Victor Davis Hanson Vs. Ronald Edsforth: The Iraq War

Roundup: Historians' Take

Nathaniel Ward, in the Dartmouth Review (2-11-05):

During a debate Tuesday punctuated with evidence from both antiquity and current events, classicist Victor Davis Hanson mounted a vigorous defense of the war in Iraq, while Dartmouth History Professor Ronald Edsforth countered that all preemptive wars, especially in the case of Iraq, fall outside the "just war tradition."

Focusing on Iraq as the best contemporary example of a war fought for noble ends, Hanson, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, suggested that the war's rationale remains valid today. The Bush Administration and the Congress, he said, had in 2002 an "everything and the kitchen sink" rationale for conflict, but sought for political reasons to give more weight to Iraq's apparent weapons of mass destruction than other rationales. While W.M.D.s have yet to be found, Hanson argued that the weapons "still remain a valid reason then and now."

Wars like that in Iraq have moral goals, he continued. The nations of the Middle East, for various reasons, including Cold War oil politics, have never been exposed to Enlightenment ideas of equality and liberty, and he said they even view Western faith in such ideals a weakness. Accordingly, he said, it is only right that the West stop propping up authoritarian leaders in the region, as it did during the Cold War, and to do what should have been done there long ago: foster freedom.

Hanson further posited that preemptive war, so reviled by many today as immoral, is certainly not unknown in history; a preemptive conflict is judged to be just or unjust based on its context and its success. He cited the historical prevalence of preemptive wars: the Athenian expeditions against Sparta; the American attack on the Barbary pirates; and the American invasion of Mexico. Even in recent memory, the United States has engaged in preemptive warfare, by attacking Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989. Few of these wars, if any, are today considered unjust, despite their preemptive nature, he said.

Taking a rigorous stand against preemptive war, Professor Edsforth said democracy is not something that can be forced onto a population-"it comes from within and it is unlikely to be imposed from without." Instead, democracies can only form as they did recently in Ukraine, based on a popular uprising against the authoritarian leadership. Edsforth sought to apply this rule to Iraq, saying that Western powers should have simply awaited Saddam Hussein's death and then formented revolution; this, he said, would be far less costly in blood and treasure. As a result of the coalition's 2003 invasion, he said Iraq "is in no condition to function normally for years to come."

Professor Edsforth presented himself as a "peace activist" and not a pacifist-pacifists abhor all wars, while activists oppose some and support others. He approved of the 2001 Afghan campaign but not the attack on Serbia in 1999. He said "all war is mass murder" and that wars bring out man's "instinct to kill, our delight in torture."

By invading Iraq, he went on, the United States has abandoned its own democratic ideology and gone "down the slippery slope to militarism" and become "willing to delegate to our commander in chief the powers of a king."
As evidence, he said that the War on Terror has morphed into a broader War on Tyranny-a conflict not likely to end during his own lifetime. He proposed that the United States military was too large; he noted in particular that the United States maintains ten aircraft carrier battle groups, and is in fact the only nation to have even one. "The wars of empire are over," he said.

Edsforth further supported "classical deterrence," though Hanson claimed this would be impossible with the greatly-reduced army Edsforth suggested.
"You cannot have classical deterrence without a military," he said.

By attacking Iraq, Edsforth said, the United States had usurped the authority of the United Nations, in which the world community can take action to promote the common good. Since treaties like those that established the U.N. are held in the United States to be "the supreme law of the land," he said, the American government has effectively abrogated its own Constitution. He noted, for example, that a White House lawyer drafted guidelines regarding torture, even though the U.S. is party to the Geneva Conventions.

"War is terrible," Hanson agreed. But in a rebuttal, he said the United Nations has historically not intervened for the common good, even against the worst abuses. The U.N., much of which he said is "populated by thugs and brigands" like Syria, Iran, Sudan, and Cuba, failed to act against the Rwandan genocide of 1994, against the Serbian slaughter of Kosovars in 1998, or even against the ongoing genocide in Darfur-which only the United States has declared a humanitarian crisis. "Innocent women and children died waiting" for the United Nations to help them, he said.

In addition, Hanson said the wars of the twentieth century were "done with the intention of saving lives." "War alone" was often the only option. More people were killed off the battlefield in the last hundred years-by the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao-than perished in the wars fought to stop those dictators. These wars, he continued, were by no means multilateral; indeed, the only multilateral action undertaken in 1941 was the decision by European powers from Spain to Hungary to Germany to invade the Soviet Union....

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