To continue with the wall-to-wall Syria coverage here….
In a critique I wrote for Reason Papers of Angelo Codevilla’s No Victory, No Peace (Reason Papers, Spring 2006), I agreed with Codevilla that victory in warfare is an all-or-nothing matter:
Since victory is the natural goal of warfare, the issue we face in warfare is conceptually simple but psychologically demanding. We must first decide whether or not to go to war. If we elect to go to war, victory automatically becomes our goal, and we are obliged both to get clear on what the goal requires of us and then to satisfy its requirements. If we find ourselves unclear about its requirements or unwilling to bring it about, then rationality demands that we abjure war altogether. A war that aims at less than full victory is not worth fighting at all. By contrast, a war that aims at victory can be worth fighting even at colossally high cost—as witness the U.S. Civil War or World War II, paradigm examples of justifiable wars fought by the classical conception of victory. The failure to heed the mutually exclusive options we face in warfare—to blur the relevant distinctions, gloss over inconvenient facts, or exaggerate or understate the consequences of action or inaction—is the thin wedge of defeat, and in the worst cases, of catastrophe and annihilation. Warfare, like all meaningful human activities, has a logic we ignore at our peril. (p. 9).
Ironically, one of the issues in contention in that symposium was whether or not to attack Syria, which Codevilla favored and Roderick Long and I rejected. (Here is Roderick’s symposium contribution.) For a nice bit of confirmation of the basic logic of my argument–both about victory and about Syria–read Yasin al Haj Saleh’s piece in today’s New York Times. I admire the candor of his piece, but not the guilt-trip behind it. One couldn’t be more explicit than Saleh about the allegedly “humanitarian” demand that we owe the world a duty of altruistic self-sacrifice to the point of being pulled into a war that has nothing to do with our interests. What I particularly admire is Saleh’s explicitness about the idea that we’re obliged not only to fight for Syria but to do so with a view to re-creating the nation itself. Forgotten here is the fact that it was imperialist nation-building that created Syria–and at least remotely or indirectly, the current mess–in the first place.
This letter in the Times commits the left-liberal’s version of a Randroid fallacy about sanction:
To the Editor:
A vote against punishing Syria’s use of poison gas is a vote acquiescing in the killing of innocents with chemical weapons. Where do those who oppose a military strike place the red line: with the annihilation of a city or a nation? The vote in Congress is not about a war in Syria; it is about weapons that can kill thousands.
MICHAEL L. SCHNEIDER
New Haven, Sept. 8, 2013
Put aside the assumption that warfare is a form of retributive justice (and put aside the legitimacy of the concept of retributive justice itself). The basic fallacy here is an equivocation over “acquiescing” (and a related straw man against anti-interventionism). A vote against Syrian intervention is just that: a vote against American military involvement in the Syrian civil war. It only “acquiesces” in “the killing of innocents with chemical weapons” in the sense that it prevents the U.S. military from engaging in further involvement in Syria in order to respond to that killing. It doesn’t “acquiesce” in the sense of condoning the act. We have no free-standing duty to intervene around the world whenever atrocities take place, and we don’t morally speaking “acquiesce” in atrocities simply because we choose not to intervene in them, at least militarily.
To answer Mr Schneider’s question: we place the “red line” at the rights of the denizens of the United States. (Not necessarily its citizens, but its inhabitants, whether full citizens or not. If Puerto Rico were attacked tomorrow, we would be obliged to defend it. And if we made alliances whose ultimate purpose was the defense of the rights of Americans so defined, we’d be obliged to honor those.) Resort to war by the United States requires an attack on or credible threat against the denizens of the United States. That’s what the “common defense” in the Constitution’s Preamble means. Otherwise, all bets are off. And even there, the threshold for war is high. But we don’t go to war where no attack or credible threat against us is involved. And none is in the case of Syria.