It’s starting to sound a lot like 2005 again.
Remember 2005? Iraq was a big, fat mess. American troops were dying at an alarming rate. Iraqi civilians were dying at an alarming-er rate (not that many Americans gave that much thought). The insurgents seemed to be gaining the upper hand. And there was a growing call from left-of-center pundits, bloggers and activists (joined by a small handful of their right-of-center counterparts) that we should get out of Iraq. Eventually, the non-blogging Americans joined in the call, and by the following November, a whole bunch of Republicans were swept from office by Democrats promising to stop the madness in Iraq. (That clearly worked out well.)
Here in late 2009, I’m starting to see a lot of the same things said about Afghanistan that I was seeing about Iraq back in 2005. Plenty of left–of–center types are starting to put out feelers about withdrawing. Military officials are outlining new strategies for moving forward. And a handful of right-0f-center types are joining the call. And so history repeats itself.
But should it?
That’s a harder question. Objectively, the task in Afghanistan is probably even more daunting than was the one in Iraq. And on most measures, we appear to be no further along in Afghanistan than we were in Iraq circa 2005. So why, then, am I not joining in the call for withdrawal (or “strategic redeployment,” as I believe it was termed back then)?
The cynical answer is that I never actually thought we should have been in Iraq in the first place, but I very much supported invading Afghanistan. So maybe you can simply chalk this up to wanting to feel vindicated about both decisions. Though the grown up part of me is willing to admit now that Iraq would probably have been worse off had we left in 2005.
I think, though, that there is another more important difference between the two. (More important than salvaging my ego, even.) And it ties into the title of this post. Namely, I’m wondering if it might not be the case that some wars are morally required. And, more specifically, whether Afghanistan might not be one of them.
I floated this idea a while back, but not in any sort of clear way. And my argument is not going to be all that rigorous here, either. This is a blog post, for one thing. And for another, I’m still at the stage of feeling my way around the edges of something that might be an argument and might just be a product of a boring August in DC.
So, standard accounts of just war theory typically show us when war is, well, justified. Walzer’s legalist paradigm, for example, creates what Walzer calls “the presumption in favor of resistance” (p.68) for a nation that is the victim of aggression. But for third parties — those not party to the initial aggression — Walzer defends a right of neutrality, or the notion that a nations can choose whether or not to respond to aggression.
On a Walzerian sort of line, the justice of war is a bright-line moral rule. It’s specific application may sometimes be murky, but the rule itself is a deontic rule, grounded in the rights of citizens of the state to be self governing. Rather oddly, however, Walzer arguments about whether to actually fight in a war that the legalist paradigm shows to be just almost always turn on utilitarian reasons. For Walzer (and, I think, most jwt types) a nation determines when it will go to war based on a host of practical considerations (Is it winnable? Is it too costly? Will I make things worse?)
Now I’m hardly one to complain about resorting to utilitarian calculus. But I do tend to worry about the full blown act-utilitarianism to which Walzer defaults. There are, I think, possibly some good reasons for wanting to limit this kind of ad hoc, case-by-case consideration from reasoning about war. My biggest concern here is that it is all too easy to forget that the utilitarian calculus is supposed to be a second step in deciding to go to war. It’s a step that one takes if and only if the war is justified on jwt grounds.
As we saw in the run-up to Iraq, however, it’s awfully tempting just to forget about that first part, and move straight to the utilitarian considerations. At that point, one has slid out of the JWT camp and off into the realist camp (or, possibly, the neoconservative, depending on which utilitarian considerations you think carry the most weight.) The more play this kind of utilitarian reasoning gets, the more likely it is that people will skip right over the the tough and often abstract is-it-moral questions in favor of getting into the weeds of the practical questions.
So what I have in mind is attempting to formulating rule-utilitarian second-level considerations about whether or not to wage a just war. That is, once we have determined the justice of our war (which I also want to recast in R-U terms, though that’s a different project entirely), we then appeal to some general (rule-utilitarian derived) principles for determining whether we ought in fact go to war. And one of the rules that I think is pretty important is that, where the mess is largely of our creation, we have a prima facie obligation to clean it up.
Such a rule would have given the French a pretty serious obligation to intervene (as they did, eventually) in Rwanda. And it similarly entails a pretty strong presumption for the U.S. (and probably also the British and almost certainly the Russians, though it’s not clear that would be especially helpful) to leave Afghanistan in better condition than we found it.
Now obviously there would have to be other sets of rules, and there will still need to be tradeoffs between them. There’s no a priori reason to think that the “You broke it, you own it” rule should be lexically prior to any other rule. Indeed, it would be silly to argue that a nation has a moral obligation to intervene somewhere if that nation lacks the ability to make things better. And it would be equally silly to require that a futile attempt at nation-building be prolonged indefinitely.
Still, I’d argue that there’s a pretty good case to be made that the U.S. hasn’t ever taken nation-building in Afghanistan seriously. So it seems a bit early to argue that our efforts there are futile. Indeed, it seems a better argument for trying to, you know, actually get it right.