on a piece of paper that at least mentioned Israel-- a small yet monolithic step for them. I hope that this in fact does portend a better future (if you read my January post, I did predict a rocky road in the short term-- though making some obviously wrong predictions, such as a Likud victory in the Israeli election-- but gave some reasons to be optimistic in the long term.) But it is, again, a fact that until an Israeli leader and a Palestinian leader who can both with confidence truly represent their countries sit down together and bargain that war will continue at anywhere from a simmer to a boil, and this needs to happen. But I believe the pieces are in place where it will happen sooner than we might expect.

So I hope this clears up some of the views I have on current conflicts. I believe that peace is always better than war, but there are times, when a nation is attacked, that war may become a 'necessary evil.'


Anonymous said...

You know, I agree with you on almost all of that, *except* for the reason we continue to fight in Iraq, even though it was wrongly started.

The reason I've continued to say we need to stay in Iraq doesn't have to do with Democracy, or legitimacy, or the War on Terror. It is, plain and simple, a matter of responsibility.

We invaded Iraq. That makes what happens to the people of Iraq *our* responsibilty, like it or not. If we withdraw too soon, and the country collapses into a bloody and prolonged civil war (which I'm conviced *will* happen if we withdraw too soon), then that blood is OUR responsibility.

If, on the other hand, we stay in Iraq long enough to get it to the point where it's clearly stable without our assistance, *then* we can withdraw with the knowledge that even if things aren't better, they're stable. If, on the other hand, Iraq collapses into an unrecoverable state before that happens, or if it becomes clear that our presence is *causing* more problems then it solves, we can withdraw knowing we at least tried our best to discharge our responsibilities.

I'm willing to admit that I don't see stability any time soon. I never expected to, however. In 2003, *before* the invasion, I estimated that if Bush were stupid enough to actuallly invade, we'd be there for many years. Probably at least 5. I think what's been accomplished in just over 3 years isn't enough, but neither it is the dismal failure some have pictured it.

And I'm willing to admit it might *never* become stable. I've always seen it as a 50/50 chance at best that something good might come out of this.

But I don't see the signs that the state of Iraq is unrecoverable, nor do I believe we're currently doing more harm than good. So I have no choice but to recommend we stay in Iraq for the time being.

Anything else would be irresponsible, and probably devastating to the Iraqi people.

Eli Blake said...


The reason I don't think that Iraq is salvageable has to do with the fact that the country itself, as defined by its current boundaries is the creation of British and French colonialists who drew lines on a map while dividing up the Ottoman empire after World War I without regard to cultural, religious or ethnic heritage. It is in fact three nations, one Shiite, one Sunni and one Kurd which have been mashed together and then held together by a strongman (Saddam) similar to the Soviet Union under Stalin or Yugoslavia under Tito. Once the dictator, who everyone fears, is gone, the nationalistic drives reassert themselves and the country flies apart. Although I don't think that what was going on in the former Yugoslavia was really an American issue, at least when we intervened in Bosnia and in Kosovo it was on the side of the natural direction that things were taking, and we smoothed the transition towards the creation of separate states.

In Iraq, we are trying to hold together a country which is naturally inclined to separate into three states. The sooner we recognize this the better. Let's get out of the way and let nature take its course.

Eli Blake said...

In fact, Steve, I realized after responding to your comment that I hadn't said much about what strategy we should follow now in Iraq, so I've edited the post to make that more clear.

Anonymous said...

I've heard the three state argument before. And I could be fairly easily convinced that Iraq *should* be broken into three states.

The problem is, that's not going to happen peacefully. Not even close. Nor are any of those three states going to remain stable for years after the split. What happens if we simply cut and run and let this happen naturally, as you propose, is a major bloodbath, a civil war, eventually resulting in that division into three states, and followed by a decade or three of war between those three states, probably expanding to include Iran and Syria and causing even worse instability in the region. Odds are good at least one of the three states will end up being run by a dictator at least as bad as Saddam was. All of that would ultimately be our fault.

Now, if you were to suggest that we help the split happen, and keep forces in each of the three states until each one becomes stable (my guess is that would take 5-10 years), then I might consider our responsibility discharged.

Tom & Icy said...

Just wondering: If we can justify war, as evil as it is, then can we justify torture to save lives from future plots of terrorists?

Eli Blake said...


Good question, but my answer would be no.

As I said, war is rarely justified, and only when a country is in fact attacked and there is no negotiation.

In the case of torture, there are three cogent arguments against it, one practical, one legal and one ethical:

1. people will say anything to stop torture, and as I blogged on once before, the information obtained by torture is often false and reflects what the questioners want rather than what is the case-- so the bottom line is that torture doesn't work (the practical argument);

2. The Geneva conventions on the rules of war recognizes that wars will inevitably occur, and attempts to codify the rules of warfare in order to at least prevent its worst excesses; these rules expressly prohibit torture; and if we ignore them and allow it anyway, then we lose any legal grounds to expect that our own captured personnel will be treated according to those protocols (the legal argument)

3. The idea that terrorists operated under is to disrupt civilized societies in order to push their agenda forward. If we allow torture of terror suspects to learn what information they have (even if we ignore argument (1) and assume it is good information), then we in fact push that very agenda forward, as we have sacrificed one of our most important tenets-- that of due process-- and in effect let the terrorists win.