Monday, August 07, 2006

The Morality of Our Means

As I mentioned in another post, I've recently finished reading Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine, a fascinating account of the first three years of the "global war on terror" drawn primarily from CIA and FBI sources. There's a quotation from the diary of George F. Kennan, one of the principal architects of America's post-World War II foreign policy, that Suskind uses at the end of the book. It is, I think, worth posting.

In 1947, Kennan, contemplating the Allied firebombing of Hamburg, Germany two years earlier, wrote that

if the Western world really was going to make a valid pretense of a higher moral departure point--of greater sympathy and understanding for the human being as God made him, as expressed not only in himself but in the things he had wrought and cared about--then it had to learn to fight its wars morally as well as militarily, or not fight them at all; for moral principles were a part of its strength. Shorn of this strength, it was no longer itself; its victories were not real victories. . . . The military would view this as naive; they would say that war is war, that when you're in it, you fight with everything you have or go down to defeat. But if that is the case, then there rests upon Western civilization, bitter as this may be, the obligation to be militarily stronger than its adversaries by a margin sufficient to enable it to dispense with those means which can stave off defeat only at the cost of undermining victory.

Kennan's mention of "Western civilization" calls to mind Gandhi's famous riposte to a reporter who asked him what he thought of Western civilization: "I think it would be a good idea." Indeed.

But there's more to consider in Kennan's rumination. "Western civilization" today is "militarily stronger than its adversaries" by a very significant margin, and yet, in its American version at least, it still seems unable (or unwilling) "to dispense with those means which can stave off defeat only at the cost of undermining victory." American military superiority has not eliminated massacres committed by Americans in war. (There was a report last week that the Navy investigation of the killing of civilians in Haditha last November supports the allegations that have been made against a Marine unit operating there.) American intelligence-gathering ability has not eliminated torture. And so we are "undermining victory" in spite of the fact that we possess the military strength that Kennan thought necessary to be able to fight morally.

What, then, is the problem?

First, Kennan's insight regarding means and ends--that winning through immoral means is in reality a defeat--seems not to have been widely understood, at least not by those who are calling the shots in the "global war on terror." It must be understood. It is a key part of "winning hearts and minds," to return to the point made by an unnamed military officer quoted at the end of this post.

Second, there is an unfortunate American tendency (which even Kennan evinces in the diary entry above) to think that every problem has a military solution. Want to democratize the Middle East? Invade Iraq. Want to stem the flow of drugs from South America? Declare a "war on drugs." Want to ensure the flow of oil to the United States during the Iran-Iraq "tanker war"? Re-flag Kuwaiti tankers and have the U.S. Navy escort them through the Persian Gulf. The United States has invested a lot of money in the military and has created a war-making machine that has no precedent in history and no peer in the present. But the fact that it is a highly polished tool doesn't make it the right tool for every task.

Third, Kennan's belief in the utility of military strength was based on a state-centered conception of security in which such factors as population, territory, and industrial capacity were essential to the ability to fight and win wars. Non-state actors--with or without state sponsorship or a territorial "home"--have proven their ability to counter conventional state-based militaries with effects that Kennan failed to envision in 1947.

Moral principles are, in fact, a part of our strength, as Kennan suggested, but being vastly superior in military might is not the way to vindicate moral principles. Not unless one believes that might makes right.