Monday, July 17, 2006

Against the War On Terror

Here's something to chew on.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Friday Review: The Antiwar Position Revisited

The raison d’etre of the war on terror is that it makes us safer. Security, however, is never an end in itself, it is only worthwhile as a means to other ends. We can only measure different security arguments against these ends. For instance, we know that in domestic politics, security is supposed to be a means to liberty, or living a free life. Since demands for security can have authoritarian consequences, we do not accept all of them, and we are, or at least should be, critical of them. We expect there to be some criteria by which we distinguish between real and unreal threats, and between policies that sacrifice too much liberty to security.

The problem with the war on terror, is that it makes security an end in itself. It doesn’t even admit of external principles against which we can distinguish rational and irrational demands. Any act that makes us feel safer is presumed to be justified. Logically speaking, an enemy does not even have to exist. All that has to exist is a perception of threat for a security demand to be seen as valid. This eliminates any rational grounds for criticism because the only standard left is not the materiality of the threat, or the value of security in relation to other principles, but simply our, or really our politicians’, feelings. So in the domestic sphere, we are asked to trade whatever liberty is necessary to make us safe, rather than recognize that some demands for security are unjustified or unnecessary because they have no rational purpose – they do not actually make us safer.

Within our own society, we at least recognize an alternative principle – liberty – against which to measure and criticize different demands for security. But when it comes to international relations it is unclear what the analogous principles are. It is that the antiwar position has failed to come up with an adequately powerful set of arguments. As we have written here before, it is insufficient and potentially problematic to be merely against the war in Iraq, but not against the war on terror. One reason is that the focus on the war on Iraq has lead to an overemphasis on problems that appear specific to that war, and therefore failed to develop properly principled positions. Much of the opposition has focused on the dishonesty, venality, and criminality of the war. Even as criticisms of the Iraq War, these arguments are insufficient:

Lies: It is true that Bush lied, but had he not lied the war still would have been wrong. Even if Saddam had possessed large stocks of biological and chemical weapons, and even if he
had been seeking nuclear weapons, he would not have posed anything like an immediate threat to the United States. This was the leader of an incredibly weak country, ravaged by ten years of sanctions, and unable even to mobilize his soldiers for symbolic military exercises, let alone some kind of attack on the United States.

Corruption: It is also true that there is all kinds of venal, war-profiteering amongst Bush's corporate friends. But this, too, would not be an argument against the war if the war had been necessary.

Illegality: Likewise, it is true that the war was illegal. But calling into question the legality of the war, on its own, does not challenge the important political questions: was Saddam a threat, was this war necessary, and when is it appropriate to violate the sovereignty of another nation?

The fundamental problem with this war was that it was the unjustified violation of Iraqi sovereignty.

Nor is this a matter of Iraq alone. The deeper problem with just critiquing the Iraq War is that the overarching war on terror is left unaddressed. The war on terror is presupposed as a background to the debate, rather than brought to the fore as the central issue for us to discuss. Yet it is relevant even for the Iraq War. Why were people so willing to believe that Saddam was a threat given that he clearly was not? It is not so much that the public was manipulated, but that the Iraq debate was and is deeply interwoven with the war on terror itself. This means that all debate takes place in a climate of fear, in which to challenge any particular claim - like Saddam is a threat - is also to challenge the underlying premise that even the most remote and undefined threats must be assailed 'pre-emptively'.

Here is where a critique of the war on terror is simply unavoidable, and where the need for a set of political principles for assessing global affairs is necessary. Having mainly substituted cynicism for criticism, the antiwar position has left us sorely lacking. When considering just the international dimensions of the war on terror, the alternative principles, against which we can measure security demands, are self-determination and sovereignty. The defense of self-determination abroad derives from the same commitment to freedom and democracy at home. Every nation is capable of becoming a democratic society, but only if it is allowed to determine for itself the shape of its own institutions. Only in this way do their institutions become expressions of their own, collective will. Democratic liberties are only won when they are seized by the people themselves. But for this process of self-determination to take place, then the sovereignty, or territorial integrity and political independence, of these nations must be respected. Sovereignty is instrumental to self-determination. Non-intervention must be the norm. (Of course, the erosion of sovereignty did not begin with Bush).

If sovereignty is the norm, then that means powerful nations, like the United States, cannot invade or otherwise intervene in the affairs of others states whenever it feels worried, or has a hunch about some potential security threat. The threat must be imminent, real and over-powering. Security as a reason for war is only potentially justified when it is in self-defense because survival is a precondition for self-determination: a society cannot determine its fate if it is about to be invaded and destroyed, as the Iraqis and Afghanis now well know. That there is some possibility, some 'unknown unknowns' in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, is not a good reason for war. Iraqi sovereignty should not have been violated. Wars whose justification is simply that some other state *might* someday be threatening, or *might* have some weapons, is simply an invitation for powerful states to act on whatever hunch it might have, with no rational limitations on its actions. It is a prescription for permanent war. If we accept sovereignty as a norm, and self-determination as the principle we are aiming at, then we at least possess a rational standard for assessing, and criticizing, various justifications for war. Having a 'bad feeling about things' is not enough.

Finally, as we have mentioned before, a defense of self-determination and sovereignty is not merely important for what happens internationally and in other countries. By rejecting the idea that the state can go to war to address even the most unfounded and speculative of fears, we also impose restraints on our own government. That is to say, we defend our own process of self-determination, by rejecting our government's attempt to impose a permanent state of war and suspend domestic politics. In this way, by defending sovereignty we allow other nations to retain some of their own political autonomy, and we recover some of our own democratic agency. We must develop the principles that allow us to break free from the politics of fear, suspicion, and irrational conjecture.


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