Apr 062003

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.)