Evolving standards in the moral case for war.

Sometimes drinking with friends produces exactly the kind of heated political conversation you are looking to avoid on a night out. This was last night.

My views on war have evolved dramatically over the past four years. I’m not a pacifist, but at this point I think war is probably never justified unless the prospect of successfully freeing very very very large amounts of people from extreme destitution seems promising, or the state faces a concrete imminent existential threat (or has already been attacked).

Forget the political reasons for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. People on the left don’t get this if they haven’t paid adequate attention but these wars are not isolated — they are the manifestation of a philosophy called neoconservatism which ironically has a very liberal flavor in the Wilsonian tradition: the world is fraught with good and evil, and military force is justified to make the world safe for liberal democracy to flourish. This is the philosophical foundation for the war and subsequent nation building efforts in the middle east.

So I have a hard time swallowing liberal ire at George Bush but admiration for Barack Obama, who has made humanitarian justification and “finishing the job” a reason to justify the continuity of the Bush foreign policy agenda. This should be no more palatable to people who have objections to this kind of war.

Yet objections I heard last night centered on that humanitarian elements.

What about the women in Afghanistan if we left tomorrow?

What about the Libyans?

That there would be pain and suffering in Afghanistan if we left tomorrow is doubtless. However, there has been pain and suffering for a decade already, and there will be pain and suffering tomorrow if we stay.

War is not all upside. It involves huge economic and moral costs. It is a systematic campaign of the destruction of capital, infrastructure, and human life in direct violation of national sovereignty. If you’re an uber-Libertarian, it may also bother you that war often involves the state sending its own citizens (and their financial resources) to fight and die on foreign soils based on a policy decided by a very few individuals. Hundreds of thousands of people will be reasonably expected to perish in a protracted campaign, mostly in the country we are “freeing.” This is irrespective of whatever moral justification the aggressor nation settles on to rationalize the pursuit. These costs must be subtracted from the benefits. Often the benefits never accrue because the hubris of nation building is terribly ill-founded. Yet that there will be costs is certain.

Up till now I haven’t even mentioned the moral decay that war brings about in the aggressor nation. Citizen assassinations, indefinite detention, the expansion of the security state.

Not that Republicans would be better (with the exception of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson), but I’m not persuaded that Obama is progressive on foreign policy or has been particularly more progressive than Bush.  Maybe on the margin, at most. But I would expect my liberal friends, who claim to be more enlightened than the right, to see that.

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