This Monday it was time to discuss the Bush doctrine here in Chicago. We lengthily debated the concepts of preventive and preemptive wars, at the heart of the 2002 National Security Strategy. Preemption, which is all about self-defense, is the idea that one can choose to strike first, when an enemy attack is imminent. It is based on absolute contemporary knowledge. Preempting is about receiving or giving the first blow. Prevention consists in the first use of military force, when the enemy attack is considered as inevitable, but not imminent. In other words, prevention is an educated guess, based on the ability to detect and anticipate a future menace. One might argue that, in the age of nuclear warfare, the distinction between the two concepts becomes blurred. Weapons of mass destruction are so lethal by definition that the imminence of the threat is extremely relative. Hence the case for taking military action against Iran. In the post 09/11 context, it is not hard to see how the concept of prevention could be used as a justification for engaging in a war of discretion. Yet, this is what the Bush doctrine is all about.
Just war is another concept that has been regularly used to justify the war in Afghanistan. The intention might be just, the cause might be just, the means can be just, but can a war really be just? Firstly, it is hard to agree on all the criteria. Let’s take proportionality for example, the idea that evil produced by the war must not outweight the good it aims to achieve. How do we measure the cost benefit ratio? Does the hunt for Al Qaeda operatives justify civilian casualties? Applied to the real world, proportionality raises more questions than it actually solves. Let’s take another criterion: the high probability of success. Given the British Empire’s experience in Afghanistan, as well as the Soviet fiasco, did the United States have a real shot at achieving its goals in the “graveyard of empires”? How does one define success in Afghanistan? Again, many questions arise. Secondly, even if we agree on the many criteria, it is very unlikely that a single case will meet them all. Given all these impediments, maybe there is no such thing as a just war. And that is even before considering cultural ethics and values. What is just? Is it just to impose our own western vision of democracy? Would it not be more just to “protect and serve,” without meddling into Afghan internal affairs?
Instead of considering the moral dimension of justice, it might be better or easier at least, to look at the legal side of it. In modern (legal?) terms, “just” becomes “in accord with international law.” But international law is weakened by the lack of a credible enforcement agency and the existence of many legal loopholes. What is the purpose of international law if the very nation who harbors the United Nations can easily circumvent it? A lively debate on the relevance of international law ushered from that question alone. One student argued that a case for invading Afghanistan could be made, but there is actually no need for it. Maybe international law just does not apply to the only remaining superpower. In that case, “was it smart to invade Afghanistan?” might be a more relevant question for us.
The discussion on just war was thus followed by more realistic considerations. We looked more specifically at the American decision to overthrow the Taliban regime right after 09/11. We talked about the choice to send CIA officers into Afghanistan to coordinate the fight against the Taliban forces and the immediate consequences of working with non-state armed forces such as the Northern Alliance. Were there other options available? Was military intervention the best way to fight a criminal organization? Military, one might consider the invasion of Afghanistan a success. The Taliban regime was toppled in a matter of weeks and Al Qaeda operatives had no choice but to go into hiding. However, it was still largely improvised. Emotions were running high and, one might argue, President George W. Bush had no choice but to take drastic action. Looking at it nine years later, it is easier to see how things could have been done differently. The Bush administration made “no distinction between terrorists and those who knowingly harbor or provide aid to them.” Strong links exist between the two, but Al Qaeda and the Taliban are two different movements, with different ideologies and objectives. One might therefore argue that, no matter how oppressive the nature of the Taliban regime was, they should have been invited to the December 2001 Bonn conference. Besides, the resurgence of the Taliban in the years that followed the invasion tends to show that demonizing them was probably a mistake. Simplistic and Manichean views rarely turn out to be adequate solutions to complex issues.