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Hi there Chris

When Master Sun writes:

"To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting."

Not ethics, my friend, optimal strategy.

When Master Sun mentions 'breaking the enemy's resistance', he's not talking about a leaflet drop!

Lovely review, as ever - much heated debate summarised fairly and judiciously. I do appreciate the way you strive to be fair to points of view you don't personally share.

One minor quibble - you ask "In regard of the principle of minimum force, if the view espoused by British Prime Minister Tony Blair is to be taken into consideration (that the goal was to remove weapons of mass destruction), why were surgical air strikes not used instead of an invasion?"

The answer, surely, is that Tony Blair (and his Generals) were convinced the WMD existed but didn't know where they were. Of course, it's now widely accepted that this was because they didn't in fact exist. But at the time, the argument he made was that they'd already tried surgical air strikes, and weapons inspectors, but Saddam Hussein was running rings round the lot of them and had hidden the WMD very cleverly: only unrestricted access to the entire country would reveal and neutralise them.

Despite this argument's obvious problems (to me and many others at the time), I've no doubt that Tony Blair held this view sincerely. It was rather touching, long after the invasion, seeing him maintain that the Iraq Survey Group would turn up evidence of their existence, soon, no really. But focusing on his sincerity or otherwise is to my mind beside the point - even if he was acting in utmost good faith, he made a profound error of judgement in weighing up the justification for the war.

James:

"Not ethics, my friend, optimal strategy."

What makes you think that optimal strategy does not qualify for ethics? :) Remember: ethics are systems of conduct - they can have any number of motivations, including strategic power. Sun Tzu's treatise is concerned with strategy, but it also expresses the principles of the ethics of war from Master Sun's perspective.

When he advocates avoiding war wherever possible, and allowing desperate troops to retreat and so forth, he has in mind the best results for his own people. This qualifies as ethics of war as far as I am concerned.

Thanks for raising the counterpoint on this!


Michael: thank you for the kind words! I try to synthesise many different viewpoints as best I can, but of course I can never entirely eliminate my own bias. At some level, I just have to trust my instincts. In this regard, I'm always grateful when people appreciate the attempt.

The trouble I have with your claim that they didn't know where the WMDs were is that they were putting forward the argument that they *did* exist. To claim something exists but you don't know where it is strikes me as expressing an uncorroborated belief. One should never invade another country on such flimsy evidence - especially when you are employing other methods (such as weapons inspectors) in order to establish the facts of the matter.

Best wishes!

"If the realpolitik position can be dismissed in this way..."

It seems a large leap to say that it can. Realpolitik was conceived as a way of keeping the peace in tense international situations where following a set of rules might not permit sufficient flexibility in enough time to avoid war.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Realpolitik
The fact that it is linked as a term to people like Bismarck only indicates that warmongers exist whatever the system of governance.

And you dismiss it as non-representative of the people who legitimise the state that practices it - but why should not the people believe in such a system?

"vacuous and nihilistic belief systems such as political realism"

String words! I can't see any correlation between them - unless your realistic politicians are all solipsists! That would be an odd career choice :
"I don't believe in anything, and I have no ideas and nothing to say - why don't I become a politician! It's all probably a figment of my imagination anyway...what harm can I do?"

zenBen: trust you to try and poke a hole here... :)

Realpolitik means freeing nations to behave unethically. Do you really think people want their nations to practice realpolitik? If not, then my claim holds. If so, well, I guess that means "war forever".

I say: "vacuous and nihilistic belief systems such as political realism"
You say: "String words! I can't see any correlation between them - unless your realistic politicians are all solipsists!"

Okay, I'm making a parallel here between the philosophical belief system of nihilism - which asserts that because no absolute system of ethics is possible, ethics are irrelevant - and the political belief system of realpolitik - which asserts that ethics are irrelevant at an international level. I don't think that's much of a stretch.

(Oh, and using political realism as a synonym for realpolitik, of course.)

I make the claim of 'vacuous' to any belief system that draws from a nihilistic place, as little if anything of substance can begin from the void of ethical denial. I suppose I could have said "ethically vacuous" to clarify, but is this really necessary in this context?

I accept that in dangerous times, it may be necessary to bend the rules - but this is a very different claim from "nations don't have to behave with any concern for ethics", and one may always bend the rules in an ethical fashion, and publicly justify this choice after the fact. There is no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater here.

Are you really going to defend the actions of nations that behave without any regard to ethical considerations?

"If so, well, I guess that means "war forever"."

How on earth do you justify this? You are essentially saying that without imposed higher moral guidance, people in practical situations (of power, in this case) will behave in the worst possible manner. Thats like saying that people can only behave ethically because a higher power has given them rules stating they must do so.

"Are you really going to defend the actions of nations that behave without any regard to ethical considerations?"

No, I'm not. Nor will I laud them, for the times when it turned out right.
If I have any point aside from nitpicking it is that there is a strong distinction in my mind between the polar opposites of the uses of real-politik, war-mongering and peace through balance of power, and yet the tool itself is not so readily classifiable as good or bad.

Simply, I'd say that you have a tendency to assign a definition-based classification to everything, which in this case is not appropriate.

Chris

Where you find the time to digest so much reading and produce these essays while still doing a 'day job' I don't know.

A few quibbles/comments though. First of all, on religious positions vis a vis war, they are not as straightforward as you think. Buddhism is, for example, not unequivocally pacifist. This is especially true of Japanese Buddhism in the 30s and 40s (see Brian Victoria's "Zen at War" on this), but also true in some other contexts (for example Sri Lanka). Essential reading on this is "War and Peace in World Religions" ed by Perry Schmidt-Leukel - what emerges from this is that most traditions evolve within themselves a range of broadly similar positions, from pacifism to realpolitik.

As regards the justness of the Afghan war, you must not forget that this necessitated an alliance with the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, which borders on Afghanistan. This is one of the vilest regimes on Earth, where torture of Muslims and of dissidents is routine. Come to that, the raping of young women by police there is also routine. Can anything justify the west's alliance with this country? I don't think so. That this alliance is all but defunct now doesn't change the argument. It is clear that both the US and UK knew what was going on, but ignored it for the sake of hte 'war on terror'. (There were also other strategic issues at stake in Uzbekistan, namely access to central Asian gas reserves, but that's another matter).

Finally, a rejoinder to other posters on Blair and Iraq - I think that war was cynically started on a pretext that US / UK knew to be false all along. They decided to go to war then fabricated evidence to support it. They couldn't allow Hans Blix's inspectors to complete their task because that would have made war impossible.

I agree that Blair's sincerity is completely irrelevant, however. This was actually a very clever ploy on his part, because it shifted the argument away from evidence and onto his own personal beliefs - not something you can get independent evidence/verification on.

All the best, Chris. I always enjoy reading your stuff.

zenBen: "If I have any point aside from nitpicking it is that there is a strong distinction in my mind between the polar opposites of the uses of real-politik, war-mongering and peace through balance of power, and yet the tool itself is not so readily classifiable as good or bad."

Okay, I accept this criticism. I assume that to adopt the realpolitik position is to ensure "war forever", which proceeds on an assumption. I can't prove this claim, it is an assumption as you correctly criticise, but since in realpolitik strategic concerns are all that matter, it seems to me that war will always be a tool in play under realpolitik.

If we can create a "pacifist realpolitik" I might feel differently, but I don't really see this as viable. Do you?


Theo: great to hear from you!

"Where you find the time to digest so much reading and produce these essays while still doing a 'day job' I don't know."

I stopped playing poor quality videogames in my spare time. Suddenly, I had an extra dozen hours a week. ;) And, frankly, I enjoy doing this more than I did suffering through the effluvium of the games industry. :D

"First of all, on religious positions vis a vis war, they are not as straightforward as you think."

Granted; I cut the issue about "Buddhist war" for brevity, but I acknowledge that it is not as simple as presented here. The same criticism could probably be levelled at my summary of the Christian position, although no-one has mentioned it. As is often the case, I don't want to bore people with excessive detail so I paint sometimes with too broad a brush.

"As regards the justness of the Afghan war, you must not forget that this necessitated an alliance with the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, which borders on Afghanistan."

I don't think this necessarily changes the just cause for the war, and the other provisions of the war were already violated - this is just another mark against it (and not the only scurrilous alliance of this kind either).

"I think that war was cynically started on a pretext that US / UK knew to be false all along."

I sympathise with this position. It does look to me that the US fabricated its evidence; what's less clear to me is whether Blair bought into this and consequently believed, or whether he chose to believe consciously (manufacturing his own truth). We'll probably never be certain, so individuals will have to make their own interpretative choice - as ever. ;)

I greatly appreciate the kind words - it's nice to know that these essays are enjoyed. It's been fun in this campaign, but I am looking forward to seeing the end of it - now just two weeks away.

Best wishes!

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