Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Wars of Aggression by Any Other Name

For centuries human civilization has been struggling to shift from rule-by-force ("law of the jungle") to rule by law. Those with power are always of course tempted to use it. But once the rule of law is overthrown—no matter how good the excuse--it is gone, and the door is open for everyone to follow the law of the jungle. The more the law of the jungle is followed, the more difficult it becomes for others to avoid responding in kind, creating a vicious cycle undermining civilization.

If anyone can be jailed without regard to legal safeguards, then everyone becomes a potential victim. If any country gains the right to launch "preemptive" or "preventive" wars, then every country has justification for attacking its neighbors at will...which means the neighbors, in self-defense, can only attack first. "Preventive" war means inevitable and permanent war. Rule by force and legitimization of preventive war together guarantee endless violence: precisely the outcome they are presumably designed to avoid.

If you have the right to attack me even when I am doing nothing to threaten you and indeed am not even capable of it—just because I might someday decide to seek the capability to do so and might someday still later decide to use that capability, then I clearly have no choice but to exert every effort to destroy you first. Indeed, I need to destroy you even if you have no intention of actually implementing a preventive war policy—simply because you believe preventive war to be acceptable! Who knows when you might change your mind? That is why "law of the jungle" and "civilization" are considered opposites.

Civilized societies are those that renounce the right to engage in preventive or preemptive wars. Civilized societies accept a set of constraints to live by because in compensation for the costs come benefits. Giving criminals legal safeguards means those safeguards will be there to protect you in case you are mistakenly arrested: the point is not to be nice to criminals but to differentiate between criminals and the innocent, as well as to match the punishment to the crime. Without the safeguards, who will ever know your arrest was a mistake?

One may of course advocate preventive war as an exception, "just this once," but who is to judge when to allow the arbitrary exception? Who is to say how this exception differs from all the cases of perceived insecurity elsewhere?

  • India and Pakistan have fought more wars since the sub-continent’s independence from Britain than most of us can count and nearly started the world’s first nuclear war five years ago. Who are we to say that the history of South Asia does not constitute an "exception" justifying preemptive aggression by either India or Pakistan?

  • Members of the Israeli elite have repeatedly called for a preemptive strike on non-nuclear Iran. Who are we to say that Israeli threats do not constitute an "exception" that would justify an Iranian "preemptive strike" in self-defense?

  • The U.S. has been threatening "regime change" in Iran and Syria for several years. Who are we to say that does not constitute "an exception" that would justify some sort of Iranian or Syrian asymmetric preventive strike against the U.S.?

I only see two answers:

1) declare "preventive war" illegitimate (akin to abolishing capital punishment), or

2) establish an international body (let’s call it a "united nations") with the authority to identify exceptions where preventive war is allowed (akin to the court system).

Preventive War is Addictive. Absent these safeguards, how could those with power not be tempted? Sharks exist, and even though more people are killed by bees than sharks, we are still afraid of sharks. So, shall we declare "preventive war" against sharks, to prevent the odd attack? After preventive war against the top of the food chain, who knows what changes will occur lower down, leading to new threats? And what about the bottom? After all, jellyfish can kill as fast as sharks – and the tiniest ones, which happen to be the most deadly, are much harder to see. So let’s put security first and declare preventive war against the whole food chain…Despite the illogical nature of preventive war, once deemed a morally acceptable principle, the temptation to use it for ever more distant and tenuous threats becomes hard to resist.

Preventive War as the "Solution" to All Problems. Therein lies the second problem with preventive war: one easily becomes tempted not only to view it as the solution to military threats but as the solution to other classes of difficulty. This tendency ("the law of the hammer") is especially the case for countries which are militarily supreme but quite inferior in other ways.
  • The repeated Israeli invasions of Lebanon over the last 30 years are an example. Each invasion was justified as an attempt to eliminate anti-Israeli violence, but each in fact exacerbated the conditions that caused it--anger at Israeli repression of Palestinians and the weakness of Lebanon’s government.

  • The establishment of huge, seemingly permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq and efforts at regime change against Iran that serve to establish U.S. control over oil those two countries would be only to happy to sell us are another example.

The law of the hammer: whether you want to drive a nail, saw a board, or open a window, if a hammer is the only tool you have, USE IT!

Preventive War Decreases Security. The third problem with preventive war is that all other governments will of course figure this out in a New York minute and conclude that they must come up with a way to address this new military threat. Once they realize that the leading military power will actually attack to compel their obedience, they will accelerate their own military development. The non-nuclear will consider becoming nuclear, and those that cannot will take a long look at the much cheaper biological or chemical alternatives. Failing that, they will search for creative ways of competing militarily. In short, adoption by a military power of a policy of preventive war or acceptance by the international system of preventive war as a legitimate foreign policy principle will stimulate the evolution of military strategy by the weak. It will end up decreasing our security.

The counterargument is that given a huge preponderance of military force, a superpower may be able to compel obedience from the world. This counterargument fails because power comes in many forms. A modern industrial power needs numerous things, many of which cannot be ensured by military force. American military supremacy cannot prevent other countries from gaining access to technology, cannot ensure against terrorism, cannot prevent cyber-warfare. In the words of Abdel Bari Atwan, Editor-in-Chief of the London newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi,

"The Oft-repeated Bush mantra that he is 'destroying the infrastructure of terrorism' is simply untrue when it comes to al Qaeda. It is not at all possible to carpet-bomnb al Qaeda's positions, or attack its soldiers, who develop their military skills and receive their instructions by sitting in fron of a PC and connecting to the Internet.
Security solutions alone will not eliminate al Qaeda because the success and survival of the network does not depend on individuals or even groups....The only way forward that I can see is for the US to acknowledge that armed action does not emanate from a void. Al Qaeda's is not mindless violence. It is military aggression with a set of objectives, and survives on a diet of popular sympathy, cover and human ammunition.
Support for groups like al Qaeda is born of political, social and economic circumstances that people find unacceptable."--The Secret History of al Qaeda, pp. 234-235

Indeed, precisely because of its advanced technology, the U.S. is particularly vulnerable to cyber-warfare, which can be carried out at negligible cost to the aggressor. The day is long past when a string of border forts can ensure peace in the land.

Preventive War Provokes Hostility. The fourth problem with preventive war is that the more a military power uses it, the greater the pressure on the part of everyone else to band together for survival. Bitter enemies will declare a truce. The response of the warlike Afghan clans to the Soviet invasion and the U.S.-Soviet alliance against Hitler are classic examples.

The Results of Preventive War are Unpredictable. Finally, preventive war presents a very subtle problem: the impact of preventive ware is unforeseeable because the international political system is a complex adaptive system (as is the natural food chain). Remove sharks or grizzlies and an incalculable cascade of changes flows throughout the whole system. Everything else adapts. The result may be much worse than the problem. War is not surgery, cutting out a bad part; war changes everything. When you are on top and change everything, the chances are you will end up worse off. The obvious example is the transformation of Iraq from a secular dictatorship into an out-of-control training ground for al Qua’ida and the source of a wave of messianic fundamentalism that is threatening the whole Mideast. The same criticism of course applies to war in general, but frequently war is the tool of a dissatisfied power demanding a better deal, and such an actor may at least hope that the gamble of war will provide hope of improvement in its situation. One's odds of making progress when one is already on top seem rather smaller.

When terrorists claim the right to kill indiscriminately is precisely when we should most strenuously defend the right to trial. When a global movement tries to foment religious or cultural war is precisely when we should most diligently strengthen the bonds of cross-cultural unity. When countries claim the right to launch "preventive" wars of aggression is precisely when we should most enthusiastically defend international law. The time when our liberties are under attack is precisely the time to strive to the utmost to protect those liberties—not just to protect ourselves but to protect the concept of liberty. It’s not the law of the jungle that protects liberty – it’s rules.

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