In Defense of 'Just War' Thinking
This is my third attempt in these pages to assess the military component of the response to September 11. The first stable element in this assessment has been the underlying conviction that the attacks were of a character as to make recourse to war, rather than an exclusive reliance on law enforcement, politically inevitable and morally/legally justifiable. The second stable element has been my view that unless this necessary military element is kept subordinate to the nonmilitary dimensions of response, the war against global terror will be lost in the end. The unstable aspects of my response have involved changing perceptions of the proportionality of means and ends as it related to the use of force in Afghanistan.
Early on, I was overly persuaded by the language used by President Bush and other leaders that they understood that force must be used sparingly and with great sensitivity in relation to civilian innocence. As the military campaign in Afghanistan deepened, with America once again seeming to confine its battlefield role to high-altitude bombing and Vietnam-era tactics, I felt unable to endorse any longer the justice of the means. Now, given the unexpectedly rapid collapse of the Taliban regime and the obvious impact on the operational nexus of Al Qaeda, there seems, at least temporarily, to be a restored sense of proportionality between means and ends.
Should military force subsequently be used excessively or vindictively in Afghanistan, this judgment could again be reversed. The prospect of such a further reversal is heightened by the late- November massacre of hundreds of surrendered Taliban fighters locked into the prison fortress at Mazar-i-Sharif. It was clearly a joint Northern Alliance/US operation, combining US airstrikes at close range with Northern Alliance ground operations in a setting where the more objective journalists reported that US military advisers were "running the show." Such blatant criminalityseemed an indirect outcome of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's expressions of indifference with respect to Northern Alliance behavior, especially with respect to the execution rather than capture of Al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers. These are deeply troubling portents of what the future holds in store.
As troubling has been Bush's expansive definition of terrorism and the goals of war, which appear increasingly to contemplate extending the military undertaking beyond the borders of Afghanistan, and specifically to renew full-scale warfare against Iraq. Increasingly, Bush relies on an inflated conception of the 9/11 threat that appears to express a commitment to wage war against nonstate political violence around the world even if it has no relevance to the specifically apocalyptic terrorism associated with the bin Laden vision. And most recently, Bush went so far as to associate "terrorism" with the possession of weapons of mass destruction that might fall into the hands of terrorists, presumably to explain why Iraq is now fair game. Given the likely domestic source of the anthrax incidents, such a policy, if scrupulously carried out, would imply waging an auto-war against America!
Against this background, a central challenge of September 11 for progressives and conservatives alike is to identify the shape and limits of a proper response. The starting point for such an understanding is appreciation of the security-shattering character of the attacks combined with their implicit and credible threat of future attacks of comparable or even greater magnitude. In such circumstances, any government must mobilize its capabilities to achieve a maximally effective response and generate the widest possible popular support. Such imperatives are even stronger in the case of the United States, given its leadership in world society, as well as its linchpin role with respect to global security, however flawed its execution has been in several past instances (including Vietnam, the Israel/Palestine conflict, the post-cold war abandonment of Afghanistan and the follow-up to the Gulf War).
The Bush presidency has performed reasonably well so far in meeting the crucial elements of this challenge. It recognized the challenge with clarity and mobilized society for a necessary and prolonged struggle. It warned against expectations of a quick or easy fix, it defined the mission in relation to terrorism rather than Islam and it made a serious effort to reassure the Muslim minority in America that their rights would be protected. Beyond this, the White House developed a multilevel response that combined the diplomatic mobilization of an international coalition, a comprehensive effort to disrupt Al Qaeda's funding sources, a global coordination of national police and law enforcement efforts to find and prosecute members of Al Qaeda cells dispersed in as many as sixty countries, and made at least nominal recourse to the UN Security Council to obtain a unanimous endorsement of such initiatives.