Rules of Engagement

Arguing About War By Michael Walzer • Yale University Press •
225 pages • $25.00

The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror
By Michael Ignatieff • Princeton University Press • 160 pages • $22.95

It is not easy to weave together the various shorthand critiques of the Bush administration into a single, coherent framework of ideas for the future. President Bush's intervention in Iraq has been a disaster -- but does that mean the United States should forswear unilateral military action in the future? What if there were another genocide like Rwanda, and what if the United Nations proved unwilling or unable to respond? Progressives can agree that John Ashcroft's Justice Department has set new records for violations of individual rights -- but what can a government do to combat the threat of terrorist attack, and what rules should apply?

In two new books, Michael Walzer and Michael Ignatieff each attempt to set down the complex ethical principles that they hope will enable us to judge American conduct at home and abroad. The focus of the two works is not quite the same: Walzer's Arguing About War tries to explain at what point a country is morally justified in resorting to military force overseas, while Ignatieff's The Lesser Evil seeks to explore what sorts of actions a government can take against terrorism on the home front. The results, in both cases, are a series of intelligent reflections, but not the sort of simple rules one could put on a wallet card.

Walzer and Ignatieff represent similar sensibilities. Both of them are liberals whose views, in their early years, grew out of the Vietnam anti-war movement. Since then, both men have argued for the legitimacy of the use of military force in other circumstances. Walzer's 1977 book, Just and Unjust Wars, was a landmark in establishing the underlying philosophical principles by which to explain, for example, why World War II was morally justifiable and Vietnam was not. In the 1990s, as the Clinton administration hesitated over Bosnia and failed to act in Rwanda, Walzer -- a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey -- came to believe that America should be willing to use military force abroad for humanitarian purposes. He says his underlying principles have not changed. In his new book, however, he writes, “Faced with the sheer number of recent horrors -- with massacre and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo; in Rwanda, the Sudan, Sierra Leone, the Congo and Liberia; in East Timor (and earlier, in Cambodia and Bangladesh) -- I have slowly become more willing to call for military intervention.”

Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, was among the liberals who supported Bush's invasion of Iraq, arguing that Iraqis would be better off without Saddam Hussein. Walzer opposed the Iraq War on the grounds that the United States had failed to allow time for weapons inspections to work or to pursue alternatives. “A war fought before its time is not a just war,” he wrote in March 2003. He emphasizes, however, that America's use of force to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan was a just war.

Although Walzer's Arguing About War is only a collection of short essays written over the past two decades, it is the more important of the two works because the articles and arguments fit together so well. One by one, Walzer takes up the moral issues raised by an unfolding series of military conflicts -- in the Gulf War, the Palestinian intifada, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He compares each conflict with others, reflects on how things might have worked out differently, and acknowledges the inherent ambiguities of humanitarian intervention.

“Consider: if some powerful state or regional alliance had rushed troops into Rwanda when the massacres first began or as soon as their scope was apparent, the massacre, the exodus, and the cholera plague might have been avoided,” Walzer writes in one trenchant essay. “But the troops would still be there, probably, and no one would know what hadn't happened.”

Walzer's ruminations take him in various directions, sometimes in favor of military intervention, sometimes denouncing it. After supporting the use of force to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, he expresses revulsion at the Clinton administration's and NATO's reliance on air power and refusal to send ground troops. The result was that the Serbians hurriedly stepped up their brutal campaign against the Kosovars. “You can't kill unless you are prepared to die,” Walzer concludes.

Amid the current debate over the Bush administration's Lone Ranger approach to foreign policy, Walzer's book includes some cautionary reflections on the limits of multilateralism. In a 1994 essay prompted by Bosnia and Rwanda, he wrote, prophetically, that “no one really wants the United States to become the world's policeman, even of-last-resort, as we would quickly see were we to undertake the role.” Nevertheless, Walzer argues, “multilateralism is no guarantee of anything.” He points to recent history. Some of the world's most egregious human-rights abuses have been stopped by the intervention of a neighboring country, not by the international community: Vietnamese troops put an end to the genocide in Cambodia, and Tanzania intervened to end Idi Amin's depredations in Uganda. “It wasn't the U.N. that overthrew Pol Pot and stopped the Khmer Rouge massacres,” Walzer writes. “And so long as we can't be sure of its ability and readiness to do that, we will have to look for and live with unilateral interventions.”

On terrorism, Walzer denounces what he calls a “culture of excuse and apology.” He is particularly scathing in his critique of those on the political left who argued after September 11 that the United States “had it coming” because of American policies in the Middle East. (He does not say here exactly whom he has in mind, although in a separate 1988 essay on excuses for terrorism, he mentions Edward Said.)

Walzer takes up and rejects each of the arguments made to justify terrorism. The principal one is that it represents a “last resort” -- that, when nothing else works, the terrorists finally choose violence. But, in fact, Walzer responds, terrorism is usually the first resort, the tactic chosen by those “who believe from the beginning that the Enemy should be killed and who are neither interested in nor capable of organizing their own people for any other kind of politics.”

The reader yearns for Walzer to come up with some formula for deciding when it is morally defensible to wage war. But he only describes some general ideas, such as that war should not be aimed at noncombatants, that aggression should be reversed, and that the use of force should hold roughly to a principle of proportionality. There will always be arguments about how these principles apply in particular cases, he acknowledges.

Moreover, Walzer admits that there are rare cases (he calls them “supreme emergencies”) when the very survival of the civilized world is at stake and the ordinary rules of war may be suspended. He cites, for example, Winston Churchill's decision to bomb the centers of German cities in the early stages of World War II, at a time when it was arguably necessary to prevent a Nazi victory and the complete collapse of all opposition to Hitler. “There are limits on the conduct of war, and there are moments when we can and perhaps should break through the limits (the limits themselves never disappear).” These are troubling words: As Walzer acknowledges, it is all too easy for a political leader to justify whatever he wants to do by asserting that his nation faces a supreme emergency.

Ignatieff's The Lesser Evil, like Walzer's book, is full of useful history. He compares how various governments have dealt with terrorism, political insurgencies, and other violent upheavals -- Czarist Russia, Weimar Germany, the French in Algeria, the British in Northern Ireland, Israel in the West Bank and Gaza, Italy against the Red Brigades, Spain against the Basques.

Occasionally, his conclusions are heartening. “Terrorism has damaged liberal democracies, but it has never succeeded in breaking their political systems,” Ignatieff writes. “Liberal states turn out to be much less weak than they perceive themselves to be; indeed, their chief weakness is to underestimate their strengths.”

Given his belief in the power of liberal democracy, one might perhaps expect Ignatieff to come up with clear standards, ones that would prohibit the extreme measures that have been employed throughout the world in the name of combating terrorism -- such as, for example, mass detentions, targeted assassinations, torture, or intensive interrogation. (Ignatieff's book was published before the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke.)

Yet Ignatieff seems all too flexible, all too accepting of what governments seek to do in the name of counterterrorism. He doesn't rule anything out, for its own sake; his solution, again and again, is to call for due process of law. “If the targeted killing of terrorists proves necessary, it can be constrained by strict rules of engagement and subjected to legislative oversight and review,” Ignatieff writes. We can use secret courts and secret legislative hearings to make sure that covert intelligence agencies don't go too far, Ignatieff maintains; he cites the example of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, set up to approve wiretapping and eavesdropping on foreign sources. It's a revealing example: In their secret hearings, the judges on those courts have, over the past quarter-century, invariably approved whatever the fbi and other agencies wanted to do.

“The fact that liberal democratic leaders may order the surreptitious killing of terrorists, may withhold information from their voters, may order the suspension of civil liberties need not mean that ‘anything goes,''' argues Ignatieff. “Even if liberties must be suspended, their suspension can be made temporary; if executives must withhold information from a legislature in public, they must be obliged to disclose it in private session or at a later date.”

In fairness to Ignatieff, he does not go nearly so far as the Bush administration. Ignatieff embraces the principle that persons who are detained should have access to the court system. “If a democracy wishes to keep actual physical torture out of its interrogation rooms, it has to grant detainees access to counsel and the possibility of judicial review,” Ignatieff writes, thus flatly rejecting the view expressed by the Bush administration (and rejected by the Supreme Court) that some of the people it has detained are simply outside the purview of the federal judiciary.

The problem lies in the very notion of “lesser evil,” the words Ignatieff chose for the title of his book. He is eloquent in describing the unprecedented threat posed by stateless terrorist groups, particularly from the possibility that terrorists may someday acquire weapons of mass destruction. “Terrorism constitutes a greater evil, justifying the lesser evils of a liberal democracy's response,” he writes.

But this seems like an impossible calculus. Is there any combination of roundups, interrogations, and assassinations that make the “lesser” evils finally add up to more than the “greater” one? Ignatieff doesn't say. He means to be pleading for the perpetuation of liberal values, but in his reluctance to set down limits that can be applied in combating terrorism, he seems to call into question the future of the liberal values in which he believes.

James Mann is the author of Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet.

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