Drew ChristiansenSeptember 15, 2003

With formal hostilities ended in Iraq, it is time to take up again the hard questions posed by the U.S. war on terror. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, may not have “changed everything,” as the overheated rhetoric of the day had it, but the experience of mass terror forced into consciousness moral questions that still need thoughtful answers. How far can a nation go to defend its population against a globalized terrorist threat? Are there any limits to counterterrorist strategies and tactics? How do we calculate proportionality in defense against mass terror like that of Sept. 11? May liberties be suppressed to apprehend mass terrorists? Early on, Jean Bethke Elshtain, the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago, plunged into the national conversation over these questions by drafting a statement entitled What We Are Fighting For.

What We Are Fighting For

Signed by 60 public intellectuals from across the political spectrum, the statement was an appealing affirmation of American values: the equal dignity of all persons, limited government, and freedom of religion and conscience. It declared, “the best of what we call ‘American values’ do not belong only to America, but are in fact the shared inheritance of humankind, and therefore a possible basis of hope for a world community based on peace and justice.” For the signatories, however, the bottom line was less the nurturing of a community of values than the rightness of “our government’s, and our society’s, decision to use force of arms” against “an unmitigated global evil.” In her most recent book, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (Basic Books, 2003), Professor Elshtain expands the argument of What We Are Fighting For and takes on those who in any way doubt the legitimacy of an all-out U.S. war on terror.

Elshtain is an exceptional voice among American intellectuals. A political philosopher in the classical mold, she appeals to sources of Western thought to address today’s problems. A practicing Lutheran, she readily cites Augustine and Luther. Her book Who Are We? Critical Reflections and Hopeful Possibilities (2000) drew its inspiration from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Pope John Paul II, but she is equally at ease with secular moralists like Vaclav Havel and Albert Camus. She can usually be counted on for fresh insights that appeal to the best in common sense.

The thesis of Just War Against Terror is that in the post- 9/11 world, the United States has a singular responsibility to use force on a global scale to fight “the world-threatening evil” of mass terrorism. Elshtain argues that U.S. power ought to be used to defend the rights of innocent people under attack anywhere. People have a right, she holds, to a coercive authority that will defend their rights. Given the weakness of international law and the uncertainty of international decision making, she argues, “There is no state but the United States with the power and (we hope) the will to play [the] role” of guarantor of “human dignity.”

The World Community and U.S. Responsibility

The idiosyncracy of Elshtain’s position is in its affirmation of the need to defend the innocent and uphold human rights across borders by unilateral U.S. action. She chides internationalists for ignoring the evils of failed states, but overlooks the repeated efforts by conservative American political forces to rein in the United Nations and prevent it from building a standby, multinational peacekeeping force. The world community’s failures in Rwanda and Bosnia, were not, as Elshtain paints them, simply failures of international organizations per se; they were failures of nation states to act singly or in concert and of a timid United Nations-NATO-European Union culture brought on by the reluctance of those same member states to allow international bodies to act promptly and with an adequate level of force in times of crisis. The enforcement of human rights and the protection of innocents in crisis situations need much closer analysis of past failures and successes, as well as of possible future remedies, than the bromide of responsible American power Elshtain offers to her readers.

If the United States must step in to defend the world from international terrorism, it is because it has, in great measure, created the conditions in which it alone has the capacity to act. Not only has it developed the world’s pre-eminent military force, whose logistical strength has been a sine qua non for rapid reaction and intervention; it has repeatedly prevented the development of alternative centers of power, whether through existing or enhanced U.N. capacities or through the institution of regional alternatives like the European rapid reaction force.

The de facto international distribution of labor that emerged in the late 1990’s, with the United States providing logistical support and European and other nations supplying the peacekeeping forces, was a reasonable basis for future cooperation. But in its preference for military solutions, the Bush administration abandoned that policy for a muscular unilateralism. Indeed, the National Security Strategy of 2002 declared the Bush administration’s intention to prevent the rise of any rivals and to hold at bay even allies who might dare to try to influence the direction of U.S. policy.

Catholic social teaching affirms the duty of political authority to uphold and defend human rights everywhere. What it does not do is affirm the right of a superpower to determine the world agenda. “[T]he possession of war potential,” the Second Vatican Council declared, “[does not] make every military or political use of it lawful” (G.S. No. 79). But something quite close to that seems to be Elshtain’s argument: Because the United States possesses the military might—and holds the right values—it has the duty to defend the innocent wherever they are under attack. Given the gravity of war, Catholic teaching is far more cautious. The threshold for intervention is high (only when “whole populations are at risk”), and the responsibility for intervention lies, except in the last resort, with the international community. The lack of such precision—and restraint—hampers Elshtain’s argument. Not only does her position open the world up to human-rights wars, it also anoints the United States as the world’s policeman, judge and executioner.

Against Internationalism

Elshtain’s whipping-boy is “liberal internationalism,” the view that the United States can have peace “on the cheap” through an informal empire built on “courts and lawyers and the proliferation of [trade] agreements.” She is on the mark in characterizing some Clinton-era policies this way, but the assumptions of the early Clinton White House were widely shared. With the notable exception of Pat Buchanan, Republicans as well as New Democrats believed in “free trade,” and most political theorists and international relations experts came around slowly, if at all, to the cosmopolitan values underlying humanitarian intervention. The legal presumption in favor of state sovereignty and nonintervention, and so against humanitarian intervention, was hard won and difficult to dislodge. Meanwhile political conservatives sought to preserve the military for traditional wartime uses, and they abhorred humanitarian intervention with its attendant demand for nation-building.

Elshtain fails to acknowledge that the Clinton administration came round, despite its own political inhibitions and in face of conventional wisdom, to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo, and to provide transport and logistical support in East Timor. She also does not mention that President Clinton belatedly apologized for failing to end genocide in Rwanda. Nor does she acknowledge that before 9/11, President Bush and his foreign policy team, like the early Clintonians before them, had opposed U.S. involvement in nation-building.

Elshtain is troubled not just by liberal internationalism, but by almost any form of internationalism. She scorns both the International Criminal Court and Amnesty International. She comes by this view honestly. It is part of her communitarian worldview. Just as people know and love their own neighborhood best, she believes, so they know and love their countries far better than the “international community.” Despite the evidence that the newly free states of Eastern Europe are clamoring to join the “old Europe” of the European Union, Elshtain holds that it is the nation-state that best serves and protects ordinary people, for it is there that men and women can best be citizens.

In her quarrel with internationalism, Elshtain again parts company with modern Catholic social teaching and especially with Pope John Paul II. Catholic social teaching values active citizenship, which it calls “participation.” Under the principle of subsidiarity, it also encourages keeping government close to home and fosters intermediary associations. But it has a strong internationalist current as well. The Second Vatican Council declared that “in our times, a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of absolutely every person” (G.S. No. 28).

Catholic social teaching has also been prescient about the growth of transnational ties of every sort in a process it has termed “socialization,” what we now call globalization. From Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris 40 years ago to Pope John Paul II’s statements during this year’s debate over the role of the United Nations, it has also supported the U.N. system as essential to the realization of “the universal common good.” Last June, at the request of the pope, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, conscious of the need “to avoid unilateral actions which could lead to the weakening of international law,” wrote to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to offer the Vatican’s renewed support for the world organization. Aside from the case of direct defense against aggression and as a last resort in humanitarian emergencies, unilateral military action is excluded, according to the pope’s teaching. In Catholic social teaching, therefore, as opposed to Elshtain’s apology for U.S. hegemony, universal human rights and international institutions, human rights go together.

International N.G.O.’s and Local Community Organizations

Another peculiarity of Elshtain’s case against internationalism is its criticism of international nongovernmental organizations (INGO’s). While she favors local citizen organizations, she contemns INGO’s. There is no denying that poor neighborhoods need community organizations, workers need unions and schools need P.T.A.’s. But grass-roots organizations have neither the clout nor the global reach of groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or Doctors Without Borders. But to restrict N.G.O.’s today to the local or even national level, as Elshtain seems to want to do, is akin to Jefferson, in the early 19th century, singing the praises of the yeoman farmer as commerce and industrialization gave birth to a new American economy. The international nongovernmental organizations are the sinews of civic society in our postmodern world. Without them we would be, as communitarians rightly fear, crushed between government and the market.

The INGO’s have their shortcomings, to be sure. They can sometimes be bothersome, self-appointed elites, threatening to deprive elected governments of their proper role in world bodies. But much more often they provide the guidance and tutelage for local community organizations, local human rights groups and indigenous environmental coalitions in weak, nonperforming or oppressive states. They likewise function as bulwarks for popular movements against authoritarian regimes. Correct their shortcomings, tie INGO’s more closely to their local counterparts, encourage them to relate respectfully to legitimate, elected governments, but do not dismiss them. For they represent the civil society of the globalized world of the 21st century.

An Empire Called Peace

In the end, Elshtain’s solution to the problems of our troubled era is American empire. She quotes with approval the contrarian moralist, Michael Ignatieff, who writes, “Nation-building is the kind of imperialism you get in a human rights era, a time when great powers believe simultaneously in the right of small nations to govern themselves and in their own right to rule the world.”

The flaw in Elshtain’s argument is the special pleading that stands in the place of an affirmative case for the unique right of the United States to impose its rule on the world. The argument goes something like this. Internationalism can work only where there is a system of functioning, peaceful states. But because the current international system includes many nonperforming, unrepresentative and repressive states, it ought not be expected to defend human rights and enforce the peace. One may agree that as a working system, the international community is far from ideal, but Elshtain makes the best the enemy of the good. If unilateral U.S. action is supposed to be a better way, then surely we must take a closer look at the record.

The failures in peacemaking during the 90’s, beginning with Somalia, which Elshtain credits to the international community, were also U.S. failures. In resistance to intervention, the United States has often been as recalcitrant as others, sometimes even more so. To take an egregious example, even when the Clinton White House after long delay agreed to assist with logistics for the peacekeeping mission to Rwanda, tens of thousands died as the Pentagon continued to find excuses for not providing transports it had been ordered to supply.

Over time, the nations of the world have found ways to intervene where intervention was necessary. The solutions have been ad hoc, but nonetheless precedents have been set for multilateral intervention in failed states: Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan. The international community has been feeling its way toward a new consensus on intervention, peacekeeping and nation-building. (For a careful account of the role of the U.S. military in the consensus that was emerging before Sept. 11, see Dana Priest, The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America’s Military [Norton, 2003].) In another first, the European Union announced in June it will undertake its first joint operation in Congo, where some three million people have died since 1998. Only by overlooking these developments and the possibilities they allow for further interstate cooperation, can Elshtain make the case for unique American responsibility in today’s supposedly Hobbesian world.

Ultimately, Elshtain’s moral case for aggressive U.S. foreign policy fails because Just War Against Terror is insufficiently critical. In her book Augustine and the Limits of Politics (1995), for example, Elshtain offered an acute reading, based on Augustine’s City of God, of empire as a counterfeit peace. There she traced the descent that moves, in the name of peace, from defense to empire to domination. She wrote: “No one should be mistaken about the lust to dominate that is so hopelessly intermingled with the yearning for peace. That is why we must be ever vigilant about the yearning for peace and whether what we seek is the quiet of destruction: Carthago delenda est as the solution to our woes.” No such Augustinian complexity runs through Elshtain’s latest book.

In what would have been beneficial advice for some just-war advocates of the invasion of Iraq, Elshtain also pointed out that Augustine “makes war harder to justify than many just-war thinkers do, and certainly he is concerned by what gets stirred up among just warriors as he is by the depredations done to one’s foes. No one walks away from a justifiable, defensive war or war of rescue unscathed.”

The weakness of Elshtain’s latest book is that it does not exhibit the same sort of skepticism of the pretensions of American power after Sept. 11. It lacks the skeptical view of empire that Augustine provided of Rome and the penetrating reading of the ironies of U.S. history that Reinhold Niebuhr offered an earlier generation of Americans. Augustinian skepticism about human rights wars, U.S. unilateralism and a 21st-century empire-without-colonies would have made Just War Against Terror a more probing, less polemical work. The sore need for a just-war treatment of the war on terror written in the spirit of Augustine and Niebuhr is still to be satisfied.

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