TCS Daily


Pragmatic Pacifism

By Lee Harris - January 28, 2003 12:00 AM

Before the First World War people like William Jennings Bryan and Josephus Daniels called themselves pacifists, but they actually meant something quite different from this word than what we normally mean, as was made evident by both men's eventual support for America's entry into World War One. I will call them pragmatic pacifists.

To many such men, pacifism did not mean refusing to fight a war under any or all conditions, but rather rejecting war as a legitimate instrument for obtaining selfish national aims, such as Bismarck's wars, and all wars earlier in history, as they saw it.

But the qualification "selfish" is critical; and this is because another part of the pragmatic pacifists' belief was the vision of a community, a League of Nations, that would use war in order to uphold the general rule not to use war as a instrument of selfish national policy. Therefore, the pacifist, to be consistent, had to accept the idea that war would sometimes be necessary in order to prevent the selfish wars. And this is why I call them pragmatic pacifists, because they wanted something imperfect that worked rather than something perfect that didn't.

Everyone accepted that such a League of Nations would be called upon to use war as a way of enforcing the rules. But whose armies would be the armies to go to war?

There's the rub.

The idea that American troops could be forced to fight at the bidding of a foreign agent was unacceptable to the American people, but for the same reason that it was unacceptable to the citizens of other sovereign nations as well. There is no point in having a country if you cannot decide when and where your children may be called upon to die for it.

That this would be the Achilles' heel of a system of international order should have been obvious, one would think, on a priori grounds. It is impossible to imagine a world in which mankind's native xenophobia had been reduced so close to zero that one people would allow the proverbial bunch of foreigners to tell them what to do-and certainly not in matters of life-and-death, and often multitudinous death at that. This may be a regrettable characteristic of human nature, like the need to waste time in sleeping, but it is just as fixed and permanent.

But the best a priori grounds must yield to lowly empirical evidence when the latter obtrudes itself, as it does in this case. For look at the current situation of the United States and Iraq. A nation, Iraq, wantonly violated the agreed upon rules of good international conduct; the wrong was recognized unanimously by the rest of the world, both officially and viscerally.

So far nothing new. But what was new was that a nation, namely the United States, volunteered to act as the army that would enforce the moral sentiment of the world.

This was a radically novel step in history, the fundamental disinterestedness of which is amply demonstrated by the fact that it was left unfinished the first go around-had we been after their oil then, why don't we have it now? It certainly wasn't because of the military weakness of our troops on the ground, but because of our uncertainty of what to do next.

And this uncertainty arose because no one had ever been in this situation before. For once you have forced a country to remove its troops from another country that was unwilling to do so except after the actual use - and not merely threat - of massive force, what do you do with that country's leadership?

At one time a victor did what he pleased, and this was such a self-evident law of reality that it excused even glaring injustices like the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. But because the Gulf War was fought for the sake of international law, the United States was in a moral quandary. If it toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, then it would become responsible for a new system of government, and it would immediately be confronted with a host of vexing moral and political dilemmas.

For at that time the United States would have had to undertake the mission alone, and it did not have the moral authority to do it, simply because no one had thought to look into this question of moral authority in the first place, so as to ask, 'On what conditions could the United States operate?' Could the United States simply move in and deal with Iraq as it had with Japan after the Second World War? That was one possibility-but the mind reeled at the unimaginably many alternatives that might have been forthcoming from an international body like the United Nations, even assuming the best intentions on everyone's part.

Had the world community been able to debate this question prior to the First Gulf War, someone might have made the following two points: "First of all, if a regime has behaved in a way that has made our sons have to kill their sons, then how can we allow it to remain and look ourselves in the face? Of course we must punish them, or what is the point of any concept of international justice? If a tyrant does not forfeit his power after he has been vanquished in a war that he brought about himself when attacking another country, then let us drop all pretense at aspiring to an universal standard of justice for all the world.

"And, secondly, if we are expecting one nation to do this job, we must allow it to do it as it thinks best. Either we do not ask it to act as our agent in the first place, or we must back it up to the full when the time comes for it to act. Those are our only moral alternatives.

But no one faced these questions prior to the First Gulf War. And so there are the questions we are facing now.

If the international community supported the First Gulf War overwhelmingly, which clearly it did, it is morally committed to supporting the current policy of the United States and the failure to realize this connection can be most charitably ascribed to intellectual dishonesty.

Since the United States is the only nation in the world that is willing to play this role, let alone capable of playing it, there are only three ways that it can relate to the international community: either as its lackey, or as its leader, or as its tyrant.

The world cannot really expect the United States to be its lackey, and certainly doesn't want it to be its tyrant. And this leaves them only one choice.

Those who are now currently refusing to accept America's moral right to lead at this point are betraying the very ideals they pretend to champion-you cannot have world peace until someone enforces it; but no one who is powerful enough to enforce it can be persuaded to enforce it like a flunkey-it is utopianism to think otherwise.

The author is a writer living in Atlanta. He recently published two highly regarded essays in the journal Policy Review and has published two novels under his full name "Allen Lee Harris".
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