Jus Post Bellum

Jean Bethke Elshtain, Prof. at University of Chicago Divinity School, has an intriguing (but I think ultimately misguided) essay in the current World Affairs.  Read it here.

Elshtain discusses an oft forgotten part of the just war tradition:  jus post bellum (justice after the war).  Traditionally just war theory often focuses only jus ad bello (just reasons to go to war, e.g. self-defense) as well as jus in bello (justice/just action in war, e.g. not targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure, not torturing captured prisoners).

For Elshtain taking seriously jus post bellum requires as he sees it:

There will be, for the next decade and possibly the one after that, no substitute for America’s presence and role in regenerating Iraq’s capacity to defend itself. An ethics of exit, with this recognition in mind, points ineluctably in the direction of a careful, long-range, and measured withdrawal of major combat forces from Iraq, rather than any withdrawal in line with the pre-fixed timetables offered on America’s campaign trails.

On a policy front this is along the lines of the Colin Powell Pottery Barn Rule (which whether he actually said it or not, he’s said it now in the common memory which is just as/more important): you break it, you own it.

And there is a part of me that certainly sympathizes with this view, i.e. in some measure of actually thinking about Iraqis and the horrors of their reality.  That’s why I’ve always favored at the bare minimum (a la George Packer) extremely accelerating the rates of VISAs for Iraqis who have helped the Coalition Authority.  Don’t leave them in Iraq.

I also have always believed following the analysis of Michael Ware (CNN) and Thomas Ricks (author of Fiasco) that the US will be in Iraq for 10-15 years minimum.  The question being at what level of troop numbers and for what stated goal/strategy.  And here there is a wide gap between Obama and McCain.  I’m far from convinced this is a good policy, but it’s going to happen seems to me regardless.  Obama has promised no permanent bases which McCain is for, so at minimum that is all I can really vote (i.e. if you think the campaign pledge around all troops out in 16 months is real, think again).

But that being said, there is still for me a whiff of unreality/hubris about the whole piece.  There are moments when the Prof. realizes that this situation is different than post WWII Germany but then tends to back away from the abyss of recognition.

She writes:

Yet there is great unanimity among just war thinkers concerning the U.S. commitment to jus post bellum criteria—namely, the obligation to leave Iraq with something better, or at least not worse, than what went before. How, then, might the just war tradition bear on an ethics of exit? The end of a war must be consistent with the initial argument for conflict as couched in just war criteria—that is, to repair or to remedy a major injustice or act of aggression. Another just cause might be to prevent nigh-certain and massive harm from occurring before it has occurred. But, again, the basic aim of jus post bellum is a more just situation than that which pertained before the armed conflict.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but is this even possible?  While again I sympathize with the moral reflection inherent in jus post bellum, how is this achieved?   The argument from the William Odoms of the world (scroll half way down page) has always been that the presence of US troops is what prevents Iraq (or whatever you want to call the fiefdoms of that region) from reaching some new equilibrium status, however shaky, corrupt, or “minimal” state it might be.  And more disturbingly likely involving more not less violence.

While there are certainly counter points to be made, this argument is not to be dismissed as simply ideological cover for wanting to cut moral responsibility.  It might be based rather on a clear eyed appraisal of what the US can actually do/who actually holds the power (i.e. the militias, including the one we call the government).  And who is simply a negative force (the US Army) and by negative I don’t mean evil but rather only has power to prevent some things from happening but has no influence to effect positively the kind of strategic change it seeks.   i.e. Temporarily prevent more ethnic cleansing/genocide, civil war, and outside powers from invading.  But might have no recourse to build momentum towards a new order, however defined by Elshtain.  No ability in other words to promote political end game scenario, no matter what local deals can be struck militarily or reconstruction wise.  All of which stand on extremely tenuous ground without a larger political context within which to fit them.

Ehlstain spends the rest of the article outlining the criteria of jus post bellum and shows in each case that the US is obligated under said criteria.  These include having a major role in the military conflict, disbanding the army/police and therefore having responsibility for the protection of the citizenry.  I don’t see any illogic in theory with any of those criteria per se and his analysis that the US is bound to them.  But what I am saying is I’m not sure these categories apply in practice (in this case) or rather if they do that there be a separate and currently missing criteria:  feasibility/actual ability to achieve prior criteria.

Moral reasoning in politics minus some hard headed realistic assessments are often well meaning and thoughtful but not always helpful in pinning down what should in fact be done or rather what can be done, often less than the best wished for situation.

For example:

There is a delicate balancing act involved in repairing the political infrastructure of a state that has been the victim of decades of misrule and military invasion. The aim is to restore legitimate authority. If you played a major role in military operations, your degree of responsibility for this goal is enormous. It follows that to abandon the occupied state before this aim has been accomplished would be an act of moral dereliction of the most egregious kind. That is the bottom line of any ethics of exit from Iraq.

Of course the aim is to restore legitimate authority.  Who doesn’t want that?  But Is this aim possible?  Specifically in Iraq.  With is history, its  current political actors, the failed policy of the US in the aftermath of the defeat of the Baathist regime.  If so, how?  What evidence can be pointed to that suggests such?  Or is this a blanket open ended McCain style commitment?  Practically can the US military afford such a situation even if it were possible?

To invoke Thomas PM Barnett for a second, the force necessary to do exactly what Elshtain calls for doesn’t actually exist–what Barnett calls the Dept. of Reconstruction/Systems Administrations Force.  That gap has been filled by the US military, which it is neither designed to do nor capable of doing (no shot at them, that’s their not their job).  Even with the recent surge we see that the gains have been in military (surprise surprise) terms.  Not political.

More into the weeds for a second, the surge has had to align itself/coming to accept the reality of the militia-ization and fragmentation of Iraq.  i.e. The Surge qua tactic actually works against the kind of state buildup Elshtain would like to see.  Unless one militia/one leader seeks a renewed dictatorship (Maliki?) which would violate the principle of not leaving the situation the same/worse than before the war.  Undoing the surge tactic would revive violence (breaking another one of the jus post bellum criteria). So you see the pickle.


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