Readings — From the April 2019 issue

Salable Virtues

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From Humanitarian Wars?, which will be published in April in the United Kingdom by Hurst. Brauman, a physician, was president of Doctors Without Borders from 1982 to 1994. This conversation, with journalist Régis Meyran, took place in the spring of 2017. The book was translated from the French by Nina Friedman.

“it is impossible to formulate a general law for intervention”

régis meyran: Let’s discuss the series of wars conducted by the West, which the media and politicians portrayed as “just.”

rony brauman: By “just wars” we mean wars ostensibly motivated primarily by humanitarian concerns, that is, the protection of civilian populations: saving a population from a famine in Somalia, an impending massacre in Kosovo, or oppression in Afghanistan. I draw a distinction between these and other wars or military operations fought in the name of security, such as the war in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2002 or in Iraq since 2013.

meyran: Why is the idea of “just war,” in itself, a problem?

brauman: Because, while claiming to protect populations, the United Nations is rehabilitating war—when in fact it was created to prevent it. And in granting itself the right to declare war and to call it “just,” the UN is acting as both referee and player, and legalizing the conflation of judges and parties to a conflict.

I reject the very notion of just war as a contradiction in terms; war is a lie, war is hell—it can never be just. But unless I wanted to take a radical pacifist position—which I respect but do not share—I feel it necessary to understand the exceptions, that is, the situations in which war might be justified, and on what terms.

meyran: A just war is based, legally, on the “responsibility to protect”; can you explain what that phrase means?

brauman: Basically, the legitimacy of the use of force rests on the seriousness of the threat, on its being used only as a last resort, and on the proportionality of the response. There one would find, together with “reasonable chance of success,” the classic criteria for just war that have been around since Thomas Aquinas.

“Legitimate authority” and “proportionality of the response” are legal in nature, falling under international law. The other two criteria are far more interesting to me, because they are more political, or politico-ethical. How much violence can one tolerate while hoping to stop it by nonviolent means? The questions of “last resort” and of “reasonable chance of success” imply an ability to calculate the final outcome. As the political theorist Michael Walzer reminds us, “The object in war is a better state of peace”—that is, a more secure situation than what existed before. And there lies the crux of the problem: How do we define success? We all remember the infamous “Mission Accomplished” of George W. Bush, dressed up as a pilot and posing on an aircraft carrier, after the fall of Baghdad. And we know what happened after that.

In a public debate on the right to intervene, political scientist Pierre Hassner cited two contradictory ideas from the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz: On one hand, no sensible person would start a war without a clear idea of what they hope to accomplish with the war and how they want to conduct it. On the other hand, because of friction, the fog of war, and changing means leading to changing objectives, no war ends as originally planned. These two ideas, synthesized by Hassner, sum up the inherent practical contradiction whenever one goes to war, whether humanitarian or not: while a clear idea of the ends and the means is essential, the unforeseen dynamics of the war make that impossible. He infers from this that it is impossible to formulate a general law of armed intervention, but argues that the question needs to be asked in particular situations.

That is to say, a war’s “reasonable chances of success” are impossible to assess when the stated aims are vague and general—like democracy, women’s liberation, general well-being, and so forth. Or as Walzer more bluntly puts it, “foreign intervention, if it is a brief affair, cannot shift the domestic balance of power in any decisive way toward the forces of freedom, while if it is prolonged . . . it will itself pose the greatest possible threat to the success of those forces.” They can, however, be assessed when the aims are precise and narrow—like destroying terrorist training camps, as the United States did in Afghanistan in 2001.

“it turned into a war for civilization”

meyran: The United States claimed Afghanistan was a moral war. Perhaps we should distinguish between the various phases of that conflict.

brauman: Indeed. It was hard to argue with the United States’ initial response after the September 11 attacks, because an attack like that cannot go unanswered. But two objectives were mixed up at the outset: overthrowing the Taliban regime in Kabul, and destroying Al Qaeda training camps. The terrorist organization, a legitimate target, was wrongly identified with the Afghan government—which, though it did allow Al Qaeda to set up shop in the country, was not involved in the attacks. The Afghan Taliban—which is not a political party but a kind of relatively diversified front—is an organization of nationalists, first and foremost. Islamic nationalists, admittedly, but not international jihadis. They do use terrorism, that’s indisputable, but only within their own borders and against an identified local enemy.

During the first phase of the American invasion in Afghanistan, an international law enforcement operation in 2001 and 2002, American forces destroyed a substantial portion of Al Qaeda’s infrastructure in Afghanistan. Although they missed bin Laden, they were able to hunt for him using law enforcement methods, as pointed out by the many politicians and specialists criticizing the very notion of a war on terror at that time. And as you no doubt remember, the US Department of Defense dubbed the operation “Operation Infinite Justice,” before renaming it “Operation Enduring Freedom.” After a start like that, it’s no surprise that what followed looked like a war for civilization.

meyran: But how did the hunt for Al Qaeda leaders turn into a war for civilization?

brauman: The Taliban fell six weeks after the offensive began, and an interim government led by Hamid Karzai was installed in late 2001. Foreign forces could have begun to withdraw at that point, leaving the Afghan people to find their own political solution, but the opposite occurred. Foreign contingents were beefed up, NATO was deployed under the appellation ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), and magical concepts that had emerged in the 1990s arrived in force: state-building, confidence-­building, nation-building, peace-building, and so on. Roads, bridges, and schools were constructed, young people were trained, and hospitals were renovated. The pacificatory expeditionary force continued to grow throughout the decade, creating a flourishing market for private security companies. But it was no obstacle to the Taliban’s seemingly inexorable advance. The numerous military blunders and hundreds of resulting deaths, the colonialist behavior, the onerous American tutelage, the double-dealing of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the pervasive corruption, and the hostility created everywhere by the continuing presence of foreign armies are enough to explain the success of the Islamist rebellion. Everyone in that expat world—humanitarian workers, consultants, civilian members of the various international organizations, and mercenaries—all of them were well aware that ultimately, in one way or another, the Taliban would return to power.

“do you want someone cutting off your daughter’s arm?

meyran: So how did the US government get France, for example, to agree to the war, in a context of likely defeat and military deaths?

brauman: Women’s rights became a favorite rationalization over the course of time. In the early 2000s, the intellectual and political context was suddenly repolarized by a new global enemy, jihadism. In France there were fiery debates over the “veil” and “Islam and the Republic,” with the September 11 attacks as a backdrop. The secular Republic—as defended by Sarkozy, Hollande, and then Valls, along with numerous intellectuals and editorial writers—conveniently united the fight against Islamist obscurantism in France with that in Afghanistan. It was a matter of liberating women from their “cloth prison”—an oft-used expression—while fighting for our security against terrorism. Another double brainwashing. And it goes without saying that no one in Afghanistan was attempting to free women from their veils.

meyran: Was France a participant in this moral crusade to impose Western values by force?

brauman: In a word, yes. France’s military involvement—intended primarily, it seems to me, to please our US allies so they would forgive our opposition to the invasion of Iraq— had to be cloaked in other, more salable, virtues. There was security, of course, but the Taliban posed no credible threat to France or to Europe. More was needed, and the unifying theme of “France’s universal values”—the values it’s up to us to share and spread throughout the world—fit the bill.

Nicolas Sarkozy illustrated the barbaric treatment of women in several interviews, claiming that women wearing nail polish were having their arms cut off by the Taliban. I don’t know where he got that story, since no one ever asked him—in any of the interviews I saw, in any case. But the moment I heard it, it reminded me of the rumor that was around during the Vietnam War that the Vietcong were cutting off the arms of children vaccinated by the US Army. The French accused the Germans of something similar during World War I, but few were apparently struck by that similarity, either, and despite the hyperbole—“Do you want someone cutting off your wife’s or daughter’s arm? I don’t!”—the story was taken at face value. Journalists and legislators were rightly worried about the stalemate and the losses, and more generally about the impasse in which the foreign forces found themselves, but they seemed ignorant of the fact that even that final justification for our presence was based only on a worn-out piece of propaganda.

meyran: Walking such a fine line isn’t easy: on one side, criticizing Western lies, and, on the other, acknowledging the Taliban’s terrible violence.

brauman: I’m not arguing with the fact that women are oppressed in Afghanistan, but rather with using it to justify our military presence, as if military power was a response to male violence.

I think it’s completely reasonable to use the condition of women—and gay people, as well—as a marker of democracy, provided it is applied everywhere. Would we consider invading India, or imposing sanctions on it, on the grounds that it’s one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women, with its female infanticide, forced marriage, dowry crime, and rape? In Mexico, mass killings, sex crimes, and mutilations of women have all reached frightening proportions since the cartel wars began, but no one would think of sending an expeditionary force there to sort things out. The fact remains that people never talk about violence against women as much as when it happens in a Muslim country. And yet we treat these issues differently when they occur in countries that are allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries, or in conflict situations such as in regard to Iran and Afghanistan. In France, a woman is killed by her spouse every three days, and there are tens of thousands of rapes each year, yet we don’t blame such horrors on our country’s dominant Catholic culture.

“brainwashing is part and parcel of modern warfare”

meyran: Is there a total disconnect between the moral justification for the war in Afghanistan and its true political reasons?

brauman: Yes. The fundamental reason France got involved—and not just France—was to be at the Americans’ side. Political analyst Bertrand Badie showed how France became pro-NATO after the Iraq War. It was to demonstrate our solidarity, even if it meant getting bogged down in what was quickly becoming an absurd war. But since those were not convincing enough reasons for the public, whose support is required in a democracy, an incontrovertible moral justification had to be given. Nothing new there; brainwashing is part and parcel of modern warfare, so we’re on familiar ground.

meyran: But when you think about the logic behind these moral wars—about wanting to create a state ex nihilo, about wanting to impose an ideology with little regard for reality, all via having a strong army and waging war—doesn’t that reflect a problem in terms of democracy as well? Can a true democracy behave like that? Political journalists in the mainstream media can’t point out contradictions in speeches or identify ideological problems; often, they shut up altogether with an all-powerful head of state. Isn’t that a failure of democracy as well?

brauman: No doubt, but in the sense that a hospital-acquired infection is a failure by the hospital, or in the sense of pharmacons, where remedy and poison are inextricably linked. Democracy is precious because it’s a political system that incorporates the idea of its own imperfection, and thus the utility of criticism.

The historian Marc Bloch spoke of World War I as “an immense experiment in social psychology.” Fake news can only survive “on one condition: that it finds a favorable cultural broth. . . . In it,” he adds, “people unconsciously express all their prejudices, hatreds, fears, all of their strong emotions.” Again, unique—and therefore unpredictable—circumstances are always required in order for those emotions to result in decisions as grave as going to war.

meyran: While Bloch studied false news from war, we were dealing with far more than that with something like the supposed weapons of mass destruction the United States said were in Iraq: an enormous lie of international proportions. I find it astonishing that the vast majority of the Western world swallowed a lie like that.

brauman: No, the entire Western world—the entire world, in fact—denied it. You have to remember the protests all over the world, and in Western Europe in particular. Not always for the right reasons, at first, if you think about international polling showing that a significant portion of the world’s population thought that the September 11 attacks were a CIA fabrication. But the propaganda worked admirably in the United States, where more than half of the population supported the “preemptive war” against a “new Hitler.”

That said, the war—the disastrous repercussions of which we’re still living with today—would not have been possible without Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “I’ll be with you, whatever” promise to George W. Bush, against the advice of the British people who, like the French and other Europeans, were opposed to it. Echoing the WMD theme, he reported having “information” that Iraq could deploy those WMD within forty-five minutes, which made neutralizing them seem like an emergency. The UK sent forty-five thousand soldiers to Iraq, a significant military contribution, and made the war politically feasible by ending US isolation on the issue. I would also note that the British Parliament conducted a lengthy investigation and in 2016 published an extremely detailed report—over six thousand pages—highly critical of Britain’s involvement in Iraq. We’re still waiting for its French counterpart to do the same for France’s military engagements. Blair was profoundly shaken by this, however, and responded to the criticism by defending his decision: “I believe we made the right decision and the world is better and safer.”

meyran: And have moral wars based on lies made the world any safer? I’m not sure about that. . . .

brauman: I can’t help thinking that the world would be safer had those responsible for its safety—I’m speaking, ironically of course, about the permanent members of the Security Council—not charged headlong into these foolhardy ventures. As we speak, Donald Trump is announcing an increase in American troop levels in Afghanistan, where 31,000 Afghan civilians and 2,400 American soldiers have died since October 2001—an appalling toll, in addition to more than 20,000 civilians wounded and nearly a trillion dollars spent. While I am sure that Trump couldn’t care less about the just war doctrine, this does show that a war that could be initially labeled a just response to aggression was continued under another pretext—that is, “civilization.”

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