Refreshing common sense on war making

I am impressed by the continuing trend toward common sense and rationality among a growing number of public figures in the U.S. who look at Syria and Iran and remember the lessons and legacy of the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In spite of the warriors among the Republican presidential candidates who are roaring for war, more frequently these days we are hearing words of caution and restraint from Americans who actually take the time to study realities in the Middle East and ask some hard questions. This did not happen to any serious extent when in 2003 the U.S. led the Iraq invasion, the consequences of which continue to plague the region, the U.S. itself and the world.

For all my delight with the growing number of Americans calling for a more calculated, fact-based analysis of the benefits and burdens of launching another war in the Middle East, I have two concerns, which I will mention later.

The most succinct manifestation of the trend I am applauding is probably the column in The New York Times this week by Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the newspaper and a supporter of the Iraq war. Last year, he wrote a striking column in that newspaper’s Sunday magazine reviewing the reasons why he believed that he was wrong to support the war, and in which he publicly expressed his regret for doing so. It is rare for a public figure in the U.S. to display such honesty and culpability, and Keller offered a fine example that hundreds of others are eligible to follow, should they wish to summon the same combination of courage and responsibility.

In his column this week, titled “Falling In and Out of War,” he wrote: “When you’ve been wrong about something as important as war, as I have, you owe yourself some hard thinking about how to avoid repeating the mistake ... So here we are, finally, messily winding down the long war in Afghanistan and simultaneously being goaded toward new military ventures against the regimes in Syria and Iran. Being in the question-asking business, I’ve been pondering this: What are the right questions the president should ask – and we as his employers should ask – when deciding whether going to war is (a) justified and (b) worth it?”

Keller posed five questions: Is a war vital to American interests? What cost will a war entail? Are there other, better, options? Who else would join the U.S. in war? What are the consequences and aftermath of war? He concluded in the best manner of pithy American columnists: “If Iraq taught us nothing else, it should have taught us this: Before you deploy the troops, deploy the fact-checkers.”

I tip my hat to Keller for being so honest and rational about this issue, but here are my two points of continuing concern about this trend. The first is that rarely does an American public figure ask the single most important question about America waging wars of choice around the world: Does the U.S. have the moral authority or credible political mandate to initiate wars such as the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, and still may do in Syria and Iran? The issue of legitimacy is rarely raised in the U.S. It remains a dark spot on the political and ethical legacy of how the U.S. conducts its foreign policy.

Legitimacy is also stunningly important to people and governments across the world, who resent it deeply when big, powerful states use their military and economic powers at will around the globe, and ignore the rights and sentiments of the rest of the world. I would like to see Keller add a sixth point to his five: By what authority does the U.S. decide to go to war in the Middle East?

My second concern is that the actions of Zionism and Israel are largely exempt from the thoughtful analysis in which Keller engages. Israel’s chronic and continuing crimes against the Palestinians and other Arabs – occupation, annexation, colonization, mass arrests without charges or indictments, assassination, siege, torture, Apartheid-like rules and other such acts that are routine for Zionism – remain largely exempt from U.S. ethical or political calculations.

The rare exception to that rule – such as another New York Times column this week by City University of New York professor Peter Beinart, who called for supporting the state of Israel in its 1967 borders while opposing its illegal actions in the occupied Palestinian territories – is overwhelmed by thousands of other calls to support anything that Israel desires, regardless of its legality, political credibility, or consequences. So the U.S. tends to enthusiastically support Israeli wars (as it did in Lebanon and Gaza in recent years), and largely exempt them from the kinds of calculations that Keller makes.

These two concerns water down, but don’t negate, the importance of the more cautious and sensible new approaches to U.S. foreign policy and war-making that are reflected in people Keller.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 21, 2012, on page 7.




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