Public Opinion, Sovereignty, and Preemptive War

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The public gets what it wants good and hard

Defenders of democracy argue that its leaders are responsive to public opinion, or at least more responsive than under other forms of government. Mencken put it this way: "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard." Lincoln viewed democracy as "that government of the people, by the people, for the people."

The obvious problem with democracy or government by public opinion is that it is still government. There is nothing sacred about public opinion or the will of a majority or all of the people. Whether or not the crowd is smart, dumb, fickle, or possessed of innate good sense is irrelevant. The main point is that the public is just as authoritarian as any dictator if its will and actions are not strongly constrained by ethics, constitution, common sense, (real) law, or custom. They are usually not so constrained. In today’s democracies, the public roams over public policies, picking and choosing its next targets for regulation and regimentation. Public opinion becomes another term for tyranny and the suppression of individual freedom. Authoritarian democracy oppresses and harms many, including members of that group we call the public, as if we knew what the term meant.

Both the public and the state have their say

Democracy is a kind of protoplasm with its component parts symbiotically related: the public, its elected leaders, the media, and special interest groups representing business, labor, agriculture, technology, education, health, etc. They flow together in a fluid of money, influence, and information to produce "laws," the official acts, policies, judgments, and regulations that bind and constrain us peons who have made our will felt through this mysterious public opinion and an occasional ballot, essay, cracker barrel conversation, or letter to an editor.

Causality is multi-directional, running from the public to its leaders and from the leaders to the public, running from lobbyists and string-pullers to politicians and back again, running every which way. But public opinion has its role. There is no doubt of that. Votes are taken and ballots counted, although sometimes too few and sometimes too many. Public opinion had something to do with ending the Vietnam War, although even after the peak of its expression that conflict continued and expanded for several years under President Nixon. At the same time, small ruling groups influence events out of all proportion to their size. The Committee of Public Safety, a twelve-man body under Danton and then Robespierre and the Jacobins, ruled France between 1793 and 1795, not the elected Convention. No one today doubts the enormous power of the U.S. Presidency, even as the President heeds public opinion.

The pragmatic public wants victory

Elected officials care enough about public opinion to go to great lengths to sound it out. In many instances, their goal is to influence opinion. They listen to the public’s thoughts only in order to play back to them the songs that the public wants to hear. One such song is "victory." Dr. Peter D. Feaver helped conceive and draft a White House document (released in November 2005) titled "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" after he had analyzed U.S. public opinion and discovered that the public would support the war if it thought that victory could be achieved. The following month the President made a speech at the Naval Academy in which he used the word victory 15 times.

The pragmatic public wants victory at the moment (or wanted it six months ago.) The President wants victory and promises it. None of this wanting, promising, fighting and warring makes them right. In fact there is nothing right about it. The sovereignty of the public, or the public joined to its assembled officials, or the elected officials influencing the public, or of our democracy — none of it has legitimacy. Whether or not the U.S. Constitution was ever legitimate, we can not legitimately manufacture or make up rules as we go along. That is, we can not justifiedly break those fundamentally right, sound and virtually self-evident rules we should be following and replace them with "laws" we declare are right.

Unprovoked invasion is wrong

As Americans who promulgate the rights of man, we are supposed to know we shouldn’t invade another country simply because it suits our purposes. It seems that many of us do not know this. It seems that many others of us who do know this wilfully and evilly ignore it. No matter what public opinion says, it cannot be right to invade Iraq, wrecking the country and killing innocent people. It cannot be right to do this in order to remove their leaders, or in order to deprive third-party terrorists of shelter, or in order to keep terrorists on the run, or in order to deliver a decisive blow to an ideology. Yet these are the precise reasons given for the invasion of Iraq by our leaders in the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq. This document is an open admission of National Wrong by standards of traditional justice and by the standards of American ideals. Unprovoked invasion is wrong no matter what ends are invoked and no matter whether the public and its elected officials unanimously agree on it. We will pay for these crimes.

Even had unused weapons of mass destruction (whatever they are) been located inside Iraq, even if truckloads of unused chemical gas had found their way into Syria, even if shells tainted with anthrax or mustard gas had been found, none of these would have justified an unprovoked invasion either, whether the United Nations said so or not. The U.N. no more than any other political body has the legitimacy to make up any laws it chooses.

Why invasion is ethically wrong

The ethical right and wrong of aggressive warfare among states are not hard to understand. This is so even if we recognize that states are evil or illegitimate organizations and even if we believe that it is fitting and proper to undermine them or see them fall.

One must first distinguish a state from a country. A state is typically a small organization of leaders. They control the military. They collect taxes. They make rules and regulations. The country consists of large numbers of people ruled by the state. The states have the armed forces and the weapons.

One state does not aggress against another state if its armed forces and weapons are employed in defense of its country and employed properly, for example, without undifferentiated attacks upon civilians. However, it is wrong for one state to initiate an attack upon another state. For example, it is surely wrong if a state attacks other states because the latter are thought to possess weapons, or thought to have a desire to obtain weapons, or thought to be possible threats, or thought to possess a critical resource like oil, or thought to be enriching uranium. It is also wrong to make an unprovoked attack in order to free the attacked state’s people.

Here are a few ethical reasons why such unprovoked attacks are wrong. Ethicists and jurists versed in the nature of the just war may have further arguments.

(1) (harming innocent civilians) When one state attacks another, it attacks both a country and a state. The country’s civilians are harmed, often terminally. Since these civilians have not attacked or harmed the attacking state, the attacker has no just cause to attack them. They are relatively innocent even if their state is relatively guilty of some crimes.

(2) (no self-defense justification) The attacked state has not attacked or made war against its attacker. It basically hasn’t done anything to the attacking state. The attacked state’s weapons are not bad in and of themselves and therefore are not harming the attackers. The bad would be in using these weapons wrongly against the attacker, but this has not happened. There is no self-defense justification for an unprovoked attack

(3) (lack of due process) An attacking state has no right to act as judge, jury, and executioner of another state, even if that state has evil people running it who have committed evil acts (and what state hasn’t?) Evil deeds are properly assessed according to the degree of what has been done by impartial bodies. Then the remedies should fit the crimes.

There are no such impartial bodies in the world, but this remains the ideal that we can reason from. This ideal suggests that an attacking state that already has dirty hands (because it is a state) can’t even pretend to play this role. It suggests that the people of the country being attacked have a better claim to bring down their state than another state does. It also suggests another possibility, that one or more external bodies constitute themselves (free of all existing states) with the aim of hearing evidence and judging the actions of existing states. These would be "shadow" international courts of justice. Even if they possessed no punitive powers, they could be influential.

(4) (lack of appropriate remedies) An attacker who starts a war imposes indiscriminate and bloody remedies, basically punishments, upon all who get in its way, guilty and guiltless alike, no matter what the degree of guilt. Even if the U.S. had a right to being down Iraq’s state, the just methods are not those of war on a broad scale. They are not even necessarily punishment of the members of the state. That imposes the current made-in-the-U.S.A. brand of dealing with crimes. Such a method rules out restitution approaches that place the victim’s interests above those of states.

(5) (no right to preempt actions of the country’s people) An attacker has no right to override the actions (including doing nothing) of the state’s people who are living under that state. It has no right either to impose an alternative authority on those people or to alter their situation in ways that they may not approve of. Doing so violates that people’s rights. For example, if the people had one voice, they might be content to wait out their current rulers and hope for better under the next ones. They might be content under the present ruler because they fear a neighboring state will absorb them if that ruler is deposed. The people might be unhappy. They might even welcome being freed if they knew they’d be better off afterwards. But they may not know or even expect that they would be better off. They might fear a war-ravaged country. The people might prefer the existing certainty to the uncertainty of a new situation. If they can’t foresee the outcome of being freed by an interloping attacker, they might calculate that the uncertainty of being freed by another state makes them worse off despite their currently undesirable condition.

(6) (no right to trespass) The people of a country might love their lands and country so much that they don’t want to see foreigners trespassing on their lands and property. They might even believe that they have a right that their property not be destroyed or trespassed. In fact, they might even begin to defend themselves and their property against foreign "saviors."

Meanwhile a paternalistic attack to free a people presumes that the attacker knows that it can improve the utility of the people in the attacked state. But since an attacker can’t know this or even measure it, it can’t ever justify the attack.

Who’s responsible?

If a state’s aggressions are sometimes held in check by the public, this is good. Even Franklin Roosevelt had to drag the U.S. into war against the Empire of Japan. If the public urges its officials into war as by Remembering the Maine, this is bad. Democracy, being the protoplasm that it is, makes it hard at times to assign responsibility. Usually we can tell. Usually our leaders bear the lion’s share of the responsibility. Truman launched the U.S. into the Korean "police action." Kennedy and Johnson (with the Congress) heavily raised the ante in Vietnam. Reagan went into Grenada. Bush I’s inept diplomacy catalyzed the Persian Gulf War, and he orchestrated the coalition campaign. Clinton bombed Iraq and Yugoslavia and sent troops into Haiti and Somalia. It is the Congress right now that has sanctioned Iran for years and continues to apply pressure in conjunction with the President and his agents. Bush II without doubt brought about the current Iraq War.

For the most part, the responsibility for America’s warfare rests primarily with the state and only secondarily with the population. The leaders pull the people along in one way or another. (At another time I’ll comment on why Bush II made war on Iraq, an object of perennial speculation for which there are at least a dozen explanations.)

The public changes its mind

If the public wants wrong and its elected officials want wrong, then they shall have wrong. All their laws and words shall not make it right. If the public and/or its officials declare that Iran shall not enrich uranium and pass a law to that effect, a law that results in war with Iran, nothing shall make it right. It will be everlastingly wrong.

And when the public decides it wants right, it may be able to get its way. Then again it may not. Maybe the public will change its mind and turn against the President. His popularity keeps sinking. Maybe the public wants to hear a new tune on its political iPod, a peace ditty. When and if this happens, my happiness over the event will be quite limited because I will know that nothing fundamental has changed. The public will be thinking in pragmatic terms, calculating that "it isn’t worth it." And if they thought it were worth it, if they thought victory were attainable, then would invasion be right? If so, we had no reason to complain when the Germans attacked Poland in 1939. They won, at least temporarily, didn’t they? Might makes right, doesn’t it?

The public and/or its elected officials still think they are the sovereign creators of right and wrong. They still think that they can make up almost any rule they want to and make it law, and that this confers legitimacy upon their wishes. They still believe in democracy, in public opinion.

So if they change their minds, this democracy of ours will still be authoritarian. The time bombs of oppression will still be ticking away, and I will still be wishing for a great many of us to come to our senses and re-learn the meaning of law and restraint, hopefully without the "benefit" of a democracy hanging around our necks.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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