A question of International Relations
April 20, 2003

RANT #186: Society & Politics
Summary: Justifications for war: real and pretended
Full Text:

    As is to be expected, extensive propaganda campaigns in the United States have skillfully hidden away the real issues and points of contention brought up by the recent (and almost resolved) war in Iraq. As the prospect of conflict with other Arab nations (Syria, Iran) looms, this deception is sure to repeat itself, as it has ,almost unexceptionally, in the past.
    'So, smart guy, what are the real points of contention about?', you ask. Fair question. Here is what I think:

  The issue, though it's been presented this way, isn't between choosing good or evil, as settling this doesn't even require a moment's thought. The issue is between two competing and mutually exclusive political philosophies: so-called 'realism', and a sort of diplomatic 'cosmopolitanism'.

   To give you an idea of what realism is, past advocates include people like Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Kissinger. The idea is that talking about what's right and wrong in the political sphere is nice and all, but the fact is: politics don't work that way. It's dog eat dog out there, and unless you've got some institution with a stick over your head telling you not to steal from your neighbour, you're going to do it.
    That's what this, and pretty much all recent wars fought by the US have been about. American leaders realize that, on the international scene, there's no one holding that stick, and so they figure it's up to them to do it. Better they, defenders of their imperialist ambitions say, than, say, the Chinese. Pax Americana, the argument goes, is the best we can hope for. If a large number of third world civilians get shot up in the process, and democracy often has to take a back seat, that's a relatively small price to pay for international stability and security.
    But this is a much harder policy to sell to people than is one of being defenders of justice, freedom, human rights, etc. That's why the US needs extensive propaganda campaigns every time they want to go to war (and if you think mainstream american news is objective, look at CNN or CNBC or FOX or the NYT or any ohter major US media source, and then look at the rest of the world's media).
    On the other side of the table is something like cosmopolitanism. Here, we're all members of the world community, and as such, we should treat each other with equal respect and dignity -   Americans, Iraqis, Germans, Chinese - it doesn't matter. The only time we have recourse for war is when some group or other openly threatens and attacks another.
   This principle has (predictably) been used to justify the war in Iraq. Let me be clear about this: such a defense is bullshit. The threat of chemical weapons was concocted by the United States administration. When they realized that this might be exposed as fraudulent, they claimed that their goal was 'regime change'. But when, prior to war, the possiblilty of even this arose, the proposed goal was again changed, the US saying that they'd invade EVEN IF he left the country.
    So, I think it's clear, the only way to defend the current war (and most others the US has fought) is on realist terms. And maybe on these terms the war is justified, I'm not sure. But something tells me that realism isn't  always the best route. It allows for the justification of too much. If we can justify invading countries on the mere suspicion of their causing instability and opposition, where does that lead for world politics? Answer: an ugly place. I think the cold war is a good example of this. How many millions of South East Asians and Latin Americans died just so that the American people could sleep a little easier at night.
   And even in these cases, it's far from clear that the war was even justifiable on realist grounds. Did a 'red' El Salvador and Nicaragua really pose a threat to the US? Or were realist arguments made here to justify the quashing of peasant hopes in the interest of American multi-nationals?
    Reading this last paragraph, you might think "blimey, this guy's a bleedin' pinko". Well, not really, I just think that these are the kinds of questions that concerned people need to ask themselves and debate about; questions that will certainly never be raised by CNN or the NYT. If you want to justify American actions as promoting a stable Pax Americana, do so; don't pretend you're an idealistic, democratic, thourougly egalitarian saviour. In other words, don't be like the crafters of American foreign policy.

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