Saturday, December 22, 2018

Six Questions to Ask Before We Start Another War

Micah Zenko at Foreign Policy:

  1. Are there national interests at stake that are best achieved through the use of combat arms, and which are worth the costs and consequences?
  2. What, if any, is the domestic and international legal justification?
  3. What allies or partners are signing up, and what exactly are they contributing to the intervention?
  4. What are the intervention’s political and military objectives?
  5. Are those objectives obtainable with the American and partner military resources committed, and apparent domestic political will?
  6. Can officials define what a successful end state looks like?
I would also ask,
How many people are going to die, be maimed, lose their homes, or otherwise suffer terribly, and what justifies this mayhem?
I suppose this might be covered under number one, but Zenko's formulation seems awfully bloodless to me. Before we blow people up we should think hard about the bodies and the mourning.


Unknown said...

The problem with the "is the mayhem worth it?" question is that it has been asked and answered in the affirmative in all the most prominent American foreign military involvements. The answer that leads to war usually involves some variation of, "the possibilities inherent in not going to war are worse than the mayhem involved in doing so." The possibilities that make war worth it in the eyes of American decision makers often come down to some variant of the Munich argument: "if we let them get away with what they're doing now, they'll start doing things that are much worse from a position of greater strength."

The other answer that makes war seem worth it is often some variant of, "remember Cambodia." For example, someone could easily argue, as I'm sure they have repeatedly in the various relevant councils and committees in Washington, that Afghans will be worse off than they are now if we're not there to keep the Taliban and ISI at bay. Whether one agrees with the assessment or not, seems to me not germane; the point is the argument is an answer to your mayhem question and it has been seen as satisfactory in Washington for quite some time.

To get the sort of answer I suspect you want--that war mayhem isn't worth it in almost all cases--especially on a regular basis, would require a massive change in American political culture, top to bottom, in a direction that looks to be no more likely than the one that would allow proper funding for single-payer health care.

Incidentally, to me Zenko's list is a problem because it's fussy, confusing, and too long; 1 and 2 should be the same question, as should 4 and 6; 3 seems to me just a subsection of question 5.

In my private list, the first question would be, "are we hoping the enemy will give in if we just bomb them some?" If the answer is yes, don't do it.

John said...

I agree that Washington decision-makers seem to have discounted death and destruction, but it can't hurt to keep bringing it up.

I wonder if I oppose violence "in almost all cases". I supported the first Gulf War enthusiastically and the initial Afghan invasion reluctantly. I supported our limited support of the Iraqi government against the Islamic State. So that's, what, 3 out of 10 or so?

G. Verloren said...


The first Gulf War was a success, so there's that.

The Afghan invasion was doomed from the start - the Soviets had only left twelve years prior in utter disgrace, after a decade of occupation that accomplished zilch, so we really should have known that we couldn't achieve anything meaningful there. And, of course, we didn't. Afghanistan is still ruled by the Taliban.

As for the support of the "Iraqi government" against ISIS / ISIL, both entities only exist because we plunged the region into total chaos by taking out Hussein, leading Iraq from bad to worse. The country went from a brutal and corrupt but stable dictatorship with a functional economy and infrastructure, to a bombed out shell of a country faced with a total power vacuum fought over by local warlords, until eventually the Islamic State solidified their base and filled the vacuum. We've since beaten them back, but we still don't have a long term solution to the ruined economy and infrastructure, the weak local government, and the danger of further fighting and civil war as various factions vie to refill the vacuum. Oh, and of course we lied about our casus belli - there were never WMDs, and we knew it.

So of the three wars, one worked out fairly well, and the other two were total catastrophies that aren't even over yet, and will ultimately have taken decades to play out by the time things finally come to a close.

So that's an overall 10% success rate? Or perhaps more favorably, a 33% success rate of the wars that "should" have been fought? (Being generous with Aghanistan and Iraq.)

Unknown said...

Oh, I'm not saying Washington decision-makers have discounted death and destruction; that's one reason why they've invested billions in smart bombs, drones, etc.--to reduce death and destruction. I'm saying that they find, because there are, numerous ways of answering the "is it worth the mayhem?" question in the affirmative, so that it seems to me your question already is asked and has a negligible effect in preventing US military action. Remember many neocons sincerely argued that the second Iraq war would end Saddam's mayhem, not cause much mayhem in itself, and make the lives of Iraqis much, much better. That is, they had already measured their war on the relative mayhem of outcomes scale, and come up with "let's do it!" as the answer. I was categorically opposed to that war, but my point is they had their arguments in answer to your question, and many folks found them convincing.

Likewise, many think Obama's failure to attack Assad after he crossed the "red line" increased the death and destruction of the Syrian Civil War, by emboldening Assad. I don't share this point of view--or rather, I think we should have stayed out regardless. But I think they would say the risk of causing greater mayhem by not doing something makes it worth the risk of causing mayhem by doing something. Overall, my feeling is those who argue for war in our country are already well-furnished with arguments to answer your question. If the goal is to reduce the number of US military actions abroad, I think a pragmatic list like Zenko's is going to be more effective.

Unknown said...

By the way, my second post was @John.

John said...

@G -- yes, the Afghan intervention was probably doomed to a bad end, but the Afghan government was harboring the authors of the bloodiest ever foreign attack on American soil, and I felt that we were simply not going to tolerate that. Nothing about the whole history of the US over the past hundred years suggests that we would let such an attack pass without massive retaliation. I was pretty fired up myself, despite my own peaceful instincts and a fair amount of reading about how all this came to pass. My hope was that we would chase the Taliban out of Kabul, set up a successor regime, declare victory and get out. Of course we did not and now we seem to be stuck there, but I still believe the initial attack was inevitable.