Tuesday, February 20, 2007

U.S. Should Use Military Force on Behalf of Justice

William Kristol has an interesting piece in this week's Time on the periodic necessity to apply military force in pursuit of justice. The historical record shows, according to Kristol -- despite recent suggestions to the contrary -- that Americans have been reluctant to apply military power when international circumstances call for it.

Kristol is responding to the February 10th statement by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who said "Many in the U.S. are now learning that democracy cannot be imposed by military force." On the same day, Kristol notes, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, speaking about Iraq, argued that it was time "to admit that no amount of American lives can resolve the political disagreement that lies at the heart of someone else's civil war." Kristol notes that Obama's hope of getting U.S. forces out of Iraq without any consequences is a "pipe dream," and members of Congress are getting so worried about the application of military power that they're considering legislation prohibiting military strikes against Iran:

So it's worth asking straightforwardly, Is a propensity to rely on military force a vice to which we Americans are prone? And doesn't the Bush Administration need to learn a lesson about the danger of using military force in pursuit of foreign policy goals?


The problem of U.S. foreign policy for the past century hasn't been too great a willingness to use military force--or too great a confidence about its efficacy. If anything, it's been the opposite. An earlier American intervention in World War I could have averted countless deaths and various political calamities. American intervention against Nazi Germany in the 1930s, or American support for intervention by our allies, could have averted World War II. Are we proud that it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and a German declaration of war against the U.S., for us finally to enter the war against Hitler? Then, even with the lessons of Munich fresh in mind, we were slower than we might have been to react to Stalin's aggression in Central and Eastern Europe. We foolishly (if inadvertently) suggested early in 1950 that we might not take action to protect South Korea, inviting aggression from the North. We pursued a policy of gradual escalation in Vietnam. Still, our performance during the cold war was, on the whole, robust--in our willingness to build up our military and to use, and threaten to use, force.

So the Berlin Wall fell. Soon after, we intervened to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. But that was apparently it....We were slow to act in the Balkans, we pulled out of Somalia, we stayed out of Rwanda, and we were uninterested in what was going on in Afghanistan.

Then came Sept. 11, and everything changed--for a while. We intervened in Afghanistan and went to war to remove Saddam....We are still engaged in this difficult task, and we have made mistakes in its pursuit.

Now many Americans want to give up--and many of them agree with the German Foreign Minister that the lesson of Iraq is that we need to be more wary of using military force. This would be the wrong lesson to take away. For if we revert to timidity in the face of threats and passivity in the face of dictators, we could present to the world the sorry spectacle of a great nation unwilling or unable to draw the sword on behalf of justice.
Kristol actually hits, to some degree, on a well-developed problem in the literature on international relations. Why are nations slow to react to clear dangers to their security? What explains why states respond only hesitantly to international threats? One recent work in this strand of work is Randall Schweller's Unanswered Threats: Political Constraints on the Balance of Power (2006). Schweller argues, in part, that state leaders are constrained in their actions by domestic opposition -- both at the societal and government levels of interaction -- and that the outcomes of such political conflicts can result in inadequate responses to external pressures or threats. The slow response of the Western democracies to the Nazi threat in the 1930s is a common example.

In Kristol's case, he's absolutely right that growing antiwar opinion poses problems for the application of U.S. military force going forward. He can't, however, in his short essay, evaluate the wide variety of influences that are contributing to this trend in public resistance to military action. In the U.S. today, antiwar war opinion is now representative of the majority viewpoint, and opposition to the war in Iraq has filtered up to the top levels of governmental authority, creating considerable elite fragmentation on the question of responses to emerging threats. One such threat is the developing danger of Iranian nuclear capability. Let's hope Kristol and others of his persuasian -- both inside and outside the halls of government -- are able to beat back American timidity and passivity, for history shows that it's better to respond to imminent threats sooner rather than later.

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