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Not To Worry

David Adesnik tells Bob Kagan not to worry so much about Kerry's whole "we only go to war because we have to" kick. I tend to agree. The strange thing about the Kagan article is that it's whole conceit is that this was a revealing slip which lets us see the "real" John Kerry behind the façade of militarism and toughness. Now there may be a real John Kerry behind the façade (though I tend to doubt that ambitious politicians actually have alternate selves who are realer in any rigorous sense than their public personae) but he certainly wouldn't reveal himself by accident in a nationally televised prime time address at the Democratic National Convention. If the speech said that Kerry will return America to its time honored tradition of never fighting wars of choice, that reflects absolutely nothing about John Kerry and a great deal about the results of the focus groups at which the line was no doubt tested.

It's a little sad, in my opinion, that folks are so ignorant of American history that anyone could plausibly believe that any such history existed. Near as I can tell, the United States has fought one war of necessity -- the second world war. Since the country wouldn't have existed without the Revolution, you can add that in. Beyond that, the US has fought for a variety of more-or-less abstract principles and more-or-less concrete material interests (often mixed together as in the Civil War), but never for its survival as a nation or in response to direct aggression.

August 4, 2004 | Permalink


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» Wars of Necessity from mypetjawa v. 2.0 (beta)
Matthew Yglesias makes a profound point:Near as I can tell, the United States has fought one war of necessity -- the second world war. Since the country wouldn't have existed without the Revolution, you can add that in. Beyond that,... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 4, 2004 6:27:44 PM

» American Wars of Choice? All of 'Em from Legal XXX
For my money, no war is a war of necessity. They are ALL wars of choice--but that fact alone doesn't invalidate that such a choice was made. [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 5, 2004 2:14:20 AM


War of 1812?

Posted by: praktike | Aug 4, 2004 9:53:10 AM

I don't think either you or Kagan give Kerry enough credit. Why does "necessity" have to mean only "defense against aggression directed at us"? I thought one of the bedrock principles of "muscular conservatism" is that sometimes our ideals compel us to fight. We fight some wars because our identity as a freedom loving people requires that we fight -- or at least, so the tough guys would have it. And I actually agree with that.

The hard question, of course, is when does our love of liberty force us to intervene in the affairs of other countries? I think Kerry's rhetorical objective was simply to make clear that he would set the bar for war higher than Bush & Co. -- that his test for necessity would be harder to meet than Bush's. That notion is a crowd pleaser, as it ought to be.

Posted by: Charlie Robb | Aug 4, 2004 10:01:32 AM

Kagan might just be trying to keep Kerry in line by letting him know he's being watched.

Based on Kerry's strong statements about Israel and the feebleness of his statements about Iraq, I think that the people who will be most disappointed in Kerry will be the doves. There are those for whom "less-fucked-up imperialism!" isn't really a stirring call.

I've played the ABB game like a good boy, and since I'm only about a 50% dove I have no regrets, since at least we'll have gotten rid of the Bush team's combination of adventurism, flimflammery, and sloppiness. But if Kerry keeps Bush's bases in Iraq and uses them as a jumpoff point for future actions, which is about what Matt hopes for, I think that the dovish wing will be permanently lost to the Democrats. I think that that possibility might be what's keeping Nader in the race. He's just setting up an "I told you so" for his fallen-away supporters.

Posted by: "Zizka" | Aug 4, 2004 10:10:44 AM

I think your list of wars "in response to direct aggression" is one short. The invasion of Afganistan brings the number up to 2.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann | Aug 4, 2004 10:12:19 AM

I'm torn about the Civil War. Could make the argument it was more "necessary" than WW II. (e.g., how exactly would the Axis have "defeated" the U.S.?)

Posted by: MattB | Aug 4, 2004 10:17:28 AM

I don't know that you could prove WW2 was a war of necessity, by strict definition. It was the right thing to do. But not necessary for our survival as a sovereign nation.

Posted by: j.scott barnard | Aug 4, 2004 10:18:08 AM

I have a problem with the history lesson from that post. Clearly as mentioned, the Civil War was essential to the nation's existence. There would be two separate nations, neither being what we think of as the United States of America, had the South seceded. That seems to be the definition of an essential war.

World War II was in some sense less essential than the Civil War, because the United States would have continued to exist as a country with more or less its present boundaries. That is not to say we should not have been involved in that war, just that it seems unlikely that the entire nation would have been overwhelmed and ceased to exist.

Posted by: MichaelA | Aug 4, 2004 10:18:31 AM

Not including the civil war was a war of necessity is an interesting choice. I would guess that this would depend on what point of view you are making this decision from. I think an argument could be made that it was certainly necessary from the point of view of the Union. Those who have sympathy for the secessionists would probably argue that it was necessary to fight to preserve their "freedoms" (you know, to enslave others--the most basic freedom.)

Posted by: KB | Aug 4, 2004 10:19:21 AM

You read "have to" as "for its survival as a nation or in response to direct aggression". That's an extreme parsing, in my opinion. Something like saving Europe might not pass the "survival" criterion but easily pass the "have to" criterion, in my opinion.

Posted by: Ben Vollmayr-Lee | Aug 4, 2004 10:23:37 AM

Read John Gaddis' Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. It argues that, though many people believe Bush's policies of preemption, unilateralism and hegemony fall outside standard U.S. behavior, these policies do in fact follow the standard course of American foreign policy.

Posted by: Alec | Aug 4, 2004 10:29:45 AM

Matt, are you saying the Union attacked the Confederacy at Fort Sumter?

Posted by: Andy | Aug 4, 2004 10:36:48 AM

Honored Tradition of never starting wars of choice. Hmm. The Mexican War, the Civil War (at least as to those Americans the southerners), the Indian Wars, the Spanish American War, the Marines in Vera Cruz and Nicaragua, the Great War, Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama. Wouldn't want to disturb the narrative, so I guess all these wars were forced on the United States. John Kerry will reestablish this honored tradition. Yikes.

Posted by: kaleidescope | Aug 4, 2004 10:44:44 AM

There was no principle or doctrine. There was only bullshit used by Bush to look even tougher as he went after the guy who tried to kill his daddy. They plan no more wars, unless they do(Iran) in which case they are crazy rather than evil.

Typical Republican BS, just as they were "tough on commmunism" in the fifties by betraying Hungary and making grade school teachers take loyalty oaths.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 4, 2004 10:48:32 AM

My own definition of a war of "necessity" is either that we've been directly attacked, or under imminent threat of an attack. WWII and Afghanistan would qualify as responses to direct attacks, even though the homeland wasn't under any immediate threat of invasion.

Charlie Robb, I would argue that wars of choice can be a good thing--I did support Kosovo, and I wish we had done something in Rwanda--but it's important to separate them from wars of necessity.

Posted by: Haggai | Aug 4, 2004 11:02:43 AM

Jeez, this site gets worse and worse. The Civil War, from the North's point of view, was a war of necessity. The South attacked first, after all.

And anyway, the argument in favor "wars of choice" is an empty one. Its purveyors almost always insist that the wars of choice are not really optional, but necessary in special way. It's like the war of liberation. We have to do it because it's our best interest, etc. So can we give up the moral grandstanding already, Matt?

Posted by: alex | Aug 4, 2004 11:43:09 AM

The idea of a fighting in response to a direct attack opens up a debate over how severe the attack should be. Would the wars against the Barbary pirates count for their attack on our shipping? And while the Spanish probably didn't blow up the Maine, popular belief at the time held that they did.

This is also not taking into account the geostrategic realities in different periods. In the early 19th century, nations were much more likely to go to war lightly over "interests," hence the War of 1812. By the same token, Korea and Vietnam could be seen as outgrowths of the Cold War.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich | Aug 4, 2004 11:48:46 AM

wars of necessity = revolutionary war, war of 1812, civil war (very strange not to include it as it would have actually interefered with the territorial integrity of the nation), world war 2 (japan and germany ATTACKED).

Posted by: captainblak | Aug 4, 2004 12:15:53 PM

oh yeah - doves are going to be sorely disappointed by kerry; i will only be disappointed by further military adventures, not iraq.

Posted by: captainblak | Aug 4, 2004 12:17:15 PM

What alex said. To some the Vietnam war was a war of necessity: the "domino theory", remember? Gulf of Tonkin, remember?

It's all on a case-by-case basis; there is no "principle or doctrine" and can't be, if there is one - it's one-size-fits-all bullshit, demagoguery and propaganda.

Posted by: abb1 | Aug 4, 2004 12:21:34 PM

"never for its survival as a nation or in response to direct aggression"

Well, some of those Injun raiders were directly agressive. Those sort of wars went on for many decades.

Posted by: Otto | Aug 4, 2004 12:35:31 PM

Jeez, this site gets worse and worse. The Civil War, from the North's point of view, was a war of necessity. The South attacked first, after all.

The south wasn't trying to impose slavery on the north. The federal government could have simply allowed the southern states to secede. Indeed I think the federal government's authority to force states to stay in the union was by no means an accepted or established doctrine. The USA would have lost much of its territory and population to a new nation called the CSA, but would not have ceased to exist.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Aug 4, 2004 12:53:45 PM

This discussion just goes to show how the definition of a "war of choice" is pretty subjective.

I could make a case that the Mexican War and Indian Wars were necessary to attain our current territorial boundaries, and therefore not "wars of choice". Wars of empire, too.

Rather than the term "war of choice" a more politically meaningful term would be a "justified war", a war that most of the public would understand and support. Clinton didn't fudge the reasons for the Kosovo war; it was clearly on humanitarian grounds and was sold as such. No blather about WMD's. Heck, Desert Storm was pretty clearly about oil and not much effort was put into fuzzying the reason. Apparently most of the public thought some blood for oil would be a fair trade.

Gulf 2 was also clearly about oil, but we have been given every reason except that. No wonder the public is puzzled.

Posted by: Al Peck | Aug 4, 2004 1:00:22 PM

I think there's certainly a case to be made for the Civil War as a war of necessity. Nations really can't have provincial regions seceding at the drop of a hat, otherwise it ceases to be a nation in any meaningful sense of the term.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Aug 4, 2004 1:06:04 PM

"If so, what differentiates John Kerry from the isolationists of the past? I'll tell you what: the fact that he didn't really mean what he said."

This is the attitude that I hate about politics these days. How is someone supposed to make an informed decision when everyone tells you that you don't have to believe what he said?

Posted by: Chad | Aug 4, 2004 1:10:04 PM

To the larger point of MY's post:

Kerry's rhetoric, on the face of it, appears to pine for an era and an America that hasn't existed. But it's also transparently in reaction to a foreign policy which is fairly unprecedented, namely the Bush doctrine of preventive war, explicity favoring wars of choice over wars of necessity. So while Kerry may not be saying "We'll never have a war of choice again," he's signaling a rejection of a policy which will undoubtedly lead to both more wars of choice, and more unnecessary wars (just because a war is not a war of necessity doesn't mean it's not a necessary war - the Gulf War was necessary to disarm Saddam Hussein and restore some balance to the Mideast. I would argue that Iraq has proven itself to be unnecessary in addition to being not a necessity; with a doctrine of preventive war, you're bound to end up fighting more and more pointless wars).

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Aug 4, 2004 1:17:35 PM

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