Tuesday, September 2, 2014


The Decision to Go to War


How does one decide to start a war?
The reasons we are given for bombing Iraq are of two sorts: there are humanitarian considerations to protect civilians against an armed force that appears to be particularly brutal. There is also the goal of protecting Americans connected with the embassy in Erbil as well as American soldiers sent over recently in order to train units of the Iraqi military. In the background is the hope that dropping bombs today will promote peace tomorrow.
A little thought makes clear that neither of these reasons are complete. We do not drop bombs wherever civilian populations are threatened with death and destruction. No one suggested that we bomb the Israeli military in its recent massive destruction of Gaza that caused many civilian casualties. Nor have we considered dropping bombs in Nigeria to protect civilians against Boko Haram. Very brutal militias have been active in other parts of Africa but no one suggested that we send planes and drones to protect civilians. We have not, as far as I know, weighed the advantages and disadvantages of dropping bombs on violent criminal drug gangs in Mexico. The threat to civilians alone does not suffice for us to call out drones and fighter planes.
What is the prospect of promoting peace by bombing ISIS?
In Europe, when Adolf Hitler began to re-arm Germany in 1933, it might well have been the better part of valor for the allies to insist that Germany continue to conform to the Treaty of Versailles that had ended World War I and which demanded that Germany not rebuild its military. Even if, at the time, it had required some military action, that might well have saved millions of lives and billions of dollars and millions and millions of survivors who never quite recovered from the years of suffering through World War II.
At times preemptive military strikes seem advisable.
Is this one of those situations? That is extremely hard to tell for several reasons. There are some parts of the world where we understand why people act and why they fight. Conflicts in Europe are understandable for us because we share a culture. We think more or less the same way about conflicts, about violence.
In Vietnam, on the other hand, we dealt with people whose view of their lives and of the world is very different from ours. The same was most likely true in Korea. And it is certainly true in the Middle East. Most of us do not really understand how the world looks like to people in Iraq. Loosing those wars may well have been connected with our ignorance of the cultures we were fighting against.
The President has the advantage of advice from people who know the Middle East. But does he truly understand the events there?
Do we have a ghost of a chance of being able to bring peace to the Mid-East all by ourselves? A number of experts warn against going it alone and, instead, urge the President to work closely with Iran, and with Saudi Arabia, to build coalitions against the ISIS militias.
The reasons given for the current bombing campaign in Iraq are unconvincing. Neither the desire to protect civilians nor to bring peace to the region seem convincing reasons for resuming bombing Iraq.
Could there be other reasons we do not know about?
In this situation a terrible suspicion springs up: For all we know, men and women in Iraq are being killed in order to improve the Democrats' electoral prospects this fall. The Republican Party could have a field day if the President did not “act decisively” in the current crisis.
Is the President “bombing for votes?”
If that were true, could we live with ourselves? Could he?