Peace is for losers part, 2

by John Quiggin on April 6, 2008

In my last post on Iraq, I concluded with a somewhat snarky reference to pro-war bloggers who reasoned that, since Sadr offered a ceasefire, he must have lost the fight in Basra, and therefore the government must have won. As it turned out, the ceasefire was the product of some days of negotation, brokered by the Iranians, which made the original point moot.

Still, given that the same claim was made by John McCain, who said”Very rarely do I see the winning side declare a ceasefire., I think it’s worth making a more serious point about the fundamental error in pro-war thinking that’s reflected in claims like this.

As usual with McCain’s statements in his alleged area of expertise, the claim is factually dubious (see below). More importantly, the implicit analysis here, and in nearly all pro-war thinking is that of a zero-sum game, in which one side’s gains equal the other side’s losses. The reality is that war is a negative sum game. Invariably, both sides lose relative to an immediate agreement on the final peace terms. In the vast majority of cases, both sides are worse off than if the war had never been fought. With nearly equal certainty, anyone who passes up an opportunity for an early ceasefire will regret it in the end.

The negative sum nature of war is most obvious when, as predictably happened in Basra, the stage of bloody stalemate is reached. At this point, both sides typically want to come out of the fight with some gains to show for the exercise. Fighting on, they sometimes achieve this and sometimes do not. But the losses incurred in the process ensure that both sides are worse than they would have been with an immediate ceasefire.

In this respect, Basra is a microcosm of the whole Iraq war. Six years after the push for war began just about everyone is far worse off than if they had agreed to peace on the most humiliating terms imaginable. Saddam Hussein and most of the Baathist apparatus are mostly dead or one the run, and many of the survivors are glad to take a pittance from the US occupiers. The Shi’ites, despite gaining political power, have suffered more in the years of conflict (with the Americans, the Sunni and among themselves) than they ever did under Saddam. The Americans and British have poured endless blood and treasure into Iraq to no avail and both Bush and Blair are utterly discredited. Even the Kurds have overreached themselves and brought the Turkish army into their territory. The only winners have been the Iranians, as interested bystanders, and merchants of death like Halliburton and Blackwater, and even these may yet end up worse off.

Coming back to McCain’s historical claim, it’s easy to point to cases, like the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 where the winning side declared a unilateral ceasefire. More pertinently, perhaps, governments fighting insurgent movements have frequently followed up successful military campaigns with unilateral ceasefires and amnesty campaigns, aimed at reintegrating the rebels into civil society. If the government forces had achieved their main goals in Basra within the three-day period initially suggested, it would have made good sense for Maliki to follow this example.

Even more relevant to the argument presented here are the many cases when initial success in war could have been followed by a ceasefire and a peace deal on favorable terms, but was not, with disaster as the common aftermath. Two examples:

  • At the end of 1792, the French revolutionary armies were everywhere victorious against the invaders of the First Coalition. Against the arguments of Robespierre and others, the government pressed on, converting a defensive war into one of unlimited expansion. When the fighting ended more than 20 years later, with the restored Bourbons replacing the Bonaparte dictatorship, the millions of dead included nearly all of those who had made the decision to go to war.
  • After four months of fighting in Korea, the US/UN forces threw back the North Korean invaders. A peace at least as favorable as the status quo ante could easily have been imposed unilaterally at this point. Instead MacArthur invaded the North and brought the Chinese into the war, resulting in one of the worst defeats ever suffered by US forces (until the greater disaster of Vietnam). Three years and countless deaths later, the prewar boundary was restored.

Finally reaching a conclusion, the central error in pro-war thinking is the belief that every war has a winner. On the contrary, in war there are far more losers than winners, and in most cases there are no real winners apart from the merchants of death mentioned above. Even those who seem to win have usually sowed the seeds of future disaster. The only sane response to war is to end it as soon as possible.[1]

fn1. Obviously, WWII will be raised as an exception. If a powerful state is controlled by a madman bent on war, there is nothing that can be done to avoid it. But I’m more and more convinced that arguments for war, or about the conduct of war, that rely solely on WWII should come under the same embargo as other arguments that invoke Hitler and Nazism.

{ 128 comments }

1

bad Jim 04.06.08 at 8:15 am

During the American Revolutionary War, Nathanael Greene was famous for yielding the field, again and again, after inflicting heavy losses on the other side, considering that a tactical victory wasn’t worth further risk to his troops. He drove Cornwallis out of the Carolinas and forced the remnant British force to abandon their forts and retreat to the coast without ever winning a battle.

2

leinad 04.06.08 at 10:33 am

Edwin Starr said this decades ago Quiggin. And funkier.

3

jim 04.06.08 at 12:11 pm

Another example: Bismarck ending the Austro-Prussian War after Königgrätz.

4

christian h. 04.06.08 at 12:20 pm

Thanks, John, absolutely correct. I’m not a pacifist – if an armed revolution had a chance of succeeding I would be for starting one right now – but it is clear that war should be avoided at almost any cost, and ended if forced upon you at the earliest opportunity.

This has been particularly true since the advent of nationalism, which has made total victory almost an impossibility. (By the way, as for WWII, it is not clear at all that “unconditional surrender” didn’t prolong that war and cost millions of lives in the process.)

I guess McCain and friends really admire FARC for not giving up on a revolutionary war that’s clearly going nowhere.

5

abb1 04.06.08 at 12:32 pm

If a powerful state is controlled by a madman bent on war, there is nothing that can be done to avoid it.

But this is how most of the wars are justified in the first place. And by each side. The opponent is always a madman hellbent on destroying you and with enough resources to achieve it; you’re defending yourself against an existential threat.

You reject this as a rare bordercase scenario, but this is, indeed, the standard template used by people who advocate wars.

6

Chris Bertram 04.06.08 at 1:37 pm

_Invariably, both sides lose relative to an immediate agreement on the final peace terms._

I’m not sure that “invariably” is right, John. But anyway, doesn’t your analysis neglect the within-sides distributive element. Just because State X does worse in the overall cost-benefit assessment, it doesn’t follow that State X’s war party do worse, they may do very well indeed.(And people who may be nobodies in peacetime get to be somebodies in war – and vice versa, of course).

7

Slocum 04.06.08 at 1:42 pm

The Shi’ites, despite gaining political power, have suffered more in the years of conflict (with the Americans, the Sunni and among themselves) than they ever did under Saddam.

Do you think the Shi’ites have reached the same conclusion? That they’d bring Saddam back if they could?

Obviously, it’s often the case that a country is worse off in the near term for having over-thrown a tyrant. But I imagine the right frame of reference for the Shi’ites of Iraq will be over a much longer term. How will 20 years of post-Saddam life compare to 20-years of life under Saddam — bearing in mind the latter featured the disastrous war with Iran, the disastrous first Gulf War, the mass killings of Shi’ites in the uprising against Saddam, and the years of ‘normal’ life in a brutal police state. This is a country whose National Olympic Building was used for torturing athletes. Torture that was done by a man who stood a chance of inheriting Saddam’s position (the more likely alternative being his slightly less criminally insane brother).

And, of course, it included a decade of life under a sanctions regime, during which Saddam used and amplified the suffering of Iraqis as a lever to try to undermine the sanctions.

As for the Kurds. Yes, they were doing reasonably well before the war, but they’ve also prospered since 2003, and before then they were in an extremely fragile position that was not going to last. Without the sanctions regime and the no-fly zones, they’d have again been at the mercy of Saddam. And the sanctions regime was clearly not going to last much longer. In fact, from the very beginning, it was expected that the sanctions would be temporary and Russia and France were pushing against them. What would Saddam have done to the Kurds with a free hand and the revenue stream from $100 oil?

8

Walt 04.06.08 at 1:48 pm

Edwin Starr said this decades ago Quiggin. And funkier.

God, that’s funny.

9

Bruce Baugh 04.06.08 at 2:17 pm

Apparently in Slocum’s mind it’s real progress to go from torturing atheletes at the Olympic facility to torturing children in any facility handy.

10

abb1 04.06.08 at 2:34 pm

This is a country whose National Olympic Building was used for torturing athletes.

I believe the correct term is “tough couching”. Or “enhanced couching”.

11

dsquared 04.06.08 at 2:34 pm

But I imagine the right frame of reference for the Shi’ites of Iraq will be over a much longer term

… when you point to the disaster he’s caused, he says that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. When you ask where the omelette is, he tells you Rome wasn’t built in a day.

(the specific negative-sum game that the Iraq War resembles AFAICS is a “dollar auction”. We keep on raising the bidding in order to avoid a certain short-term loss, while making sure that the equally certain loss in the long term is much larger).

12

HH 04.06.08 at 2:36 pm

The selfish gene is programmed for aggression and tribal loyalty to a war leader. These behaviors worked reasonably well until nuclear weapons were invented. We are now in the situation of skunks facing automobiles. What worked then does not work now. America will not abandon militarism until it is bankrupted and/or struck repeatedly by nuclear weapons.

Efforts to avert America’s militaristic death spiral via appeals to reason are useless in the face of the overwhelming irrational power of television propaganda. America’s epitaph will read “Created by the European Enlightenment and destroyed by the Farnsworth Device”

13

brooksfoe 04.06.08 at 2:42 pm

The reality is that war is a negative sum game. Invariably, both sides lose relative to an immediate agreement on the final peace terms.

Sorry, but wha…? North Vietnam would have been better off accepting the Paris agreements in ’73 rather than launching the campaign that won it the South in 1975? Sorry, no. Arguably it would have been better off accepting the status quo in 1963 rather than committing fully to the war in the South and provoking American intervention — but arguably not, as that would have left the North an impoverished Communist rump state like North Korea, exposed to complete Chinese domination; and the strong and prosperous unified Vietnam we see developing today might never have come into being. Was that strong, self-determined state worth the lives of a million soldiers? Is that your decision to make? And in any case, to say they should have called it quits in ’63 is merely picking a moment at which leaders retrospectively could have played things better, which is of course always possible. But the case you make here, unless I completely misunderstand you, is that declaring a ceasefire is always, at every moment, to the advantage of both the winning and the losing side. Seriously? Would Israel have been better off declaring a ceasefire after the first five days of the Yom Kippur War? Would the ANC have been better off declaring a ceasefire in 1986? Would the KLA have been better off with a ceasefire when the entire Kosovar Albanian population was sitting in refugee camps in Macedonia and the Serbs had successfully ethnically cleansed Kosovo? You can’t possibly be serious about this claim.

14

abb1 04.06.08 at 2:53 pm

Yeah, and also interesting that the “madman strategy” was, in fact, the main feature of Nixon/Kissinger Vietnam policy.

15

philosopher 04.06.08 at 3:07 pm

“But the case you make here, unless I completely misunderstand you, is that declaring a ceasefire is always, at every moment, to the advantage of both the winning and the losing side.”

I’m not sure, but I think you have misunderstood the proposal, mostly by not taking note of the presence of the word “final” in it. Let S be the political situation that will ultimately be achieved at the end of the war, at some time t. The claim is that at any time during the war t’ < t, if the actors were able to reach S at that time t’, they would all be better off than they are in reaching S at the later time t.

16

brooksfoe 04.06.08 at 3:15 pm

Yes, but philosopher, that reduces the claim to triviality, because obviously it’s the fighting of the war that produces the terms of the ultimate political situation. I mean, by the same reasoning, labor negotiations would be “a negative sum game”, since all participants would be better off if they simply arrived at the ultimate contract without the wasted time, money and effort of going through the negotiations. Democratic government would be “a negative sum game”, since all participants would be better off if they simply arrived at the ultimate legal and budgetary operations of government without having to waste all that time and money on representative politics. And so forth.

17

philosopher 04.06.08 at 3:22 pm

Exactly right. Which is why it’s really, really good to have systems that let those things happen with as minimal costs as possible. (E.g., that’s why it’s good to have long-term contracts that everyone can be happy with.)

And which is why it’s really, really dumb to try to think about whether it would be a good idea to start a war, or whether it is a bad idea to end one, without thinking through the possible costs of that war or its continuation. Which is, I believe, Quiggin’s main point here.

It’s not trivial; it’s just really, really true.

18

DrBB 04.06.08 at 3:28 pm

Apparently with all his military expertise ‘n’ stuff, Mr McCain is unfamiliar with the expression “Pyrrhic victory.”

19

seth edenbaum 04.06.08 at 3:28 pm

” the ceasefire was the product of some days of negotation, brokered by the Iranians.”

The iranians were party to the negotiations. Not the same thing at all.

20

philosopher 04.06.08 at 3:28 pm

brooksfoe, part of the problem with your reply is that you seem to be taking Quiggin to be using this as an argument against ever having a war. It’s not, and he’s very clear that he’s not. His is arguing that it is a mistake to think that says only a loser would ever think it’s a good idea to end a war, which is not at all the same thing as arguing that it is a mistake ever to fight a war.

21

philosopher 04.06.08 at 3:34 pm

Er, that should be something more like “He is arguing that it is a mistake to think that only a loser….”

22

DrBB 04.06.08 at 3:35 pm

The iranians were party to the negotiations. Not the same thing at all.

Even ceding the point–and I think “brokered” fits the bill fairly well–the fact that they were significantly involved at all puts the idea that this was a Victory for Our Side seriously into question. So far they’ve been way ahead on points almost from the moment the invasion started. If war is a negative sum game, that clearly doesn’t preclude bystander nations profiting from it quite handsomely.

23

brooksfoe 04.06.08 at 3:46 pm

Philosopher, I think the language of “negative sum game” is not the proper language here. It’s more effective to say that fighting entails costs, and that a strategist who understands that war is a costly technique employed to achieve political ends will often see that less costly means can at a given moment be used to achieve the same ends, and this may be true after a victory as well as after a defeat. Saying “war is a negative sum game” really does seem to imply that Jaish al-Mahdi is worse off now than they would have been had they decided not to fight the Iraqi Government offensive, which seems, from all accounts, to be the opposite of the truth.

24

philosopher 04.06.08 at 4:13 pm

“Saying “war is a negative sum game” really does seem to imply that Jaish al-Mahdi is worse off now than they would have been had they decided not to fight the Iraqi Government offensive, which seems, from all accounts, to be the opposite of the truth.”

No, it doesn’t have that implication. Again, it only has that implication if you take “X is a negative sum game” to entail “it is never rational for any player ever to play X”. But, again, that isn’t the claim at issue here.

Note that “negative sum” does not mean that all parties automatically come out as individually net losers. (These terms have perfectly clear meanings in game theory. If you find that you are taking away significance from these terms other than those meanings, then the solution is for you to stop doing so, not for us to abandon game theory.) Quiggin claims only that “_[i]n the vast majority of cases_, both sides are worse off than if the war had never been fought” (my emphasis) — which is of course not at all the same as saying that in all cases this is so. His point is that it’s a stupid mistake to think in terms in which inflicting losses on the enemy is automatically the same as garnering gains for oneself.

You keep trying to make this argument about a conclusion that it explicitly was never intended to aim at.

25

Jim Harrison 04.06.08 at 4:17 pm

Victory is a PR concept. The proper aim of the statesman is to promote the wealth, power, and happiness of his nation, not to pursue transitory military glory and wave the flag over some stricken field. That doesn’t mean that victory doesn’t have an instrumental value since it does influence public opinion in the short term. Unfortunately, as the course of human history endlessly illustrates, victory intoxicates the leaders as easily as the followers, often with disastrous consequences.

In the Mahabharata, the God Dharma asks his son to give an example of defeat. His answer was victory.

26

abb1 04.06.08 at 4:30 pm

Very rarely do I see the winning side declare a ceasefire.

Perhaps there’s something here to be said about occidental rationality vs. oriental sense of harmony. To a western guy like myself (and McCain, obviously) it certainly seems rational to push ahead as long as you have the advantage. But I imagine not everyone feels that way.

27

Slocum 04.06.08 at 4:43 pm

… when you point to the disaster he’s caused, he says that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. When you ask where the omelette is, he tells you Rome wasn’t built in a day.

I’m saying that it is simply appalling for human beings to live in a country like Saddam’s Iraq. And to say that force cannot ever be used in such situations, that it invariably leaves all sides worse off — is to condemn people caught to suffer repression indefinitely, perhaps for generations.

Should Saddam have been overthrown internally? That would have been wonderful. But the Shi’ites tried that at a time, immediately following the first Gulf war, when Saddam was at his absolute weakest point … and he squashed them by the thousands like bugs (almost literally).

Clearly…clearly the last several years in Iraq have been terrible. But would you all really take the bet that in 5 or 10 years, the Shi’ites will agree with you and judge that it would have been better if Saddam’s regime had remained in power? Hell, do a majority of them believe that even now?

28

ProfBiker 04.06.08 at 4:46 pm

Quiggin’s analysis is as supercilious as McCain’s, even for those of us who agree with the basic premise.

29

Sebastian 04.06.08 at 4:50 pm

Is there an embargo on arguments about Hitler and Nazism? I see them, for example, here at crookedtimber all the time. Godwin’s law isn’t anything like an embargo. It is an acknowledgment that the arguments come up all the time.

30

seth edenbaum 04.06.08 at 4:56 pm

drbb, #22
It was definitely no victory for “our” side, but western commentators have been pushing the Iranian angle while others, including many in the arab community, are seeing a resurgent Iraqi nationalism, against foreign interference including by Iran. Saying Iran brokered a ceasefire is not the same as saying it wanted one or was a party to one.
Not wanting to derail the thread, but once again this is a discussion of an American war in Iraq, not an Iraqi war on it’s own soil. That skews the conversation.

31

novakant 04.06.08 at 5:05 pm

The reality is that war is a negative sum game. Invariably, both sides lose relative to an immediate agreement on the final peace terms. In the vast majority of cases, both sides are worse off than if the war had never been fought. With nearly equal certainty, anyone who passes up an opportunity for an early ceasefire will regret it in the end.

I wish it were so, but often it just isn’t and the reasoning here is indeed circular: it all depends on the terms of the ceasefire in question.

If a ceasefire consolidates territorial gain achieved through aggression, the results of an ethnic cleansing campaign and/or the political and cultural subjugation of one of the groups involved – then I don’t see why those on the receiving end of the aggression should accept it or what they would gain from it.

If a ceasefire completely reverses the gains made by the aggressor, then it will never accept it unless forced to do so, most likely by an overwhelming military threat or outright war.

If people didn’t start wars out of hatred, greed, fear or foolishness – well, then we wouldn’t have to discuss these problems in the first place. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

32

philosopher 04.06.08 at 5:11 pm

“…And to say that force cannot ever be used in such situations, that it invariably leaves all sides worse off…”

Slocum is making the same mistake here that brooksfoe was making earlier. The “invariably” needs to be interpreted with regard to the status at the war’s end, not at its beginning. The extent of the costs to both sides will mean that _very often_ the status at the end of the war is worse for all actors. But there is every reason to think that there are important exceptions. The issue is one of how to go about thinking about such decisions. It is just not at all meant to preemptively settle on one answer for all such questions.

33

brooksfoe 04.06.08 at 5:18 pm

Philosopher: you’re right, that was confusion on my part. Obviously you can have a negative-sum game in the sense that there are less total points left at the end of the game than there were at the beginning, yet where one or more players are nevertheless better off than they were at the start.

I’m aware that this may look like scrabbling for rationales, but I still think that the “negative sum game” phrasing is actually less helpful than saying something much simpler like “violence is bad, and most people prefer to avoid it where possible”. I simply think that you are going to find that actually there are far too many wars where people who belong to the nationalities involved, winners or even sometimes losers, consider that the fight was worth the cost, even if you as an observer disagree. The problem is that the “negative sum game” language implies that there is some objective way to tally up the points in the game-state and that all sides are using the same scoring system. But this is unlikely to be the case for any situation where perspectives between two groups have diverged so dramatically that they wind up engaged in violence against each other.

I am sure that game theory, being a discipline developed by smart people, has a long history of accounting for such issues, but I’d like to hear how it does. In general I’ve had a bit of an allergy to game theory since a few years back when Robert Wright tried to convince us that everything in human history was destined to just keep getting better and better because of non-zero logic.

34

roger 04.06.08 at 6:15 pm

Of course, advantage depends on conditions going forward. If conditions going forward for Sadr were, for instance, that his militia were physically driven out of Basra, or that his prestige was damaged with his constituency, or with the political elite, then you could claim a gain of some sort. And surely he must have felt that these conditions were threatened to the point where he would negotiate. On the other hand, at the end of the day, Sadr has been praised by the members of the political elite, Jafari, who is probably more influential in Da’wa than Maliki, sided with him on the quarrel, and his militia are still emplaced in Basra, which is a violation of the whole point of the Basra operation. Meanwhile, Maliki has alienated a considerable segment of the political elite and been forced to depend, simply in order to stay in power, much more directly on the Badr Brigade’s political arm, SCIRI. He claimed that he would have control of Basra and he has settled for not having control of Basra. His ploy of not only ordering the Army to intervene but of going down to “supervise”, whatever that meant, was to identify himself with the one popular national Iraqi institution, the army – and he has identified himself, instead, with the humiliation of the one popular Iraqi institution. So, conditions going forward, it seems to me that Maliki had the most to lose by continuing to gamble his prestige and influence on a battle which, even if he finally succeeded, might have driven him from power. Sadr, too, has every reason to save a weakened Maliki – and to prevent a SCIRI politico from becoming prime minister.

I don’t see a lot of mystery here. One often has an interest in preserving one’s enemy, especially if the enemy is weak, but strong enough to maintain his position against overthrow by an enemy that could be stronger. Hell, this was the course chosen by Bush when he decided that OBL was less valuable captured or dead then free and relatively disempowered, and thus available to be used as an all around fright figure for future wars.

35

John Emerson 04.06.08 at 6:51 pm

I think that people who start negative sum games might win in the long run. For example, suppose you control 20% of a geographical unit with a GDP of 1 trillion dollars. You fight a war and end up controlling 60% of the geographical unit, now with a 300 billion dollar economy. That’s an overall disaster and your own share is absolutely smaller, but if the economy regenerates you’ll be much better off (especially since 60% control is majority control).

I think that something like that could apply to financial manipulations producing panics and depressions.

36

geo 04.06.08 at 7:55 pm

Chris’s mention in #6 of “the within-sides distributive element” should be followed up. Wars are not fought in the “national interest.” There is no “national interest.” Nothing is in everyone’s interest. Military policy (and all others) are decided on by rulers, drawn from and still embedded in elites, usually corporate and financial ones. Those elites may very well have different interests than the rest of the population.

37

Barry 04.06.08 at 8:02 pm

Strike that ‘might’.

38

Mike 04.06.08 at 8:17 pm

Quoting Seth: “but western commentators have been pushing the Iranian angle while others, including many in the arab community, are seeing a resurgent Iraqi nationalism, against foreign interference including by Iran.”

This would make sense if the Iraqi nationalists were the the ISCI/Badr folks. Unfortunately, Sadr has more local Iraqi backing than Maliki, and Maliki seems to be the one most in bed with the Iranians.

After all, Sadr hunkered down in Iraq after his father was assassinated. Maliki et al high-tailed it out of there for…Iran and Syria.

39

bob 04.06.08 at 8:19 pm

Very rarely do I see the winning side declare a ceasefire.

Given that McCain finished 5 from the bottom of his class at Annapolis, is there really any reason to believe that he knows anything about military history? (Even apart from his rapidly advancing senility.)

40

John Quiggin 04.06.08 at 8:57 pm

Chris, I did try and point to the intra-side distributional issues. It’s true that professional warriors, arms dealers, and the political actors who represent them will do relatively well out of war.

Even so, I think the misunderstandings that lead nations to go to war are equally significant in the thinking of those within a nation who push for war. Unless the hoped-for rapid victory occurs, they are likely to end up discredited or worse, even when the ultimate outcome is regarded as a “win”.

41

Barry 04.06.08 at 9:06 pm

John, but it’s more than just that there are a few parties here or there who might benefit. In any country, the overwhelming majority of people have between jack and sh*t for per capita power, while a few have thousands or millions of times as much per capita. If power were measured like income, what would the Gini index be?

And given that a few hundred people, even in the US, have so much power, why wouldn’t they decide things in ways which actively hurt the interests of most Americans?

42

seth e 04.06.08 at 9:15 pm

Mike, this makes sense because of what you say not in spite of it. The us is opposing the nationalists not siding with them.
Sadr is offering to work with the sunni against the outsiders. If you’re in favor of the occupation this is a bad thing.but resurgent nationalism is not ‘chaos’

43

John Emerson 04.06.08 at 9:21 pm

For awhile I’ve been reading about the Swedish Empire which came to an end in 1709. They fought most of their wars on foreign soil and brought home a lot of loot and foreign subsidies, and a lot of their troops were mercenaries. So their wars were profitable for Sweden, though not necessarily for the average Swede.

Sweden’s last imperialist war (Sweden against Poland, Russia, Saxony, and Denmark) was thought of by Voltaire and others as an adventurist disaster. It may be, however, that Sweden had no choice — they were attacked first, and an aggressive response may have been better than a defensive one.

Sweden lost and had to watch Russia and Prussia become great powers instead of them, but they did maintain their independence, unlike Poland and most of the small German states.

Brian Downing (“The Military Revolution and Political Change”) believes that Sweden’s success in financing its modernization with plunder allowed it to modernize without completely destroying indigenous, somewhat egalitarian social forms.

44

Mike 04.06.08 at 9:22 pm

Seth-
Oh, I see. I misunderstood you. I agree with you now.

45

lemuel pitkin 04.06.08 at 10:09 pm

Even the Kurds have overreached themselves and brought the Turkish army into their territory.

My impression is the Turkish army was a frequent visitor before the war too.

John, do you really think the Kurds are not better off because of the war? Of course that doesn’t invalidate your argument or in any way justify the war, but it seems pretty unequivocally to be the case.

46

Badger 04.06.08 at 11:20 pm

47

rea 04.06.08 at 11:21 pm

I’m saying that it is simply appalling for human beings to live in a country like Saddam’s Iraq.

Well, but it’s apalling for human beings to live in a country like Breshnev’s Russia, or Mao’s China. What should we have done about that? What could we have done without making things much, much worse?

Imagine we’d left well enough alone. Saddam, an old man, dies in a couple of years of natural causes. His sons, not nearly as smart as their father, last about 5 minutes in charge. What happens next? Probably nothing as bad as what happened after the invasion-a million dead, and the country in the hands of Iran’s close allies . . .

48

John Quiggin 04.06.08 at 11:23 pm

Lemuel, to spell it out, what I meant was “Even the Kurds, who have gained from the war, have lost or endangered some of their gains by their own aggressive actions”.

49

lemuel pitkin 04.06.08 at 11:27 pm

48-

OK, fair enough.

50

seth edenbaum 04.07.08 at 12:40 am

The Kurds, In the language of CT:

Welfare state/moral hazard.

51

seth edenbaum 04.07.08 at 12:59 am

To add that the whole history of empire, or divide and rule, in Iraq as in Rwanda[!] is based on some groups doing quite well, at the expense of others.

52

Richard Cownie 04.07.08 at 1:17 am

The basic point is right – war is *very* negative-sum, and the greatest good for the greatest number is most often achieved by choosing peace.

But there are individuals and groups who prosper even when a nation suffers badly. Just look at the political fortunes of GHW Bush and GW Bush: GHW chose an early ceasefire, and lost in 1992 to an opponent with zero military and foreign-policy experience; W got us stuck in a bloody occupation, and then used the conflict as a major argument for his re-election.

I’m pretty sure it would have been a terrible mistake for the USA to go on to Baghdad in 1991: but I’m also pretty sure that GHW Bush would have won re-election if the war had still been going on and the 92 campaign had been focused on foreign policy and the war, rather than the economy.

53

floopmeister 04.07.08 at 1:19 am

Perhaps there’s something here to be said about occidental rationality vs. oriental sense of harmony. To a western guy like myself (and McCain, obviously) it certainly seems rational to push ahead as long as you have the advantage. But I imagine not everyone feels that way.

I learnt not to ‘push ahead as long as you have the advantage’ from playing Risk.

;)

- and while you feel you can hold any advantage you have gained.

Even discounting the moral considerations of innocent death and destruction, quitting while you’re ahead (or when you have gained as many of your strategic or tactical objectives as you think is possible) is simply good generalship.

54

Walt 04.07.08 at 3:22 am

Richard, that’s a really good point, one that I have never heard anyone make before. (Also a depressing point.)

55

lurker 04.07.08 at 8:47 am

@43,
Sweden had to defend itself or be partitioned, but Charles XII should have quit when he was ahead. He beat Denmark, Russia and Poland in rapid succession and could have negotiated separate peaces from a position of strength, but he instead pursued a policy of regime change in Poland that wore his country down. This wasn’t even the first time Sweden tried to take over Poland and failed, so he had really no excuse.

56

(bad Jim) Sweeney 04.07.08 at 8:52 am

Cownie’s got it: who are the winners and who the losers? Bush got what he wanted out of this fiasco, a Republican majority it ’02 and re-election in ’04. It’s a mistake to identify the interests of the country – or a company – with the people who run it.

It doesn’t appear that this conflict was even a tactical defeat for al Sadr, or that the recent Israel-Lebanon border war was a defeat for Hezbollah.

The first question a stunt performer has to ask is “can I do this, get up, and do it again?” The same consideration applies to anyone, but most saliently to forces with limited resources like guerillas.

57

Brownie 04.07.08 at 9:26 am

In the vast majority of cases, both sides are worse off than if the war had never been fought.

This is quite simply unknowable, by dint of the war having been fought. It also appears to ignore the possibility that one of the consequences of avoiding war in April is having to fight one in September.

58

Martin Wisse 04.07.08 at 9:30 am


Perhaps there’s something here to be said about occidental rationality vs. oriental sense of harmony. To a western guy like myself (and McCain, obviously) it certainly seems rational to push ahead as long as you have the advantage. But I imagine not everyone feels that way.

Frex, George H. W. Bush didn’t, when he decided not to pursue the first US-Iraq into Iraq proper. Most wars, certainly pre-20th century wars, were not fought to the finish.

59

John Quiggin 04.07.08 at 10:06 am

“The consequence of avoiding war in April is having to fight one in September.”

I suppose it’s unsurprising to see that the “Decent Left” supports preventive war in general and not merely in particular cases. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any war in history that couldn’t have been justified, on both sides, using the arguments put forward by the Decents in the last few years.

60

Brownie 04.07.08 at 10:43 am

Huh? I was making the point that any objective analysis of whether going to war NOW is the least worse option necessarily includes some consideration of whether you think war is pretty much a nailed-on certainty at some point in the future. I would have thought this was uncontroversial.

The war fought now must still pass the justification test on its own merit, but if this test is met and your analysis leads you to conclude that a major confrontation with the other player at some point is unavoidable, then war when you are ready and they are not might be the better option, not just for you, but in terms of the total bloodletting.

Of course, the problem for this sort of argument is that you can never demonstrate to everyone’s satisfaction that war now means we avoid something worse later, but this cuts both ways, not least for your own argument that “in the vast majority of cases, both sides are worse off than if the war had never been fought.”

61

Hidari 04.07.08 at 11:12 am

‘Imagine we’d left well enough alone. Saddam, an old man, dies in a couple of years of natural causes. His sons, not nearly as smart as their father, last about 5 minutes in charge. What happens next? Probably nothing as bad as what happened after the invasion-a million dead, and the country in the hands of Iran’s close allies . . .’

Amongst many other problems, the Decents have never made it clear what differentiated Saddam’s Iraq from every other dictatorship in history. Dictatorships are inherently unstable, because they lack the support of ordinary people (I know this is a ‘D’oh!’ point, but the Decents seem not to know this). To buy this you either have to provide material wellbeing (growth, gadgets etc.) or else turn up the terror or both (Stalin, for example, provided both). But it’s difficult to do that indefinitely: so, generally speaking, over time, Dictatorships tend to either liberalise or else become so oppressive that eventually someone in the higher echelons of power cries ‘enough!’ and overthrows it.*

In any case, all the Decent’s arguments presuppose that the US were genuinely interested in Iraqi democracy. But that, of course, is not true. So it really doesn’t matter what their arguments were, as their initial presuppositions were false.

*Another problem the Decents ignored is that, in reality, dictators do not, in fact, live for ever. Robert Mugabe is a terrible man who has done terrible things to his country, but he’s also 84. Eventually time will take care of him more effectively than ‘we’ could.

62

Z 04.07.08 at 11:13 am

Of course, the problem for this sort of argument is that you can never demonstrate to everyone’s satisfaction that war now means we avoid something worse later, but this cuts both ways

I think you are missing the whole point: in situation of uncertainty, prudence dictates that you do nothing or unassuming things, not that you engage in actions that are known to lead to great sufferings and destruction. So no, this doesn’t cut both ways.

Also, I think the level of argument here is telling. Empty generalities, is that really the best proponents of war can do? Specifics please!

63

Brownie 04.07.08 at 11:42 am

I think you are missing the whole point: in situation of uncertainty, prudence dictates that you do nothing or unassuming things, not that you engage in actions that are known to lead to great sufferings and destruction.

No, rather because wars are horrible things it means the test must be a strict one. The logical conclusion of your argument is that prudence precludes the possibility of ever starting a justified or justifiable war; when was the run-in to war – any war ever fought – anything other than a period of uncertainty? Think of the most uncontroversial war fought in the history of humankind and then explain how all events thereafter were foretold and how any other course of action was guaranteed to produce greater suffering. You’ll struggle.

What you will likely achieve is a convincing argument for why war on that occasion made sense. Herein lies the problem: what convinces one person won’t convince another.

Intelligent people can have arguments about the merits of war in each case (not so fast, Hidari), but what you cannot do and what it is disingenuous to claim as possible is to demonstrate with anything approaching certainty that no war would have produced favourable results.

The truth is that anyone making such claims is guessing.

64

Dave 04.07.08 at 12:37 pm

Please provide an example of a war that was started by a country in order to overcome an adversary that was currently weak, but prospectively strong, and where that turned out emphatically to have been the right choice.

Any example will do, because at least then we will have something more than abstract speculation to discuss. It would be helpful for your case, however, if your example is not easily susceptible of being reinterpreted as an act of blatant imperialist conquest.

65

Hidari 04.07.08 at 12:39 pm

‘Intelligent people can have arguments about the merits of war in each case (not so fast, Hidari), but what you cannot do and what it is disingenuous to claim as possible is to demonstrate with anything approaching certainty that no war would have produced favourable results.’

Yes but that is not really the key point. Away from Decentland, in the Real World, legal theorists and politicians, have, since 1945 been laying out the criteria for what constitutes a ‘legal’ or (following on from this) ‘just’ war. And the basic criteria are, at the time of writing, either self-defence OR any military action authorised by the UN security council.

So it’s not just that the Decents have to justify just any war. They have to justify a war that was, by definition, illegal (as Kofi Annan recently pointed out).

That does not, necessarily, prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that any war, even an illegal one, can’t have positive outcomes. But it does set the ‘bar’ for the burden of proof even higher than it would otherwise have been.

This point, of the ‘burden of proof’ is the key one and, again, is greatly misunderstood. Brownie writes:

‘Think of the most uncontroversial war fought in the history of humankind and then explain how all events thereafter were foretold and how any other course of action was guaranteed to produce greater suffering. You’ll struggle’.

This is of course entirely true and it is why, before any serious discussion about anything can get started, we have to work out: ‘on whom does the burden of proof fall’? It is certainly true that before the war, I couldn’t PROVE that an invasion would make things worse for ordinary Iraqis.

But that was irrelevant.

Given that the war (i.e. the war that was actually fought, after the failure to get the second security council resolution) was illegal, by definition, I didn’t have to prove anything, or, for that matter, even offer any evidence or arguments. The burden of proof all fell on the Decents. To justify war the Decents would have to prove:

1: That Saddam possessed WMD’s, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

2: That he was in a position to use them and intended to, against targets in one or all of the attacking countries (America, Britain).

Or, perhaps:

3: That Saddam had ongoing operational co-operation with Al-Qaeda, that he was involved, in some way, with 9/11, and that he and Osama Bin Laden planned to strike the US again.

Failing that, some other argument had to be produced as to why this was an extraordinary situation, and that standard international law would no longer apply.

And to be fair, the proponents of the war in power (thought not the proponents of war, for the most part, in the blogosphere) did actually grasp this point, which is why they went to such great lengths to mislead the public and imply that points 1,2, and 3 were all true. But we now know they are all false, and so, ceteris paribus, we now see that ‘illegal’ aspect of the war was the key one.

Following from this, the fact that, with the possible exception of some Kurds (not all of them) almost every Iraqi is objectively worse off than they were before the war and that this is unlikely to change anytime soon, rams home what a bad idea the war was, but isn’t the crucial point.

66

Slocum 04.07.08 at 12:39 pm

Amongst many other problems, the Decents have never made it clear what differentiated Saddam’s Iraq from every other dictatorship in history. Dictatorships are inherently unstable, because they lack the support of ordinary people (I know this is a ‘D’oh!’ point, but the Decents seem not to know this).

Oh, c’mon. Saddam’s Ba’ath party had been in power continuously since 1968. Castro ran Cuba personally for nearly 50 years and it’s not at all clear that the system won’t survive both him and Raul. Mugabe has been in power 28 years, has f**ked his beautiful country beyond recognition, he’s 84 years old, and it still may take a civil war to dislodge him. Kim Jong-Il is widely considered a cretinous lightweight, but he has been running North Korea for 14 years already after his father’s 36-year reign of terror. The North Korean people have starved, but does anyone really believe that Kim Jong-Il may be toppled soon? Bashar Assad is considered similarly weak, but has already been in power as long as Bush has. The Soviet dictatorship lasted 70 years. The Communists have controlled China for 60. Inherently unstable? Impossible to survive generational changes in leadership? Bullshit.

Let’s be honest. If you want to make the case that it would have been better to leave Iraqis to live under Saddam & Sons indefinitely, for many years or even decades to come, have the intellectual honesty to make the damn case.

Saddam had perfected the art of using brutality to assure loyalty. His sons had been apprentices at this all of their lives. They knew how the system worked, and they knew all the people that made it work. And they certainly had the necessary capacity for violence. Not to mention that Saddam might easily have lived and ruled for another 10 or even 20 years (he was only 70). But even if not, if Saddam’s system was robust enough to survive the chaos and uprisings at the end of the first Gulf War, it could certainly have survived a succession to one of the sons.

67

soru 04.07.08 at 1:01 pm

Eventually time will take care of him more effectively than ‘we’ could.

Is there actually any precedent for a dictator with modern technology and no personal or domestic moral constraints being removed by anything other than external intervention?

68

dsquared 04.07.08 at 1:19 pm

Ceaucescu and Haile Selassie, off the top of my head. Pinochet even went peacefully.

69

klk 04.07.08 at 1:25 pm

#66 – isn’t that the point? Why have we not invaded North Korea, China, etc.? Why are Iraqi’s freedoms more valuable than those of the subjects of Castro, Kim, Mugabe, etc.? Or is it about something else?

70

Brownie 04.07.08 at 1:36 pm

Yes but that is not really the key point.

Um, when the post in question includes the assertion: “In the vast majority of cases, both sides are worse off than if the war had never been fought.”

it is precisely the “key point”. I repeat: this is simply unknowable, yet not one person taking exception to my comments seems prepared to acknowledge this rather obvious fact.

Please provide an example of a war that was started by a country in order to overcome an adversary that was currently weak, but prospectively strong, and where that turned out emphatically to have been the right choice.

Dave, you appear to want to turn this into a discussion about Iraq and Iraq alone. That’s your prerogative, but I don’t have to play along.

Any example will do, because at least then we will have something more than abstract speculation to discuss.

What could be more abstract than:

“In the vast majority of cases, both sides are worse off than if the war had never been fought.”

?

It would be helpful for your case, however, if your example is not easily susceptible of being reinterpreted as an act of blatant imperialist conquest.

The problem this presents is that I suspect there is precious little that you wouldn’t be prepared to reinterpret as “an act of blatant imperialist conquest”.

Thanks, but I’ll stick to discussing the post John actually made rather than the one you would have preferred he made.

71

Hidari 04.07.08 at 1:37 pm

‘Is there actually any precedent for a dictator with modern technology and no personal or domestic moral constraints being removed by anything other than external intervention?’

The Soviet Union, of course, democratised without ‘external’ ‘help’ (the fact that Russia now seems to be redictatoring itself is irrelevant for this point).

Spain, Portugal, Greece, most of the South American terror regimes, South Africa…..I could go on.

72

Brownie 04.07.08 at 1:38 pm

Why have we not invaded North Korea, China, etc.?

Because precipitating a thermo-nuclear holocaust is a bad idea?

That’s my guess.

73

JP Stormcrow 04.07.08 at 1:41 pm

Further to #69 – there exists an imaginable world* in which your powerful country has consistently battled dictatorships fueled by good intentions and a hope for a better world for all. In that world, one can argue for that element of justification of the Iraq adventure with intellectual honesty. Problem is—that world is not this world, not even in the same area code.

*How do I know it is imaginable? Because my friends and I fervently imagined it on the playground as 8&9 year olds in the early 60s, reassuring each other that America had never started nor lost a war and was ever vigilant in the pursuit of bad men everywhere. It was comforting and made you feel good about yourself.

74

ajay 04.07.08 at 1:43 pm

Slocum: you’re cherrypicking (or, more charitably, succumbing to survivor bias). It would be as easy to come up with a list of dictatorships which have fallen within a few years.

Is there actually any precedent for a dictator with modern technology and no personal or domestic moral constraints being removed by anything other than external intervention?

Haile Selassie, Pinochet and Ceaucescu, as noted. Also: Ferdinand Marcos, the Shah of Iran, the military rulers of South Korea (gradually over the Park/Roh period), Arias Navarro during the post-Franco transition in Spain, Mikhail Gorbachev, Lee Teng-hui, Jerry Rawlings in Ghana…

The fact is that most dictatorships come to an end in the absence of external pressure – often over a longish period of transition to democratic rule, so it’s difficult to say exactly when (as in Span and South Korea for example). In the “external pressure” area I can only think of Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini, Idi Amin, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein offhand.

I’m not quite sure what you mean by “no domestic or personal moral constraints”. I mean, Hitler had personal moral constraints. He was a man with a very strong moral code. (An evil moral code, but still; a lot of the things he did were driven by goals other than self-preservation and self-advancement. He actually believed that it was morally right to fight the “Jewish Bolshevist menace”, despite the cost.)

75

abb1 04.07.08 at 1:45 pm

If the American people are free to have Bush as their supreme leader for 8 years, why shouldn’t people of Iraq be free to have Saddam for 30 years? I don’t see any logic in this. The Bushies probably have less popular support than Saddam on his worst day, but I don’t see them resigning. During the months left they will – with any luck – wreck more havoc and kill more people than Saddam did in 30 years. And then, when McCain is elected, he’ll probably start a nuclear war right in his first year; you know, being a tough cookie and all that.

76

Hidari 04.07.08 at 1:48 pm

‘If you want to make the case that it would have been better to leave Iraqis to live under Saddam & Sons indefinitely, for many years or even decades to come, have the intellectual honesty to make the damn case.’

As always with the Decents this gets things absolutely and precisely wrong. Dictatorships ARE inherently unstable. Civil war/failed state situations, on the other hand, really can go on indefinitely. It wouldn’t surprise me AT ALL if Iraq was still a complete basket case/disaster area in 100 years time (or 500 for that matter). Look at Haiti, for example, or many countries in Africa. So the statement of Slocum’s SHOULD read:

‘If you want to make the case that is better to put Iraqis into a state of civil war, economic collapse, political chaos and complete breakdown of law and order for many years or even decades to come, have the intellectual honesty to make the damn case.’

Sorry to repeat the point, but the Decents invariably assume that the Saddam dicatorship was, essentially, going to last forever, wheras the current chaos is time-limited. The opposite is the case. There is no particular reason (NONE) apart from blind faith to think that Iraq’s current nightmare is going to end anytime soon. Even when the fighting does end (which might be in 30, 40 or 50 years time) it will take decades more to bring Iraq back to the economic level it had reached under Saddam by the late ’70s.

77

Elliott Oti 04.07.08 at 1:56 pm

Let’s be honest. If you want to make the case that it would have been better to leave Iraqis to live under Saddam & Sons indefinitely, for many years or even decades to come, have the intellectual honesty to make the damn case.

Let me make that case.

Both Gulf wars plus the sanction destroyed an estimated 2 decades GDP of Iraqi infrastructure. Roughly 20% of the population is displaced; 10% including much of the middle and professional class has left the country.

In other words, the conditions have been laid in place to make Iraq a perpetual failed state.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan didn’t lead to a democratic Marxist paradise then, nor do the prospects look brighter now, thirty years later.

There are many systems preferable to life under Saddam. Quite possibly internal or external forces could have brought about or imposed such systems on Iraq under particular circumstances. Such ‘humane intervention’ however is not, and has never been on the cards. The history of the Gulf wars post 1991 has been about securing US access to oil first, ensuring the security of other Gulf oil-producing states a distant second. Ensuring the security of the US (the public rationalization of the war) and the welfare of the downtrodden Iraqis never were serious motivations. A prosperous, liberal Iraq was never the goal of this war to begin with, and is thus unlikely to be the outcome, even (or especially) unintentionally.

78

Brian A 04.07.08 at 1:56 pm

Is there actually any precedent for a dictator with modern technology and no personal or domestic moral constraints being removed by anything other than external intervention?

I’m not quite sure what “no personal or domestic moral constraints” is supposed to mean exactly, but does the Shah count?

79

Dave 04.07.08 at 2:30 pm

@#70: brownie, I asked a perfectly civil and entirely general question, which seemed to me to be a propos of the nature of the argument that was taking place on this very thread. It seems to me that if we can’t produce any examples of the kind of justified pre-emptive war that was in question, when we’ve already gone back to C18 Sweden for our examples, then there may be a reason for that absence of useful examples.

If I might make a personal observation, your habit of conflating everyone who has said something you interpret as disagreement into a single oppositional, and by implication, factionally-motivated, bloc is mildly irritating, to say the least.

80

lemuel pitkin 04.07.08 at 2:46 pm

John-

So what do you think are the historical boundaries within which this argument holds?

It seems clear that at various times and places war has been very advntageous, not just for a small elite, but for the nation waging it.

Even in the modern era, the US — the north in the short run, and the south within a few generations — was much better off for the Civil War having been fought. You mention overreach by the French revolutionary government, but how do you think Europe would have developed in the absence of Napoleon’s victories. And even for the French people themselves the ledger wasn’t all negative. Small farmers, artisans and shopkeeprs maintained their economic status far more successfully than in most other European countries, in large part — or so I’ve heard it argued — as a result of the Revolution.

One might even say that, when it’s necessary to swep aside an obsolete but deeply entrenched social order, war can even be positive-sum.

More generally, it seems like the only usefula rgument is one of the form, “Under cicrumstances X, both sides are generally worse off than if the war had never been fought.” where circumstances X might be a modern, industrial economy or whatever. But we really can’t understand the issue unless we look both at the cases where war is negative-sum, and where it’s not.

81

Dave 04.07.08 at 3:00 pm

The gains to the French peasantry had nothing to do with the wars of Napoleon, nor even of those of a decade earlier; they had been established by the nature of the revolutionary land-settlement in late 1789. War brought several million dead to western Europe between 1792 and 1815 – can it realistically be argued that those corpses would have been less economically useful if they were still alive and working? As for what came after, you could just as well argue that a generation of bloody warfare, culminating in victory for the side of conservatism and legitimism, made the adoption of nationalism and liberalism as political principles slower in Europe, rather than faster.

82

Brownie 04.07.08 at 3:21 pm

brownie, I asked a perfectly civil and entirely general question, which seemed to me to be a propos of the nature of the argument that was taking place on this very thread. It seems to me that if we can’t produce any examples of the kind of justified pre-emptive war that was in question

But this is exactly the problem, because I had not made a point about pre-emptive war at all. I merely noted if your analysis leads you to conclude that a major confrontation is extremely likely at some point in the future, then this should play a part in any objective decision-making process about whether war now is a good idea. As I was careful to point out, the justification for any war has to stand or fall on its own merits, but an intellectually robust assessment of best options necessarily includes consideration as to whether no war now amounts to a long-term avoidance of conflict, or merely a postponement of the inevitable.

These are general points made in response to general assertions in John’s original posts. You are and anybody else is perfectly free to narrow the focus to specific wars but you can’t do so using a false premise of “pre-emptive war that was in question” when, at least so far as anything I’d said, it wasn’t “in question” at all.

As to the personal observation in your second paragraph, you may want to reconsider your opening gambit that implicitly suggested I have a penchant for defending “blatant imperialist conquest”. Even if you were right, once made this point kinda reduces your room for criticism of any defensive posture I then assume.

If you truly seek a frank exhcange of opinion without the usual bollocks that accompanies many an online discussion, try to avoid setting the parameters of my answer as acceptable to you.

83

lemuel pitkin 04.07.08 at 3:22 pm

The gains to the French peasantry had nothing to do with the wars of Napoleon, nor even of those of a decade earlier; they had been established by the nature of the revolutionary land-settlement in late 1789.

Which took a kind of war — a civl war, at least — to secure, no?

Which just reinforces my point — until we can say something about where the line between negative- and zero-/positive-sum wars lies, it’s not really meaningful to say that most wars fall on the negative side.

84

soru 04.07.08 at 3:27 pm

I’m not quite sure what you mean by “no domestic or personal moral constraints”. I mean, Hitler had personal moral constraints.

What I mean is constraints, internal or external relevant to his role as dictator.

Specifically, ‘the people are massing in the town square demanding your resignation. What do we do?’.

If you can’t, or won’t, issue the order to shoot, and have it carried out, then that’s a relevant constraint, whether it is moral, structural, or whatever.

For example, the fall of the Soviet Union and it’s satellites.

Haile Selassie, Pinochet and Ceaucescu, as noted. Also: Ferdinand Marcos, the Shah of Iran, the military rulers of South Korea (gradually over the Park/Roh period), Arias Navarro during the post-Franco transition in Spain, Mikhail Gorbachev, Lee Teng-hui, Jerry Rawlings

Most of these failed the ‘could/would shoot a photogenic local female in the capital city square’ test. The others are either edge cases (the Shah and Ceauşescu were able to do the shooting one day, but not repeat the feat the next), or more about transition _to_ dictatorship than _from_ it (Haile Selassie).

85

lemuel pitkin 04.07.08 at 3:30 pm

(Anyway, if anyone cares, I’m trying to mkae Quiggin’s argument clearer and more coherent, not dispute his conlcusions that in the 21st cetnruy, wars are overwhelmingly highly negative sum and a war of choice is, quite simply, a war that shouldn’t be fought. And yes, Iraqis (and the rest of us) would be better off if Saddam were still in power. Obviously.)

86

Brownie 04.07.08 at 3:53 pm

And yes, Iraqis (and the rest of us) would be better off if Saddam were still in power. Obviously.

Don’t you think Iraqis should get to decide that for themselves? Are you really going to make me trawl the polling data to demonstrate that, when asked, Iraqis have at least on some occasions decided to the contrary?

87

Bullsmith 04.07.08 at 4:06 pm

The most obvious and relevant example of a victor unilaterally stopping a war is the US and coalition after freeing Kuwait.

Or is McCain saying Saddam won Gulf War 1?

88

Z 04.07.08 at 4:48 pm

The logical conclusion of your argument is that prudence precludes the possibility of ever starting a justified or justifiable war; when was the run-in to war – any war ever fought – anything other than a period of uncertainty?

Well no, if you have the certainty that someone is attacking you or that someone is killing huge numbers of defenseless people that you could save without inflicting immense sufferings on innocent bystanders (and those things are quite easy to ascertain), then there might be a reasonable argument for war. Outside of those cases, yes, my argument pretty much precludes starting wars. That is a feature, not a bug.

89

ajay 04.07.08 at 5:06 pm

84: soru, I hate to jump at the bait you’re trolling, but I should point out that as far as I know neither Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Idi Amin, nor Tojo ever had anyone of either sex shot in the Kurfurstendamm, Red Square, the Forum, or whatever the local equivalents were. In fact, the only time he faced determined public protests (over sending the mentally ill to concentration camps) Hitler backed down.

About the only ones on the list who got as far as actually having their people shot, in public, for opposing their regime are Ceaucescu and the Shah, as far as I know, and both of those were still toppled by internal forces (in fact, that’s when the shootings happened). The fact that the Shah and Ceaucescu stopped being able to do it is because they were being toppled at the time. Not many dictators in recent times have actually had people shot in the public square.

In other words I think your criterion is silly.

It’s also close to self-fulfilling – a “no true dictator” fallacy.

ie.

soru: No true dictator was ever removed without external intervention.
the Plain People of the Internet: (produce lists of dictators who were removed without external intervention)
soru: Ah, but those weren’t true dictators.

90

Dave 04.07.08 at 5:24 pm

@82: implicitly suggested I have a penchant for defending “blatant imperialist conquest”

No, explicitly suggesting that the kind of rationale you were talking about was far more likely to have been used in those circumstances than in any of indisputable ‘national defence’. I seriously cannot think of a historical example of a non-aggressive state, faced with an ‘enemy’ that it was currently a good bet to beat, making in good faith the decision to go to war on the assumption that this beatable enemy would become an unbeatable one in the future. That’s why I asked if you did have an example that wasn’t, upon examination, the justification for imperial conquest that such assertions, if one could indeed find clear examples from the historical record, seem to me almost certain to be.

91

abb1 04.07.08 at 5:53 pm

This “negative sum game” argument is, in fact, simply an argument for law&order and against wild-west-style conflict resolution. It’s not an argument for getting along with bandits, rather it’s the argument for getting laws, a sheriff, judge, and executioner.

92

Brownie 04.07.08 at 7:28 pm

Well no, if you have the certainty that someone is attacking you or that someone is killing huge numbers of defenseless people that you could save without inflicting immense sufferings on innocent bystanders (and those things are quite easy to ascertain), then there might be a reasonable argument for war. Outside of those cases, yes, my argument pretty much precludes starting wars. That is a feature, not a bug.

I’m not certain you’ve thought through the implications of holding to this position (at least, I hope you haven’t), given it renders illegitimate the UK’s decision to declare war on Nazi Germany, for example.

And this is ignoring the quite ludicrous suggestion that it is “quite easy to ascertain” whether you can arrest the excesses of the belligerent party without “inflicting immense sufferings on innocent bystanders”, not least because the extent of that additional suffering will often be dictated by how the original agressor responds to a military threat to their ambition.

I seriously cannot think of a historical example of a non-aggressive state, faced with an ‘enemy’ that it was currently a good bet to beat, making in good faith the decision to go to war on the assumption that this beatable enemy would become an unbeatable one in the future.

Leaving to one side that it’s debatable the extent to which the absence of an historical example delegitimizes such thinking in a nuclear age, this is not what I was saying. Read it again. I contend that where there exists a genuine belief that major confrontation is at some point inevitable, it makes sense to factor this into any analysis. I don’t claim for one second that such a belief is sufficient – on its own – to lend legitimacy to a war.

The most obvious and relevant example of a victor unilaterally stopping a war is the US and coalition after freeing Kuwait.

But only after the ceasefire terms of the vanquished were codified in UN resolutions. Unless you are a genuine empire builder, you fight a war to achieve terms you think otherwise unobtainable. When those terms are met, you stop fighting. If you stop before those terms are realisable, it generally is a good bet that you either weren’t winning or didn’t have a realistic chance of achieving the required outright victory. Pace al Sadr.

93

gerrymander 04.07.08 at 8:37 pm

If comparisons to WWII are to be relegated to the dustbin, what about the US Civil War? You’ll recall that the Civil War cost the US about 10% of its able male population (about 600,000 deaths), with a comparable reduction in economic prosperity post-war. About 2/3rds of those losses (if I recall correctly) happened in the last two years of the war, after Grant was promoted to lead the Union in 1864 — and that’s not counting the need to rebuild after the devestation Sherman caused, nor the later racially-motivated economic stagnation in the South.

There is no doubt that both the United States and Confederate States would have been more prosperous had Lincoln formally recognized the CSA and sued for peace in 1863. Should his decisions to appoint Grant and continue the war be counted as a loss?

94

Slocum 04.07.08 at 8:53 pm

Slocum: you’re cherrypicking (or, more charitably, succumbing to survivor bias). It would be as easy to come up with a list of dictatorships which have fallen within a few years.

Absolutely not. In the particular case of Iraq, Saddam had been in power for decades and had survived an disastrous war with Iran, a disastrous defeat in the first Gulf War followed by a concerted uprising by the majority Shi’ites when he was at his weakest point. His air force was gone, his army had just been thoroughly routed, and yet he reasserted control quickly (and absolutely brutally). And then he went on to survive 10 more years of international sanctions. Whatever you think about dictatorships in general, there was no reason to think his regime was ‘unstable’ and ready to vanish of its own accord.

With respect to North Korea, even without the nukes, the initial artillery barrage would destroy Seoul and kill tens or hundreds of thousands. So despite the horrific lives of the North Koreans (much worse than Iraq under Saddam), little can be done but wait.

In the case of Zimbabwe, however, I see very little good reason why the international community should have stood by to watch Mugabe and his gang of thugs do what they have done to that country and people.

It’s really academic at this point, though. Even if Iraq goes as well as could be hoped for from here on out, there will be no other actions like it — not for a long time. Regardless of whether McCain or Obama are elected.

95

Anony 04.07.08 at 9:02 pm

Unfortunately this is either trivial (if both sides simply agreed to the outcome without fighting, & the outcome was identical to the one which would have been achieved by fighting, then we would save on all the costs of war), or, if meant in a non-trivial sense (if offered a cease-fire, one should take it) simply false.

The most obvious sense in which it is false is in terms of power or security. In terms of those variables, international politics is often, if not always, a zero-sum game. I suspect it’s also false, long-term, for other variables as well.

But a real problem here is the failure of the argument to recognize the strategic nature of the game. My choice of strategy depends on my view of your self-maximizing strategy, which depends on my view of your view of my self-maximizing strategy… etc.

So, for instance, Country Q runs through the analysis I take at face-value in the post, and determines it is always better to settle than to fight. I know Country Q believes this. I get into a dispute with Country Q. What’s my rational strategy? To credibly commit to a war unless Country Q meets my terms.

96

soru 04.07.08 at 9:09 pm

Not many dictators in recent times have actually had people shot in the public square.

Not many, but Saddam was one of the few. Having successfully gone through that crisis and out the other side, his regime would very likely have lasted much longer than that of even a victorious Hitler (which presumably would have more or less normalised after a decade or two). You are probably looking at several generations to transition to a monarchy, then waiting for an incompetent heir who could be overthrown by a popular revolt.

It really resembled something out of the annals of 19C imperialism, where atrocity was not tied to a particular crisis: it was just the way things were. 75% of Iraqis, according to one poll, had a family member arrested, imprisoned or exiled.

soru: No true dictator was ever removed without external intervention.

person A: mammals who weigh more than 6 tons live in the sea.

person B: person A is employing the ‘no true mammals’ fallacy: whenever I point at a non-sea-living mammal, they quibble that it doesn’t weigh more than 6 tons.

A highly reusable argument: it works on any noun phrase or qualified category.

97

abb1 04.07.08 at 9:15 pm

the ‘could/would shoot a photogenic local female in the capital city square’ test

This is known, I believe, as “Cleopatra’s nose” theory of history.

Not to mention that it doesn’t have anything to do with dictatorships specifically, as elected governments have shot plenty of photogenic local females.

At Kent State, for example. Not a single perpetrator has been tried so far.

98

John Quiggin 04.07.08 at 10:56 pm

Lemuel, I think the argument is historically bounded. Clearly, before the modern era warriors and states could make a good living, relative to the available alternatives, by plunder and enslavement. While such groups could be and were bribed to go away, this rarely turned out to be a viable long-term solution, so there really wasn’t a sustainable alternative to war. The US Civil War put an end to the last significant state based on slavery, and counts as an end to this state of affairs.

But even before that, the possibility of net gains from war (including revolutionary war) had ceased to be relevant in Europe. There is no way that improved agrarian conditions offset the millions of deaths from the Napoleonic Wars or even, in my view, the tens of thousands in the Terror and the Revolutionary war.

The central point is that made, correctly, by Angell in The Grand Illusion. In a modern society, the gains from a once-off seizure of physical goods, or even from the capacity to imposed forced labour as the totalitarian regimes of last century did, are tiny in relation to the total productive capacity of the economy that is necessarily gravely damaged in the process.

99

roger 04.07.08 at 11:09 pm

I find arguments like Brownie’s, that use WWII as a template, interesting. Because, if anything, WWII is a war that broke the template – after it was over, the global powers tactitly agreed not to do anything like it again. For good reason. The air force generals in the Pacific theater joked, in 1944-45, that if the U.S. lost, they would be tried for war crimes. And in fact if anybody committed war crimes, they did – since they did nothing less than firebomb sixty Japanese cities, killing at least 600,000 civilians, and then obliterated two other cities, more than matching Japan’s Rape of Nanking.

In the nineteenth century, a power that proposed to go into a city and put all of its inhabitants to death was considered irredeemably barbaric, a throwback to the dark ages. Tolstoy, mulling over the idea of killing all soldiers captured, was considered to be making paradoxes in War and Peace.

Luckily, the behavior that was countenanced by all sides in WWII has now becomes a no no, so that the U.S. and Nato, which allowed General Curtis LeMay to smash and obliterated hundreds of thousands of Japanese women and children and did not hang him or even try him, but promoted him, decided that Serbia couldn’t do that kind of thing in Bosnia in the nineties. Of course, given the selective terror bombing campaign the U.S. is waging in Iraq at the moment, we might be slipping back under President Torture. But I’m hoping that is an aberration.

100

John Quiggin 04.07.08 at 11:34 pm

What’s striking to me in Brownie’s position is his keenness to defend war in general. It’s one thing to say that the existing, very limited, cases in which war might be justified should be expanded to include certain kinds of humanitarian intervention. What I’m seeing in this thread is a much broader statement that war is a good thing. More precisely Brownie is arguing, that any attempt to show that war is a bad thing is inherently doomed in view of the “unknowable” alternative. As several commenters have pointed out this argument is, if anything, suited to defending imperialist wars than modern wars. Certainly, it’s generically pro-war.

101

tom bach 04.08.08 at 12:30 am

“In fact, the only time he faced determined public protests (over sending the mentally ill to concentration camps) Hitler backed down.”

According to Henry Friedlander, in Origins of the Nazi Genocide 136 and Chapter Seven generally, this is false:
“Hitler’s stop order did not stop the killings; they soon continued in German hospitals by other means.” He goes on to show that the taking of “lives unworthy of life” was in fact a continued component of Nazi policies.

102

Brownie 04.08.08 at 1:00 am

More precisely Brownie is arguing, that any attempt to show that war is a bad thing is inherently doomed in view of the “unknowable” alternative.

Nope. Brownie is arguing that it’s nothing more than a bald assertion to suggest that “in the vast majority of cases, both sides are worse off than if the war had never been fought”. It’s an entirely non-falsifiable claim.

What I’m seeing in this thread is a much broader statement that war is a good thing.

It sounds like you might be confusing my “least worst” option with an imagined “good thing”.

Rather than touting for support for the odd spot of killing to satisfy my bloodlust, I’m simply asking those who take their intellectual lead from Edwin Starr to recognise that these are sometimes trickier decisions than they are prepared to admit; and to acknowledge that ‘no war’ has its own consequences; and that a WMD age changes the parameters of the debate.

103

Elliott Oti 04.08.08 at 5:48 am

Nope. Brownie is arguing that it’s nothing more than a bald assertion to suggest that “in the vast majority of cases, both sides are worse off than if the war had never been fought”. It’s an entirely non-falsifiable claim.

On the contrary, the converse of this claim is almost always un-falsifiable. To assert that both participants in a war are better off (despite strictly quantifiable economic and human losses as measured at the end of the war) than if they had not participated in it, is essentially unfalsifiable. The exception to this is if the war results in a reduction of the existing net death rate or damage to property.

This is not to say that plausible cases can never be made for wars being a net benefit, even when the outcome was an increase in death and destruction, but it is these cases that are essentially unfalsifiable, relying as they do on the acceptance of alternative scenarios.

104

Elliott Oti 04.08.08 at 6:01 am

[..] to acknowledge that ‘no war’ has its own consequences; and that a WMD age changes the parameters of the debate.

What exactly does this mean? If this is a reference to Iraq, then I must remind you that nuclear weapons have existed for more than sixty years. The US and the former Soviet Union had (and still have) many thousands of them, and for a substantial part of the last century threatened to destroy each other, and much of the rest of the world, with them.

In what way does the “WMD age” change the “parameters” of the debate?

105

Z 04.08.08 at 6:22 am

I’m not certain you’ve thought through the implications of holding to this position (at least, I hope you haven’t), given it renders illegitimate the UK’s decision to declare war on Nazi Germany, for example.

How so? The UK declared war on Germany because it had a defense pact with Poland. Poland was attacked by Germany. My criterion does not rule this out at all. Likewise, the first Gulf war, to restore the sovereignty of Kuwait, looked pretty justifiable to me. Self-defense and calling to help in self-defense are of course acceptable, and I mentioned explicitly in my first post.

106

Hidari 04.08.08 at 7:37 am

Ho hum. This is nothing that I haven’t seen before, but in the spirit of ‘Whack a Mole’ (and for the moment ignoring Slocum, who, apparently in all serious, seems to think that invading Zimbabwe would make things better) here’s some counter-arguments to some of the points above….

‘I’m not certain you’ve thought through the implications of holding to this position (at least, I hope you haven’t), given it renders illegitimate the UK’s decision to declare war on Nazi Germany, for example.’

As I thought should have been reasonably well known, the UK declared war on Poland because it had signed a treaty with the Poles that committed it to declare war on an aggressor. And it’s no good saying that these treaties don’t matter: for example, despite a treaty of ‘alliance’ the Japanese did NOT have a treaty with the Germans that they had to attack any country the Germans were at war with, which was why they did not declare war on the Russians, despite the fact that Hitler tried to persuade them to.

Incidentally, if we have to have the constant WW2 analogies why not analogies that actually remind one of Iraq a bit? For example, the situation in Greece? Or (even better) the Allied invasion of Iraq? For oil? (and can we remember what country the Allies invaded immediately afterwards?).

‘In what way does the “WMD age” change the “parameters” of the debate?’

We have lived in a WMD age since 1945. If you are talking about chemical or biological weapons we have lived in the WMD age for a lot longer than that.

107

Brownie 04.08.08 at 9:18 am

elliott,

To assert that both participants in a war are better off (despite strictly quantifiable economic and human losses as measured at the end of the war) than if they had not participated in it, is essentially unfalsifiable.

I have to say that it’s not pure luck, then, that I didn’t make any claim to the contrary. The bald assertion was not that warring parties are almost always better off than if they had not participated, but that “in the vast majority of cases, both sides are worse off than if the war had never been fought”. The fact that an argument I ddin’t make is as unfalsifiable as the one that was made by the poster hardly counts as a rebuttal.

z,

I suspect you’re satisfied that I’m aware of the circumstances that led to Britain’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany, but your criteria as articulated in your prior comment are your criteria, and they were:

if you have the certainty that someone is attacking you or that someone is killing huge numbers of defenseless people that you could save without inflicting immense sufferings on innocent bystanders (and those things are quite easy to ascertain), then there might be a reasonable argument for war. Outside of those cases, yes, my argument pretty much precludes starting wars.

Britiain was neither being attacked nor, at least at that stage, intervening to prevent the killing of huge numbers of defenceless people. Moreover, it was pretty well understood that the declaration of war against the greatest military power of the modern age would result in “immense suffering” for “innocent bystanders”.

Insofar as, as others have pointed out, WWII broke the template for intervention, there are those who might argue that the horrific consequences of the decision to engage Nazi Germany in the very late 30s and early 40s are a direct result of a refusal to do likewise half a decade earlier. Which is not to say that the consequences of a 1936-1941 war would have been any more palatable, but then it’s never been my contention that we can be certain about the benefits and costs of both participation and non-participation in conflict.

elliott,

In what way does the “WMD age” change the “parameters” of the debate?

Let’s see if we can, just for a second, leave Iraq to one side. But let’s envisage a similar scenario where it is strongly suspected a failed/failing state with a recent history of belligerence is suspected of possessing a weaponised WMD capability. Let’s say, for sake of argument, that intelligence in this case is widely accepted as beyond question. Without wishing to present a case for pre-emptive war on a whim, I would have thought it’s entirely reasonable to ask whether the post-WWII jus ad bellum concepts still apply, given an agressor no longer has to mass infantry division on your border and mobilise its navy and air force in order to represent a clear and present danger. Acting in self-defence when facing such an enemy means, perhaps, having to wait until a nuclear missile is winging its way towards your capital city. At least conceivably.

To indulge in a little pre-emption of my own, no, I’m not interested in supplying just cause carte blanche to any nutbar who happens to make it to the Oval office, or any other office for that matter. I’m looking for an acknowledgement that 21st century weapons technology and the nature of the enemy we face in the modern era mean that we will likely have to make some rather tricky decisions where the consequences of a miscalculation are catastrophic and without historical precedent.

You don’t need to be a “decent” or “pro-war” to recognise this, surely (althought it probably helps)?

108

abb1 04.08.08 at 10:01 am

Ah, committing aggressions to prevent aggressions. Makes sense. Although there must be a reason they called it “death wish”…

109

Hidari 04.08.08 at 10:51 am

‘Insofar as, as others have pointed out, WWII broke the template for intervention, there are those who might argue that the horrific consequences of the decision to engage Nazi Germany in the very late 30s and early 40s are a direct result of a refusal to do likewise half a decade earlier.’

If Britain (or any country) had attacked Nazi Germany earlier the probability is that they attacking country would have lost (people arguing that ‘we’ should have attacked when Germany was ‘weak’ avoid the key point which is that ‘we’ were also weak at this point). Moreover it’s not at all certain that the British (let alone American) public would have gone along with this.

This really is the key point: Decents invariable assume that military ‘interventions’ are going to be both successful and publicy supported. But as Vietnam and now Iraq showed this is quite simply not necessarily true.

Incidentally, WW2 did NOT break the paradigm for ‘intervention’ which remained precisely the same (in international law) as it had done since Westphalia. Poland was perfectly entitled to defend herself against Germany (this was understood) and, again, she was perfectly at liberty to create a mutual self-defence pact with the UK, which was activated when she was invaded. This was all perfectly standard behaviour and created no innovations in international law.

Insofar as anybody tried to create an innovation in international law it was Adolf Hitler who openly cited ‘pre-emption’ as his justification for his invasion of Russia. (I might add that he was right to do so: his idea that if he hadn’t invaded Russia, the Russians would have invaded Germany was almost certainly correct: compare and contrast ‘our’ fantasies about WMD).

Insofar as the American invasion of Iraq has a legal predecessor it is in Germany’s ‘pre-emptive’ (on grounds of ‘self-defence’) invasion of Russia, NOT Poland’s act of military self-defence against an aggressor, which the UK was treaty bound to participate in.

110

Brownie 04.08.08 at 11:23 am

If Britain (or any country) had attacked Nazi Germany earlier the probability is that they attacking country would have lost (people arguing that ‘we’ should have attacked when Germany was ‘weak’ avoid the key point which is that ‘we’ were also weak at this point). Moreover it’s not at all certain that the British (let alone American) public would have gone along with this.

My first response to Hidari will represent my last contribution to this thread.

Firstly, whilst it may well be true that an earlier engagement of Nazi Germany would have resulted in defeat for Britain/the allies, this was by no means the sole or even main motivation of those who advocated an avoidance of conflict with Hitler in the mid-30s. The dominant narrative was that we could trust the Fuhrer’s self-proclaimed limits to his ambition and that he wasn’t quite the megalomaniac he later proved to be. Also, whilst I don’t pretend to be a WWII officianado or anything like it, my understanding is that a majority of military analysts didn’t rate Britian’s chances of success much higher in 1939 than they were in 1936. I think it’s accurate to say that most expected Britain to lose, or at least fail in the declared intention to liberate Poland.

Secondly, I think I’m also right in saying that – so far as this can be tested – a majority of the public were still opposing war with Germany in 1939. Those better informed than me can validate/trash this, but I do seem to recall reading something to this effect. Likewise, I don’t think there was majority American support for the US entering the war a couple of years late.

I mean “later”.

Lastly:

This really is the key point: Decents invariable assume that military ‘interventions’ are going to be both successful and publicy supported.

Fallacy alert! Nope, “decents” do not assume any and all military interventions are going to be successful, but it’s a sure-fire bet we don’t support interventions we think will fail.

Laters.

111

Barry 04.08.08 at 12:04 pm

Brownie, then the Decents have a heckuva record on judging the feasibility of wars, which is another good reason to tell them to STFU.

“In what way does the “WMD age” change the “parameters” of the debate?”
Posted by Elliott Oti ·

It’s the latest and greatest justification, because the former top hit, ‘God wills it’, doesn’t have crowd-drawing power that it used to.

112

Hidari 04.08.08 at 12:41 pm

Well Brownie seems to have pissed off, so I can now spout off without hope of contradiction. Yippee!

No but seriously….

If anyone who actually knows what they are talking about wants to pitch in, feel free, but my understanding is that almost all of Brownie’s claims are false.

‘The dominant narrative was that we could trust the Fuhrer’s self-proclaimed limits to his ambition and that he wasn’t quite the megalomaniac he later proved to be.’

This was part of the problem, in the centre, and the ‘Left’. However, Brownie ignores the fact that on the Right large sections of the British political class were ‘appeasers’ because, essentially, they approved of Hitler’s programme.

Yet again, in the Gospel According to the Decents, ‘everyone’ knew that Hitler was a threat, and the world was divided into the Right, who opposed him, and the Left, who ‘appeased’ him. In fact, to the Right, the real problem facing Europe was Stalin’s Russia, and Global Communism generally. It was Russia that was seen as the imperial power menacing European security.

In this view, Hitler and Mussolini were ‘moderates’ who stood as bulwark (with the British Empire) against Soviet expansionism. It should be noted that this framework survived essentially unchanged after the war, with Franco’s Spain, Salazar and the Greek Colonel’s who were on ‘our’ side and who were ‘moderates’ faced with the Russian ‘threat’.

This was why Churchill was an outlaw even within his own party. Like all British imperialists, Churchill took it for granted that a weak and divided Europe was in British interests. So did his fellow imperialists, but he saw (as they did not) that Hitler meant to take all of Europe/Eurasia and unite it, and that this would inevitably bring Germany into conflict with the British Empire. His fellow imperialists understood this problem, but, in the final analysis saw Hitler’s anti-Communism as outweighing this threat.

‘Also, whilst I don’t pretend to be a WWII officianado or anything like it, my understanding is that a majority of military analysts didn’t rate Britain’s chances of success much higher in 1939 than they were in 1936. I think it’s accurate to say that most expected Britain to lose, or at least fail in the declared intention to liberate Poland.’

But Britain had been re-arming since about 1934. The British were worried not so much about Hitler as about the Japanese, who threatened British imperial strongholds in the Far East. The British of course did not re-arm as fast as they might have done but this was not because of ‘appeasement’ as because Britain was still in the grips of a Depression (another point ignored by the Decents). But by 1935/1936 Britain became aware, not just of the threat from Japan but of the threat from Hitler, and so reversed its ‘pro-disarmament’ strategy. The result of this was that, although Britain would have preferred to wait until 1942/1943 (this is another source of Britain’s ‘appeasement’), she was far better prepared to wage a war in 1939 than she would have been in 1934.

‘Secondly, I think I’m also right in saying that – so far as this can be tested – a majority of the public were still opposing war with Germany in 1939.’

I would like to see your source for this. It’s true that most British people bought into the ‘peace in our time’ stuff, but the invasion of Poland brought home to most people that the rise of Hitler would threaten British interests and that some form of military confrontation between the two Empires was probably inevitable. Had Britain ‘intervened’ earlier, it would have been the British Empire that would have been seen as the aggressor (especially in the US).

‘Likewise, I don’t think there was majority American support for the US entering the war a couple of years late.’

I don’t know what this means, but if you are implying that there was not mass agreement in the US that action had to be taken against Japan after Pearl Harbour, again I’d like to see your source.

113

abb1 04.08.08 at 1:34 pm

…on the Right large sections of the British political class were ‘appeasers’ because, essentially, they approved of Hitler’s programme.

…and especially his promise of ‘drang nach Osten’. And the invasion of Poland was, from their point of view, step in the right direction – to the East. Thus the “phoney war” that followed.

In this view, Hitler and Mussolini were ‘moderates’ who stood as bulwark (with the British Empire) against Soviet expansionism.

Incidentally, this attitude is still alive and well: Was World War II Worth It?

114

lemuel pitkin 04.08.08 at 2:02 pm

There’s a certain logic to Brownie’s position:

1. Democracy is an important good.
2. Dictatorships can only be replaced by democracy through military force from outside.
3. Much of the world is ruled by dictators.

From which it follows:

4. Lots more wars, please!

115

Brownie 04.08.08 at 2:50 pm

Okay, last thrust.

However, Brownie ignores the fact that on the Right large sections of the British political class were ‘appeasers’ because, essentially, they approved of Hitler’s programme.

I’m not ignoring anything, but neither am I purporting to present a fulsome account of all influences and facotrs. I’m merely making the point that it wasn’t only a belief that “we weren’t ready” that motivated a majority to oppose war with Nazi Germany in the mid-30s. I’m referring back to the ‘consequences of no war now’ theme that was discussed earlier. How much was appeasement and how much a genuine belief that major confrontation with Hitler could still be avoided is irrelvant to any positon I’m taking. It is at least arguable that a multi-lateral response to Hitler’s earlier agressions half a decade before the formal declaration of war would have produced fewer corpses than the war that ended in 1945.

To clarify, I’m not claiming certainty about any of this. I’m leaving that to others.

Further, it’s again at least arguable that an earlier intervention would necessarily qualify as “pre-emptive” war and render the allies “aggressors” given Hitler’s own breaches (militarization of the Rhineland, for example), but leaving this aside, what if the true dichotomy is:

a – War of self-defence fought 1939-45 producing 60 million dead, 2/3rds of whom are civilians.

or

b – Pre-emptive war fought 1936-1941 producing half that number of corpses

?

Do you plump for option one becasue option 2 has St. Augustine turning in his grave?

By the way, your penchant for using “decent” as a synonym for anybody who might disagree with you and pretence that there is a ‘decent’ line on subjects such as, for example, the Hitlerian threat and the economic climate in 1930s Britain, are some of the reasons why I normally avoid discussion with you.

It’s true that most British people bought into the ‘peace in our time’ stuff, but the invasion of Poland brought home to most people that the rise of Hitler would threaten British interests and that some form of military confrontation between the two Empires was probably inevitable.

You must be referring to the poll taken on September 2nd 1939 between the invasion of Poland (1st) and the British declaration of war (3rd). No, the point is that – and I’m prepared to be corrected by those who can do better that your sorry attempt to discredit – that as late as summer 1939 there was still no appetite for war amongst the British people. This is important only insofar as you believed a lack of public support for an earlier confrontation was important.

but if you are implying that there was not mass agreement in the US that action had to be taken against Japan after Pearl Harbour, again I’d like to see your source

Nope, and I suspect you know full well that this was not my point, which was that between 1939 and Dec 1941 there was no/fleeting majority support for US intervention in the war. Again, I’m happy to be corrected.

The lesson is that most right-minded people are less than thrilled at the prospect of war. I reckon this is generally a good thing, but I don’t think it is necessarily a useful barometer of whether a particular war has the required legitimacy, or indeed whether it can be said to be “just” and/or “moral”.

That really is me.

116

abb1 04.08.08 at 3:06 pm

b – Pre-emptive war fought 1936-1941 producing half that number of corpses

And sudden mass-conversion to pacifism of the world business and political elites everywhere would produce exactly 0 corpses. Seems like a better option.

117

SG 04.08.08 at 3:15 pm

brownie, it was touch-and-go with the russians in 1942 – do you know if it would have been any different in 1936? If they had lost we would all be wearing lederhausen now.

Your argument is too heavy with supposition for my liking. What if Dunkirk had happened in 1936, minus Churchill? And what trigger would the British have had in 1936 for going to war? Too many unknowns. Which is exactly the point.

118

Hidari 04.08.08 at 3:29 pm

I don’t know why Brownie is acting as if the views of the British people are some profound and unfathomable mystery. They had opinion polls back then too you know.

April 1939:

Q5. Is the British Government right in following a policy of giving military guarantees to preserve the independence of small European nations? (Note: this means Poland).

Yes 73% No 15%.

August 1939:

Q6. If Germany and Poland go to war over Danzig should we fulfil our pledge to fight on Poland’s side?

Yes 76%
No 14%

September 1939:

Q1. Should we continue to fight till Hitlerism goes?

Yes 89%
No 7%

All numbers rounded up: source Gallup (http://www.data-archive.ac.uk/findingData/snDescription.asp?sn=3331)

The simple fact is that invading Germany in 1936 was not an option: the British people would not have gone for it. And yes, as you point out, the Americans would absolutely and definitely not have gone for it: it would have been Suez all over again. The Americans only backed war after they had been attacked themselves.

And in any case, it’s not at all clear that even if we had attacked Germany (or helped France to do so) that we would have won the ensuing war. France was defeated by Germany, don’t forget: why should things have been different in ’36? The British had barely begun to rearm in 1936: by 1940 (when the war ‘really’ started) the British were in a fundamentally better position, militarily. And, in any case, in the depths of the ‘thirties there was no public support for war, and any government that proposed it would have been kicked out.

119

Elliott Oti 04.08.08 at 4:01 pm

Brownie:
But let’s envisage a similar scenario where it is strongly suspected a failed/failing state with a recent history of belligerence is suspected of possessing a weaponised WMD capability.

I don’t see the relevance of this scenario. The USSR was a strong state, had a history of belligerence, was known to be in the possession of vast quantities of WMD and efficient means to deliver them, and had explicitly made clear their enmity with the US.

This was the case for sixty years.

How does a weak state, with an uncertain WMD capacity at least three orders of magnitude smaller than the USSR’s in the very worst case, with the range of delivery limited at most to that of the SCUD, suddenly change the parameters extant for more than half a century previously?

120

Elliott Oti 04.08.08 at 4:11 pm

To be clear in my previous post: I am not arguing specifically for or against the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. I simply fail to see how Saddam’s Iraq was anything other than a vastly watered-down version of the USSR (a kind of homeopathic Soviet Union, as it were), thus suddenly altering the “parameters” of the game.

121

lemuel pitkin 04.08.08 at 4:13 pm

neither am I purporting to present a fulsome account

Oh, but you are, Brownie.

ful·some –adjective
1. offensive to good taste, esp. as being excessive; overdone or gross: fulsome praise that embarrassed her deeply; fulsome décor.
2. disgusting; sickening; repulsive: a table heaped with fulsome mounds of greasy foods.

122

geo 04.08.08 at 6:05 pm

By the way, your penchant for using “decent” as a synonym for anybody who might disagree with you and pretence that there is a ‘decent’ line on subjects such as, for example, the Hitlerian threat and the economic climate in 1930s Britain, are some of the reasons why I normally avoid discussion with you.

Fair point. Let’s restrict it to Yugoslavia and after, shall we?

123

Dave 04.08.08 at 6:41 pm

@120 but invading the Soviet Union would have been hard…. Therefore, other options were explored.

The question of the temptation to deploy overwhelming force just because you can is the elephant in brownie’s room here…

124

abb1 04.08.08 at 7:41 pm

@123 – in general, brownie’s (the neocons’, the decents’) problem is this false dichotomy of ‘good vs. evil’ they subscribe to. Believing that British or US power-mad elites are somehow drastically different from circa 2002 Iraq or circa 1939 Germany power-mad elites.

125

magistra 04.09.08 at 6:39 am

But let’s envisage a similar scenario where it is strongly suspected a failed/failing state with a recent history of belligerence is suspected of possessing a weaponised WMD capability. Let’s say, for sake of argument, that intelligence in this case is widely accepted as beyond question. Without wishing to present a case for pre-emptive war on a whim, I would have thought it’s entirely reasonable to ask whether the post-WWII jus ad bellum concepts still apply

Can we bomb the USA now or do we have to wait till a few more civil rights disappear and a few more elections are rigged?

126

lemuel pitkin 04.09.08 at 1:00 pm

Without wishing to present a case for pre-emptive war on a whim, I would have thought it’s entirely reasonable to ask whether the post-WWII jus ad bellum concepts still apply

Yes, and there is some conceivable situation in which it would be the right thing to do to push your mother under a bus. Not logically impossible just far-fetched enough that it’s not something normal people ever think about. So when you see someone constantly talking about how theoretically it *could* be for the best if Mom was run down in traffic, you start to wonder….

127

Erik 04.09.08 at 1:11 pm

To get back to the question of why a winner would declare a cease fire I’d like to quote the War Nerd:
“1. The first job of a guerrilla army is to stay alive. That’s much more important than winning a Western-style victory. The Mahdi Army is intact, ready for the next round.
2. The next most important job of a guerrilla army is to maintain and grow its support in the neighborhood. Sadr has his own constituency—and I mean that literally, since all the Shia groups are positioning themselves for elections this Fall. By calling off the fight, he spares his people further gore and destruction and comes off as the compassionate defender of the poor. Just in time for campaign season.
3. A guerrilla army facing occupiers with a monopoly on air power is committing suicide by going for total victory on the ground, seizing an entire city or district. Just ask the Sunni, who bunkered up in Fallujah and got slaughtered. By melting back into the civilian population, the Sadrists are now invulnerable to air attack.
4. After four straight days of failure by the Badr Brigade/Iraqi Army, the US was frustrated enough to start committing American ground troops to the assault on Sadr. That would have meant serious casualties for the Mahdi Army, as it did when they took on US forces in 2004. Not that they’re afraid to die for their neighborhood—Shias? You kidding me?—but because it would be stupid to die fighting the Americans when everyone in Iraq knows the US just doesn’t figure much in the long term.”

Simple and to the point. This cease-fire was declared from a position of strength.

128

michael e sullivan 04.09.08 at 6:18 pm

126: nailed it.

Comments on this entry are closed.