Friday, April 19, 2002

There was no massacre in Jenin (Ha'aretz)

[During the Israeli re-invasion of the West Bank cities in 2002, there was an explosion of wild accusations about alleged "massacres," mass graves, "war crimes," "genocide," and so on in Jenin. (For some examples, see here.) But these turned out to be nothing more than groundless mythmaking, fed by totally dishonest Palestinian propaganda and compounded by anti-Zionist hysteria in western Europe and elsewhere. The whole sorry episode should have left "progressive" opinion in western Europe feeling deeply ashamed and appropriately self-critical ... but no such luck. --Jeff Weintraub]
April 23, 2002

There was no massacre in Jenin

The claim that there was a "massacre" in the Jenin refugee camp has been taken up by many news media around the world, human rights groups and even among many governments. This claim, originally made during the height of the fighting in the refugee camp, reverberates with gravity, seriously damaging Israel's political campaign to justify its self defense against terror and the legitimacy of the means it is using in that campaign.

In Israel, too, suspicions were raised that there was truth to the Palestinian claims. Many feared that Jenin would be added to the black list of massacres that have shocked the world. The IDF contributed to those fears when it issued a preliminary estimate of hundreds of dead in the camp (it turned out that several score were killed, with the exact number still unknown) and by blocking journalists from entering the camp to report what was happening inside. That was an invitation to another charge, also widely reported, of an alleged cover-up.

In recent days, journalists - including Ha'aretz reporters - have visited the camp, gathering their own first-hand impressions and eyewitness testimony about the IDF's operations. Ha'aretz reporter Amira Hass spent several days in the camp, and her report appears in today's pages. There is evidence of intense combat, but, with appropriate caution, it can already be said what did not happen in the Jenin refugee camp. There was no massacre. No order from above was given, nor was a local initiative executed, to deliberately and systematically kill unarmed people.

In Israel of 2002, there is practically no way to cover up atrocities. Testimony by commanders and fighters in Jenin, many of whom were civilians called up into reserves for the purpose of the operation, as well as testimony by those who observed the events through various means refute the claims of a massacre. The fighting was intense, as could be expected in built-up areas, and especially against the background of rapid Israeli successes in other areas, particularly the Nablus casbah. Armed Palestinians shot, blew up and mined houses and alleyways. The soldiers, who had difficulty progressing, used bulldozers and suffered heavy losses - 23 soldiers were killed. Under such circumstances, civilians were also harmed. That is a terrible, sorrowful fact, resulting from the nature of the fighting, and in some specific cases there should be an examination to determine whether everything necessary was done to prevent civilian casualties. But declaring the fighting in Jenin a "massacre" is a mistake on the part of the naive, and a slander by others.

Palestinian propagandists have made perverse use of legends that, in part, were invented outside Jenin. Leading these propagandists were officials of the Palestinian Authority who issued baseless charges of "executions," fanning the flames of hatred against Israel. The readiness of international elements, including the heads of the European Union, to accept the Palestinian version without question, is testimony to their character, to Israel's fragile situation and to Ariel Sharon's negative image.

Monday, April 01, 2002

Chris Bertram, "Afghanistan: A Just Intervention"

An exceptionally clear, careful, and solidly reasoned discussion of the issues by the British political philosopher Chris Bertram. In my (possibly fallible) opinion, Bertram pretty much demolishes claims that the anti-Taliban war in Afghanistan failed to meet the moral or legal criteria of a "just war." --Jeff Weintraub



Online content from Vol. 6 no. 2 (2002)

Christopher Bertram is a member of the Imprints editorial committee. He is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Bristol (UK). He is currently finishing a study of Rousseau’s Social Contract to be published by Routledge. His interests include issues in international justice and problems of public justification.

Symposium on the War in Afghanistan:

A Just Intervention

Christopher Bertram


HE ATTACKS in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 were terrible events, they were also acts of barbarism. The deaths (and the manner of the deaths) of so very many people on the ground, in the buildings, and on the airliners were atrocious. Many of those who died were of course those who responded out of feelings of duty or altruism to the initial event. In attacking New York, the Islamo-fascists of Al Qaeda attacked one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, a city of immigrants (both now and historically) and a city which many great cultural and artistic figures have made there home (DaPonte, Gershwin, Charlie Parker, Auden, Warhol - reader: make your own list). Moreover, it was an attack mounted by people who hate the United States of America not only (and probably not even mainly) for its inequality or its acts of injustice in the world or for its place in an unequal international order, but rather because of its democracy, its pluralism, its sexual libertinism, and all the other things that the left ought to like about the United States.

The reaction of the left

By and large, the left discredited itself by its reaction. In Britain the New Statesman, rhetorically answered its own question about whether the victims of September 11th were innocent with a ‘yes and no’, as if somehow some of them were deserving of their fate.[1] Britain’s leading left environmentalist, the columnist George Monbiot, failed dismally to rise to the moment, and in his initial reaction to the events centred on them providing an opportunity for Tony Blair to approve a nuclear reprocessing plant.[2] Some on the left, have gone even further, appearing to urge backing for the radical Islamists. Certainly, that is the implication of a piece by Andrew Chitty in Radical Philosophy which states that ‘the attacks are a continuation and escalation of a war for the colonial subjugation of the Middle East that has been fought more or less continuously since World War II between the USA and its proxy state Israel on the one hand, and their locally based opponents on the other.’ Chitty sees the anti-war movement as torn between those opposed to all violence and aggression and genuine anti-imperialists. He states that the anti-imperialist impulse pulls ‘towards a positive defence of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, as the current representatives of Middle Eastern resistance to imperialist power, in their war against the USA and its proxies’. [3]

Why then, did the British left react in such a manner? Partly, it did so because of an ingrained cultural anti-Americanism. Another reason was the historical memory of unjust American action in Vietnam, Chile and many other places.[4] Some, like Chitty, were, perhaps, moved by US support for Israel. Others see US-backed sanctions against Iraq as responsible for much suffering or simply employ vaguer and more generalised criteria about the injustice of the international order and America’s putative responsibility for it. Historically, there is much justice in these complaints about the United States.[5] But the moral stakes are now very high and many of the ‘facts’ deployed by the left in recent debates are, at best, of dubious character.[6] (They are the kind of ‘facts’ that support conclusions people have already reached.) Lurking in the debate have also been assumptions about international wealth and poverty half-remembered from the writings of the dependency school (Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin et al.) that would hold the United States almost uniquely responsible for patterns of global poverty and inequality.

The left should have done much better than this. Certainly, there are and have been unfairnesses and grave injustices in the international economic order, but the poverty of, say, Algeria or Nigeria also owes a great deal to economic mismanangement by local elites. The underdevelopment of much of the Arab would, despite access to capital by the barrel-load, speaks volumes about the cultural (and religious) obstacles to development.[7] The Saudi royal family have used their wealth to fund elite consumption and to promote the puritan sectarianism that found such murderous expression on September 11th; the poverty of many of their people should hardly be laid exclusively at the door of the United States.

It is also worth adding to the reasons for the left’s hostility the fact that a Republican administration was in power at the time of the attacks, and, moreover, one headed by a President, George W. Bush, whose alignment with Big Oil and whose unilateralist attitudes rightly arouse the hostility of anyone who cares about social and global injustice. Since September 11th, the Bush administration, with its absurd ‘axis of evil’ rhetoric and its underwriting of Ariel Sharon, has confirmed this negative opinion. But unpalatable though the Bush administration may be, the question of which party is in the White House is, strictly speaking, irrelevant to the issue of whether the United States is justified in using military force to respond to such an attack. If Clinton, Gore or even Ralph Nader had been in the Oval Office, the issues of justice and injustice would arise in exactly the same way.

Just cause

Darrel Moellendorf’s discussion of the justice of the Afghan war is thoughtful and well-informed. There is much with which I agree. He argues, rightly, that even economically dominant powers with tainted histories have the right to defend themselves against murderous attack. I endorse wholeheartedly, the straightforward statement of ‘just cause’ in relation to the Afghan war that he gives:

A state that gives refuge to terrorists who plan and execute foreign attacks that intentionally result in the deaths of more than two thousand civilians of other states is certainly one whose domestic policy results in serious international injustices. Additionally, the states whose citizens died in such attacks have a duty to protect the security of their citizens, which duty justifies pursuing those who carried out the attacks both to prevent them from carrying out further attacks and to deter others from trying something similar.[8]

Despite his belief that this one of the traditional jus ad bellum conditions was met, Moellendorf argues that two of the other conditions – that war should be a last resort, and that there should be a reasonable probability of success – were not. Consequently he argues that recourse to war was not justified (a third condition, proportionality, is treated by him as basically derivative of the first two).[9] I shall argue that he is mistaken on both counts and that he applies these conditions in a mechanical way that fails to take sensible and realistic account of the conditions.I cannot agree, though, with his idiosyncratic conclusion that it was wrong for the United States to go to war but right to continue once started. On the contrary, I would argue that the United States had every right to go to war when it did.[10]


One difficulty that confronts discussions of the justice of the war is that of perspective. On the one hand, the matter is often discussed purely from the standpoint of an impartial moral calculus, so critics of the war ask rhetorically whether Afghan lives are worth less than American lives. (Of course, the answer is that they are not.) This misses the fact that states have special responsibilities to defend and protect the interests of their own citizens and are under an obligation not to weigh the interests of their own citizens equally with those of others.[11] Not only that, but they are under a duty to be responsive to the political community that they purport to represent. To be sure, the obligations of statesmanship are to steer a people away from imprudent and immoral action,[12] but we should not minimise the pressures and indeed the obligations on politicians representing a political community that rightly perceived itself to have been wounded and endangered. The point of mentioning these considerations is that discussion, particularly on the justice of American action, should focus not just on what it would be best for the United States to do, it should also aim to define an area of permissible (and even, more broadly, of excusable) action. It is reasonable to suppose that the United States has a permission and a discretion to act in ways that are not over-tightly circumscribed by our consideration of what is best (or indeed what is prudent).[13]

If consideration of the constraints on US leaders is missing from Moellendorf’s discussion, so too is much account of the Afghan background to the conflict (although he very effectively dismisses the silly suggestion that the United States was morally disbarred from action by its earlier backing for the anti-Soviet Mujahadeen). The Taliban was a monstrously oppressive regime that took to extremes traditional anti-women practices of the region (and the religion), that engaged in widespread murder, torture and ethnic cleansing, that committed wholesale destruction of artistic and religious artefacts, and many other crimes. Moreover, this was a regime that was leading the people of Afghanistan into the prospect of mass starvation. Of course, I could go on, but I need not, because all of these matters were the subject of petitions circulated on the Left and among human rights groups before September 11th. It is interesting to consider what, exactly, it was that the leftist signatories of those petitions wanted to happen. Perhaps they hoped that the Taliban would take heed, would to listen to reason and would stop? Perhaps they wanted someone (who?) to take (what?) action against the Taliban?[14] The point of raising these issues now is not to suggest that the state of Afghanistan before September 11th would on its own necessarily have justified intervention,[15] but rather, since Moellendorf seeks to rely upon a threshold argument against the justice of going to war, to point out that the background of injustice and oppression should be taken into account in assessing the reasonability of the decision. Put bluntly my suggestion is this, that since the background situation was such that the morality of intervention anyway was at any rate arguable, the weight of the moral evil of war that Moellendorf feeds into his employment of the jus ad bellum criteria is inappropriate. It is simply irrational to focus on the anticipated evils of war without any consideration of the prospective goods (or the evils thereby prevented).[16]

Since the jus ad bellum criteria are there to prevent recourse to the great evil of war except where strictly necessary, it also seems odd that Moellendorf abstracts from the jus in bello considerations. The moral badness of war is principally a consequence of its destructive and life-destroying nature. If if were possible to wage effective warfare without doing significant harm to others, then the threshold set by jus ad bellum would be much lower than it is. As things are, the threshold ought to be sensitive to the expected violence and intensity of the conflict. All loss of life in war is regrettable, and especially that of non-combattants. Some have sought to argue that US action would be illegitimate unless there could be a guarantee that there would be no civilian casualties.[17] Given the nature of war, that seems far too great a reasonable obstacle to set. By contrast, if a war could not be fought except with the inevitable deaths of many many thousands of innocents, only an emergency of the gravest moral nature could justify recourse to military force. The Afghan war seems to lie between these two extremes. Although there have been many (always too many) deaths from misdirected bombs, those deaths have been far fewer than anticipated (or claimed) by opponents of the war, and the US has been measured in its use of force.[18] The point here is that to the extent to which the US could anticipate minimising the evil effects of war, the jus ad bellum considerations invoked by Moellendorf may be interpreted with a lower degree of stringency.

It also seems right to observe that since Moellendorf draws a distinction between the initiation of the war and acts that are part of the war once initiated, it is somewhat artificial to single out the commencement of bombing by the US as the moment of initiation. In the first place, there was a war already going on within Afghanistan, one joined and not initiated by the US but which has been shortened appreciably by US action. In the second, why should we single out that moment as the beginning of hostilities rather than, say, September 11th, or the attack on the USS Cole, or the bombings of the US embassies in Africa? So it is not completely clear that the jus ad bellum criteria are appropriately invoked at the point Moellendorf wants to invoke them, though I am happy to grant that they are.

Last resort

Moellendorf suggests that the criterion of last resort had not been met because the United States failed to pursue a diplomatic solution with sufficient tenacity.[19] In particular, he criticised US reliance on Pakistan as an intermediary with the Taliban. This view has little merit. First, there were good reasons to seek the mediation of Pakistan, the Taliban were largely the creation of the Pakistani intelligence services and it may reasonably be supposed that if they could not persuade the Taliban of the need to surrender bin Laden then nobody could. Second, the Taliban had proved immune to international pressure on other matters (such as religious toleration and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas) and there was little reason to believe that they would be more yielding in this case. Third, many of the Taliban and their sympathisers in the Islamic world appear to have believed that the attacks on the Twin Towers were orchestrated by Mossad. This suggests that even the most rationally compelling evidence of Bin Laden’s involvement would not have been accepted by them, since they plainly did not and do not apply ordinary standards of reason and evidence to such matters. Fourth, and this is the decisive point, it is clear that the Taliban regime depended for its hold on the country on the support of Bin Laden and his group (who were responsible for the assassination of Northern Alliance commander Massoud on 9 September 2001). The Taliban and the Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan were mutually interdependent forces. The chief reason for supposing that the Taliban would not surrender Bin Laden is simply that they could not do so without bring about their own destruction.

It is also clear that the crisis before the bombing started was having an adverse effect on the delivery of humanitarian aid. There comes a time when it is no longer rational to engage in further diplomatic efforts, even given a small chance of those efforts securing their objectives. Delaying military action would have prolonged a standoff that would have meant many more Afghans dying from famine, deaths which would certainly have been blamed on the United States by many in the Muslim world (not to mention those under the baleful influence of Noam Chomsky).

Reasonable prospect of success

Moellendorf also suggests that the criterion of reasonable prospect of success was not met. Clearly, there is a difficulty in applying this criterion, since military and political success, like, say, flatness, admits of degrees. If the aim of the war is the complete elimination of terrorism anywhere on the planet for all time, then it is plainly not going to be achieved. Suppose, then, we advance the more modest aims of significantly disrupting the Al Qaeda network, of damaging their prestige, of deterring at least some future attacks, and of deterring other states from hosting their activities. Those aims seem eminently achievable and indeed have partly been realised already. There is evidence that many of those - especially in Pakistan – who rallied to the Al Qaeda cause after September 11th have come to think less of the demagogues who incited them in the light of the swiftness of the Taliban collapse. (Imagine how Al Qaeda’s prestige would have mounted in such circles if the United States had seemed unable to react for a long period after September 11th.) Moellendorf argues, on more-or-less a priori grounds, that religiously-inspired suicide bombers are unlikely to be deterred by the prospect of death. This seems a questionable argument. First, if the prestige of fanatical groups is damaged there will be fewer attracted to the cause in the first place, and consequently a smaller pool from which suicide bombers can be drawn. Second, while the a priori argument may support Moellendorf, the a posteriori one does not. The most recent historical experience of religiously-inspired suicide bombers is the Japanese kamikaze. Not only have there been few (or even no?) instances of suicide attacks by Japanese pilots since 1945, even before the end of the war the Japanese military found it very difficult to recruit them. The high-point of suicide bombing was the Battle of Okinawa, which was won by the Americans and which effectively sealed the fate of Japan. Once Okinawa was lost, the supply of kamikaze nearly dried up.[20] No doubt, given Al Qaeda’s decentralised structure, its cells will continue to organise in many countries. But they have been deprived of Afghanistan as a base from which to organise and train and that is a significant blow to them. There are other parts of the world where state control is weak - Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, parts of Peru - but for various reasons those places are likely to be much less hospitable to them than Afghanistan was. Areas where states are in effective control are likely to be even less welcoming than they were before: local elites are not going to want to share the fate of the Taliban.

Given the outcome to date of the Afghan war, there does seem something a little weird about Moellendorf’s application of the ‘reasonable probability of success’ criterion. We are being asked to judge, retrospectively (and knowing at least something about the outcome), whether the antecedent condition or reasonable probability of success was met. Of course there are cases where an action turns out successfully even though it was not rationally or morally justified at the time it was undertaken. Thus the person who puts the firm’s Christmas club money on the (reportedly lame) Laughing Boy in the 3.30 at Doncaster at odds of 100-1, may reasonably be condemned, even if the horse wins. But it is pretty far fetched to assimilate the US action in Afghanistan to that kind of case. The US plainly believed that it could achieve success, that was not a patently unreasonable belief and events have largely vindicated the judgement of US planners.

Clearly, in the brief space available to me I have not been able to cover all the issues. But the main case against Moellendorf’s position should be clear: both the criteria of last resort and that of reasonable prospects for success have been met in Afghanistan. I believe that they were met in any case. But in the case of Afghanistan they have been met all the more easily since their purpose is to avoid needless recourse to war. In Afghanistan this moral evil must be weighed against the atrocious character of the regime that was in place there.


[1] ‘In buildings thought indestructible’, New Statesman, 17 September 2001.

[2] George Monbiot, ‘The Need for Dissent’, Guardian 18 November 2001. Monbiot’s column on that day started with the sentence: ‘If Osama bin Laden did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.’

[3] Andrew Chitty, ‘Moralism, Terrorism and War: A Reply to Martin Shaw’ in Radical Philosophy 111(January-February 2002).

[4] One may reasonably ask how far back one should go in holding the modern US to account. Many critics seem happy to include in their roster of shame, acts that are now half a century old, taking us more than a quarter of the way back to Waterloo and predating the Anglo-French intervention at Suez. This, and the manifest bad faith involved in redescribing humanitarian actions involving the US in the Balkans as ‘really’ being motivated by imperialist aims, ought to raise serious questions about the credibility of Pilger, Monbiot, Chomsky and those who follow their lead.

[5] For a remarkable assault on the way in which US foreign policy has pursued stability (in the interests of business) at the expense of democracy and human rights and has maintained corrupt local elites in power, see Ralph Peters, ‘Stability, America’s Enemy’, in Parameters: US Army War College Quarterly, Winter 2001-02, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, pp. 5–20. I should not need to add here that my belief that the United States was justified in making war in Afghanistan does not imply support or endorsement for whatever the US might seek to do under the label of a ‘war against terrorism’, but sad experience debating these issues does necessitate such a clarification.

[6] Take, for example, the alleged infant deaths as a result of UN sanctions against Iraq, where do the very high numbers come from? No doubt there are different bases for different calculations, but one popularly cited number is arrived at by projecting advances in cutting infant mortality that were achieved during the 1980s, through to the 1990s. One does not have to be a very sophisticated statistician to see that there are problems with the assumptions behind such a procedure!. This is not to say that the Iraqi sanctions case is not one where there is much to be said against US (and UN) policy. The policy has indeed caused great suffering and unnecessary death, although not on the scale alleged by many left-wing commentators. For a balanced assessment of the evidence see Matt Welch, ‘The Politics of Dead Children: Have Sanctions Against Iraq Murdered Millions’, in Reason (March 2002).

[7] This point was recently underlined by the United Nations Development Programme’s Arab Human Development Report.

[8] Though he goes on, of course, to address various possible responses to this straightforward claim.

[9] Since many opponents of war in Afghanistan have themselves advocated or endorsed revolutionary war and violence in the past (or even in the present), it is at least fitting that – should they wish to endorse Moellendorf’s criteria – they should ask themselves whether they were or are met in the cases where they would favour resort to armed force. One might, for example, wonder whether, when the second intifada was begun, it met either the ‘last resort’ or ‘reasonable prospect of success’ criteria. The point here is intended to be methodological rather than ad hominem. Principles such as these do not wear their meaning plainly on their face: we need to think about how we might apply them, and apply them consistently, across a range of specimen cases in the light of what we think it plausible to say in those cases. Here, as elsewhere, we are aiming at reflective equilibrium.

[10]My response here is aimed very much at the detail of Moellendorf’s argument and, more tangentially, at those who opposed the war on the generalised ‘anti-imperialist’ grounds that Moellendorf himself rejects. Accordingly, I shall have nothing specific to say here to those who adopt a broader pacifist position. My remarks are directed to those who believe that war is sometimes justified but who doubt whether it was justified in this case.

[11]I have left the foregoing sentence in the unsatisfactory form in which it stood in the draft to which Darrel Moellendorf had access. In the final version of his paper he is rightly critical of what I carelessly say here. Where states have obligations to non-citizens those obligations are not of lesser importance than those to citizens: a state’s obligations to its domestic creditors, say, do not take precedence over its debts to foreigners. Nevertheless, states have a special responsibility to defend and protect their own citizens, and do not have this responsibility – at least not to the same degree – with respect to non-citizens. So, for example, a British citizen illegally detained in China would rightly engage the concern of the British Government. The government of Senegal, say, would not be morally engaged by that British person’s fate in China in anything like the same way.

[12]On the idea of the statesman, see John Rawls, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1999) pp. 97–8.

[13]I take it this is the distinction expressed by Martin Shaw when he writes: ‘The US had a right to wage war against the perpetrators of the terrorist massacre in New York and Washington and their allies, but it was not right to do so.’ ‘A Bombing Campaign Too Far’ on OpenDemocracy.Net, 28 February 2002. My judgement, contrary to Shaw’s is that the United States both had a right and was right to exercise it.

[14]There are clear parallels here with attitudes on the left to events in the former Yugoslavia before and after NATO involvement. The Milosevic regime had engaged in ethnic cleansing and mass murder in Croatia and Bosnia on a scale unprecedented in Europe since the Second World War and looked set to repeat their actions in Kosovo where ethnic-Albanians had earlier mounted a ten-year campaign of non-violent resistance. Once NATO was involved many self-styled ‘anti-imperialists’ not only changed their views on what should happen, but also of what the earlier facts had been. There is no space here to speculate on the psychological mechanisms at work in such people.

[15]Though it might have. Some people, such as Nick Cohen of the Observer have opposed the Afghan war even though they supported the Kosovo intervention. But it is arguable that human rights violations in Afghanistan, especially against ethnic and religious minorities, were, if anything, worse that those in Kosovo. In the light of which one might reasonably return the commonly-asked rhetorical question and ask whether the human rights of Afghans count for less than those of Europeans.

[16]A point of comparison that springs to mind here is the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979. The Vietnamese certainly had just cause (that of self-defence). Given the evil that was the Pol Pot regime, it would seem perverse to apply either the ‘last resort’ or the ‘reasonable prospect of success’ criteria as strictly as would be appropriate where military action against a less barbaric regimes were being contemplated.

[17]This has been the constant theme of UN human rights commissioner Mary Robinson.

[18]One estimate of civilian deaths in Afghanistan widely cited by that anti-war has been is about 4,000 according to data compiled by Marc Herold, a professor of economics at the University of New Hampshire (see Howard Zinn, ‘The Others’, The Nation, 11 February 2002). Other estimates have put the civilian deaths as low as a few hundred. Herold’s figures have been subjected to devastating rebuttal by Jeffrey C. Isaac, ‘Civilian casualties in Afghanistan: the limits of Marc Herold’s ‘comprehensive accounting’, OpenDemocracy.Net, 14 March 2002 and by Iain Murray, ‘Casualties of the Press’, on the Techcentralstation website. A more measured view than Herold’s is provided by Carl Connetta, ‘Operation Enduring Freedom: Why a Higher Rate of Civilian Bombing Casualties’, Project on Defense Alternatives, at Conetta estimates the civilian deaths directly attributable to US bombing at up to 1300. All of this is not to say that the US conduct of the war is beyond criticism on jus in bello grounds. On the contrary, the continued use of high altitude bombing since the fall of the Taliban has protected military personnel at the expense of needless civilian casualties.

[19]Claims about ‘last resort’ are often appealed to by opponents of US (and Israeli) policy on the grounds that acts of terror are the only means available to resist much greater power. On the ‘last resort’ criterion forming part of an apologia for terrorism see Michael Walzer, ‘Excusing Terror: The Politics of Ideological Apology’ in The American Prospect, vol. 12, issue 18.

[20]I derive this point from Victor Davis Hanson, ‘Dying to Kill: Suicide versus Democracy’, National Review Online, 18 January 2002. I utterly reject the gung-ho militarism endorsed by Davis Hanson in many of his writings, but the point he makes here seems valid.

Michael Walzer, "Can There Be a Decent Left?" (Dissent)

Can There Be A Decent Left?

by Michael Walzer

Leftist opposition to the war in Afghanistan faded in November and December of last year, not only because of the success of the war but also because of the enthusiasm with which so many Afghans greeted that success. The pictures of women showing their smiling faces to the world, of men shaving their beards, of girls in school, of boys playing soccer: all this was no doubt a slap in the face to leftist theories of American imperialism, but also politically disarming. There was (and is) still a lot to worry about: refugees, hunger, minimal law and order. But it was suddenly clear, even to many opponents of the war, that the Taliban regime had been the biggest obstacle to any serious effort to address the looming humanitarian crisis, and it was the American war that removed the obstacle. It looked (almost) like a war of liberation, a humanitarian intervention.

But the war was primarily neither of these things; it was a preventive war, designed to make it impossible to train terrorists in Afghanistan and to plan and organize attacks like that of September 11. And that war was never really accepted, in wide sections of the left, as either just or necessary. Recall the standard arguments against it: that we should have turned to the United Nations; that we had to prove the guilt of al-Qaeda and the Taliban and then organize international trials; and that the war, if it was fought at all, had to be fought without endangering civilians. The last point was intended to make fighting impossible. I haven't come across any arguments that seriously tried to describe how this (or any) war could be fought without putting civilians at risk, or to ask what degree of risk might be permissible, or to specify the risks that American soldiers should accept in order to reduce the risk of civilian deaths. All these were legitimate issues in Afghanistan, as they were in the Kosovo and Gulf wars. But among last fall's antiwar demonstrators, "Stop the bombing" wasn't a slogan that summarized a coherent view of the bombing-or of the alternatives to it. The truth is that most leftists were not committed to having a coherent view about things like that; they were committed to opposing the war, and they were prepared to oppose it without regard to its causes or character and without any visible concern about preventing future terrorist attacks.

A few left academics have tried to figure out how many civilians actually died in Afghanistan, aiming at as high a figure as possible, on the assumption, apparently, that if the number is greater than the number of people killed in the attacks on the Twin Towers, the war is unjust. At the moment, most of the numbers are propaganda; there is no reliable accounting. But the claim that the numbers matter in just this way-that the 3,120th death determines the injustice of the war-is wrong. It denies one of the most basic and best understood moral distinctions: between premeditated murder and unintended killing. And the denial isn't accidental, as if the people making it just forgot about, or didn't know about, the everyday moral world. The denial is willful: unintended killing by Americans in Afghanistan counts as murder. This can't be true anywhere else, for anybody else.

The radical failure of the left's response to the events of last fall raises a disturbing question: can there be a decent left in a superpower? Or more accurately, in the only superpower? Maybe the guilt produced by living in such a country and enjoying its privileges makes it impossible to sustain a decent (intelligent, responsible, morally nuanced) politics. Maybe festering resentment, ingrown anger, and self-hate are the inevitable result of the long years spent in fruitless opposition to the global reach of American power. Certainly, all those emotions were plain to see in the left's reaction to September 11, in the failure to register the horror of the attack or to acknowledge the human pain it caused, in the schadenfreude of so many of the first responses, the barely concealed glee that the imperial state had finally gotten what it deserved. Many people on the left recovered their moral balance in the weeks that followed; there is at least the beginning of what should be a long process of self-examination. But many more have still not brought themselves to think about what really happened.

Is there any way of escaping the politics of guilt and resentment on the home ground of a superpower? We might begin to worry about this question by looking at oppositional politics in older imperial states. I can't do that in any sustained way (historians take note), only very sketchily. The Boer War is a good place to begin, because of the fierce opposition it aroused in England-which wasn't marked, despite the cruelty of the war, by the kind of self-hate that we have seen on the American left. Nor were the "little Englanders" hostile to English politics and culture; they managed to take a stand against the empire without alienating themselves from its home country. Indeed, they were more likely to regard England as the home country of liberalism and parliamentary democracy. After all, the values of parliamentarianism (self-government, free speech, the right of opposition) did not support imperial rule. George Orwell's defense of patriotism seems to me an actual description of the feelings of many English liberals and leftists before his time and after (even of the Marxists, some of the best of whom were historians, like E. P. Thompson, who wrote sympathetically, indeed romantically, about the English people). Later on, during Margaret Thatcher's terms, and particularly during the Falklands War, the tone of the opposition was more bitter, but by then there was no empire, only sour memories.

I think that the French story is similar. For most of the imperial years, French leftists were as proud of their Frenchness as were people on the right-and perhaps with more justification. For wasn't France the birthplace of enlightenment, universal values, and human rights? The Algerian war gave rise to a more familiar self-hatred, most clearly manifest in Jean-Paul Sartre's defense of National Liberation Front (FLN) terrorism (in his preface to Franz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth): "To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: there remains a dead man and a free man." This suggests that it is actually a good thing to kill Europeans (they were mostly French), but Sartre did not volunteer to go himself and be killed so that one more Algerian would be a free man. His was a generalized, not a personal, self-hatred.

Why shouldn't the American story be like these two, with long years of healthy oppositionist politics, and only episodic resentment? Wasn't America a beacon of light to the Old World, a city on a hill, an unprecedented experiment in democratic politics? I grew up with the Americanism of the popular front in the 1930s and 1940s; I look back on it now and think that the Communist Party's effort to create a leftist pop culture, in an instant, as the party line turned, was kitschy and manipulative-and also politically very smart. Paul Robeson's "Ballad for Americans," whatever the quality of the music, provides at least a sense of what an unalienated American radicalism might be like. The days after September 11 would not have been a bad time for a popular front. What had happened that made something like that unthinkable?

The cold war, imperial adventures in Central America, Vietnam above all, and then the experience of globalization under American leadership: all these, for good reasons and bad, produced a pervasive leftist view of the United States as global bully-rich, privileged, selfish, hedonistic, and corrupt beyond remedy. The sense of a civilizing mission, which must have sustained parts of the British and French left in a more fully imperial setting (read John Stuart Mill on British India), never got off the ground here. Foreign aid, the Peace Corps, and nation building never took on the dimensions of a "mission"; they were mostly sidelines of U.S. foreign policy: underfunded, frequently in the shade of military operations. Certainly, there has been much to criticize in the policies of every U.S. government since the Second World War (see almost any back issue of Dissent). And yet, the leftist critique-most clearly, I think, from the Vietnam years forward (from the time of "Amerika," Viet Cong flags, and breathless trips to North Vietnam)-has been stupid, overwrought, grossly inaccurate. It is the product of what Philip Roth, in his novel I Married a Communist, aptly described as "the combination of embitterment and not thinking." The left has lost its bearings. Why?

I will suggest four reasons, without claiming that this is an exhaustive list. It is nothing more than a rough argument, an attempt to begin a debate.

(1) Ideology: the lingering effects of the Marxist theory of imperialism and of the third worldist doctrines of the 1960s and 1970s. We may think that we live in a postideological age, and maybe most of us do, but the traces of old ideologies can be found everywhere in the discourse of the left. Perhaps the most striking consequence is the inability of leftists to recognize or acknowledge the power of religion in the modern world. Whenever writers on the left say that the "root cause" of terror is global inequality or human poverty, the assertion is in fact a denial that religious motives really count. Theology, on this view, is just the temporary, colloquial idiom in which the legitimate rage of oppressed men and women is expressed.

A few brave leftists described the Taliban regime and the al-Qaeda movement as examples of "clerical fascism," which at least gets the adjective right. And maybe "fascist" is close enough, even if this new politics doesn't look like the product of late capitalist degeneration. It gives the left a reason for opposing Islamic terror, which is an important achievement. But it would be better to find a reason in the realities of terrorism itself, in the idea of a holy war against the infidels, which is not the same thing as a war against inferior races or alien nations. In fact, Islamic radicalism is not, as fascism is, a racist or ultranationalist doctrine. Something else is going on, which we need to understand.

But ideologically primed leftists were likely to think that they already understood whatever needed to be understood. Any group that attacks the imperial power must be a representative of the oppressed, and its agenda must be the agenda of the left. It isn't necessary to listen to its spokesmen. What else can they want except . . . the redistribution of resources across the globe, the withdrawal of American soldiers from wherever they are, the closing down of aid programs for repressive governments, the end of the blockade of Iraq, and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel? I don't doubt that there is some overlap between this program and the dreams of al-Qaeda leaders-though al-Qaeda is not an egalitarian movement, and the idea that it supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is crazy. The overlap is circumstantial and convenient, nothing more. A holy war against infidels is not, even unintentionally, unconsciously, or "objectively," a left politics. But how many leftists can even imagine a holy war against infidels?

(2) Powerlessness and alienation: leftists have no power in the United States, and most of us don't expect to exercise power, ever. Many left intellectuals live in America like internal aliens, refusing to identify with their fellow citizens, regarding any hint of patriotic feeling as a surrender to jingoism. That's why they had such difficulty responding emotionally to the attacks of September 11 or joining in the expressions of solidarity that followed. Equally important, that's why their participation in the policy debate after the attacks was so odd; their proposals (turn to the UN, collect evidence against bin Laden, and so on) seem to have been developed with no concern for effectiveness and no sense of urgency. They talked and wrote as if they could not imagine themselves responsible for the lives of their fellow citizens. That was someone else's business; the business of the left was . . . what? To oppose the authorities, whatever they did. The good result of this opposition was a spirited defense of civil liberties. But even this defense displayed a certain willful irresponsibility and ineffectiveness, because so many leftists rushed to the defense of civil liberties while refusing to acknowledge that the country faced real dangers-as if there were no need at all to balance security and freedom. Maybe the right balance will emerge spontaneously from the clash of right-wing authoritarianism and left-wing absolutism, but it would be better practice for the left to figure out the right balance for itself, on its own; the effort would suggest a responsible politics and a real desire to exercise power, some day.

But what really marks the left, or a large part of it, is the bitterness that comes with abandoning any such desire. The alienation is radical. How else can one understand the unwillingness of people who, after all, live here, and whose children and grandchildren live here, to join in a serious debate about how to protect the country against future terrorist attacks? There is a pathology in this unwillingness, and it has already done us great damage.

(3) The moral purism of blaming America first: many leftists seem to believe that this is like blaming oneself, taking responsibility for the crimes of the imperial state. In fact, when we blame America, we also lift ourselves above the blameworthy (other) Americans. The left sets itself apart. Whatever America is doing in the world isn't our doing. In some sense, of course, that is true. The defeat of fascism in the middle years of the twentieth century and of communism in the last years were not our doing. Some of us, at least, thought that these efforts merited our support-or our "critical support." But this is a complicated and difficult politics, and it doesn't allow for the favorite posture of many American leftists: standing as a righteous minority, brave and determined, among the timid, the corrupt, and the wicked. A posture like that ensures at once the moral superiority of the left and its political failure.

(4) The sense of not being entitled to criticize anyone else: how can we live in the United States, the richest, most powerful, and most privileged country in the world-and say anything critical about people who are poorer and weaker than we are? This was a major issue in the 1960s, when the New Left seemed to have discovered "oppression" for the first time, and we all enlisted on the side of oppressed men and women and failed, again and again, to criticize the authoritarianism and brutality that often scar their politics. There is no deeper impulse in left politics than this enlistment; solidarity with people in trouble seems to me the most profound commitment that leftists make. But this solidarity includes, or should include, a readiness to tell these people when we think they are acting wrongly, violating the values we share. Even the oppressed have obligations, and surely the first among these is not to murder innocent people, not to make terrorism their politics. Leftists who cannot insist upon this point, even to people poorer and weaker than they are, have abandoned both politics and morality for something else. They are radical only in their abjection. That was Sartre's radicalism, face-to-face with FLN terror, and it has been imitated by thousands since, excusing and apologizing for acts that any decent left would begin by condemning.

What ought to be done? I have a modest agenda: put decency first, and then we will see. So, let's go back over my list of reasons for the current indecency.

Ideology: We certainly need something better than the rag-tag Marxism with which so much of the left operates today-a Marxism whose chief effect is to turn world politics into a cheap melodrama, with all the villains dressed to look the part and one villain larger than life. A tough materialist analysis would be fine, so long as it is sophisticated enough to acknowledge that material interests don't exhaust the possibilities of human motivation. The spectacle of European leftists straining to find some economic reason for the Kosovo War (oil in the Balkans? a possible pipeline? was NATO reaching for control of the Black Sea?) was entertaining at the time, but it doesn't bear repeating. For the moment we can make do with a little humility, an openness to heterodox ideas, a sharp eye for the real world, and a readiness to attend to moral as well as materialist arguments. This last point is especially important. The encounter with Islamic radicalism, and with other versions of politicized religion, should help us understand that high among our interests are our values: secular enlightenment, human rights, and democratic government. Left politics starts with the defense of these three.

Alienation and powerlessness: It is a common idea on the left that political responsibility is something like temperance, moderation, and cleanliness-good bourgeois values that are incompatible with radical politics or incisive social criticism. You have to be a little wild to be a radical. That isn't a crazy idea, and alienated intellectuals may well have, more than anyone else, the anger necessary to begin the critical project and the lust for intellectual combat that sustains it. But they don't necessarily get things right, and the angrier they are and the more they are locked into their combative posture, the more likely they are to get things wrong. What was necessary after September 11, and what is necessary now, is an engagement with our fellow citizens that recognizes the fellowship. We can be as critical as we like, but these are people whose fate we share; we are responsible for their safety as they are for ours, and our politics has to reflect that mutual responsibility. When they are attacked, so are we; and we should join willingly and constructively in debates about how to defend the country. Once again: we should act as if we won't always be powerless.

Blaming America first: Not everything that goes badly in the world goes badly because of us. The United States is not omnipotent, and its leaders should not be taken as co-conspirators in every human disaster. The left has little difficulty understanding the need for distributive justice with regard to resources, but we have been practically clueless about the just distribution of praise and blame. To take the obvious example: in the second half of the twentieth century, the United States fought both just and unjust wars, undertook both just and unjust interventions. It would be a useful exercise to work through the lists and test our capacity to make distinctions-to recognize, say, that the United States was wrong in Guatemala in 1954 and right in Kosovo in 1999. Why can't we accept an ambivalent relation to American power, acknowledging that it has had good and bad effects in the world? But shouldn't an internationalist left demand a more egalitarian distribution of power? Well, yes, in principle; but any actual redistribution will have to be judged by the quality of the states that would be empowered by it. Faced with states like, say, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, I don't think we have to support a global redistribution of political power.

Not blaming anyone else: The world (and this includes the third world) is too full of hatred, cruelty, and corruption for any left, even the American left, to suspend its judgment about what's going on. It's not the case that because we are privileged we should turn inward and focus our criticism only on ourselves. In fact, inwardness is one of our privileges; it is often a form of political self-indulgence. Yes, we are entitled to blame the others whenever they are blameworthy; in fact, it is only when we do that, when we denounce, say, the authoritarianism of third world governments, that we will find our true comrades-the local opponents of the maximal leaders and military juntas, who are often waiting for our recognition and support. If we value democracy, we have to be prepared to defend it, at home, of course, but not only there.

I would once have said that we were well along: the American left has an honorable history, and we have certainly gotten some things right, above all, our opposition to domestic and global inequalities. But what the aftermath of September 11 suggests is that we have not advanced very far-and not always in the right direction. The left needs to begin again.

Michael Walzer is co-editor of Dissent and the author, among many works, of Just and Unjust Wars.