Back in Autumn 1999, the International Journal published what was either my first or my second academic article (I produced another in the same year and can’t remember which came first). It’s title was ‘“Ready to Kill but not to Die”: NATO Strategy in Kosovo’. As you might gather from the title, it wasn’t altogether sympathetic to what NATO did during its 1999 bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. The Kosovo war was, you might say, my ‘red pill’ moment, when I went from being the loyal military officer of my youth into someone who realized that his own countries weren’t above a bit of military aggression allied to a hefty dose of falsehood and propaganda.
Since then I have repeatedly argued firmly against war (or ‘military intervention’, ‘peace enforcement’, or whatever other term people prefer to use to make it look like it’s not war) whenever it’s been proposed. I have argued in favour of substantial cuts in defence spending in the countries in which I have lived and of which I am a citizen (the UK and Canada). I published academic articles and chapters in scholarly books laying out the case against ‘humanitarian intervention’, the ‘responsibility to protect’, the ‘obligation to rebuild’, and so on. I even wrote a short book (Doing Less with Less), arguing that the UK would not only save money but would also be much more secure if it spent less on defence and was less involved in trying to set the world to rights through the use of military power. I repeated this argument again several years later in a couple of works for a British think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs.
At the same time, exploiting my position as a ‘public intellectual’, I moved into the world of op-eds and political writing in an effort to influence public opinion outside of academia. In December 2002, for instance, I wrote a piece for The Spectator denouncing the impending invasion of Iraq and pouring scorn on the idea that Iraq was knee-deep in weapons of mass destruction, if only the UN inspectors could find them. And later, in pieces for the Ottawa Citizen and other outlets, I expressed scepticism about NATO’s military and humanitarian operations in Afghanistan, the likelihood of military success in Iraq, the bombing campaign against Libya, and the desire to topple Bashar al-Assad in Syria, among other things.
I never expected that any of this would have an immediate impact on public policy. But I felt that someone had to say something, and hoped that my writings might in some small way contribute to a gradual change in the intellectual climate. If nothing else, they would put ideas on the table which could be picked up by others at some later point in time when external circumstances altered to such an extent that it became clear that a change in direction was needed. ‘Surely’, I thought to myself, ‘those in charge will eventually realize what a mess their policies have created and will want to find an alternative. So, we need to prepare the ground now.’
Looking back at it all, I don’t see that I got anything seriously wrong about the immoral and counterproductive nature of the military policies pursued by Western states in the past 20 years. But I was completely wrong on that last point – the idea that those in charge would one day wake up to the folly of their policies. These have been two decades of total failure, not only for me but also for everyone else who has been arguing the counter-interventionist case. It is not just that our governments continue to invest vast amounts of money into pointless military endeavours. More broadly, there has been absolutely no accountability for the multiple failures which have accompanied those endeavours. The op-ed pages of major media outlets, for instance, remain dominated by the same rhetoric, and in many cases even the same people, as brought us the war in Iraq, the quagmire in Afghanistan, and the chaos of contemporary Libya. The belief that Western powers represent ‘good’ in the world, and have a moral right, even a duty, to use military power against those who represent ‘evil’, seems to be as entrenched as ever. The post-Cold War alliance forged between hard-line hawks on the right and liberal human rights interventionists on the left has a seemingly iron grip on public policy.
How has this come about? How is that even the catastrophic mess which the United States and its allies (most notably the Brits) have made of Iraq hasn’t allowed us to make even a dent in public policy, to such an extent that we have found ourselves this week seriously contemplating the prospect of a war between the USA and Iran? Twenty years of thinking about the causes of war provide me with the following possible explanations, in no particular order:
- Avoidance of cognitive dissonance: admitting that the prevailing paradigm of the past 20 years has been wrong would induce a massive headache of cognitive dissonance in leading Western states. We’d have to admit that we had committed terrible crimes; that we had made enormous mistakes; and that we had acted in distinctly immoral and illegal ways. Admitting that would be a devastating blow to the legitimacy of the West as a whole on the international stage as well as to the legitimacy of the ruling elites within individual states. It is much easier to pretend that none of this is the case, and that what has gone wrong has not been our basic approach, but simply how it has been implemented. The solution then becomes not changing direction but doing the same thing over again, but better.
- The influence of the military industrial complex (MIC): in a strict sense, there is no such thing as the MIC; there’s no formal organization that people join. But in an informal way, the MIC very definitely exists. Its members have an outsize influence on public decision making, which they influence in a way which benefits their institutional interests. The result is threat inflation, excessive military spending, and a preference for military solutions to problems which are better dealt with in other ways.
- Military hegemony: simply put, we use military power because we can. Western military hegemony is such that we can bomb and invade just about anybody without suffering too much as a result. This creates an enormous temptation to do so, especially since otherwise our military power is just sitting around doing nothing. Madeleine Albright’s complaint to Colin Powell – ‘What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?’ – demonstrates the point very clearly.
- Democracy and its lack: democracy – or more accurately, the need to face regular re-election – creates some very undesirable incentives among politicians. In particular, it leads to an obsession with looking ‘strong’. Weakness is seen (rightly or wrongly) as electorally fatal. Associated with this is a perceived need to ‘do something’. The brevity of the electoral cycle creates a preference for action over inaction. At the same time, though, this preference is also connected to severe deficiencies in our political system, above all the fact that they’re not nearly as democratic as they appear to be. Opinion polls in America, for instance, show that the general public would like the USA to extract itself from the Middle East, but yet government after government plunges deeper in. The influence of the MIC, the ‘deep state’, the lack of accountability mentioned above, the dominance of pro-war voices in the media, and so on, all play into this dynamic. So too do the activities of certain (sometimes ethnically-based, or diaspora) lobby groups.
- Arrogance: the West’s ‘victory’ in the Cold War demonstrated to many that ‘History’ had proved Western liberalism to be right. This rightness, allied with the power mentioned above, led to a belief that there was nothing we could not do if only we had the will.
- Ignorance: almost as great as our arrogance is our ignorance of the realities of the countries in which we become military involved. The arrogance and the ignorance are connected – it is the former which prevents us from realizing the prevalence of the latter.
- Ideology: Western states are in the grip of universalist ideology which moralizes international relations, dividing the world into the ‘good’ (liberal, pro-Western) and the ‘bad’ (illiberal, anti-Western). This ideology brooks no dissent. Utilitarian arguments as to whether military action brings more benefit or more harm are dismissed in favour of moral ones – Qasem Soleimani had to die because he was a ‘monster’; Gaddhafi was ‘evil’; Saddam was a ‘bad guy’, and so on.
- Misperception: there’s a whole literature on the role of misperception in international politics, most notably the work of Robert Jervis. It’s all relevant. States regularly misperceive actions taken by other states for their own defence as potentially hostile, fail to appreciate changes in others’ postures over time (‘change blindness’ in psychological jargon), and so on.
- Groupthink: the West’s various multilateral structures, including the NATO alliance, don’t help in this regard. Western leaders – political and military – are all members of the same club. They want to get on with one another, and don’t like to be the odd one out. So they follow along. Dissenting views are suppressed. This is, of course, a bit of an over-generalization, but there’s some truth to it – how much condemnation did the invasion of Iraq generate among NATO members? how many states have broken ranks with the USA over its policy on Iran? etc. Not very many.
It’s a heady mixture, and it leads me to something of a revolutionary conclusion. For 20 years, I’ve taken the view that we can argue our way out of the mania for military intervention; that we can logically persuade our leaders to change course. In the midst of this week’s war scare, I’m no longer so sure. The problem goes much deeper than political reason. The multiple wars of the last two decades are rooted in structural deficits in our domestic political systems, in the dominant political ideology, in the system of media ownership and control, and in the broader international system. If we really want to bring these wars to an end, we need to move beyond pointing out how futile and counterproductive they are, and begin to address these wider structural issues. It will not be an easy task.