Date: Wed, 29 Sep 1999 16:40:25 -0500 (CDT)
From: Colombian Labor Monitor <>
Subject: Time we question America's adventurism
Article: 78074
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
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Time we question America's adventurism

By Steven Greenhut, commentary, The Houston Chronicle, Sunday 26 September 1999

SO many countries, so little time.

That must be the new motto of the U.S. armed forces as the Clinton administration prepares to send logistical troops to East Timor, the latest where is it on a map? locale where American lives and dollars will be put at risk.

Despite the seriousness of the issues involved, there is no more of a debate in Congress or the public over this latest U.S. military intervention than there was over recent or continuing actions in Serbia, Korea, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia, Colombia, Macedonia...

Yet as America embraces the policies of an empire, defiantly rejecting the founders' warnings about the dangers of international adventurism, the American people need to focus their attention on the moral foundations of the policy of endless militarism.

Yes, I'm talking about morals.

When, where and at whom Americans may fire their weapons, the rules under which wars may be fought, the circumstances in which U.S. soldiers must risk their lives and the lives of others—these are moral issues. America's current adventurism is defended in moral language, as the Clinton administration and its supporters argue that America must intervene in the name of protecting the international order, in stopping ethnic cleansing, in upholding democratic values.

But claiming the moral high ground is never enough. No nation—not even Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russian—unleashed its waves of terror in the name of immorality or evil.

In essence, the United States has said that it will intervene anywhere for any reason, though it will usually work in concert with other governments to lend legitimacy to these ever more wide-ranging military operations.

That means that either the United States is the world's moral exemplar, a country where the president and his top foreign policy advisers are so wise and honorable that they have a God-given duty to determine what's best for every other nation on Earth.

Or that might makes right, that a country as strong as ours can do whatever it darn well pleases—drop bombs on civilians, impose child-killing sanctions on whole populations, bomb a pharmaceutical plant in the name of fighting terrorism, send occupying armies to police other nations' squabbles, even sic U.S. troops on cult leaders in our own country.

Obviously, neither approach can be justified. No leader or group of experts—not this administration nor any less corrupt one, either— can be trusted with so much power. And to accept that the strongest nation should prevail is to take social Darwinism to a frightening new level.

My point: War-making needs to be restrained by rules and laws that are informed by moral judgments. Yet this administration, like other Democratic and Republican administrations before it, has wantonly violated national and international checks on state-sanctioned violence. For instance, U.S. presidents openly defy the Constitution when they dispatch troops without a declaration of war. They routinely break treaties and international laws such as the Geneva Conventions, which forbid the targeting of innocent civilians.

In a recent National Public Radio report detailing the failure of NATO forces to destroy many Serbian tanks during the recent war, a U.S. military spokesman used as proof of the mission's success the fact that NATO forces obliterated bridges, public transportation, factories, utilities and brought the war home to Serb citizens.

In other words, the U.S. military admits that the United States targeted civilians in Serbia, just as the aftermath of the attacks on civilian infrastructure continues to claim lives today in a country that has been bombed back to the stone age. There is no way that this can be called moral.

Who am I to say what's moral?

Every person and every society has moral blind spots, no doubt the result of the time and place we inhabit. We all live in what writer Malcolm Muggeridge called a dark, self-enclosed prison, making it all the more imperative that we turn to time-tested tools to help us wade through vexing moral dilemmas.

The best tool regarding war is what's called the Just War doctrine. The idea is associated with the Catholic Church, mainly because of its unwavering defense of it. But it has resonated throughout Western civilization, and may have originated with Roman philosopher Cicero, whose birth predated Christ's by about a century, according to a British group called Peace Pledge.

Cicero's just war required a just cause, the group explained, such as stopping an invasion; a formal declaration of war to give the other side a chance to make amends; and the just prosecution of the war by not targeting unarmed civilians.

What makes a just war? asks Llewellyn Rockwell Jr., president of the free-market Ludwig von Mises Institute, in a column defending the doctrine. Every Catholic encyclopedia spells it out. It must be defensive and never aggressive. It must be the last resort, undertaken after all possible means of negotiating a peace have been exhausted. It must be conducted by a legitimate civil authority. (And an oppressed lower order may take up arms against a leviathan central power.) The means used must be proportional to the actual threat. There must be a good chance of winning (no sending soldiers to their death for no purpose). After the fighting is over, there may be no acts of vengeance. Peace Pledge and other pacifist groups find the term just war an oxymoron. They argue that it is never right to take to arms, no matter the situation. But the church, and Western civilization for that matter, rejected pacifism because it recognized that there's nothing life-affirming about stepping aside and letting an armed aggressor kill your family and subjugate your country.

But, as Rockwell's definition makes clear, those who subscribe to just-war thinking can wage war only in limited circumstances. By this definition, America's current policies can only be described as evil, no matter what window dressing they're given.

There is nothing defensive about sending U.S. troops far and wide, to places such as East Timor (though the people there clearly have the moral right to defend themselves). There is nothing proportionate about killing thousands of Serb civilians because of a civil war that, prior to NATO attacks, had claimed the lives of about 2,000. It is clearly unjust to target civilians or facilities that civilians depend upon for survival, as U.S. policies have done in Serbia, Iraq and Sudan. There is no last resort about this administration's typical listen to us or we'll bomb you or cut off your trade ultimatums.

The most difficult question, relevant with relation to East Timor, is whether it's justifiable for the United States to send forces to defend other peoples. It is not, according to libertarian writer Justin Raimondo, because the United States is not the world's sovereign—a position I support even though I recognize that there's a fair amount of controversy on whether to defend oppressed peoples. To allow the United States the power to intervene in far-off lands, even for the noblest purposes, opens the door for it to use its military anywhere—something that has had unjust and disastrous consequences.

At the very least, wouldn't it be nice to see this policy debated in the Just War context, rather than unthinkingly accepted under the Clintonian doctrine of endless global meddling?

Unfortunately, the Just War doctrine was long ago relegated to oblivion.

The reason, I believe, is that its truths are too uncomfortable. To accept this unassailable moral recipe would force people to admit that policies most Americans defend—such as the nuclear attacks on Japanese cities—could never withstand moral scrutiny.

These days, leftists—who had pointed to the doctrine when it suited their purposes during the Vietnam War—have become the biggest warmongers in town, embracing every Clintonian aggression as long as its done in the name of human rights.

And the neoconservative right remains too enamored of realpolitik—a calculated policy based on loosely defined national interests rather than moral precepts—to give the Just War doctrine any attention.

What America needs now is a thoroughgoing moral debate about the justness of our nation's military actions. Is there any political or religious leader with the courage to start one?