This was the perfect medium for changing the way most Americans thought about the nation’s founding acts. Lincoln does not argue law or history, as Daniel Webster did. He makes history. He does not come to present a theory, but to impose a symbol, one tested in experience and appealing to national values, with an emotional urgency entirely expressed in calm abstractions (fire in ice). He came to change the world, to effect an intellectual revolution. No other words could have done it. The miracle is that these words did. In his brief time before the crowd at Gettysburg he wove a spell that has not, yet, been broken–he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma.
–Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg
The address itself, delivered 150 years ago today.
I had been somewhat on the fence about a potential (likely?) U.S. military intervention in Syria, partly because I hadn’t been following it that closely. Over the past couple of days, I’ve been doing a bit of catch-up reading, and this post at Lawyers, Guns & Money helpfully summarizes my basic unease with what the Obama administration is proposing:
It’s not clear how this kind of attack strengthens the norm against using chemical weapons in any substantive way, and given that the response involves killing innocent people the burden of proof is on proponents to explain why this is something other than empty symbolism.
While I agree about the value of upholding the norm against the use of chemical weapons, the risks and potential downsides seem too serious and numerous to justify an attack. “When in doubt, don’t go to war” seems like a sensible principle, especially when the putative benefits are so speculative.
Here’s some other reading that I’ve found helpful:
Chris Hayes, “Here is where I stand“
Robert Howse and Ruti Teitel, “Why Attack Syria?“
Zack Beauchamp, “How Obama’s Nobel Prize Explains His Syria Policy“
Donna Hathaway and Scott Shapiro, “On Syria, a U.N. Vote Isn’t Optional“
The counter-terrorism policy outlined in the president’s speech today hardly describes my ideal approach, but most, if not all, of the changes he’s made or is proposing are steps in the right direction. These include
–continuing the reduction in the number of combat troops in Afghanistan,
–declassifying information on Americans killed in drone strikes,
–reviewing proposals for additional oversight of the targeted killing program,
–putting stronger protections in place against government overreach in investigating leaks,
–revising and ultimately repealing the authorization to use military force (AUMF), and
–closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and finding a way to deal with the detainees there that is more consistent with the rule of law.
In general, the president was describing a further shift away from the grand “global war on terror” paradigm that he inherited from the Bush administration, and toward treating terrorism as a more discrete, targeted problem. Citing America’s experience in the 80s and 90s, he suggested that terrorism can be dealt with in a more piecemeal fashion rather than as a broad existential struggle.
Needless to say, everything hinges on whether Obama makes good on these changes, and even if he does, there will still be plenty to criticize about the United States’ approach to counter-terrorism. (In particular, I’m still a skeptic of the targeted killing program, even with additional oversight.) But I do find it heartening that all these changes are in the direction of a less aggressive, more constrained approach.
Glenn Greenwald has an astute piece today on the 2001 authorization to use force that Congress passed in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. As he notes, the AUMF is currently being revisited, but largely for the purposes of expanding the executive’s authority to wage war.
Greenwald goes on to recount the, well, “criticism” would be putting it mildly, that Rep. Barbara Lee received as the lone vote against the AUMF in 2001.
To say that Lee was vilified for her warnings is a serious understatement. She was deluged with so many death threats that she was given around-the-clock police protection. The Washington Times printed an Op-Ed by Herbert Romerstein declaring that “Ms. Lee is a long-practicing supporter of America’s enemies – from Fidel Castro on down.” On NPR, Juan Williams compared her to Jerry Falwell and said they both “stand out in a nation where President Bush, who did not win the popular vote, now has the support of 82 percent of Americans.” National Review approvingly cited David Horowitz’s denunciation that “Barbara Lee is not an anti-war activist, she is an anti-American communist who supports America’s enemies and has actively collaborated with them in their war against America.” Michelle Malkin labelled her “treacherous” and also quoted Horowitz’s attack.
As it happens, Barbara Lee was my representative at that time–my wife and I were living in Berkeley, California, in 2001. And I, like most other Americans (though maybe not most Berkeleyites), disagreed with Rep. Lee’s vote against the AUMF. I even wrote to her office–a civil letter, I emphasize–criticizing her for her vote. In my mind, she was standing against bringing the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice.
I got off the “war on terror” bandwagon once it became clear that the Bush administration intended to expand it to Iraq, some time in 2002. And in retrospect, Rep. Lee seems a lot more prescient than her colleagues in foreseeing the consequences of giving the executive branch a blank check to wage war. (I wrote a blog post to this effect a few years back.)
I don’t know if it would’ve ultimately made any difference if the AUMF hadn’t passed, or if it had passed in a different form. Would that have prevented the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? It seems unlikely to me given the confluence of the public’s (justified) anger over 9/11 and the preexisting foreign policy designs of key players in the Bush administration.
But if nothing else, Barbara Lee’s example highlights how readily Congress has abdicated its role in overseeing the conduct of foreign policy in the post-9/11 era. (Of course, the roots of this problem go back much further.) We need more Barbara Lees–people who are willing to question the rush to war and our willingness to hand over power to the president in the name of “keeping us safe.”
One of my worries about J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement was that I didn’t think a determined critic would be persuaded by his case for seeing God as essentially nonviolent. He offers some suggestive interpretations of various New Testament passages, but there’s no developed theology of the divine nature or an overarching argument for how his nonviolent understanding of God fits with the Bible as a whole.
In light of that, I’m excited to see that Weaver’s next book, The Nonviolent God, looks like it will tackle just this issue:
This bold new statement on the nonviolence of God challenges long-standing assumptions of divine violence in theology, the violent God pictured in the Old Testament, and the supposed violence of God in Revelation. In The Nonviolent God J. Denny Weaver argues that since God is revealed in Jesus, the nonviolence of Jesus most truly reflects the character of God.
According to Weaver, the way Christians live — Christian ethics — is an ongoing expression of theology. Consequently, he suggests positive images of the reign of God made visible in the narrative of Jesus — nonviolent practice, forgiveness and restorative justice, issues of racism and sexism, and more — in order that Christians might live more peacefully.
I’m not a fully convinced pacifist, but I am convinced that the relationship between God, violence, and Christian ethics is hugely important–and that those of us in the mainline traditions have a lot to learn from “peace church” perspectives. So I’m looking forward to reading this book (which, alas, isn’t scheduled to be published till November).
Whatever you think of Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster of John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to head the C.I.A., one thing it doesn’t seem to have accomplished is to get people to focus on the president’s authority to kill people he designates as threats. This, rather than the use of “drones” per se, is the real issue–the one that needs serious debate and critical examination. Drones are just one means by which the president can order people on the “kill-list” to be dispatched. From a rule-of-law or civil-liberties perspective, it’s irrelevant if he uses a drone–rather than a missile, or a ninja, or whatever–to do this.
Confusion on this point allows defenders of so-called targeted killing to pose as humanitarians. They point out, not without justification, that unmanned drones can be more precise and kill fewer bystanders than other forms of aerial warfare. But this point–while not unimportant–obscures the issue that clear-headed critics of the program have been harping on. That issue is ordering the killing of people–whether U.S. citizens or not–without anything resembling due process as traditionally understood, and with a great deal of secrecy and with little by way of transparency or accountability. This power, rather than the use of a particular technology, is what should really worry us and is what we need to be debating.
Arni Zachariassen has a good post responding to Jack Hunter’s article at The American Conservative on why pro-lifers should oppose drone strikes. Arni points out that drones are more precise and kill fewer innocent people than conventional war, so unless you’re a pacifist, simply opposing drones on “pro-life” grounds doesn’t wash. If, on the other hand, you think that the use of lethal force is sometimes justified in self-defense, it’s hard to see why the use of drones is categorically wrong.
I think getting clear on this is helpful because focusing on the drones as such tends to distract from bigger institutional problems with the program. Chief among these in my mind are the lack of transparency and accountability inherent in the process used to decide who’s going to be on the business end of a drone. The fact that the targets on the “kill list” are dispatched by drones is less morally troubling than the list itself. Moreover, as National Review‘s (!) Ramesh Ponnuru argued yesterday, it’s far from clear to what extent drone strikes are killing civilians, and the secrecy of the program makes it difficult, if not impossible, to make an informed moral judgment.
More broadly, as C.K. MacLeod recently reminded us, the drone war is rooted in the 2001 authorization to use military force, which effectively gave the president (whoever he or she happens to be) a blank cheque to use any means at his or her disposal to pursue al-Qaeda and any other terrorist groups. This incredibly broad authority makes something like the kill-list/drone program virtually inevitable and is part and parcel of the ongoing militarization of America.
Reversing this trend would be a much bigger task than eliminating a particular technology. Our reliance on military means to solve problems is far more pervasive and entrenched than that. And it’s not going to change any time soon, no matter who wins today’s election.
Luban hones in on some of the thornier issues surrounding the targeted killing program: distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants, the question of proportionality, and whether “the decision-making process is based on a genuinely skeptical, probing structure, with a heavy burden of proof on those proposing a killing and an institutionalized ‘devil’s advocate’ to argue against each and every deadly ‘nomination.’” Despite recent reports in the New York Times and elsewhere, “the process still remains essentially shrouded in fog.”
Assuming that it’s permissible to use force in self-defense, Luban says, “targeted killings” aren’t necessarily immoral per se. “If anything, targeted killing is better than untargeted killing, which the laws of war call ‘indiscriminate’ and a war crime.”
Among this welter of arguments about targeted killing, the genuine issues of principle are whether self-defense requires it and proportionality permits it. The question of where the zone of combat ends and civilian rules begin is important, but it is a question of line-drawing, not of moral principle. If self-defense is a just cause of war, and if killing is necessary for self-defense (a big if), then targeted killing is permissible–provided that it targets only enemy fighters, keeps civilian casualties low, and actually does more good than harm in defending ourselves.
But this last one is a “far from a settled question,” Luban says, because the drone war may be creating more terrorists than it kills due to, for example, the radicalizing of Yemenis angered by the drone attacks. Add to this worries about the “opacity and unaccountability” of the program, and it’s far from clear that it is, on balance, a good idea.
This post by Kelley Vlahos at The American Conservative looks at attempts to assess the number of civilians killed by U.S. “drones” in Pakistan and Yemen. She notes that the Obama administration has not exactly been forthcoming with estimates of the number of civilians killed–either because they aren’t tracking it or aren’t willing to make the assessments public. We’ve also been informed recently by the New York Times, that the administration may have a somewhat unorthodox method for deciding who counts as a “civilian.” (According to Vlahos, a watchdog group, the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, has estimated about 200 civilian casualties.)
This official reticence isn’t new. Although our leaders frequently tout our military’s efforts to minimize “collateral damage,” the U.S. military has long refused to offer body counts of civilian casualties from its wars (see, e.g., this article on efforts to get the Pentagon to release an estimate of civilians killed in the Iraq war). But this raises anew a question I’ve had for a long time: if we don’t know how many civilians have been killed in a particular war, how can we know whether the war is just?
To offer some context, most versions of what is usually referred to as “just war” theory (which is not really a single theory, but a family of theories) contain a principle of non-combatant immunity. This doesn’t mean that non-combatants* can never be killed, but that they may never be directly targeted. It’s only permissible, according to this principle, for non-combatants to be killed when this is an unavoidable side-effect of attacking a legitimate military target. Or, to put it another way, the principle forbids inflicting harm on non-combatants as an end in itself or as a means to another end.
However, this principle is qualified by another principle: the principle of proportionality. The non-combatant immunity principle doesn’t provide a blank check for inflicting harm on non-combatants so long as you’re not intentionally targeting them. It’s constrained by the principle of proportionality, which says that the good effect one aims to achieve must outweigh, or be greater than, the damage to noncombatants that one foresees, but does not intend. Moreover, the principle requires that there not be another available option that would achieve the same benefit with less collateral damage.
So, to summarize, collateral damage (i.e., harm or killing of non-combatants) can be permissible only if (1) it is an unintended (though possibly foreseen) side-effect of attacking a legitimate target and (2) the good to be achieved outweighs the evil of the collateral damage.
What seems to follow from this, however, is that, in order to know whether these conditions have been met, one would have to know, at least with some degree of accuracy, what the extent of the “collateral damage” was. Otherwise, how can we assess whether the good achieved outweighed the bad of the harm to non-combatants? (This assumes that the first condition is met: that non-combatants were not directly targeted; if that isn’t the case, then no amount of proportionate good can “make up” for the violation of the immunity principle, at least according to most versions of JWT.**)
And there’s the rub: if our government isn’t tracking the number of civilian deaths in a particular war, then they can’t know whether conditions (1) and (2) have been met. Or, alternatively, if they do know and they’re just not telling us, then we aren’t in a position to know whether they’ve been met. But without that knowledge, it’s hard to see how we can be assured that the war is being carried out according to widely recognized principles of just war.
*There are legitimate debates about who exactly counts as a non-combatant (e.g., suppliers of weapons), but wherever we end up drawing the line, there are clearly some groups that fall on the “non-combatant” side (e.g., children).
**The first principle acts a kind of deontological constraint on the conduct of war, while the second more closely resembles a consequentialist principle. So a pure consequentialist would likely reject (1) as absolutely binding (Michael Walzer, a noted theorist of just war, rejects (1) for cases of what he calls “supreme emergencies”).
Even though I argued in my previous post that liberals are under no particular obligation to support Ron Paul (e.g., vote for him), I do agree with those who say that he is raising important issues and has a perspective that needs to be heard, particularly with respect to foreign policy.
In a recent post at his new Atlantic blog, Robert Wright does a good job of articulating this perspective. What Paul is doing, Wright argues, is expanding our “moral imagination” by inviting us to look at U.S. foreign policy through the eyes of those whom it affects:
It’s certainly true that Paul’s hawkish critics are using his weirder ideas and checkered past to try and make non-interventionism synonymous with creepiness. But, whatever their success, Paul is making one contribution to the foreign policy debate that could have enduring value.
It doesn’t lie in the substance of his foreign policy views (which I’m largely but not wholly in sympathy with) but in the way he explains them. Paul routinely performs a simple thought experiment: He tries to imagine how the world looks to people other than Americans.
Wright cites this impressive pro-Paul campaign ad that explicitly draws an analogy between our occupation of foreign countries and an imagined Chinese occupation of Texas:
I’ve long thought that the biggest single problem in the world is the failure of “moral imagination”–the inability or unwillingness of people to see things from the perspective of people in circumstances different from their own. Especially incendiary is the failure to extend moral imagination across national, religious, or ethnic borders.
If a lack of moral imagination is indeed the core problem with America’s foreign policy, and Ron Paul is unique among presidential candidates in trying to fight it, I think you have to say he’s doing something great, notwithstanding the many non-great and opposite-of-great things about him (and notwithstanding the fact that he has in the past failed to extend moral imagination across all possible borders).
I think this is right, and I think this is why some liberal critics of Paul are wrong when they reduce his foreign-policy views to nothing more than a selfish, “leave-me-alone”-style libertarianism. One can disagree with Paul’s views on, say, foreign aid (not to mention much of his domestic agenda) and still appreciate the basic point that American foreign policy-makers (and the public) too often fail to exercise the moral imagination Wright is talking about.
In fact, a similar argument has been made often by Noam Chomsky–someone whose political views otherwise have very little in common with Ron Paul’s. Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out that justifications of U.S. policy often appeal to a double standard which makes it okay for us to do things to others that we would never tolerate being done to us. Here’s a recent version of the argument where Chomsky points out how the interests and voices of parties who object to U.S. (and Western actions more broadly) on the international are routinely ignored, rendering them “unpeople.” The double standard is that some people’s voices count (usually power players in business and government), while others’ (e.g., those of the people without power–who often end up on the receiving end of our military actions) don’t. Chomsky’s “radicalism” often consists of nothing more than trying to apply the same principles to U.S. policy that we would apply to others.
It’s arguable that what moral progress the human species has enjoyed has largely happened when the majority, or those with power, have been persuaded (or in many cases forced) to look at the world through the eyes of the minority, or of those who have been oppressed or victimized. In Robert Wright’s terms, this is expanding our moral imagination; in Christian terms, it’s learning to treat others as we would want to be treated. Especially when it comes to foreign policy, “American exceptionalism” all too often means refusing to see ourselves as others might see us. To the extent that Ron Paul makes people aware of this, he’s doing us a service.