Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Afghan War is NOT a Just War

The Afghan War is NOT a Just War..

In his Nobel acceptance speech, President Obama once again showed himself for the intelligent, brave, and upstanding man he is. He boldly sets out to face the contradiction of receiving a peace prize while trying to bring the Iraq war to an end and escalating the war in Afghanistan. He refuses to plead that he inherited these wars and, instead, unflinchingly defends just wars, in general, and the Afghanistan war in particular as one such just war.

President Obama is keenly aware of the ambiguities in world politics – of having to wage war and kill in order to save lives and provide security, of having to use force in order to defend freedom. The president here points to a deep and frightening truth about human lives and human actors. We are all of us violent when it serves our self-interest, and that violence sometimes requires a violent response.

The president reaffirms that ambiguity over and over in his speech – until he comes to a description of the role our country has played in the world in the recent history. There he falls back on the rhetoric of the Bush years where we were always unambiguously good, and our opponents evil. There are no ambiguities in America's role in the world. According to Obama we are the champions of freedom and justice.

In his speech the president defends US military actions since World War II as helping “to underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of arms.” That is a surprising description of the years that saw us invade first Korea and then Vietnam, and then Grenada. None of these countries attacked us but they were considered a threat for being “communist” and therefore we attacked them.

By no stretch of the imagination has the United States always been on the side of justice and democracy. We instigated a military uprising against democratically elected President Allende in Chile and supported the military regime that killed hundreds of thousands of Chileans because the president they had elected was an avowed socialist. Fearful to the point of panic of anything that smacked of opposition to capitalism, we supported dictators who opposed communism and brought bloody wars to Korea and to Vietnam to prevent those countries from “going communist.” We have been comfortable with the absolute monarchs of Saudi Arabia and the autocratic regime in Egypt. For the longest time we supported the racist South African government that held Nelson Mandela in prison on Robbins Island.

It is not true that the United States has always been on the side of freedom. We have brought war and destruction to other countries motivated by our greed for oil, by fear of communism, and by the desire to open up countries to American investments.

President Obama insists on the relevance of moral judgment to international politics. I admire that. But the first requirement for justifying wars by reference to morality must be a very clear eyed appraisal of one's own choices in the international arena.. Self-deception is very tempting in the moral realm. But you cannot hope to do what is morally right in international affairs if you claim to be morally pure and innocent and condemn you opponents as morally evil. The first requirement for being serious about morality is an honest appraisal of your own actions.

President Obama calls the war in Afghanistan a just war. The first important mark of any just war is that it is a war of defense. The just warriors are defending themselves against unprovoked attacks. But are we the innocent victims in the struggle with terrorism?

Here we need to question the President's picture of the US foreign policy. The anger of many people in the Mid-East against America is not based on a total fantasy. We have made ourselves appear to be enemies of Muslims, of Arabs, of Persians and others in the region by supporting an authoritarian monarchy in Saudi Arabia and an authoritarian republic in Egypt, by supporting Saddam Hussein during the bloody Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s. For many years we supported a very repressive regime in Iran and undermined a democratic revolution there because it threatened Western access to Iran's oil. The invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein in1990 was given the green light by the US ambassador. We have been giving $3 billion a year to Israel and have pretty generally ignored the suffering of the Palestinians. In the Mid-East we have committed serious errors. We have have often pursued a narrowly self-interested policy and been disrespectful of the people of the region. We, too, are aggressors and cannot simply claim to have been innocently attacked.

It is not so clear that ours is a just war in Afghanistan. Yes, we have been attacked. But we have also attacked others, favored dictators and tyrants, and pursued our own national interests instead of seeking justice for all. For Obama to wrap his escalation of the Afghan war in the mantle of a just war of defense is remarkably dishonest for man of his integrity.