War and waste (crossposted at Crooked Timber)

Even by left/liberal standards, I seem to have become an extreme pacifist. That’s surprising to me, because I was a mainstream liberal internationalist 20 years ago, and I haven’t changed my views in any fundamental way. In particular, I don’t have any fundamental objection in principle to war, or even to constraints like the need for a UN resolution. I’ve just looked at the experience of those 20 years, and reconsidered earlier wars, and I’ve concluded that the consequences of war and revolution are nearly always bad. Even ‘successful’ wars cost more, in terms of lives and wasted resources, than the benefits they deliver.

I don’t particularly like being out on a limb, so I’m generally encouraged to find other people starting to think the same way. In particular, I was pleased to see this column by Matt Yglesias, making the point that Military strikes are an extremely expensive way to help foreigners with specific reference to Libya. I made exactly the same case at the time.

With a little more ambivalence, I read this piece by Tom “Suck. On. This” Friedman who observes that Middle East oil no longer matters, and concludes

Obama’s foreign policy is mostly “nudging” and whispering. It is not very satisfying, not very much fun and won’t make much history, but it’s probably the best we can do or afford right now. And it’s certainly all that most Americans want.

I don’t share the tone of regret (“Happy the land that has no history” is my view), but apart from that, Friedman is very close to the view I put in the National Interest a year ago, that there is no clearly defined U.S. national interest at stake in the Middle East and, more succinctly, in this comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East … [^1]

Even at the cost of lining up with Friedman, I’d be pleased if the idea that war is an expensive waste of money became conventional wisdom. Switching to utopian mode, wouldn’t it be amazing if the urge to “do something” could be channeled into, say, ending hunger in the world or universal literacy (both cheaper than even one Iraq-sized war)?

[^1]: The joke doesn’t quite work as a link. You have to imagine the [click to continue] fold after the first para.

34 thoughts on “War and waste (crossposted at Crooked Timber)

  1. Underlying the push to war is the idea that liberal democracy is some kind of natural endpoint that societies will naturally glide into after a few unfortunate obstacles are (heroically) cleared. This is a naive point of view that only appears obvious to people who have been indoctrinated into the liberal democratic myth (and an equally naive heroic model of history.) It’s hard to believe this mythology is repeatedly exhumed as a justification for war without anyone noticing the smell.

  2. I have been enthusiastically open to charges of niave passivism from chest beaters for a long time . Our massive millitary budget and millitary industrial way of life seem always to be beyond question .If the lives of those who decide to make war were on the line there wouldnt have been so many .A bayonette is a weapon of war with a working class man at either end of it .

  3. Well, it has been noticeable that total war between Great Powers has become non-existent since the advent of nuclear weapons. The “brave leaders” on all sides seem very reluctant start wars where their own chances of dying are the same as everyone else’s.

    Proxy wars, secondary and minor power wars and civil wars, often very large, have become the norm. We would be wise to stay aloof from all that. Unfortunately, we do not and a big reason must be the armaments industry. Nations like the USA, Russia, China, Britain, France and quite a few others have vested interests in fostering wars all over the place. They drive the huge and lucrative arms trade. Of course, arms manufacture and use is a negative sum game. Humanity and the global economy overall suffer for it. But for some individual and national players it is a net benefit.

  4. By a narrow margin the British Parliament voted against a military strike against Assad.

    Source: Sueddeutsche Zeitung,30/8/13.

  5. @Ernestine Gross

    Well, Realpolitiks suggests that the US and UK would be very reluctant to start bombing a Russian ally. In geostrategic terms, Syria and Iran are almost in Russia’s backyard. It seems to receive little publicity in the West but the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation looks every bit as potentially serious and powerful as NATO in the coming years. Look it up on Wikipedia.

    The days of Western world domination are over. The UK is a old bulldog with few teeth left in World Power terms. It can only act in concert with the US if any theatre bigger than the Falklands. I suspect Russia has indicated that its ships in the Mediterranean would play a role in assisting in the Syria regime’s defence. Would Britain want to risk a confrontation with Russia over Syria? No, it’s not worth it. The same even applies to the US. What would be achieved for US ends would not be worth the costs and risks. Having said all this, I could turn out to be wrong. Predicting that the US will act sensibly is fraught with danger. Funding a proxy war by assisting the rebels is actually much more cost effective and less risky. That too is a still bad idea IMO but last time I checked nobody in Washington listens to me! 😉

  6. It’s not Bush and Blair in power now – and that makes a difference. Most military interventions fail politically in their own terms, let alone in the wider view, but Iraq was such a massive failure that it taught our masters a lesson they may not forget for a while.

    Apart from anything else, after the intelligence triumphs of the runup to Iraq why would anyone, up to and including Presidents, trust a word of what we’re being told about Assad’s use of chemical weapons (if it ever happened, if Assad had anything to do with it – the lot)?

  7. @derrida derider
    Though I suppose it doesn’t really compare to the tragically large casualties, this is actually yet another important cost of the irresponsible and ill-conceived episode in Iraq. I’m quite keen for chemical weapons usage and proliferation to be constrained, and I’d be willing to see military force used to this end. But I, and I think the public at large, am now so deeply suspicious of political manipulation of intelligence that it’s difficult to confidently hold an opinion about what to do in Syria. If nothing else I’m more inclined to believe current reports surrounding the Assad regime simply because it’s probably a political negative for the government(s) that does intervene and thus less incentive to mislead.

  8. I am puzzled as to why others in the middle east are arming the rebels. what do they gain?

  9. A recent Harvard Uni study (by the Kennedy school of Govt) into the cost of the 2 mid-east wars estimated the cost per American household at up to $75000 . They included the future costs of veteran care and interest on war loans . What a monumental empire blowing error. Bin Ladens computer had more clear statements of his successful strategy to weaken the US financially by drawing it into protracted un-winnable wars .

    Sure use of gas is bad, but is 1000 dead from gas really that much worse than 120000 from conventional weapons ? How could the US Democrats consider a strike . I cant help thinking there is something else brewing here . Anyone like me who was sceptical before Iraq and Afghanistan has their head spinning now .

  10. @Jim Rose

    The current Syrian conflict presents characteristics of a civil war. It also presents characteristics of a proxy war. Clearly, Russia is an ally of Syria and is arming and supporting the Syrian Government (essentially the Assad regime). This is official and on the record. Russia gains an ally, as does Syria. Russia gains a client state and a buffer state between it and the West. Russia gains arms sales to Syria which boost Russia’s foreign earnings. All this is rational in a sense.

    The West (who I assume are largely arming the rebels) are using the rebels to fight a proxy war for them. The gain is to de-stabilise a Russian client state and ally and who knows maybe eventually move it out of the zone of Russian influence. The risks are controlled and managed, or so the US and its allies like to think. Arms companies make money from selling arms to the rebels. The more conflicts the better so far as they are concerned.

    Of course, it is more complicated again than that. The Syrian rebels get their money for arms from the West as well as from rich Arab states opposed to the Assad regime. There are apparrently significant backers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar to name just two ME countries. Large shipments of light arms and ammunition are being allowed across the Turkish border. So Turkey is complicit in the whole process.

    In summary, both the West and Arab interests opposed to the Assad regime are funding and arming their proxies to fight a war for them. The thing is proxies have their minds, wills and goals. Their goals do not necessarily match the goals of their backers. Backers and proxies are often endeavouring to use each other for their own ends.

    Do I make it sound like a big, ugly rotten mess? If I have managed to do so then I have communicated something of it successfully. Border wars have occurred throughout history. That part of the ME is now essentially a significant border between two Great Power alliance systems; NATO and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation). It adds another geostrategic layer to tribal and national conflicts in the area.

    In addition, the ME is running out of oil and gas for export in the secondary producer nations like Egypt, Libya and Syria. Without these net exports they cannot afford food and other essentials for large segments of their populations. Populations facing major chronic shortages of food and essentials destabilise and revolt.

  11. I can see why you say you’re surprised, but at another level of analysis it’s your surprise itself that is surprising. You’re not totally opposed to violence as a matter of principle, you’re prepared in principle to endorse its use when it works, but you recognise an accumulation of evidence about just how infrequently it does work. Your attitude has shifted in response to the evidence. Should that really be surprising?

  12. @Jim Rose
    What do they get out of it? They get a kick out of it.

    Seriously. Well, at least semi-seriously.

    See that quote from Tom Friedman, where he says that a policy of not flexing your military muscles is ‘not very satisfying, not very much fun’? He wants to exercise military might because, to him, it’s satisfying and fun to do that. It’s a disgusting attitude, I know, but it’s not unique. If it were unique, if everybody realised how disgusting it is, Friedman would be ashamed to confess it in public. And its non-uniqueness is not limited to the US. People all over the world share it, including in the Middle East, and some of them influence policy there.

  13. I would have thought that Iraq and Afghanistan occupations were a salient reminder as to why wars are neither pleasant or containable in terms of unintended consequences—to use a phrase so beloved of conservatives. If the objective in Afghanistan had been restricted to simply find and capture/kill Osama bin Laden and his cronies, that would have been a realistic and obtainable goal, assuming bin Laden was still in Afghanistan at the time of deployment; as it turns out, he almost certainly was there, but eventually slipped through the (very thin) cordon by paying off tribesmen to get him through.

    Regime change by means of war and invasion, in contrast, is replete with unknown unknowns—thanks, Rumsfeld, for making Nicola Griffith’s expression (“Slow River”, pg 114), so famous. Anyway, one known known is that the invaded country people suffer horrific casualties and wounds, children being disproportionately affected.

    If we look at Iraq, after a decade it is still a huge mess, with a protracted civil war taking place. Prior to the removal of Saddam Hussein, Iraq had civil order and far fewer casualties, in spite of the brutality of Hussein’s regime. In the calculus of war, it is ludicrous to claim that Iraqis are better off now: some are, most are not. If we want to get into the game of removing the heads of state purely because of their horrible regimes, Hussein would have struggled to make the top ten worst leaders; in other words, why was he so special? Same goes for Assad, for the Taliban, etc.

    Wars of defence are one thing; wars of choice are entirely another matter. Wars for the purpose of regime change are the stupidest bets of all. If the US is so upset with Syria’s civil war, they should be leading the way to get the aggrieved parties to sit down and negotiate a peace, not picking a side and supplying arms on the sly, etc. Same goes for Russia, China and so on.

    Trouble is, there is no getting around the fact that regular use of warfare creates and sustains a market in armaments, adding an extra component to the economy. In the case of the US, as one of the biggest military interventions of the modern era, the innovation and manufacture of weapons is almost certainly beneficial to the US economy. The military sector is huge.

    Finally, for some reason, we draw a moral line at the use of chemical weapons. Why not the same for cluster bombs and mines? The aftermath of deployment of these weapons also has a grave and long-lasting impact upon civilians, especially children. I don’t get the distinction, quite frankly.

  14. @Donald Oats

    I am with you in that I didn’t really get the distinction about chemical weapons at first. Yet, any distinction that more or less proscribes one class of horrible weapons is still a good thing, even if that distinction is in some ways hypocritical and fallacious. On further reflection and research one can see that there probably are some valid reasons for the distinction.

    The salient points are;

    1. Technically and pedantically, all weapons are chemical weapons. After all, they are all made out of chemicals. High explosives are no less chemicals than poison gas.

    2. Chemical weapons are an area weapon but cluster bombs, napalm, phosphorous bombs and daisy-cutters are also area weapons to some considerable extent.

    3. Some chemicals and poisons may achieve wider disperal and cause even more casualties than, for example, many MLRS launchers (Multiple Launch Rocket Systems) with all rockets packed with bomblets and dispersed at optimum altitude for wide impact. However, the latter can still cause large casualties over a wide area.

    4. Chemical and biological weapons are relatively cheap and easy to build using equipment and materials that might usually be used for civilian industrial and medical purposes. It is this cheapness and ease which might be a source of the opposition of nations with sophisticated militaries to chemical weapons. But then mining explosives and fertlisers etc. can be used to make masses of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).

    5. The possible danger of chemical and biological weapons makes conventional military operations much more difficult. Generals of sophisticated, powerful armies don’t like having their operations made more difficult. It raises the ante so don’t be surprised that they will raise the ante in turn.

  15. I’ve just looked at the experience of those 20 years, and reconsidered earlier wars, and I’ve concluded that the consequences of war and revolution are nearly always bad.

    It is nice to occasionally find myself in complete agreement with the author of this blog.

  16. @Ikonoclast
    I agree with you points 3 and 4: that probably has a fair bit to do with the censure of those who would deploy biological and chemical weapons.

  17. Even if the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against it’s own people it isn’t clear that this is a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. For instance that convention lists tear gas as prohibited in war but perfectly legal for deployment against a domestic riot. Isn’t what is happening in Syria a domestic issue? I’m not a lawyer but I suspect there is some selective interpretation going on when it comes to these weapons.

  18. @TerjeP

    I’m not a lawyer either. Syria is a non-signatory state to the Chemical Weapons Convention. A convention is just that; a convention. International law is a wobbly thing. Force is always the final resort, unfortunately. If any military approach is taken (long-range strikes most likely), it would be best in theory to directly target the highest leadership. This sounds cold-blooded but any large strike targets someone even if by default or collateral damage. It is no less cold-blooded when the deaths are unknowns. It is hard to see how chemical weapons sites (manufacture, storage and armed delivery systems) could be targeted without large uncontrolled releases and many collateral deaths, very likely including civilians.

  19. I might add that it amazes me how the media reports Western and US options in matters like these without ever (or hardly ever) mentioning Russian and Chinese opposition. It is almost as if the Western media and public believe we still live in a unipolar world where the US can always take action without thought of opposition. This is not the case. By 2050 and perhaps as early as 2025 it is quite possible that China will be the pre-eminent world power and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) the most powerful military alliance.

  20. Apologies for serial posting on this thread. This is out just several minutes ago.

    Obama asks Congress to authorise Syria strike, delaying action – ABC News.

    In part the news item notes, “In doing so, he risks suffering the same fate as British prime minister David Cameron, who on Friday lost his own vote on authorising military action in parliament.”

    I think Obama wants Congress to stop him. Because of the stance taken by Russia and China, the risks of a strike outweigh the benefits. What point is there in punishing Assad if you risk escalation anywhere up to WW3? A Congress “veto” lets Obama climb down and save face, strangely enough.

  21. It is bad enough that we live in an age of post-heroic warfare when you send a cruse missile and think that will get it done and there will be no blowback.

    chemical weapons stocks are easy to disperse over so many sites. the capability to make these weapons is even harder to destroy because it is knowledge and basic chemicals.

  22. Perhaps Obama does want congress to stop him, washing his hands of it. If so, he could be making a serious miscalculation: plenty of the conservatives not only want something to happen, they want total regime change. Sound familiar? Neo-cons never learn from their mistakes, while the vanilla conservatives just want to inflict political damage upon the Democrats, and this is an opportunity to do so. To what extent the future consequences of being embroiled in yet another civil war outweigh the political damage it could cause the Democrats, is something the Republicans will be grappling with, no doubt. It will also depend upon the economic benefits to individual states for more war, given that defence force bases and industries provide jobs (and government money) to regional America. Vote-buying in congress is a time-honoured tradition, so how it will eventually play out is not at all clear to me at this stage.

  23. Thanks Prof Quiggin, it’s really great to hear you’re a pacifist. I’ve been a pacifist for many years but it’s very hard to talk from that perspective, especially since the rise in jingoistic nationalism under John Howard, so great to have public figures outing themselves as pacifists!
    It’s a matter of perspective – seeing the world as a collection of competing tribes, nations, blocs, etc, in which case war is the answer to conflict – or seeing it as one world, in which case policing is the answer (through the UN, ICC etc).
    However the UN mechanisms don’t seem mature enough yet. Nations ( eg Australia) can have competing parties, but policing goes on outside this context. It seems though that the UN isn’t at that stage yet, eg decisions about Syria cannot be separated from the political interests of security council permanent members. I hope that the next stage where these interests can be separated from the need for policing as a public service measure, arrives soon. Given hiw many people in Australia ( as an eg) seem to see nationalism as central to their identity and the UN as a threat to that identity, however, maybe I’m being optimistic in hoping to see that shift in my lifetime.

    It seems most of the commenters on this thread are male. One of the key things in achieving peace ( which Australia has at least paid lip service to in regard to security council) is to bring more women into the discussion ( and feminist perspectives into the theory). Historically I think one enabling factor for war has been the patriarchal assumption that nurturance and care for life were ‘outside’ the sphere of conflict between men, as a taken for granted female/natural area of life that didn’t have to considered. Of course that has never been true – women and children have always suffered from wars even where they weren’t participants, and in modern warfare this is increasing. Bringing women into the debate about war is essential in order that the enabling assumption that somehow ‘the home fires’ will be kept burning, can be made explicit and challenged.
    Hope this makes sense. Like all aspects of pacifist and feminist thought, it’s probably likely to be derided, especially as I’ve written it very quickly, but I hope some readers will get the gist of what I’m saying.

  24. @Val
    I’m curious to know what makes you say most of the commenters seem to be male. Not counting yourself, there have been ten commenters. Three are using masculine names, one is using a masculine image, and one is using both, for a total of five out of ten. There’s nothing I can see to indicate that any of the other five are male (one, only, is using a feminine name). Any or all of them might be, but there’s nothing I can see to go on.

  25. Because I’ve looked at this blog a lot and have the distinct impression that Ikonoclast and Derrida derider are male. Don’t know about yourself and sunshine. If I’m wrong maybe people will let me know?

  26. Having just seen a documentary on 9-11 last night, it is difficult to imagine that the USA’s population would have settled for anything less than military action to capture/kill the perpetrators, and where possible, to prosecute them and their helpers. Heck, if I’d been in the thick of it, I’d be thinking the same thing, I’d imagine. The attack was on the scale of Pearl Harbor, and that brought America into the Second World War, guns blazing.

    Apart from these two cases, however, the other modern military interventions of the US in other countries’ affairs has been a poster for why flexing military muscle offensively is a mug’s game. The wreckage wrought and the humanitarian crises such interventions have caused, leaves little room for justification of these interventions. And this is just the US: plenty of other countries have tried the same thing, and their track records mirror that of the US.

    It seems fair to say that in the modern era, a pacifist position against military offensive action is a rational position to adopt, with military action reserved for immediate defence against a military threat, or in the exceptional situation of the 9-11 event, for the purpose of getting hold of the perpetrators of an attack on home soil (an action which could be considered as part of a defensive use of military action).

  27. @Val
    By accident of birth, I am male. My identifying image was taken from a costume party I went to with my parents; my wearing of the boxing gloves is purely in the spirit of dressing up, and certainly isn’t an indication that I am a boxer. In fact, I don’t think any sport that involves intentionally clobbering someone else in the head is acceptable in this day and age.

    Having said that, I can think of at least one boxer who was a pacifist—Muhammed Ali. He point blank refused to participate in military action, something which very nearly cost him his career and certainly his freedom. Considering how aggressive he was in the ring, at first blush it would be easy to think Ali would be a supporter of aggressive use of military power, or at least defensive use of it. People are generally more complex than they first appear.

  28. @Donald Oats
    My comment about women not participating in the debate referenced the world wide evidence that women are often not represented in these discussions – have written an essay about this, can dig it out if I’ve still got it. Hence the need for corrective action such as Australia undertook to support through the security council – sadly now dropped, as my comment #28 notes.

    I took the apparent under-representation of women in this thread as reflecting those broader social trends. It was not meant as any kind of criticism of the people commenting. Actually I hadn’t noticed your image (they are very small). I’m also aware that people are complex btw.

  29. Maybe it’s just that the people pushing wars have been so unbelievably stupid lately.

    I don’t consider myself a pacifist at all.

    Smedley Butler had a view: “There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.”

    I don’t *quite* agree with Smedley Butler… but the only foreign military intervention I’ve seen in my lifetime which I thought was definitively worthwhile was Kosovo/Bosnia. That worked: it was a Genuinely Successful Peacekeeping Operation. The rest of the wars in my lifetime have been *stupid*.

    Now forget the morals for a moment. From an entirely ends-justify-the-means standpoint, if you don’t have at least a decent chance of winning via pure war of maneuver, a foreign invasion is an error, strategically. The invader is generally going to lose more than he gains.

    What would be the exception? The exception would be if the war can be won through psychology and maneuver causing the other side to surrender, almost bloodlessly However, this can *only* happen when you are perceived by the locals to be on the side of the locals “defending their homes”. Nobody who is defending their home ever surrenders to foreign invasion. This is why Kosovo and Bosnia worked, and no other foreign intervention has: they fit the pattern.

    “I’ve just looked at the experience of those 20 years, and reconsidered earlier wars, and I’ve concluded that the consequences of war and revolution are nearly always bad. ”
    Look at the revolutions again. Revolutions are very different from foreign invasions. I consider revolutions *inevitable*. People don’t, on the whole, join revolutions unless the situation is so bad that *anything* is considered an improvement. Every revolution I’ve looked at throughout history has, in fact, improved things in some measurable way which was important to people at the time.

  30. @Nathanael
    Interesting, interesting. As per my comment above you are thinking from a perspective of nations against others, rather than one world. Also could I ask you to think deeply about what assumptions may be embedded in the concept of ‘home’ that Butler is talking about? Is it just a house, physical shelter? Or does it mean family, caring, love – the feminine sphere that exists ‘outside’ the sphere of politics, conflict and war?

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