Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Time for War and a Time for Peace

Foreign policy. What a mess huh? I've avoided discussing it much on this blog, and avoided it entirely in the book, mostly because it is complicated issue that has suddenly divided even the conservative movement which had been for quite some time united around Reagan's "peace through strength" ideal. My intended audience, young people, are extremely skeptical of the traditional conservative approach to war and foreign policy. I myself never had any particular grievance with it, either by sentiment or understanding. Being a lifelong student of 20th century warfare, especially World War II, I knew what was at stake in that conflict and knew I was in no position to second guess those who fought and defeated one of the greatest national evils ever to expose its ugly head to the withering gaze of history. However, the history of American warfare since that time has been perplexing, complicated, of dubious value and ambiguous success. I have been trying to put my finger on the problem for ten years, ever since the war in Iraq began which left me supportive but uneasy.

Americans and Westerners in general have always accepted that certain ideals and principles are negotiable during war, chief among them respect for human life. It is the major reason why war is an undesirable method of conflict resolution and must only be used as a last resort. There are always going to be rules that are broken during war, and this must always be so. When faced with the prospect of losing to an enemy strategy designed to defeat you, something has to give, and it will never be the need to win. Compromises will be made during times of war in order to win and in the expectation that things will return to normal after we do win. Before engaging in war, we must always define the goal and count the cost we are willing to pay to get there. We must ask ourselves what things we are willing to give up in order to win. Then after we win, things return to normal. The winner wins, the decision is accepted and we can all beat our swords back into plowshares. The war is over, and we move on firmly with a renewed commitment to our values.

If only.

Five months ago on March 6th, Senator Rand Paul conducted a thirteen hour filibuster of Obama's appointment of CIA director John Brennan on the grounds that Brennan supported drone attacks against U.S. citizens which amounted to execution without trial. There has been much consternation over one Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen actively engaged in preaching Islamist ideology to English-speaking Americans and played a central role in motivating Major Nidal Malik Hasan to shoot up an Army base in Fort Hood, Texas, killing thirteen and wounding twenty-nine. Al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike in Yemen, though there was no evidence he had ever directly participated in a terrorist attack. The outrage against the Obama administration sparked by Paul's filibuster has burned for quite some time now. The Obama administration has been hit with several scandals at once involving the government's breaching of American civil liberties, including spying on Americans' phone records, trying to charge a reporter with a crime for obtaining leaked information, and using the IRS to intimidate conservative activist groups. If this chain of events was not sparked by the filibuster, it certainly seems so. Only recently Chris Christie, Republican governor of New Jersey and possible presidential candidate, openly criticized Paul's entire foreign policy approach. Paul responded by calling Christie the "King of Bacon," which, regardless of your politics, is hilarious. The conservative punditocracy has long tried to avoid and repair the fissures over foreign policy in the Republican Party, but a few days ago Charles Krauthammer, whose sharp rightward move a few years ago vaulted him over George Will as the preeminent conservative columnist, not only acknowledged the divide but took a side. But Krauthammer astutely observed that this is not just a Republican issue. Rand Paul has raised an issue that is now so deeply muddled in American life that I fear it will never be untangled, much less by him or the smitten Twitterverse. The question is no longer the proper question of which things are negotiable during war, despite Paul's gestures. Neither I nor most Americans would complain of the government reading our emails if we thought it was necessary to defeat a dangerous enemy. The question now tugging at the American psyche, struggling to reach the surface, is one of war and peace: which is which, and what is the difference?

This question is, I believe, the source of my uneasiness and the source of conservative schizophrenia on foreign policy. America's problem since the end of World War II has been an inability to define war properly, to declare a clear beginning and end, separating the government's wartime powers from peace time restraints. In the end, I do not believe that Senator Paul and most of those with whom his message is resonating are against war. Nor do I think they would, in the actual event, balk from doing what is necessary to win a real one. But their criticisms resemble awkward flailing in the dark, trying to hit a bullseye blindfolded. They are dancing around an issue that ought to be addressed directly: When does our "war" against Islamic terrorism end? How would we even know when it was over? What are the criteria for its end? What are our goals? Are they achievable? If not, what exactly are we doing?

The context for this question has very little to do with Islamic terrorism. 9/11, while a shock, was nothing compared to the daily possibility of total annihilation the United States faced for a half century during the Cold War. Our inability to define war starts during that period, during a war that was not a war but an ideological conflict. We called it a war, just as we called many other conflicts during that period wars. The Cold War, the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs. None of these things were really wars, but we still called them that. Why?

We think and act as if war can decide ideological questions. It cannot, and this idea is behind every American failure in the use of military force since the end of World War II. Ideas are bulletproof. You can't change a culture or defeat an "-ism" using the instruments of war any more than you can figure out the best healthcare system with a game of ping-pong. Why? Because winning and losing at ping-pong has nothing whatsoever to do with healthcare. Likewise, winning and losing at war has nothing whatsoever to do with values. If we believed that "winning" in some contest had anything to do with values, then we are affirming "might makes right". We would be affirming that good always wins, and therefore what wins must always be good. Americans don't believe that, so why do we often act as if we do?

Peace is the time to win hearts and minds. Peace is the time of debate, of culture, of government, religion, education and trade. The military is not an effective peace-time instrument. Turning it into an instrument of peace poisons the peace and dilutes its effectiveness as an instrument of war. Worse, when instruments of war like the military and a government's wartime powers are wielded during a time of peace, then times of peace are wasted. Instead of convincing through argument and evidence, we convince through the ability to kill somebody. That doesn't work; it's not legitimate and nobody, not even ourselves, recognize it as legitimate. War is legitimate when life, limb and property are at stake. It is not legitimate when Christianity and Islam are at stake.

There are times when Christianity and Islam or other great opposing ideological forces will clash in war. Conflicts like this have a way of spilling over into the arena of life and property. But we should never fool ourselves into thinking war will ever solve anything in the realm of ideas. We should use times of war to attain goals that the use of military force can attain. We should use times of peace to attain goals that the use of ideas can attain. There is a time for both.

Thus the wisdom of the ancients, of Solomon, comes to the fore: "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens...a time for war, and a time for peace." Such a simple thing, but we have forgotten it. Our problem is not that our Commander-in-Chief has the authority to kill American citizens without trial because they have committed treason and joined the enemy. That must sometimes happen in war. Our problem is that we have accepted a perpetual state of half-war and half-peace that we have inherited from a fifty-year war that was not a war. We have, for much of our living memory, lived without clear distinctions between times of war and times of peace. We no longer know which is which, and thus both are and both aren't. We cannot decide on one or the other, hoping to get the best of both, but have only succeeded in creeping ever closer to the worst of both worlds, a world where our government has the powers of war in a time of peace.

Now that's whack.