Friday, September 12, 2014

What is war?

I see that Sec. of State John Kerry is getting all kinds of push-back for suggesting the U.S. is not at war with ISIS. The truth is, that word has been bastardized for decades now. I'd suggest that it all started when we embraced the idea of a "Cold War" with the USSR. That gave us the cover for everything from "police actions" in Vietnam to covert military actions all over South and Central America. We pretty commonly refer to our excursion in Southeast Asia as the "Vietnam War." But we don't talk much about the war in Chile, or Guatemala, or El Salvador, etc. The concept of war was further bastardized when the Bush administration launched war on a tactic - the Global War on Terror. But of course, the precedent was laid with war on a commodity - our War on Drugs.

The term "war" carries a lot of weight legally. When Nixon secretly bombed Cambodia during the Vietnam War, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, which has been the subject of a lot of controversy.  But beyond that, there are international laws that govern the conduct of war that don't apply otherwise (i.e., detention of combatants).

I point all this out because in today's world it seems unlikely that we will ever be engaged in war as it was envisioned during global conflicts like World War II. That is a good thing. Referring to the international changes that occurred following the last great war, President Obama said this during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
In many ways, these efforts succeeded. Yes, terrible wars have been fought, and atrocities committed. But there has been no Third World War...The ideals of liberty and self-determination, equality and the rule of law have haltingly advanced. We are the heirs of the fortitude and foresight of generations past, and it is a legacy for which my own country is rightfully proud.

And yet, a decade into a new century, this old architecture is buckling under the weight of new threats. The world may no longer shudder at the prospect of war between two nuclear superpowers, but proliferation may increase the risk of catastrophe. Terrorism has long been a tactic, but modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale.

Moreover, wars between nations have increasingly given way to wars within nations. The resurgence of ethnic or sectarian conflicts; the growth of secessionist movements, insurgencies, and failed states -- all these things have increasingly trapped civilians in unending chaos. In today's wars, many more civilians are killed than soldiers; the seeds of future conflict are sown, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed, children scarred.
That is the face of "war" as we see it today. Most of the legal processes meant to govern the conduct of war - both national and international - are still mired in the past. Since the advent of the Cold War, that has given U.S. presidents a lot of leeway that has often been abused.

I believe that President Obama's speech on counterterrorism back in May 2013 was a call for us to examine much of that. As he said, "We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us." My concern is that we are running out of time for that to happen under the guidance of this president. And I'm not sure I'll trust the next one to take up the effort.

This is precisely why I've been so disappointed in liberals who continue to argue about many of these issues as if it was all about civil liberties. Its not and never has been. Its about war. A failure to recognize that has meant that a lot of liberals have abandoned this debate in favor of the non-interventionist libertarians. And so we see the possibility of a Clinton/Paul presidential contest with Rand Paul to the "left" of Hillary Clinton on foreign policy. That's just idiotic!

If we are going to have a debate about the meaning of war and if/when/where military actions are necessary, liberals need to engage that conversation on the basis of threats and conflicts as they exist today. What would an effective counterterrorism strategy look like? President Obama has suggested that it includes "targeted action against terrorists, effective partnerships, diplomatic engagement and assistance." Are "targeted actions against terrorists" necessary? Are they the equivalent of war? What national and international rules need to be applied to these kinds of actions?

These are all questions we avoided as long as the Bush administration declared a ridiculous "global war on terror" and lied us into invading Iraq. But in hindsight, what would have been the appropriate response to 9/11? And what should we do to prevent it from happening again?

Rand Paul and the libertarians don't have a satisfactory answer to these questions. If we want to challenge the remaining neocons (Republican or Democrat), we need one.

No comments:

Post a Comment