A Little Common Sense on War

BEIRUT - I am impressed by the continuing trend towards common sense and rationality among an increasing number of public figures in the United States who look at Syria and Iran and remember the lessons and live legacy of the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the warriors roaring for war among the Republican presidential candidates, more frequently these days we hear words of caution or 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 the United States led the invasion of Iraq in 2003, whose consequences continue to plague the region, the U.S. itself, and the world.
For all my delight with the growing number of Americans who call for a more calculated, facts-based analysis of the benefits and burdens of launching another war in the Middle East, I have two continuing concerns, which I will mention later.
The most succinct manifestation of the trend I applaud is probably the column in the New York Times this week by Bill Keller, 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 now sees that he was wrong to support the war, and publicly expressing his regret for doing so in 2003. It is rare that a public figure in the United States expresses such honesty and culpability, and Keller offers 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, entitled “Falling in and out of war,” he notes that, “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?”
He poses five important 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 concludes 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 Bill 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 United States have the moral authority or credible political mandate to initiate such wars as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq, and still may do in Syria and Iran? The issue of legitimacy is rarely raised in the United States, and 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 countries 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 whose or what authority does the United States decide to go to war in the Middle East?”
My second point of concern is that the actions of Zionism and Israel are largely exempt from the kind of thoughtful analysis that Keller engages in. The chronic and continuing Israeli 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 now routine for Zionism -- remain largely exempt from American ethical or political calculations.
The rare exception – 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 but opposing its illegal actions in the occupied territories -- is overwhelmed by thousands of other calls to support anything that Israel desires, regardless of its legality, political credibility, or consequences. So the United States 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 soften, but do not negate, the importance of the more cautious and sensible new approaches to American foreign policy and war-making that are reflected in people like Bill Keller. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global