Thursday, August 14, 2008

America's reluctance to engage in preemptive war


You say you don't understand what I mean but go on to say that I should try to understand what you mean when you say I should be deeply ashamed for saying this thing you say you don't understand. Let me try to put the essence of my argument in different terms:

The historians I've read who speak about preempting Hitler usually don't mention America. They only mention Britain and France. Britain and France were in a position to stop Hitler early on. Kennan says that could have been done in 1933. That is something a lot of people have said. By 1939 it was too late. Germany was too strong. What Kennan says that I haven't read elsewhere is that America should not be excused for its isolationist stance -- for its attitude toward war. It should have developed an Army and Navy capable of enforcing its National Interest. It refused to do that and instead took the emotional stance of not being willing to attack Germany until it had been attacked by Germany.

America was not in an emotional or political condition to preempt Hitler, but, according to Kennan, it should have been, and it would be wise, he wrote in 1951 for America to reexamine and revise its stance toward war. It should replace “legal and moral” reasons (for going to war) with “national interest.” Instead of waiting until Pearl Harbor was bombed and then blowing Nagasaki and Hiroshima to smithereens, it should have 1) had a military force that the Japanese would have respected, 2)endeavored to understand the Japanese and their national interests, and 3) understood what the effect on America would be if Japan were defeated.

The reasons that Britain and France did not preempt Hitler are different. They were militarily in a position to stop Hitler in 1933, but they didn’t have the will to do so. Perhaps they were still drunk with the heady Wilsonian brew that implied that the moral suasion of the rest of the nations would be enough to deter Hitler. I have read that, but I don’t insist on it. For whatever reason Britain and France failed to stop Hitler in 1933, but that is not the focus of Kennan’s book or the focus of my argument.

America was in a different situation prior to WWII. It still had a very powerful isolationist bent which said, let the Europeans fight their own wars. Wilson went to Europe in 1919 to solve Europe’s problems, but his efforts were not well enough appreciated back in America. America never joined the League of Nations. We would still (prior to WWII) rather the Europeans fought their own wars. Thus, even if we did know in 1933 that Hitler was going to do what he eventually did, we wouldn’t have done anything about it because we opposed getting into wars unless we were directly attacked.

Of course we weren’t utterly neutral and we did send supplies to Britain in both World Wars, and the Germans both times thought their own national interests best served by sinking the American ships that were supplying Britain – thus giving America the emotional justification it needed to join Britain in fighting Germany.

Kennan is saying this is all wrong. We should not fight our wars for emotional reasons. We should not wait until the other guy sinks our ships or bombs our World Trade Center, we should understand what our national interest is and apply diplomacy in support of it. We should apply military force wisely in support of our national interest and not wait until we are hit hard enough to become so mad that we are at last willing to fight.

But it seems to me we have not progressed. We must still wait until we are attacked, witness 9/11, before we pursue what should have been pursued earlier as part of our national interest. [Xavier at this point argues that there is no cure for it, and that all Liberal Democracies are in this condition. We must all wait until we are attacked.] It is easy to see that we have not progressed, in Kennan’s terms, but it is not easy to see how we could engage in the sort of national interest diplomacy (including the use of military force) that Kennan advocated in 1951.

Al Quaeda was well known to our government in the years prior to 9/11. We attempted our Wilsonian moral suasion to no effect. We were attacked on more than one occasion and we responded by treating Al Quaeda as we would a band of robbers. Al Quaeda made our most wanted list, but we didn’t take Osama’s declared war seriously until Al Quaeda bombed our World Trade Center on 9/11.

And no I don’t mean the “war on terror”. Over a period of several years I read book after book on the Middle East, Al Quaeda, Islamism, Sayyid Qutb, etc, etc. I said on more than one occasion that the war was against Islamism and not against “terror”. “War on Terror” is a confusing and ambiguous term. Osama bin Laden declared war upon us as a representative of Islamism. I quoted his declaration of war on one occasion, but at the time he delivered his declaration, no one in our government took him very seriously. As someone said, a lot of people say a lot of things. What assurance did we have that Al Quaeda really intended to carry those things out? We recognized Osama and his Al Quaeda were dangerous. We didn’t appreciate how dangerous, and our congressional hearings were an attempt to determine what we could have done differently prior to 9/11.

Kennan could have told them what they should have done differently. In fact he did back in 1951 in American Diplomacy. We should study and learn about people and nations that affect us and we should pursue our national interest, first diplomatically, but when necessary militarily. I doubt that our congress will end up agreeing with Kennan because we still (most of us) need to become emotionally outraged before we are willing to go to war.

If someone thinks that the Iraq war Phase II was a preemptive war, it wasn’t. We and the British were flying over Iraq daily to protect the Kurds and Shiites, and Saddam’s military was shooting at us daily. He violated a large number of U.N. ultimatums and the U.S. got tired of waiting for the U.N. to back up its word and took matters in its own hands; which is understandable, or ought to be, since the U.S. had the only U.N. hands capable of enforcing the U.N. resolutions. Yes, there were a lot of reasons for invading Iraq, the second time, but it wasn’t preemptive. There was no second war. The first one was never over. There was a truce in effect that Saddam’s forces regularly broke.

Lawrence Helm

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