Give Dueling a Chance

The vice president of Iraq has made the greatest contribution to geo-politics of any statesman in many years. Taha Yassin Ramadan, in an interview for Abu Dhabi television that has received much attention in the United States, suggested that Bush and Saddam, as well as he and Cheney, have an old-fashioned duel to settle their dispute.

"Bush wants to attack the whole Iraq, the army and the infrastructure," Ramadan said. "If such a call is genuine, then let the American president and a selected group with him face a selected group of us and we choose a neutral land and let [UN Secretary-General] Kofi Annan be a supervisor and both groups should use the same weapon."

"A president against a president and vice president against a vice president, and a duel takes place, if they are serious," the Iraqi vice president said. "And in this way we are saving the American and Iraqi people."

It is hard to know what to add to that brilliant suggestion. It would mean a complete departure from the evil tradition of modern war, which, as Joseph Stromberg continues to argue, is necessarily total war. That means it destroys the way of life, and often life itself, in the entire country. That is its essence, and the source of unthinkable horror for longer than a century.

Is there any greater humanitarian priority than to break this cycle of violence?

To personalize foreign policy in this way would mean the end of war as we know it. To institute duel-based dispute resolution among statesmen would help make them accountable in a way in which they are not now.

Consider, after all, what Bush has to risk by beating war drums, and, well, nothing comes to mind. It generally increases poll ratings and gives him a shot at being featured in the history books. This is a very bad incentive structure for the cause of international peace.

The duel suggestion underscores the great unspoken truth of our time and anytime as regards war: war is brought about by governments and for governments. Nations do not start and fight wars; only governments do. A duel between heads of state only brings the conduct of war in line with its cause. Even Bush has said "we have no argument with the Iraqi people." Good, then leave them, and the American people as well, out of it. The duel is the surest means.

Under the new duel system, Bush would be free to be as belligerent as he wants to be, and call any foreign head of state any name he finds appropriate. He clearly has an appetite for conflict, and under this system he would be free to indulge that as much as he likes, provided that it is he and not others who bear the risk associated with violent conflict.

The stipulation that they use the same weapons is also very valuable. This is how it was done under the old system of duels. The weapons were the same and the participants could chose either/or. In short, it approximated the playground ideal of a "fair fight." After all, with a military budget that is more than twice as large as the second largest military power (Russia), it seems rather unsporting to go around threatening people with death and destruction.

There is even something to say for the suggestion that the United Nations serve as an overseer in the duel. Though I have never been a fan of the UN, this does seem to be one useful role for the thing, so long as it does exist. The UN in this case would actually become an instrument of peace.

Taha Yassin Ramadan’s point is so cogent, insightful, and practical that it was, of course, dismissed by the White House out of hand. This is an "irresponsible statement," said spokesman Ari Fleischer, that does not justify a "serious response." He did manage the actually dismissive observation that "when Iraq had disputes, it invaded its neighbors."

And this makes Iraq different from the United States? Well, perhaps it does to the extent that the US does make any distinction between neighbors and far-flung countries anywhere in the world, like Somalia and Serbia, which the US has freely invaded without hesitation. (It’s been more than 90 years since it invaded Mexico, so no one but the Mexicans remember.) Even more recently, the US has a dispute with the Taliban over whether there needed to be proof of Bin Laden’s involvement in 9-11. The US ruled out negotiation, and, in fact, saw the invitation to negotiation as an outrage worthy of invasion.

There are other points to make in response to Fleischer. The dispute between Iraq and Kuwait was based on a claim that Kuwait was stealing oil from Iraq, and the invasion option driven by the historical reality that Kuwait itself is a country of non-organic origins. Now, a good libertarian should favor the secession of anyone anytime, so surely Kuwait should have the right to independence. On the other hand, the same claim about Georgia or Virginia would have a stronger historical rationale.

Finally, it is worth a mention that the US ambassador to Iraq at the time of the invasion of Kuwait — this would be April Glaspie — had given her implicit approval of the military move, saying, with the OK of the administration, that the US took no position on Iraq’s long-running border dispute with Kuwait. In any case, all of this is ancient history by now. Why not congratulate Iraq on its newfound interest in peace before war?

As for the idea of a duel, one might say it is barbaric. Indeed, anti-duelism became an essential part of late Enlightenment thought. The idea of a duel is that men who feel they had been insulted should have some means by which satisfaction could be achieved. The popular sense was that fate would ensure the death of the guilty and the victory of the innocent. It was also said that men should not settle violently what might be otherwise settled through negotiation and personal compromise.

There is a certain charm to this critique of the duel, and it is hard to disagree. The duel in this form should probably not be brought back. The US was one of the last countries to see the duel fall out of favor, in fact, and it was mostly unknown by the latter half of the nineteenth century. And yet, the fact is that many men are prone to violent means. The violence didn’t disappear; it took a new brutal form. What replaced the duel? Total war. Instead of constraining the violence, the abolition of the duel ended up doing the opposite, expanding it beyond anything that had been known in the history of the world.

War in the age of the great monarchies was a dispute between rulers and their private armies. It was limited by the inability to overtax or conscript. The ambitions were narrow, and did not typically involve grand moral aims. Indeed, Voltaire once wrote that most people would go on with their lives, knowing nothing and caring nothing about their rulers’ wars.

In the age of democracy, the age of what Hans-Hermann Hoppe calls public government, war has been a people’s war. It involves high taxation, inflation, conscription, a "home front," mass destruction of the enemy, unlimited war aims, huge ideological agendas, and unconditional surrender. In short, where premodern war was limited, modern war is unlimited and leads to unimaginable human suffering.

When assessing the merits of the duel, the proper comparison is not the duel versus an ideal of negotiation that everyone should favor, but rather the duel versus total war. This is what the Iraqi vice president meant by "Saving the American and Iraqi people." A duel would do that, where modern war would not. He knows whereof he speaks, because the US war against Iraq, now eleven years running, has resulted in untold hundreds of thousands of deaths. Would a duel have been preferable? Certainly.

Choose your weapons, fellas, and leave us out of it.

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