Why Wars for High Principles Are Just as Bad as the Rest

Milton Fisk, Against the Current 107 (Nov-Dec, 2003):20-25.

A surprising number of American doves became hawks under the barrage of propaganda leading to the second US war against Iraq. Signs of their change began to appear four years earlier during the bombing of Serbia. The dovishness of the post-Vietnam War epoch proved to be skin deep, wearing away when wars were described as being necessary for democracy or for human rights. These changelings wrung their hands over repression in Iraq and joined with George W. Bush in his crusade to stop it.[1] One couldn’t, they argued, stand by and hope that Saddam Hussein would shrivel up and disappear simply from gusts of global moral disapprobation.

The hawkish doves joined a majority of Americans in supporting Bush’s war for regime change in Iraq just as many of them had done in supporting Bill Clinton’s war against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milosevic. The important thing for the new hawks was that these were high-minded wars resting on familiar truths about democracy and human rights. If we take another look at the matter, it turns out that this high-mindedness was the important thing for the majority of the public as well.

How did high principles propel support for the war against Iraq? There was widespread skepticism about large stashes of weapons of mass destruction hidden from the United Nations inspectors and about links between Saddam and international terrorism in the form of al-Qaeda. This skepticism led Americans to look elsewhere for a reason to go to war. They focused instead on Saddam’s brutal monopolization of power in Iraq. After all, the Bush administration tirelessly emphasized that Iraq was part of an “axis of evil,” that Saddam gassed the Kurds in 1988, that in 1991 he repressed the Shiites in the South and the Kurds in the North, and that the Baath Party did not tolerate pluralism. The conclusion former doves, along with about 60% of the population as a whole, came to from all this was that, instead of containing this outrageous dictatorship, it was time to destroy it in order to make way for democracy.

At work here was a common tendency of humans collected into groups. We tend to want other groups to conform to the standards of our own group. And when those standards are high principles, the tendency to want conformity is even stronger, strong enough sometimes to go to war over. This tendency is often little more than a narcissistic urge to make others over in our image. It can become something more when it is linked with the struggles of dissidents in other groups.

The opportunity for such a linkage arrives when our cooperation is sought by organized dissenters within a group that happens not to conform to our own. Extending our cooperation to them is, of course, compatible with our striving to get the group of which they are a dissenting part to conform to our own standards. A feature of this cooperation will be that we not trying to usurp the leadership of the dissenters own struggle. So the tendency to push for conformity avoids narcissism through genuine cooperation. In the best of such cases, one reaches, where different nations are involved, the kind of solidarity that can be characterized as revolutionary internationalism.

But nobody attempted to realize the solidarity which this kind of internationalism called for in fighting either human rights abuses in Kosovo or dictatorship in Iraq. In these cases there was a one-way street ending in great-power leadership over whatever dissident groups were involved in Yugoslavia or Iraq.

At Rambouillet, for example, Kosovar leaders insisted that any accord with President Milosevic would have to guarantee independence from Yugoslavia for Kosovo. Madeline Albright, the US Secretary of State, countered this insistence by pressuring the Kosovars to accept an accord, whose ostensible purpose was to avoid a war, without the guarantee of independence. Their acceptance of the accord was necessary in order to legitimate her will to use force when, as was expected, Milosevic refused to sign it.[2] Yet she could not tolerate writing Kosovar independence into the accord. That would have made the accord a greater farce than it already was, since it would have announced to the world that she had no interest in getting Milosevic to sign.

This kind of one-way effort to get change through pressure from a greater power rather than through cooperation reflects the negative, narcissistic side of the tendency to get conformity. A US colonel in Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket (1987) illustrates this narcissism just as his troops are about to be engulfed in the battle of Hue. He tries to set straight a GI conflicted enough to have both “Born to kill” written on his helmet and a peace button pinned to his jacket. He explains that, “We are here to help the Vietnamese because inside every Gook is an American trying to get out.”

After the invasion of Iraq, some commentators praised President Bush for his return to what they called “American internationalism.” They saw him as extending the tradition Truman and Kennedy created in their struggles for freedom against communism. With its democratic ethos and its vigilance for freedom, the US is exceptional enough, these commentators said, to warrant its heading up crusades for these high values.[3] Yet the interventionism without cooperation that marks this tradition, right through to George W. Bush’s Iraq war, prevents it from being any more than a narcissistic internationalism. For within this tradition, cooperation is ruled out by the impulse to gain and maintain global power for the US – economically, politically, and militarily. In commenting on Bush’s bellicosity, Arundhati Roy made the point succinctly, saying that “Empire is on the move, and Democracy is its sly war cry.”[4]

When the tendency to get conformity is narcissistic – substituting the judgment and planning of those demanding conformity for the judgment and planning of even the dissidents within a generally non-conforming group – it needs to lock in with some power which will be capable of imposing conformity from without. It can’t get conformity simply by wishing it were so. Where then does the power lie for imposing conformity on recalcitrant peoples? One can beat up some non-conformists, like children, or rent thugs to deal with non-conforming but organized adults, like trade unionists. Yet civilized societies frown on such violence and lodge the authority to use violence solely within their states. Thus it is the state that makes the ultimate decisions about enforcing conformity to high principles like democracy and human rights.

It might seem obvious that the desire for conformity has to lock in with state power, but in the US at least the consequences of such a lock-in have escaped hawkish doves and that hawkish 60% of the population. The consequence I choose to emphasize is that the agent supported by the public to rough up the non-conformist may have a different agenda than the public itself has. The same words may be used by both that agent – the state – and the public in order to establish the lock in between state power and high principle, but those words will likely mean different things.

Official voices in the American state talk about democracy as a system of formal equality in representation and before the law. It is understood by such officials that this system of equality, in whatever country it is found, is not to be allowed to conflict with the state’s nurturing of the capitalist organization of the economy. Today it is the large corporations which are the dominant economic agents in such an economy. Thus nurturing the economy will call for a kind of equality that fits with the health of these corporations. One can, then, speak of democracies subject to these constraints as corporate democracies.

In a given nation, some of the large corporations are national in scope but others, the multinationals, may not only be based in another nation but also roam the globe for cheap labor and rich markets. The possibility arises, then, that many nations will have to adjust their democracy to the needs of foreign based multinationals and to the demands of international bodies, such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, which are set up to encourage a global corporate economy. When the multinationals and the international bodies sharply limit a nation’s decision making about its own economic development, one can refer to its corporate democracy as a dependent one.

In short, it is not just any kind of democracy that is to be forced upon a non-conforming nation in a war for democracy led by the likes of the US. In such a nation, democracy is not to be allowed to interfere with but will instead be used to nurture corporate capitalism in it. This imposed democracy will also nurture the formation there of a section of the capitalist class associated with corporate capitalism. Moreover, this imposition will most likely create there a corporate democracy of the dependent sort. For, it will operate less in its citizens’ interests than in those of foreign based corporations and of the wealthy nations, which control international bodies like the World Bank and the WTO.

One need be clear about the kind of goal the US is promoting in order to recognize the mismatch between the values it was pursuing in going to war against Yugoslavia or Iraq and the values on which the US public based their support for the war. Consider the rosy picture of democracy – held so dear by so many Americans – as a system in which the power of wealth is limited, decision making power is widely shared, relevant information is available, and the worth of the individual’s vote isn’t diminished by his or her lack of money. This picture clashes with corporate democracy on most every point. Moreover, there is a tendency in the US public to think that its government, whatever its mistakes, is trying to do what is best for and to be fair in its dealings with other countries. As a result, the public supposes that when the government talks about replacing dictatorship with democracy or about stopping human rights abuses it is talking about goals that are not systematically subordinated to the interests of a few. Indeed, the US public supposes that these are the same noble goals it holds dear. It is then understandable that there is popular support in the US for wars in the name of noble goals that are in reality wars to advance a kind of globalism in which multinational corporations are a dominant feature.

Non-US publics are no less serious in wanting to make others over in their image. But most of them are not sure that the image they want duplicated is compatible with the one the US architects of war want duplicated. There is, in fact, concern within these publics, as there is not within the US public, over mismatches between their goals and those of the world’s superpower. They have watched the US undermine international initiatives on global warming, the world criminal court, and nuclear arms limitation. Many of these non-US publics have direct experience of how the US uses the non-democratic World Bank and International Monetary Fund to overturn economic protections and shred social safety nets. They have seen the US approve coup attempts against elected leaders, support governments that systematically repress minorities, and use its financial power to persuade leaders to ignore the wishes of majorities. These non-US publics are, as a result, reluctant to lock their missionary goals in with the superpower’s might.

Awareness of a mismatch between popular goals and the goals of a bellicose regime can keep a people from following such a regime into war. But this awareness doesn’t tell us how else change within another people is to be made. John Colet, in a sermon at Saint Paul’s in London in 1513, rightly noted in objecting to the war mongering of Henry VIII that “An unjust peace is better than the justest of wars.” But the good priest didn’t tell his flock how to turn an unjust peace into a just one.

Many peoples have changed themselves and their regimes without relying on an imposition of change from without. The pace may not be rapid enough for those who cannot abide non-conforming others, those whose sense of duty to change others fills them with an urgency that will not tolerate waiting for change to come from within. The likely outcome of following such a duty will, though, be a deep resentment, like that in Iraq during the US/British occupation, on the part of those who have the change imposed on them. A new regime that insists on adapting to the imposed change will then have to cope with a destabilizing opposition.

How, though, can a people change themselves if they are subject to a thoroughgoing tyranny, under which any sign of opposition becomes an occasion for hunting down those who want change. Such a tyranny generates a silent opposition of apathy and non-cooperation. This eventually erodes both the economic and the civic bases of governability, as it did in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The changes that resulted there in the early 1990s were far from ideal, but if nuclear holocaust was the alternative, they at least created a window of opportunity for something better.

Let us turn now to the Iraq war to illustrate how its justification by appeal to democracy fails. There are two areas where the failure is evident. One concerns the mismatch between the US public’s and its government’s senses of democracy. The other concerns the alleged gains to the Iraqis from the invasion and occupation in the name of democracy.

As regards the US public, its embrace of the ideal of popular democracy doesn’t excuse its failure to ask whether Mr. Bush was going to war for something quite different. As an advocate of deregulation and privatization, he would not tolerate a new Iraq that like the old one was outside the global neoliberal order. The new Iraq couldn’t opt out of that order to avoid financial crises, in the way Malaysia did to avoid the East Asian crisis of 1997-1998. It would, moreover, have to begin privatizing major sectors of its economy. It was more politic, though, for Bush to leave talk about privatizing Iraqi industry to Fadhil Chalabi, who after returning during the invasion to Iraq from exile with his own militia said, “We need to have huge amounts of money coming into the country. The only way is to partially privatize the [oil] industry.”[5]

Another indication that the war was not about popular democracy was that even before it started the US Agency for International Development was quietly contacting US based multinationals to solicit bids on reconstruction projects such as road building, water systems, text book distribution, and communications. Then, before the formal lifting of the UN sanctions against Iraq, the Bush administration had given large contracts to Bechtel for water and sewer system repairs, to a unit of Halliburton for repairs to the oil industry, and to World Com for constructing a cell phone system around Baghdad. Whether these giants ultimately take over production from the Iraqis or settle for marketing and servicing, there will be windfalls in store for them. Cargill’s former senior executive, Dan Amstutz, is in charge of agricultural reconstruction. As the world’s largest grain exporter, Cargill will surely be active in feeding Iraqis US grain.

One could excuse the US public for not knowing before the war just how corporate the new Iraq was supposed to be. Information on bidding and talk of privatization was, after all, not part of Bush’s pre-war rhetoric on Iraq. The fact is though that there was little concern to ask whether an administration as dedicated to corporate well being as this one is would try to implement anything other than a dependent corporate version of democracy in Iraq. So without such a concern for critical questioning, the public supported the war despite the clear mismatch between the popular democracy that inspires it and the dependent corporate democracy that the administration planned as a replacement for Iraq’s dictatorship

As to the Iraqis, how does the balance sheet of benefits and harms work out for them? The liberation from the Baathist dictatorship was a precondition for any system promising improvements. But as a mere precondition, it could be the dawn either of something better or of something different but no better. Its value, then, depends on what it is used for. If the liberation is used to set up a dependent corporate democracy, how will the people fare?

One can be instructed by “the restoration of democracy” by the US in another case, that of Haiti. The US intervened in 1993 to allow the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide to return to power after a military coup overthrowing it. The condition was that neoliberal reforms be accepted. Tariff protection for Haitian rice and, later on, poultry was reduced to allow subsidized US agribusiness to dump its produce on Haiti. To add to the injury, refugees fleeing the worsening poverty in Haiti due to job loss were forcibly returned by the US.

In Iraq, the economy of an emerging corporate democracy would have to be more than just the aggregate of contracts and property holdings. There would have to be a legal framework making the economy fit within the global neoliberal order. The US will have to promote banking laws, trade laws, tax laws, real and intellectual property laws, and labor laws that do not put Iraq outside the neoliberal community. Under such laws, popular democratic tendencies would be subordinated to corporate demands.

We can’t exclude the possibility that bitterness over the loss of life during the invasion, over the destruction from bombing, over the failure to control looting, and over the imposition of a provisional government will make Iraq ungovernable. The plan to set up a corporate democracy would then fail without, however, a more attractive option becoming feasible. This would show only that in Iraq’s case liberation by invasion was simply a failed strategy for achieving a corporate democracy.

But assuming that democracy in its corporate form does emerge, then political and economic power will be located in a narrow segment of the populace. Even this powerful segment will act under conditions set by foreign based corporations, the World Bank, and the WTO. Efforts at improving agriculture will face cheap imports. Bringing health and educational services to an adequate level will be hampered by the priority given exports under structural adjustment agreements.

All this will make life hard enough for most Iraqis, but added to this will be difficult cultural changes. Corporate democratic structures will remain a shell without a supporting culture. Finding such a culture becomes increasingly difficult in a society being exposed, as Iraq is now, to fundamentalist radicalism from Iran and elsewhere. Moreover, divisions between Arabs and Kurds and between Shiites and Sunnis have emphasized national and religious values that harden antipathy for American style corporate democracy.[6] With the overthrow of the secular Baathists, many Iraqis are anxious to see one or another of the non-secular cultures flourish in the new Iraq. So to have a culture supportive of corporate democracy will require a confrontation with the non-secular cultures that have become more active and self-confident since the liberation.

Some US analysts are grappling with how to blend corporate democracy with cultures now found in Iraq. One proposal is to create a division of roles. It would accept neighborhood rule by Islamic clerics while insisting on using “decisive force” against those who would oppose “liberal democracy” in the state.[7] But if it takes force to install corporate democracy within Islam, it will likely take force to insure its continued existence there, making it impossible to maintain the illusion that it is indeed democratic.

I turn now from a critique of war for democracy to a consideration of war for human rights. As in the case of war for democracy, there is a mismatch of goals in a war for human rights. The human rights the public wants defended are worthwhile in themselves rather than being a pretext for enhancing state power. They are to be defended wherever they are threatened; they don’t become valuable merely when their defense becomes a useful means to another goal. This parallels the manner in which the democracy the public wants is valuable whether or not it is compatible with a corporate economy.

When a defense of human rights is viewed as incompatible with the state’s goal of greater power their abuse is often tolerated by it. Chomsky has noted how selective the US is in its defense of human rights, defending them in Kosovo but not in East Timor, Turkish Kurdistan, or Colombia.[8] Getting Milosevic to stop his attacks on Albanian Kosovars by the 1999 campaign of bombing military and infrastructural targets was not the Clinton administration’s goal. It was, rather, a means toward the US goal at the time of gaining recognition as an unmatchable military force. With such a sword, it could head off the formation of centers for European security which it did not control. It showed that it could go around the UN in using its might to weaken a regime whose nationalism posed an obstacle to its integration into the global economy. But in the same year, the US showed no desire to intervene against the Indonesian army to stop the killing and displacement of East Timorese at the time of their election for independence. The US judged that its interest in leading a global economy called for supporting the market friendly Indonesian regime that had recently replaced the corrupt Suharto regime. The selectivity is explained, not by the gravity of human rights abuses, but by whether or not imperial power is advanced.

Those doves who became hawkish over Kosovo thought, of course, that they were defending high principles rather than following the low road of blind patriotism or vengefulness. Their good intentions are not in question, only the adequacy of their diagnosis of the situation. The context for any diagnosis needed to be the US effort to establish its military and political leadership among its European allies. This leadership would enable it to move with their cooperation against regimes resisting integration into the kind of world-wide economy being advanced by the US, the IMF, and the World Bank. Milosevic’s regime was an example of such resistance. In the Yugoslavia of the early 1990s, debts to Western banks and IMF shock therapy contributed to the poor economic conditions which provoked the aggressive nationalisms that were fatal to Yugoslav unity.[9] Milosevic’s subsequent rise to power as a Serbian nationalist depended on popular opposition to the economic liberalism that ravaged Yugoslavia and to the West’s sacrificing the rights of Serbian nationals outside Serbia in the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Within this context of the US establishing its leadership, the human rights of ethnic Albanians became in 1999 a mere pretext, and the war for which they were the pretext actually led to even greater abuses. Wesley Clark, the US-NATO commanding general for the Kosovo war, “fully anticipated” the escalation of atrocities committed against ethnic Albanians after the bombing began.[10] More Albanians were killed – 7,000-8,000 – by Milosevic’s forces after the bombing began than before, and 1,300,000 were added to the list of those fleeing their homes. If this was fully anticipated, then how could the war have been fought for human rights, except as a pretext?

Is, then, nothing to be done about a humanitarian crisis until states act exclusively in their people’s and the world’s common interest? One doesn’t need to go that far. Without such a reform, there were already less damaging alternatives available for Kosovo. Secretary of State Albright had excluded them by drawing up the Rambouillet accord so that Milosevic would have to reject it and submit himself to war. Under the accord, NATO forces were to have access to the whole of Yugoslavia and Kosovo would be under NATO occupation with the final settlement of its status to be determined by, among other things, “the will of the people.” The NATO occupation of Kosovo was a key sticking point. For, Milosevic had seen the national rights of Serbs violated in Croatia when independence for Croatia and Slovenia were promoted by certain NATO nations.

Chomsky has pointed out that what was ignored by the US government and the media was that on March 23, 1999, the day before NATO bombs started falling on Serbia, the Serbian parliament voted that it was ready to review the size and character of the “international presence” in Kosovo.[11] This suggested the possibility that Serbia would accept a United Nations peacekeeping force in Kosovo with weapons of self-defense. Milosevic himself repeated this willingness to accept such a force, as distinct from an occupying NATO army, in meeting on April 22, well before the end of the 78 day bombing, with Russian envoy Victor Chernomyrdin. Throughout all this the US was bent on enhancing its hegemony over Europe, which of course made a UN peace keeping force unattractive to it.

Ignoring the opportunity opened by the Serbian parliament was a key factor leading to the “fully anticipated” escalation of slaughter and flight. It is disingenuous of defenders of the Albright policy of war to respond that there would have been an escalation of brutality by Milosevic even without the bombing.[12] From the standpoint of protecting human rights, the Rambouillet plan should have been built around a UN peacekeeping force for Kosovo rather than a NATO occupation. Ignoring this alternative insured Milosevic’s refusal to sign the plan, which triggered the bombing that incited the wave of atrocities. The important thing from the US point of view was that the massive bombing campaign served notice that the US was willing to use its unmatched might to bring to heel regimes that kept Europe from being seamlessly in the camp of corporate democracy.

Public support in the US for bombing Serbia had its missionary side. It saw the war as a mission to get conformity with human rights. The US public jumped over Yugoslav dissidents, whether ethnic Serbian or Albanian, to support an imperial onslaught. It ignored the sizeable democratic element in the massive demonstrations in Belgrade against Milosevic several years earlier. It was given little information about remnants of the Kosovar democratic movement around Ibrahim Rugova. In short, the US public wanted conformity on human rights without the price of solidarity. Even so the public’s goal of ending abuses was degraded into a mere means by Clinton and Albright. They focused on getting conformity as well, the conformity of other nations not to human rights but to a Europe of emerging corporate democracies.

By and large, the US public doesn’t see the mismatch between its high principles of democracy and human rights and the goals of the US government when it goes to war allegedly to defend these principles. Exposing the mismatch is not just a matter of more discussion. To get the point of the discussion, there needs to be outreach to people who have already seen the mismatch as a result of the effects of US policies on them. Identifying with the plight of those, both in the US and elsewhere, who have suffered from these policies will raise critical awareness about US wars for high principles. Movements to create solidarity with the struggling and oppressed can, then, lay the basis for a wider rejection of what are billed as wars for high principles.



  1. One of the hawkish doves is Bill Keller, now editor of The New York Times. See his op-ed piece “The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club,” The New York Times (February 8, 2003): A31. [1]
  2. Ivo H. Daalder and Michael E. O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly: NATO’s War to Save Kosovo (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), 82-83. [2]
  3. Lawrence F. Kaplan and William Kristol, The War Over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003), 63-75. [3]
  4. Arundhati Roy, “Buy One, Get One Free,” in her War Talk (Boston: South End Press, 2003), . [4]
  5. Quoted in Naomi Klein’s “Bomb before You Buy,” The Guardian (April 13, 2003): 13. [5]
  6. For a discussion of traditions within Islam compatible with liberalism, see Fatema Mernissi, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World, translated by M.J. Lakeland (Cambridge MA: Perseus Publishing, 1992), chapters 3 and 7. [6]
  7. Reuel Marc Gerecht, “How to Mix Politics with Religion,” The New York Times (April 29, 2003): A31. [7]
  8. Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo (Monroe ME: Common Courage Press, 1999), chapter 3. [8]
  9. Peter Gowan, “The NATO Powers and the Balkan Tragedy,” New Left Review 234 (March/April 1999): 83-105. [9]
  10. Daadler and O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly, 3, 109-110, 193-195. [10]
  11. Chomsky, The New Military Humanism, 109-112. [11]
  12. See the defense of the US policy that led to war by Daalder and O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly, 12, 68. [12]