Thursday, February 13, 2003

trans-bloggerism, question 2

Just before I get to answering the second question in the Cross-Blog Debate from the pro-war crowd, a quick reference to N.Z. Bear's commentary on the "meta-debate". Bear is responding to a concern that the pro-war questions were more "loaded" than the anti-war side. In many ways, the "loadedness" of the questions was to be anticipated, and insofar as it reveals something of either side's base assumptions, I tend to agree with Bear that it's not the worst thing imaginable.

On the other hand, as others point out, "loadedness" inhibits debate and people's faith in the honesty of their opponents. Though, like Bear, I didn't attempt to eliminate loadedness entirely, I certainly tried to tone it down as much as I could get away with -- perhaps more than Bear did (bringing howls from a couple of the more extreme posters on Stand Down) -- and the result appears to have been questions that more people have an interest in responding to. This may well end up proving a point that many who are anti-war take for granted: that the pro-war side is inherently less interested in honest debate, which gives them a propaganda advantage. (Indeed, many anti-war posters just seem to view the pro-war questions as not worth a response right now, though there's more than half the week still to go before we do the roundup.)

I take a different view. Part of this, for me at least, is a learning process. Though it's fairly clear to me what motivates the Bush Administration, it's less clear to me what motivates its support base, particularly in the States. Certainly the usual collection of armchair warriors, bigots, jingoists and repugnant violence enthusiasts is there, but what's motivating the more intelligent sectors of pro-war sentiment is less clear and, I suspect, not at all unified. Added to which, more honest debate will be effective at smoking out ignorance and dishonesty and revealing them starkly for what they are, so the assumptions driving the less informed sectors of the pro-war camp will be laid bare (or should that be "laid bear") by this exercise. That's worthwhile even if (perhaps especially if) certain events and invasions overtake us.

So, enough meta-debate, and on to question two. The answer to this one is shorter.

2. Is there any circumstance that you can conceive of where the United States would be justified in using military force without the support of the UN Security Council --- or does the UN always have a veto against US military action for whatever reason?

As we all know -- or rather, as anyone commenting on the UN should take the trouble to find out -- Article 51 of the charter guarantees the right of self-defense to member states on the very well-founded logic that self-defense is the only reasonable rationale for war. The real question comes in, of course, when you start trying to define what "self-defense" is.

A militaristic definition of "self-defense" is very broad. In the Bush Administration's parlance, it has become sufficiently broad to include defending not against actual, imminent threats (Iraq poses none), but also against potential threats -- that Iraq might someday hand off such-and-such weapon to such-and-such terrorist group which it might be connected with even if there's no solid evidence of this who might then use it against America, or Britain, or Frane, or maybe even Canada. Of course, potential threats are, by their nature, speculative. There's no way of knowing if they'll come to pass. A situation where waging war on spec becomes normal thus really solidifies only one potential threat, namely the danger of people using military force to self-defensively pre-empt "threats" that are entirely nonexistent and/or unrealistic. Or worse, pretending certain peoples or states constitute "threats" by their mere existence. That approach not only unjustly terminates lots and lots of lives -- and, you know, that's kind of important, because people really hate you when you do that, especially on flimsy pretexts -- it also generates new and unpredictable threats.

In terms of the ethical consensus that emerged after Nuremberg, broad definitions of self-defense are untenable and lead to wars of aggression, which (being what wars are) are illegal, immoral and yes, evil. That consensus wasn't reached by happy aliens from Star Trek, but by people who had directly experienced the horrors of war and knew that tens of millions of people had just learned this lesson the hard way. So, I reject broad definitions of "self-defense" and prefer to confine it to a case of immediate threat to oneself or one's allies.

Of course, there are those on both sides who would like to dismiss the UN as a useless organization -- variously because it's a figleaf for American imperial ambitions or because it's a talking-shop full of European obstructionists. I think the UN is as strong, and as useful, as is the commitment of the greatest powers of the day to making it work. We've seen glimpses in it of the organization it could have been: namely a strong voice for (less often an implementer of) the consensus of international law, which is simply the best tool we have by which to assess the behaviour of states. We've also seen it hang immobilized between the vetoes of superpowers, or issuing only muted condemnations of profoundly destabilizing policies, or (as currently) bullied and browbeaten into ratifying wars as legitimate that plainly contradict its charter.

When the powers that be are overtaken by cliques who hate and fear international law and what it represents, organizations like the UN are pretty much doomed to follow the very path that destroyed the credibility of the League of Nations previously. For that reason, I'm not confident in the future of the UN as it stands. But its fate will fail to eliminate the obvious advantages of having a strong international organization that can legitimate power and provide ways, other than wars between random coalitions of opportunists, for states to vent their grievances. Something like it will always be necessary for stabilizing the international order.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

trans-bloggerism, question 1

I'll be taking the pro-war questions from the Cross-Blog Debate one at a time. First up:

1. If you were President of the United States, what would be your policy toward Iraq over the next year? What advantages and disadvantages do you see in your proposed policies versus the current path being pursued by the Bush administration?

I take it we’re assuming with this question that I’m stuck with all the actions of the Bush Administration to this point. In which case, to put it rather bluntly, I’ve talked myself into a corner and now have to deliver some kind of credible “regime change” or look like an utter fool not only to my critics, but also to my own power base.

The most realistic option open to me given that: I let the UN inspections proceed. More precisely, I let them go ahead and roam across the Iraqi countryside, crowing with triumph over every decayed stockpile and cluster of huts (sorry, “poison and explosives factory” -- it's a "term of art," see) they find. I then publicly pat myself on the back for having averted a nuclear or “WMD” buildup – it doesn’t matter if said buildup ever had any serious chance of getting off the ground – and I tell the world that my military buildup was a politically ingenious way of getting Saddam’s regime to “change” and enforcing UN resolutions.

- I get to portray myself as a political and/or military genius. The US media will be more than happy to comply, for the most part, since the regime will have “changed”: Andrew Sullivan will declare he knew this was my plan all along; Jim Lileks will crow over how I’ve stuck it once again to those bad old Europeans who thought I was a rude and simple cowboy; general (if somewhat muted) orgasm from most of the WarPundits. The rest of the world will chuckle, but very quietly under their much louder sighs of relief.

- My allies get to save face and return to their accustomed position of more or less supporting US policy, and I can rebuild damaged relationships with them.

- I’m freed up to deal with more urgent regional problems from the American credibility, security and reputation standpoint (the Israel-Palestine conflict) and the anti-terrorism standpoint (Saudi Arabia), and to try to step down the tension on the Korean peninsula.

- I’m freed up to quietly move my own country’s Iraq policy into actual compliance with the cease-fire agreement, so that I really have the moral high ground in future when complaining about Saddam’s violations of same.

- Major advantage: A lot of people are still alive in Iraq whom I would otherwise have incinerated with Operation Shock and Awe. This means future generations don’t regard me as an aggressor and mass murderer.

- This option is a bit past its sell-by date now that I’ve spent so much time tilting at erstwhile allies, talking tough, rattling sabres at every possible excuse and doing everything I could to sabotage and undermine the inspections. Some of my more rabid current backers – people who have seriously proclaimed that France and Germany are now no longer part of the “free world” because they dared oppose me – are likely to turn on me. Fortunately, the “memory hole” should take care of that minor difficulty in the US pretty quickly, so it’s not too debilitating.

- Major disadvantage: Saddam Hussein is still in power in Iraq, which sucks. Fortunately, he’s fairly toothless as a threat; that’s why I picked on him in the first place. And let’s face it, none of the candidates to replace him are exactly prizes themselves (behind door number 1, a Baathist general! door number 2, a Shiite radical! door number 3, a playboy con man with a life expectancy of about two years!) – so at least I’m not taking the real risk of worsening the situation there or directly installing more of the same.

Sunday, February 09, 2003

time to party like it's 1984
I'd rant at greater length, but The Sideshow already has a good commentary up on the astonishing cowardice and complacency that's the order of the day over Patriot Act II. Things get ever-more-surreal south of the border.