They Were Wrong

In those days following Thanksgiving when the Taliban fell, the War Party enjoyed their greatest successes, and they didn’t hesitate to rub our noses in it. Ha, ha, ha, they chortled, the people who warned of quagmire and failure were wrong. The Taliban was not invulnerable after all. The vaunted Islamic warriors fled for the hills for fear of the mighty air war waged by the US, and so victory is ours, with very few casualties of the kind that matter (meaning US casualties).

It turns out, however, that the War Party was too smug too soon. None of the top officials of the Taliban have been captured. Al-Qaidah is still on the loose. Above all, Bin Laden and his coterie got away. Even the Pentagon admits that it is "anyone’s guess" where he is. If the goal was to hammer the parties said to be guilty for 9-11, it hasn’t worked. Even by their own standards, the war has not exacted justice but has only destroyed.

True, the Taliban no longer runs Afghanistan. But no one claims that the Taliban was directly responsible for any events of 9-11. Overthrowing that regime was not the primary point of the military intervention. To put the best spin on the outcome, the US celebrated the advent of rock music and women’s rights in Afghanistan (while remaining silent about the absence of such rights in other Islamic states, in particular former Soviet states now serving as military staging grounds).

But the ostensible point of the intervention was to get Bin Laden and his organization. If that is not achieved, what was the point of the war? To put a gaggle of tribal warlords, some left over from Soviet days, in charge of the country? That’s all we really have to show for the war so far, that and a lot of civilian corpses and burned up liberties.

As a result, the War Party is changing its targets. "As for bin Laden, we shouldn’t be too picky about timing," writes National Review’s Rich Lowry, adherent of the doctrine of Pentagon Infallibility. "It doesn’t matter too much whether he is killed before or after Saddam Hussein." Oh yeah? Just because Lowry says it doesn’t make it so.

And say what you want about Saddam, he had nothing to do with September 11. In fact, as the leader of what used to be one of the most liberal states in the Arab world, he has always been a bitter opponent of radical Islam and Bin Laden in particular. Bin Laden’s attitude toward Saddam duplicates the US position: Saddam is an illegitimate leader who should be overthrown. The attempt to turn this war from one of retaliation into a general war against Islam completely changes the public rationale for why the US is waging this war in the first place.

Having failed to accomplish its stated aims of exacting justice, the War Party is simply changing the stated goal. This is akin to the changed rationale of the Welfare State after the 1970s, when its advocates announced that their goal was not to eradicate poverty so much as to redistribute wealth from the rich. It’s called defining your goal by the outcome, whatever it is, like the child on the playground who always declares after any embarrassment: "I meant to do that."

In the same way, the new rationale for this war is not to punish the evildoers who plotted the destruction of the World Trade Center; it is to eradicate states that the US doesn’t like: in other words, behaving like an empire.

Whenever I write about this topic, I receive a flurry of emails demanding to know: what is your alternative? The answer can be summed up in a single, very unfashionable word: diplomacy, the practice of resolving international disputes through adroit and tactful negotiation as an alternative to destructive war.

In diplomacy, there are no ultimatums or non-negotiable demands. There are proposals, counter-proposals, and rounds of give and take, ideally conducted by sober men and women, and all based on the belief that keeping the peace is better for all parties than going to war. While diplomacy proceeds, the peace is kept, trading continues, and normal relations among states remain. This is why civilized states always prefer diplomacy to violence in resolving disputes even with uncivilized states.

Hours after the attacks on 9-11, the US theorized that Bin Laden was behind them. The Bush administration demanded that the government of Afghanistan hand him over. It’s not at all clear that the Taliban could have done so if it wanted to, but before it even tried, the Taliban made two requests that are entirely in accord with traditional diplomatic practice: first, it wanted evidence that Bin Laden was involved, and second, it wanted Bin Laden tried in an international court, not in a US kangaroo court. The second demand suggests that the Taliban was not fundamentally opposed to handing him over, provided that the evidence that he was involved was forthcoming.

What if the US had worked to gather evidence and turn it over to the Taliban? At least in doing so, it would have developed a solid case against him and thereby persuaded fence-sitters to come over to the US side. It could have worked to rally world opinion in a way that would have made it far more difficult for Bin Laden to escape. A trial in international court would have been the opportunity to expose him for all the world to see.

The costs of war would have been entirely avoided: Afghanistan wouldn’t look like the surface of the moon, tens or hundreds of millions in tax dollars would have been saved, the dead American soldiers would still be alive, we would have stood a better chance of retaining civil liberties at home, we would not have inspired terrorists of the future and thousands of “collateral-damage” civilians would not have been killed. In any case, we wouldn’t be worse off than we are today.

But diplomacy was ruled out the minute everyone concluded that September 11 was an act of war rather than a multiple hijacking that ended in horrendous murder. War is a license for the state to do whatever it wishes; the congressional resolution empowering Bush said as much. It means ruling out a diplomatic solution, which means ruling out peace.

What if Bin Laden is captured tomorrow? He should be put on trial, as the diplomatic tradition would dictate, not executed on the spot as the War Party demands. The Nuremberg Trials helped drive home the moral strictures that bind states in peace and war, and established the principle that obeying orders is not a morally licit excuse for rampant criminality. Similarly, the McVeigh trial highlighted the horror of ideologically driven violence. A trial for terrorists would help reassert ancient codes of ethics in times when states and terrorists disregard them.

Our dictum is summed up by Ludwig von Mises: "Whoever wants peace among nations must seek to limit the state and its influence most strictly." The War Party says roughly the opposite: "We want war, so there should be no limits on the state and its influence." And look what the War Party has done to us as compared with what they have done to make the world a safer place. So far they have achieved none of their stated objectives while having destroyed so much. It is they, and not us, who should be hanging their heads in shame.