Steve Sachs Duke


Friday, December 27, 2002


Robert Kagan's smear. Last Tuesday, the Washington Post carried an op-ed by Robert Kagan, a profoundly influential figure in American foreign policy. (His essay "Power and Weakness" is one of the most intriguing approaches to U.S.-European relations I've read in a long time.) Entitled "War and the Fickle Left" (link courtesy of Oxblog), the op-ed castigates noted liberal and Dissent co-editor Michael Walzer for flip-flopping on Iraq. In 1998, Walzer had defended the concept of preventative war to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction; today, however, he is counted among the doves, writing in The New Republic that "The administration's war is neither just nor necessary."

Kagan finds this "illogical about-face" to be unfortunately common among liberals, as those who once supported intervention in the former Yugoslavia now call Bush a warmonger. "What changed?" he asks. "Just the man in the White House." Liberal thinkers have sacrificed their "intellectual consistency" for "partisan passions," opposing war simply because their political enemies support it.

Kagan is right to point out that many of the arguments now marshaled against the use of force in Iraq have been used selectively. (Who knew that U.N. approval was so important during the campaign in Kosovo?) But Walzer is largely innocent of this charge. Rather than engaging the arguments directly, Kagan instead embarks on a gross misrepresentation of Walzer's recent views, presenting a handful of out-of-context quotes and ignoring the rest. As it turns out, Walzer's position isn't inconsistent: it's just more nuanced than Kagan would like to admit.

The argument of Walzer's 1998 piece is relatively clear, and Kagan's summary of it largely accurate. At the domestic level, where the state protects individuals' safety and monopolizes the use of force, "political conflicts can be fought to their conclusion with the guarantee that losing won't mean massacre or imprisonment." No similar guarantee holds at the international level, and individual states might sometimes need to defend themselves without waiting for a collective political decision in their favor. And when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, necessary self-defense might even include a preventive war.

Walzer draws an important distinction (to which Kagan is seemingly blind) between preemption and prevention. A preemptive war, in the terminology that he applies consistently throughout both articles, is a war to stop an imminent attack; preventative wars are designed to address more distant threats. Walzer admits that "in international law and morality, preventive wars have generally been ruled out." This is because the standard purpose of such a war was to prevent a shift in the balance of power, and many other options were available to the parties to avoid conflict. Late-nineteenth-century Britain may have viewed the rise of Germany with alarm, but a preventive attack would not have been justified so long as negotiations, security alliances, or rearmament were still reasonable deterrents.

Walzer's key point, made in both articles, is that weapons of mass destruction have the potential to collapse this distinction. The days of massing troops on the border are over; a chemical or nuclear arsenal would be built in secret and launched without warning, and any response would already be too late. While a war against Iraq may not be strictly preemptive--i.e., designed to prevent an attack next Tuesday--it may be the only way to stop the catastrophic use of deadly weapons. And although one "might well hope" for an international order that removes the danger of such weapons, no such order yet exists. "The refusal of a U.N. majority to act forcefully," Walzer concluded in 1998, "isn't a good reason for ruling out the use of force by any member state that can use it effectively."

Why, then, is the Walzer of 2002 uneasy about the march to war? Contra Kagan, it's not because he can't stand to endorse the policies of a Bush White House. Rather, it's because he sees the United States as having alternative options to conflict.

Let's start with some chronology. Walzer's recent article was published on Sept. 23. The U.N. resolution calling for a new round of inspections was passed on Nov. 8, roughly a month and a half later. At the time the article was published, the policy decision seemed to be between a unilateral adventure by the U.S., with the bombs to start falling at any moment, or an effort to work through the U.N. and create an effective inspections regime. Some say that a U.N. resolution was always Bush's goal, with the regular Cabinet-level outbursts all part of a carefully calibrated good-cop-bad-cop strategy. But in September, this was by no means clear--many thought that the U.S. would push ahead regardless of U.N. backing, and some, like Charles Krauthammer, seemed to look forward to the possibility.

Walzer did not. The article he wrote in September argues unambiguously for a strong inspections regime, which he alleges could succeed in disarming Iraq without the massive costs of a full-scale invasion. To Walzer, the restoration of inspections represents a realistic alternative to an immediate military campaign. When Israel preventively bombed an Iraqi reactor in 1981, it had few other tools for keeping nuclear weapons out of Hussein's hands; had it gone before the U.N. and called for an inspections regime, no one would have listened. But the U.S. of 2002 can make inspections work, Walzer says, and therefore it must. After all, Iraq is not so close to deploying a nuclear arsenal that we can't start bombing later should the inspections be frustrated.

All of this is perfectly compatible with the position Walzer took in 1998, when he endorsed unilateral action to bring the inspectors back. To Walzer, a war intended to stop Iraq from making deadly weapons is not justified so long as effective inspections are a real possibility. In order to make those inspections effective, however, the threat of war has to be on the table, and the U.S. would be justified in fighting that war unilaterally. Walzer makes no bones about the fact that inspections must be backed by "visible and overwhelming force." The right thing to do now, he says, "is to re-create the conditions that existed in the mid-'90s for fighting a just war"--hoping that Hussein will choose disarmament over suicide, but readying for war if he does not.

What Walzer is advocating is very much like the "coercive inspections" proposed by the Carnegie Endowment (PDF report) back in August--an idea that many people regarded as superior to an immediate military campaign. The Carnegie Endowment explained clearly the rationale behind a new inspections regime:

This paper proposes a third approach, a middle ground between an unacceptable status quo that allows Iraqi WMD programs to continue and the enormous costs and risks of an invasion. It proposes a new regime of coercive international inspections. A powerful, multinational military force, created by the UN Security Council, would enable UN and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection teams to carry out "comply or else" inspections. The "or else" is overthrow of the regime. The burden of choosing war is placed squarely on Saddam Hussein.

Although one central aspect of the report--the enforcement of the UN resolutions by a new international military force rather than by member states--has not been adopted, many of the Carnegie recommendations have since been incorporated directly into Bush administration rhetoric. How many times, for example, have we been told that the decision to go to war is Hussein's to make?

It's true that Walzer would rather avoid war if he could; so would we all. But in keeping with his 1998 argument, he also recognizes that sometimes fighting can only be prevented by the readiness to fight--something which too many European critics have forgotten:

I think it is fair to say that many influential Europeans, from both the political class and the intelligentsia, would prefer a unilateral American war to a European readiness to fight--even if, to misquote Shakespeare, "the readiness is all," and war itself could be avoided.

Such an attitude, Walzer writes, "suggests that they have lost all sense of themselves as independent and responsible actors in international society."

Though only three months have elapsed since its publication, Walzer's more recent TNR piece appears hopelessly dated. The inspections have already begun, and everyone recognizes a refusal to comply with their terms as the most likely trigger for military action. The war that Walzer describes as "neither just nor necessary" is a war fought in place of inspection requirements, rather than to enforce them. According to what appears to be the policy of the U.S. government, it is not the war we are now envisioning, nor is it the war that Kagan seeks to defend.

Honest people can disagree over whether even the toughest inspections regime can succeed in disarming Iraq; Walzer obviously believes it can. But he also believes that a weakened inspections regime will fail, and that the use of force, even unilateral force, may then become necessary. Walzer is crystal clear on this point, and Kagan presumably knows how to read. Describing Walzer's position as an "about-face"--and dismissing legitimate disagreement as mere partisan spin--is dangerously irresponsible, and unworthy of someone of Kagan's talents.

UPDATE: David Tannenbaum makes a similar argument in a letter to the Washington Post.




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