I have taken anti-war people to task in the past for a number of lousy arguments, but, inspired by Arthur Silber’s, Megan McArdle’s, and Mark Kleiman’s excellent recent posts on objectivity and confirmation bias, I’ve decided to give the pro-war a chance. I have in mind the recent trope that, even if we find no biological or chemical, let alone nuclear, weapons in Iraq, the war would still be justified on the grounds that we are liberating the Iraqis from an inconceivably vicious regime.

We have heard a good deal about Iraqi liberation from the Administration recently. This is right and proper. It is also propaganda, for foreign and especially Iraqi consumption. Its purpose is to induce the Iraqis to take the most favorable possible attitude toward us, which will help us when the war concludes and, not incidentally, save American lives while it’s still being fought. Its purpose is not to justify fighting the war in the first place. This the Administration has already done, no matter what you may think of its arguments, at tedious length.

Thus I am surprised to see a normally cold-eyed advocate of the war like Steven Den Beste argue that, “The reality of life in Iraq, graphically revealed, beyond any rational denial, will eliminate any idea that the war should not have been fought.” Mass slaughter goes on all over the world all the time, but we war, I trust, for our own interests, not the interests of others. The only justification for this war is that Iraq is, or will become unless we intervene, a threat to our security. The proper answer to how many Americans lives should be sacrificed to free a subject people in a country that poses no threat to us is zero, and those who think otherwise are obliged to provide their own answers to the same question. (Whether, once at war, soldiers should have to take added risks to minimize civilian casualties is a different question. There are excellent reasons, national security reasons, to do so, even at the expense of American lives.) Den Beste is by no means the only war advocate to make this argument, but he, Jacksonian that he is, ought to know better.

(Update: Arthur Silber comments. He wonders if the Article 1, Section 8 clause of the Constitution granting the national government authority to “define and punish…Offences against the Law of Nations” is a warrant for wars of liberation. The standard authorities differ. William Rawle thinks this refers to something like an outrage against an ambassador, which would have to be punished whether the offending country posed a threat to us or not. Joseph Story interprets it more broadly. I’m inclined to think the general welfare clause is broad enough to cover wars of liberation, so they are probably constitutional no matter how one interprets the “define and punish” clause. Of course whether they are a good idea is a separate question, as Arthur points out.)

(On Second Thought: My argument above is lousy. Congress merely has the power to lay and collect taxes for the general welfare, which simply refers to the other things the national government has the power to do that require money, as enumerated in Article 1, Section 8. The general welfare clause grants no additional powers. So I suppose, after all this, I’m still agnostic on the question.)

Aaron Haspel | Posted April 6, 2003 @ 6:05 PM | Politics

23 Responses to “Bad Argument Clinic: Pro-War Interlude”

  1. 1 1. Jim Valliant

    I agree with your ultimate conclusion, but the concept of liberating Iraq does morally refute the peaceniks. Even if we do not find any threats to America’s security, the war will have been morally justified by the existing state of tyranny in Iraq. We are on the right side of history, as it were, no matter what weapons are found. Dictatorship is already a state of war–with the State at war with its own populace. America has the moral right to engage in "regime change" on ANY dictatorship at ANY time, for such a government has no legitimacy, and we will have done a good thing by the world, if not America. Whether it was also a prudent use of American lives and resources is also a part of the moral question, but the scale of the horrors under Saddam’s rule makes clear that the savage indifference to human life is on the side of the peaceniks, not the hawks.


  2. 2 2. Ian

    Why can’t it be both?

    To wit: we had excellent reason to believe that a) Iraq was developing WMDs and b) would share them with anyone who was willing to use them on the U.S.; but, even in the unlikely event that this belief was false, a free country always has the moral right to depose tyrants.

    At least that’s the way that I, muddle-headed with less than 6 hours of sleep, look at it.


  3. 3 3. Aaron Haspel

    Ian: Because one is both necessary and sufficient. To posit a silly hypothetical, if France, say, posed a serious threat to our security, we would have to do something about it, including going to war if necessary, regardless of the fact that France is not (yet) a totalitarian country.

    This raises an interesting point, however. Objectivists and others like to distinguish between permissible wars (against totalitarians) and obligatory wars (to quash real threats to ourselves). I’m inclined to think this makes a bogus distinction between the moral and practical, which Objectivists correctly reject in most other circumstances. I think it would be not only foolish, but immoral, for us to go to war in Rwanda or Sierra Leone, despite the fact that it would benefit those countries if we did so. The better way to put it is that totalitarians have forfeited their claims to sovereignty, which is not quite the same as saying that we have a moral right to invade their countries.


  4. 4 4. Jim

    I agree with your post, Aaron, if you’re arguing that it might be wrong to force our soldiers to die to save oppressed Iraqis. But wouldn’t you admit that, if our soldiers were willing, it would be permissible for us to invade?

    [T]otalitarians have forfeited their claims to sovereignty, which is not quite the same as saying that we have a moral right to invade their countries.

    It’s not the same only if you mean allude to the potential unwillingness of our soldiers. But you’re right that if there are WMDs in Iraq, the invasion may have been an injustice to our soldiers.


  5. 5 5. Eddie Thomas

    I don’t see why liberation can’t be considered part of the justification for the war, even if it is not decisive. That a country is a threat to us is also not a decisive consideration, or else we would have attacked the Soviet Union.

    Where I am in agreement is that the rhetoric of liberation has become unbalanced, and may even defeat its own purposes. We are trying to win over the hearts of the Iraqis, but everyone is properly suspicious of humanitarianism. If we make it clear that our own safety is of vital importance in this affair, it will make it easier for the Iraqis to figure out how to satisfy us so that we can go home.


  6. 6 6. Aaron Haspel

    Ah, the philosophers weigh in! First Jim: I don’t see what the soldiers’ wishes have to do with it. I daresay they would usually vote for fighting; that’s what they signed up for, after all, and almost anything beats waiting, which is most of normal military life. What they distinctly did not sign up for was making foreign policy. A foolish and pointless death is still foolish and pointless, even if the victim acquiesced.

    Eddie: A threat requires a response not war, necessarily, as I was careful to say. But if containment and diplomacy fail to remove it, then war becomes the only alternative.

    It’s possible that Bush really believes that one of our reasons for the war is to free the Iraqis, but I don’t think so. It’s no accident that we hear an awful lot more about that now that the war has started. You may be right, however, that it would be better propaganda to state our real reasons for invading. It might also get us out more quickly afterwards.


  7. 7 7. Aaron Haspel

    Will: I was quite serious when I said above that I don’t hold with the distinction between the moral and the practical. One of my objections to Christian morality is that if we rend our cloak and give it to the nearest beggar, as Jesus recommended, we will run out of cloak long before we run out of beggars. What we cannot do we should not do, precisely because we cannot.

    Your argument employs a dubious analogy. If your neighbor is beating his wife, then of course you call the cops. And it follows that if, globally speaking, we are the cops, then we ought to intervene in the Sudan, and Sierra Leone, and all sorts of other places. But why, exactly, are we the cops? This is the linchpin of your argument, and you merely assert what you need to prove.


  8. 8 8. Eric Theler

    Aaron: Would you agree, based on the assertion of some in the Bush and Blair administrations that they have no intention of waging war next on Syria or Iran (2 countries who surely must be see as threats to U.S. security if Iraq is seen as a threat), that a crucial element of the decision to invade Iraq is the ability to easily defeat Iraq (or easily topple Saddam’s regime)?

    And, if so, considering you "don’t hold with the distinction between the moral and the practical", would you say that such considerations are prudent considerations–that they are practical?

    Certainly, the Soviet Union was seen as too strong to easily defeat in war and therefore it was more practical to confront the threat through other, less aggressive means. The same may be true with regard to other countries that now harbor and cultivate terror groups–they may be seen as less vulnerable than Iraq.

    So, would you say that war with Iraq is justified not only because Iraq poses a threat to U.S. security, but also because it is a threat that can be easily met with force with sufficient faith that U.S. military losses will be limited and acceptable?


  9. 9 9. Bill Kaplan

    I think you are all quite wrong.

    Foreign policy is a PORTFOLIO of problems. Just as with an investment portfolio, you can hedge by taking an action on a security that is not the security worrying you but on some other security that has a positive or negative correlation to that security.

    This view changes the debate to whether and what military action will be most beneficial to the portfolio, not whether a particular action is justified. I believe Grenada cannot be justified on either self-defense or humanitarian grounds. It was not a necessary military action in any sense of the word. Yet, it helped form a view of Ronald Reagan arround the world which helped lead to the fall of the Soviet Union. Grenada convinced leaders that Reagan was willing to use force, unlike Carter. Thus when Reagan considered using the military, whether he was bluffing or not, he was taken seriously.

    GENERALLY, self-defense or mitigation of wrong are components of justification. But only portfolio theory answers why we should or should not enter a war.


  10. 10 10. Frankenstein

    I’m just waiting for the administration to announce Operations Zimbabwean Freedom, Sudanese Freedom, Burmese Freedom, Chinese Freedom, North Korean Freedom and (speaking of a country with a military dictator and close ties to Islamic extremists) Pakistani Freedom.

    I mean, surely those peoples are just as deserving of freedom (if not more) than the Iraqis, right?


  11. 11 11. Will Duquette

    There were many cogent reasons for invading Iraq, although at any given time the administration might have pushed one or another more strongly. Indeed, one of the entertaining aspects of the attending media circus is watching the media claim that Bush and company are lying to us because they stated one reason yesterday and another today. Liberating the Iraqi people is simply one reason among many.

    But to address your question…suppose you become aware that your next-door neighbor is beating his wife and children. Daily. Into unconsciousness. Do you ignore this? Or do you try and make him stop? Suppose you speak to him, and it makes no difference…do you use force? (Calling the police is using force–in global terms, we are the police, for good or ill.)

    I’d argue that with global communications and easy international travel, the people of Iraq practically are our neighbors–as are the people of other repressive regimes around the world. It seems to me that the real objection to this conclusion isn’t that we aren’t morally obligated to help all of them out, but that practically speaking we can’t. National interest then becomes a natural tie-breaker.

    But while I accept that we can’t (at the moment, anyway) intervene to prevent the Muslim majority in Sudan from killing and enslaving the Christian minority, it doesn’t follow that I think we shouldn’t.


  12. 12 12. Will Duquette

    Aaron, you ask why we must be the policemen. To return to my analogy, why call the police instead of intervening yourself? Simply because in our society, it is the police who are licensed to use force. But suppose circumstances were such that the police could not respond, and you were in fact the only person in the vicinity with the strength to intervene–would you then sit and do nothing? Or suppose there were others who could, but who refused. Would you then sit and do nothing?

    I don’t see it as immoral to stand by in a case such as this if one is to weak to affect the outcome. But to turn your argument around, what if it indeed is practical to intervene–by your argument, then we should.


  13. 13 13. Alan Sullivan

    Only one troll so far…pretty high quality readership, Aaron.

    The portfolio notion comes closer to my thinking. It’s a mistake to compartmentalize. What we do in Iraq will have many repercussions.

    I believe that Bush (being an idealist) was really trying to save the U.N. from itself by pressing it to enforce its own sham edicts. I doubt that he expected the process to collapse as it did. It will be interesting to see if he bucks U.N. efforts to subvert the U.S. victory in the aftermath.


  14. 14 14. Jim Valliant

    Saying one has the moral "right" to invade country x is only to say that it is morally permissible in one respect, not all. There is no practical/moral dichotomy in the Objectivist position. As I said in the previous post, and as Rand herself said, the prudential concern is a PART of the moral question–there is no distinction between the pratical and the moral, ever. But, just as having a right to practice a strange religion is definitely a RIGHT but not necessarily the moral thing to do, so we have the RIGHT to invade any totalitarian state.

    But whether we find actual weapons is also beside the point–even when it comes to the issue of Iraq’s direct threat to the U.S. We know that the eventual goal of our enemy was acquire a variety of chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons. Whatever the state of his arsenals’ effectiveness, when found, it is merely additional circumstantial evidence that he was en route to their full development, a development which the U.N. could only inconvenience and postpone. That detour at the U.N, including the whole inspection process, served only to discredit that institution; it had nothing to do with the abiding necessity to take out Saddam.


  15. 15 15. Aaron Haspel

    Bill: Yes, there are interrelated interests. The first country we occupied in WWII was not Japan or Germany but Morocco. That said, I think Grenada was a silly idea and cannot support the notion that one ought to send the troops after some tinpot dictator to show one means business.

    Eric: I accept your caveat. I thought I was careful to point out that war is not the preferred or only means of dealing with a threat, but at least one other commenter took me the way you did.

    Will: Your argument appears to be that we should become the world’s policeman because we can. You still haven’t explained why Americans should die to solve other countries’ problems. Wife-beating obviously falls under the police’s rubric, and ethnic conflicts in Sierra Leone equally obviously do not fall under the military’s.

    Jim V: I agree that we don’t need to find anything in Iraq; we’ve already found plenty of nasty stuff in any case. I would buy your analogy to the right to practice religion if I thought that "rights" could be properly assigned to entities like countries, of which I’m not altogether sure.

    Alan: Having no trolls is what comes of culling one’s readers. It appears my project has been a success.


  16. 16 16. Michael Krantz

    >It’s possible that Bush really believes that one of our reasons for the war is to free the Iraqis, but I don’t think so.

    One point I haven’t seen made in this string is that "freeing the Iraqis" could well be one of the smartest actions America can take in pursuit of our own longterm security. Nihilistic groups like Al-Queda feed off failed totalitarian states like Baathist Iraq. Wolfowitz Domino Theory holds that freeing Iraq will hasten the spread of freedom elsewhere in the Middle East, thus reducing the ability of Islamo-fascist groups to scare up recruits. Hopefully he’s right, since his arguments won the day.

    At any rate, freeing the Iraqi people was surely one of the primary reasons Bush opted for war (unless one uncharitably chooses to count playing to his conservative base with an eye toward ’04). Let’s face it: Iraq did not pose an immediate security threat to the United States; if we really do have any persuasive evidence that Iraq has been actively involved with Al-Queda or any other international terrorists, the White House has chosen not to share it. No doubt they’ve been developing WMD and coould conceivably share them, but so coul any number of other states; as Aaron has pointed out to me before, terrorists will always be able to get their hands on terrible weapons. The war in Iraq, in my view (and that of many journalists from both the right and left who have been covering this administration) is about Wolfowitz doctrine. The Middle East is so dysfunctional that it simply must be changed, and for any number of reasons, Iraq is an ideal place to start.


  17. 17 17. Bill Kaplan

    Is it moral for the United States to initiate a war against a country which (a)is no direct threat to it (and harbors no such threat), and (b)is authoritarian, although not totalitarian, in nature because the president believes that starting such a war would chasten other, more nefarious countries?

    I believe the answer is yes. This is the point of the Grenada example, whatever you think of the skirmish itself. Certainly one should be more circumspect in such cases, but I would not deny the president the moral authority if he thought it in the US’s interest most broadly conceived.

    What say others?


  18. 18 18. Michael Krantz

    In re Grenada: was President Reagan’s primary purpose in invading Grenada really to "chasten other more nefarious countries?"

    Date of the Hezbollah bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241: October 23rd, 1983.

    Date of the U.S. invasion of Grenada: October 25th, 1983.

    Date Reagan withdrew all U.S. Marines from Beirut: February 14th, 1984.

    Hmmmm. The Grenada invasion couldn’t have had any "weapons of mass distraction" purpose, could it? Naaah.


  19. 19 19. Bill Kaplan

    Have you answered the question Mr. Krantz?


  20. 20 20. Michael Krantz

    You asked whether the U.S. has the right to invade another nation that poses no direct threat to us in order to chasten other states. I commented on your Grenada example in order to point out that on the rare occasion when we do invade a nation that poses no direct threat to us, one might do well to look for reasons other than making a diplomatic point.


  21. 21 21. Jim Valliant

    A country has "rights"–if rights define a morally permissible sphere of activities. Its "rights" are certainly different from a private individual’s "rights," and include things that might be forbidden to private individuals (e.g. the possession of nuclear weapons), but morality governs the State, too, and its permissible activities, if only by analogy, may be called moral "rights," so long as we make the careful distinctions, as I hope I did.


  22. 22 22. Jonathan Hebert

    The administration chose to justify war on the basis of security, using either poor or fabricated yet eloquently displayed evidence.

    This was a play on American’s (and perhaps the world’s) fears because we all know that in a "Democratic" state, or at least one in which the people’s voice can be heard, we must be sufficiently frightened before we send our loved ones off to die in a foreign country. They would not have been as excited about a war to ‘free’ Iraq. In fact, they would have probably asked a lot of questions about what ‘freeing Iraq’ really means.

    As the evidence supporting the logic that Iraq posed a threat, especially an immediate threat, was weak, the administration pissed on popular opinion (at the time) and waged war despite popular opinion against ‘unilateral’ or ‘Non-UN’ supported action. Thank god we rotate our internal military dictatorships every four to eight years.

    With our soldier’s fates determined, obvious popular support for our loved ones can be easily misunderstood as support for liberation for a people nobody cared about before mid-term elections.

    The primary reason for this knee-jerk liberation theory is that those who support war NEED justification, otherwise, the stupidity of bloodshed becomes too potent. If people truly believed that their loved one died (while murdering other human beings-some innocent) for the sake of statist power interests, their pride would be less flamboyant.

    The idea that the Iraqi people are going to be ‘liberated’ because we kill Saddam is naive, at best. The American public is licking the wounds of past failures with the pride of current delusions.

    There are more than a few new despots ready to take his place and the first one willing to sell American interests to the Iraqi people in an approved way is going to get the gauntlet. The administration is risking that this will take less than two years. By then, the public will have moved on to a new distraction anyway.

    We live in a representative republic and our decisions to wage wars of liberation should reflect that. This war has ended the regime of a horrible, and undeniably evil man, and in the process secured international power interests and subverted an already weak democratic culture at home.

    If you want liberation, start with ours. The rights we have gained weren’t secured by the American military. It was done through a combination of violent and non-violent civil disobedience, grassroots political organization, and popular subversion of state interests. A lesson the Iraqi people should have learned.

    I didn’t want another war where over 140,000 American casualties (if you consider those Gulf vets listed as disabled veterans upon return) are spent at the whim of American tyrants willing to spite our democratic institutions with propagandized mythologies in order to control policy and profit.

    Despite all this I concede that war might have been inevitable (and a liberation effort easily justified), but it should have been a conscious public’s decision based on accurate information of the costs and risks. We are Americans for Christ’s sake.

    You can’t just call a nation (ourselves or Iraq) democratic, it has to actually behave in a democratic way. We’ll see what the future holds…that is if we bother to pay attention this time around.


  23. 23 23. Aaron Haspel

    Jonathan: It is the Constitution, more than anything else, that protects our rights, which could only be adopted after our independence from Britain, which was secured by the American military. If you think the United States is an "internal military dictatorship" you ought to try living under a real one, like the one we just overthrew in Iraq, sometime.

    Actually the number of Gulf War Veterans claiming disability is even larger than you claim, but I can’t get too exercised when the chief disability "is impairment of the knee, followed by skeletal system disability, lumbar-sacral strain, arthritis due to trauma, scars, hearing loss, hypertension, inter-vertebral disc syndrome, tendinitis and osteoarthritis." Calling people who suffer from such ailments "casualties" slightly overstates the case.


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