Review of International Studies (2003), 29, 605–620.

Commentary: moral truisms, empirical evidence, and foreign policy


Abstract. Many studies of world politics fail to take evidence seriously or consider basic moral truisms (for example, that the standards we apply to others we must apply to ourselves). This commentary illustrates these assessments in relation to two subjects which have attracted much interest in the West recently -- terrorism and just war to combat terrorism. The evidence shows that the United States has engaged extensively in terrorism and that application of just war principles would entitle the victims of that terrorism to use force against the United States to defend themselves if the United States is accorded that right.

In a critical paper on my work, a philosopher friend once wrote, with a touch of frustration, that I do not seem to believe in any ‘isms’ beyond truism. He had a point. In his contribution, Mark Laffey also points out, correctly, that I think we should be ‘deadly serious about the use of evidence’. A good deal of work suffers from failure to take evidence seriously, or to consider basic moral truisms (the most obvious of which is that the standards we apply to others we must also apply to ourselves). I will try to illustrate these conclusions with two closely related topics of serious current concern that are suggested by these essays: the renewal of concern with terrorism, and the revival of considerations of just war in that context.

The ‘Age of Terror’

After 9/11 it was commonly alleged that we are entering an ‘Age of Terror’ -- the title of a collection of academic essays published almost at once1 -- and that nothing would be the same as the US declares a ‘war on terror’, reorienting the course of history. It is also widely held that the term ‘terror’ is very difficult to define.

There are official US government definitions, which seem to fall within the range of clarity of others considered unproblematic and commonly used. An Army Manual defines ‘terrorism’ as ‘the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature. This is done through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.’ The US Code defined ‘act of terrorism’ to be ‘an activity that -- (A) involves a violent act or an act dangerous to human life that is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State; and (B) appears to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping’.2

These are the definitions I have been using in writing about the topic since the Reagan administration came into office declaring that a ‘war on terror’ would be a focus of its foreign policy.3 They do not answer every question precisely -- they do not, for example, draw a sharp boundary between international terrorism and aggression, or between terror and resistance.4 But they seem good enough for most practical purposes, and are particularly appropriate because of the source and the timing: the US government as it declared the first phase of the ‘war on terror’.

As for a sharp change in the course of history after 9/11, that seemed question-able.5 Much the same was true, I think, when the Cold War ended: new pretexts and rhetoric, tactics adapted to changed circumstances, but otherwise fundamental continuity in policies that are rooted in stable institutions (see Stokes for an important illustration).6

That was, I think, a reasonable conclusion after 9/11. However, one might argue that the Bush administration has changed quantity into quality by the ways it used the occasion of the atrocities to carry forward its domestic and international agenda. Within a year, it succeeded in turning overwhelming sympathy and support for the US into fear of Washington as the greatest danger to world peace, and to distaste, even loathing, for the political leadership.7 That is an achievement that should fulfil Osama bin Laden’s wildest dreams.

In the international arena, the President and a reactionary circle of advisers pressed forward with plans that are novel at least in the brazen arrogance with which they are proclaimed: notably the doctrine of preventive war, which accords them the ‘sovereign right to take military action’ at will to control the world and destroy any challenge they perceive.8 The doctrine was enunciated in the National Security Strategy of September 2002, which aroused many shudders around the world and within the foreign policy elite at home.9 The declaration coincided with a drumbeat of propaganda for a war that would establish the doctrine as a new ‘norm of international practice’ and even law. The drive for war elicited popular and elite protest with no historical precedent that I can recall. If relentlessly pursued, the policies might constitute a watershed in world affairs. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that there are precedents, both of doctrine and implementation.10

Even apart from the Bush administration initiatives, there is no doubt that something dramatically new and different did happen on 9/11: for the first time, an attack on the rich and powerful countries succeeded on a scale that is, regrettably, hardly unfamiliar in their traditional domains. It is not surprising that alongside the horror at the crimes against humanity (as many rightly called them) and sympathy for the victims, commentators outside the ranks of Western privilege often responded with a ‘welcome to the club’. In a reaction that was not unusual, the editors of the research journal of the Jesuit University in Managua wrote that one might describe the 9/11 atrocities as ‘Armageddon’, but Nicaragua has ‘lived its own Armageddon in excruciating slow motion’ under US assault ‘and is now submerged in its dismal aftermath’,11 while others fared far worse under the plague of violence and repression that swept through the continent from the early 1960s, much of it traceable to Washington, as Latin Americans know well.

One important stimulus was the decision of the Kennedy administration in 1962 to change the primary emphasis of the military assistance programme in Latin America from ‘hemispheric defense’ to ‘internal security’.12 Among knowledgeable observers, perceptions were similar in Washington and Latin America. Charles Maechling, who led counter-insurgency and internal defense planning from 1961 to 1966, described the 1962 decision as a shift from toleration ‘of the rapacity and cruelty of the Latin American military’ to ‘direct complicity’ in their crimes, to US support for ‘the methods of Heinrich Himmler’s extermination squads’.13 In Colombia, where a 1962 Kennedy Special Forces mission advised ‘paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents’ (see Stokes), the respected president of the Colombian Permanent Committee for Human Rights, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Alfredo Vásquez Carrizosa, described the outcome in similar terms: the Kennedy administration, he wrote, ‘took great pains to transform our regular armies into counterinsurgency brigades, accepting the new strategy of the death squads’, ushering in ‘what is known in Latin America as the National Security Doctrine, . . . not defense against an external enemy, but a way to make the military establishment the masters of the game . . . [with] the right to combat the internal enemy, as set forth in the Brazilian doctrine, the Argentine doctrine, the Uruguayan doctrine, and the Colombian doctrine: it is the right to fight and to exterminate social workers, trade unionists, men and women who are not supportive of the establishment, and who are assumed to be communist extremists.’14

The goal of the new National Security States, Lars Schoultz writes, was ‘to destroy permanently a perceived threat to the existing structure of socioeconomic privilege by eliminating the political participation of the numerical majority . . .’, the ‘popular classes’.15 The dominoes began falling with a military coup in Brazil in 1964, with Kennedy initiatives and strongly supported by Washington as atrocities mounted.16 It was followed by a series of others in South America. The National Security Doctrine reached Central America in the 1980s, with grim consequences that are well-known. El Salvador became the leading recipient of US military aid by the mid-1980s. Sometimes Congress hampered direct military aid and training by imposing human rights conditions, as in Guatemala after huge atrocities. In such cases US clients served as a surrogate, including Argentina under military rule, Taiwan, and Israel.17

The facts are easily overlooked in the West, but the victims do not so quickly forget. Reactions to 9/11 of the kind cited from Jesuit intellectuals were by no means uncommon.

That something like 9/11 might happen was not unexpected. It had been recognised for some time that the industrial powers would probably lose their virtual monopoly of violence, retaining only an enormous preponderance. Well before 9/11, technical studies had concluded that ‘a well-planned operation to smuggle WMD into the United States would have at least a 90 per cent probability of success -- much higher than ICBM delivery even in the absence of [National Missile Defense]’. That has become ‘America’s Achilles Heel’, a study with that title concluded several years ago. The dangers have been evident since the 1993 attempt to blow up the World Trade Center, which might have killed tens of thousands of people with better planning, the building engineers reported.18

The horrendous success of anticipated terrorist atrocities against the powerful does not seriously change risk assessments. And surely no one could doubt that it would have significant policy consequences. The target was not Cuba, or Nicaragua, or Lebanon, or Chechnya, or one of the other traditional victims of large-scale international terrorism (or worse),19 but a state with enormous power to shape the future. Nevertheless, I think Kenneth Waltz was right to predict that 9/11 is likely ‘to further trends already in motion’. One consequence, he suggests, may be proliferation of WMD (and probably terror) by countries who ‘know that the United States can be held at bay only by deterrence’.20

As was also predicted at once, repressive states saw 9/11 as a window of opportunity to step up harsh and brutal practices under the guise of a war on terror and with at least tacit authorisation from the reigning superpower: Russia in Chechnya, China in its Western provinces, Israel in the occupied territories, and so on. Others, ranging from the harsh dictatorships of Central Asia to the more democratic societies, adopted measures to discipline their own populations and pursue unpopular programmes. In the US, ‘literally before the dust had settled’ over the World Trade Center ruins, economist Paul Krugman reported, influential Republicans signalled that they were ‘determined to use terrorism as an excuse to pursue a radical right-wing agenda’.21 He and others have been documenting how they have pursued this agenda relentlessly since, often brandishing Saddam Hussein as the most frightening embodiment of the terrorist threat. The strategy proved effective for the 2002 congressional elections, and it is hard to doubt that the 2004 presidential campaign is a factor in the timing of the drive to war, in pursuit of long-standing goals for which 9/11 served as a useful pretext: among them, to regain control of Iraq’s enormous energy resources, a central component of the Gulf resources that the State Department, in 1945, recognised to be a ‘stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes of world history’.22

Anatol Lieven observes that plans for the invasion of Iraq conform to ‘the classic modern strategy of an endangered right-wing oligarchy, which is to divert mass discontent into nationalism’, fanning fear of enemies about to destroy us.23 That strategy is essential if the ‘radical nationalists’ setting policy in Washington hope to advance their announced plan for ‘unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority’,24 while conducting a major assault against the interests of the large majority of the domestic population.25 Lieven apparently speaks for many in the world when he describes the US as ‘a menace to itself and to mankind’, as long as policy proceeds on its present course.

As noted, the official government definitions of ‘terrorism’ seem fairly satisfactory. These definitions, however, were never used within mainstream discussion (and have since been officially revised26). The reasons seem clear enough. The official definitions of ‘terror’ were similar to the definition of official US policy, called ‘counter-terror’ (Low Intensity Conflict, counterinsurgency) -- not, of course, a US innovation; terror is commonly termed ‘counter-terror’ by more powerful agents.27 More troublesome still, application of the official definition leads unequivocally to the conclusion that the US is a leading practitioner of international terrorism, and that in the prime areas where the ‘war on terror’ was declared (Central America and the Middle East/Mediterranean region), the Reagan-Bush administrations compiled a record of international terrorism far exceeding anything that could be charged to their enemies.28

Such conclusions, however, are unacceptable. The extensive work on these topics by many authors is virtually unmentionable, and further US-UK support for state terror and atrocities through the 1990s, including some of the worst crimes of that grisly decade, has been effaced in the glow of self-praise about alleged ‘new norms of humanitarian intervention’ -- which have been familiar for 150 years, and not very gloriously.29

The practice of avoidance continued when the ‘war on terror’ was redeclared on 11 September 2001, with much the same rhetoric as before, and many of the same people in leading positions. Elementary rationality dictates that we undertake serious inquiry into the first phase of the ‘war on terror’ if we hope to gain some understanding of the renewal. But in the vast recent literature on the topic, the rational approach is subject to what anthropologists call ‘ritual avoidance’.30 The occasional mentions in the scholarly literature commonly evade or distort even the most crucial and obvious facts.31 All of this is a most remarkable commentary on the general intellectual culture -- not just the media, as Herring-Robinson rightly observe.

Hardly a day passes without examples. Thus, a front-page story in the national press warns that the threat of Al-Qaeda is increasing, as it is turning from targets that are ‘well protected . . . to so-called soft targets, like resorts’.32 Anyone who takes truism and fact seriously will instantly recognise the pattern. Take one striking and highly relevant case.

In June 1986, the ICJ condemned Washington for ‘the unlawful use of force’ in its attack on Nicaragua, ordering the US to terminate these acts of international terrorism and pay substantial reparations.33 Washington had already rejected ICJ jurisdiction on the grounds that most of the world ‘often opposes the United States on important international questions’ so that we must ‘reserve to ourselves the power to determine’ how we will act and which matters fall ‘essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of the United States, as determined by the United States’ -- one of the many precedents for the preventive war doctrine of September 2002.34 A Security Council resolution supporting the ICJ judgment and calling on all states to observe international law was vetoed by Washington (Britain abstaining). With bipartisan support, the Reagan administration reacted to the decisions of the highest international institutions by escalating the attack sharply, also issuing official orders to its contra forces to ‘[go] after soft targets . . . not [try] to duke it out with the Sandinistas directly.’35 The contras were able to follow the orders thanks to US control of Nicaragua’s airspace and the advanced communication equipment provided to the proxy forces attacking from US bases in Honduras. The State Department confirmed the orders in words that ‘would do credit to George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth’, Americas Watch wrote bitterly, earning a reprimand from Michael Kinsley, a leading representative of ‘the left’ in national media.36 He explained to the human rights organisations that a ‘sensible policy must meet the test of cost-benefit analysis’, comparing ‘the amount of blood and misery that will be poured in, and the likelihood that democracy will emerge at the other end’; the US government will be the arbiter of ‘democracy’, perhaps in recognition of its record in promoting democracy in the region over many years.37

Whether attacking ‘soft targets’ is right or wrong, terrorism or a noble cause, depends on who is the agent, at least if moral truisms are deemed irrelevant, along with unwanted facts that have been ‘disappeared’.

Kinsley was breaking no new ground. At the critical end of the spectrum of elite discussion, doves opposed terror because it was failing and urged Washington to adopt more efficient means to return Nicaragua to ‘the Central American mode’ and compel it to observe ‘regional standards’: the standards of Washington’s terror states El Salvador and Guatemala, then engaged in large-scale slaughter, torture, and destruction.

All of this passed without comment within the mainstream. Is there even a remote possibility that it might be recalled as the ‘war on terror’ is redeclared, along with the virtual destruction of Nicaragua and much of the rest of Central America during the first phase’? Could anyone even recall who the enemy was in Central America? To their credit, some do: the School of the Americas (since renamed), which trains Latin American officers, proudly proclaims that ‘liberation theology’ in Latin America ‘was defeated with the assistance of the U.S. Army’.38 The chilling reference will be understood at once by those who care about moral truism and fact.

Herring and Robinson quote Daniel Hallin’s statement that there was ‘a real political contest over the framing of the Central America story’ in the media. As they observe, the crucial question is how the contest was framed. The matter has been studied.39 There was a roughly even split between ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’, all agreeing that the ‘Central American mode’ must be supported and that Nicaragua must be compelled to adhere to it, but differing on the means. The doves I have just cited.

Nicaragua was of course not the first target of US terror aimed at ‘regime change’. Another well-known and instructive example is Cuba. From the declassified record, we learn that plans for regime change were in the works within months after Castro took power in January 1959, and were formally adopted in secret in March 1960, with full awareness of the strong Cuban support for the targeted government and the virtual irrelevance, at the time, of meaningful Cold War issues.40 By then, US terrorist operations were already underway. In May 1959, the CIA began arming anti-Castro guerrillas inside Cuba.41 ‘During the Winter of 1959–1960, there was a significant increase in CIA-supervised bombing and incendiary raids piloted by exiled Cubans’ based in the US.42

Cuba provided extensive details of such attacks to the Security Council in July 1960, though no action was taken in the face of vigorous US denials -- falsehoods, as the internal record now reveals.43 The international terrorist programme was sharply escalated by Kennedy. After the Bay of Pigs invasion was beaten back, Kennedy ‘asked his brother, Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, to lead the top-level interagency group that oversaw Operation Mongoose, a programme of paramilitary operations, economic warfare, and sabotage he launched in late 1961 to visit the “terrors of the earth” on Fidel Castro and, more prosaically, to topple him’.44

The reasons are explained in the internal record. Washington planners warned in early 1964 that ‘the very existence of [Castro’s] regime . . . represents a successful defiance of the US, a negation of our whole hemispheric policy of almost a century and a half’ -- based on subordination to US will.45 Three years earlier the CIA had concluded that ‘The extensive influence of “Castroism” is not a function of Cuban power’; ‘Castro’s shadow looms large because social and economic conditions throughout Latin America invite opposition to ruling authority and encourage agitation for radical change.’46 Shortly before, Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger had transmitted to the incoming President the report of his Latin American Mission, which warned of ‘the spread of the Castro idea of taking matters into one’s own hands’. That is a grave danger, Schlesinger elaborated shortly after, when ‘The distribution of land and other forms of national wealth greatly favors the propertied classes . . . [and] The poor and underprivileged, stimulated by the example of the Cuban revolution, are now demanding opportunities for a decent living.’ Russia was mentioned: as a source of economic aid and a model of rapid industrialisation.47

A similar pattern is commonly found when ‘public diplomacy’ is discounted and the internal planning record examined: Guatemala in 1954, to take an example then prominently in the minds of planners.

Kennedy’s terrorist programme was intensified in August–September 1962, including speedboat strafing attacks on a Cuban seaside hotel ‘where Soviet military technicians were known to congregate, killing a score of Russians and Cubans’; attacks on British and Cuban cargo ships; contaminating sugar shipments; and other atrocities and sabotage, mostly carried out by Cuban exile organisations permitted to operate freely in Florida with extensive CIA support, sometimes direct participation.48 These actions were a significant, perhaps primary, factor leading to the missile crisis.49 Kennedy resumed the international terrorist operations after the crisis ended; ten days before his assassination, he authorised new actions.50 Terrorist operations peaked in the late 1970s, and continued from US soil into the late 1990s.51

Cuba’s crimes became still more immense when it served as the instrument of the USSR’s crusade to dominate the world in 1975, Washington proclaimed. ‘If Soviet necolonialism succeeds’ in Angola, UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan thundered, ‘the world will not be the same in the aftermath. Europe’s oil routes will be under Soviet control as will the strategic South Atlantic, with the next target on the Kremlin’s list being Brazil.’ Washington’s fury was caused by another Cuban act of ‘successful defiance’. When a US-backed South African invasion was coming close to conquering newly-independent Angola, Cuba sent troops on its own initiative, scarcely even notifying Russia, and beat back the invaders. In reaction, Piero Gleijeses observes, ‘Kissinger did his best to smash the one movement that represented any hope for the future of Angola,’ the MPLA. And though the MPLA ‘bears a grave responsibility for its country’s plight’ in later years, it was ‘the relentless hostility of the United States [that] forced it into an unhealthy dependence on the Soviet bloc and encouraged South Africa to launch devastating military raids in the 1980s’, which reversed the gains in the early years of independence and drove the country to ruin, along with Mozambique, another remarkable illustration of international terrorism -- if not worse -- relying on the crucial support of those who are now waging the second phase of the ‘war on terror’.52

The terrorist attacks against Cuba have been devastating to a poor society in the shadow of the dominant superpower, particularly when combined with the effects of economic warfare -- which became even harsher after the collapse of the Soviet pretext. All of this is another illustration of the continuity that Stokes discusses.53

In October 2002, a summit meeting took place in Havana on the fortieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, attended by key participants from Russia, the US, and Cuba. Startling information was revealed: the world was saved from possibly terminal nuclear war by a Russian submarine commander who countermanded an order to fire nuclear-armed missiles when the subs were under attack by US destroyers at the tensest moment of the missile crisis -- ‘the most dangerous moment in human history’, Arthur Schlesinger observed, realistically. The current Iraq crisis ‘was a recurrent theme at the meeting’, the press reported, ‘with many participants accusing Bush of ignoring history . . . [saying] they had come to make sure it does not happen again, and to offer lessons for today’s crises, most notably President George W. Bush’s deliberations about whether to strike Iraq.’54

The ‘age of terror’, ‘international terrorism’, and ‘regime change’ were the leading themes of the day as the summit took place. The shocking revelations were scarcely reported; the background entirely ignored.

Similarly, the record of those currently at the helm in Washington -- mostly recycled from the Reagan-Bush administrations -- is regularly ignored. That is remarkable: whatever one’s attitude towards the ‘age of terror,’ elementary sanity would seem to dictate that the record of those leading the ‘war on terror’ during its first phase should be a prominent concern. Occasional allusions to the record are either ignored or lead to interesting reactions, among them, attribution of idiotic claims either to an anonymous ‘left’ or to enemies chosen in the manner that Herring and Robinson describe.

The practice is so routine that illustrations can be selected virtually at random. To take one illustration from a serious source at the liberal-left extreme, Benjamin Barber writes that ‘unless we are willing to join the America-bashing zanies who see no difference between the United States and Iraq, who insist America, too, is a “terrorist” state, we must acknowledge the president’s preemptive unilateralism as our own.’55 Perhaps there is someone in the world who sees no difference between the US and Iraq. Those who recognise that America is a terrorist state (not a ‘terrorist’ state) are simply repeating well-established truths that do not vanish because they are doctrinally inadmissible56; the familiar cases just noted, for example.

Consider the idea that ‘we must acknowledge the president’s preemptive unilateralism as our own’; more accurately, preventive unilateralism, since no credible threat is considered necessary under the proclaimed doctrine. Must others do so for themselves as well? If so, what happens to the world? If not, why not? If raised, the question receives a simple answer: what we do is right and just, a refrain not unfamiliar in history.

Just War theory

Let us turn to just war theory, recently revived in the context of international terrorism. Consider the strongest case that is put forth: the bombing of Afghanistan, a paradigm example of just war according to the Western consensus. The respected moral-political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain summarises received opinion fairly accurately when she writes that ‘Nearly everyone, with the exception of absolute pacifists and those who seem to think we should let ourselves be slaughtered with impunity because so many people out there “hate” us, agrees’ that the war was clearly just.57

Note again the technique of concocting ridiculous opponents. There are, however, real people who opposed the resort to military force, who escape notice. That apparently includes the large majority of world opinion (overwhelmingly so in Latin America, which has by far the most intimate experience of US intervention), and also leading Afghan opponents of the Taliban. Some of the most respected of them bitterly condemned the US bombing, which, they charged, was undermining their efforts to overthrow the hated Taliban regime from within and was undertaken only because the US wanted to ‘show its muscle, score a victory and scare everyone in the world’.58

There were a great many more, also pretty hard to miss. Among them were the major aid and relief agencies, including those of the United Nations and charitable and development organisations, who pleaded for termination of bombing because of their concern over the likely effect on the population, millions of whom were on the brink of starvation even before 9/11. Their concerns were understandable when Washington demanded a few days after 9/11 that Pakistan eliminate ‘truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan’s civilian population’, a report that elicited no noticeable reaction within mainstream commentary. Their strenuous protests mounted as the threat of bombing caused the withdrawal of aid workers and a severe reduction in food supplies, followed by bombing with still more severe effects, leaving ‘millions of grave risk of starvation’, Harvard University’s leading specialist on Afghanistan reported.59 After a few weeks of bombing, estimated numbers of those at risk rose 50 per cent, from 5 to 7.5 million.60

In brief, there were real critics of the ‘just war’, but they remained largely invisible, along with highly relevant current history.

A separate matter is the extent to which the fears were realised. About that, we know little. As predicted at once, the matter has not been seriously investigated. Crimes of enemies are subjected to laser-like scrutiny, but it is conventional to evade one’s own. Even in the case of massive atrocities such as the US invasion of South Vietnam, then all of Indochina, estimates of deaths are casual, with a range of several million, and such matters as the long-term effects of US chemical herbicidal warfare in South Vietnam, though known to be severe, are scarcely discussed (apart from the effect on US soldiers, serious but of course minor in context).61

More striking than the usual evasion in the present case is the abandonment of elementary moral principles. It is the merest truism that acts are evaluated in terms of possible consequences. Even if the ‘grave risk of starvation of millions of people’ reported in International Security was fortunately not realised, that would in no way affect the assessment of the acts taken in the face of that danger. We apply this truism to others without hesitation. On the 40th anniversary of the missile crisis, we recall vividly, and correctly, the criminal lunacy of Khrushchev’s decision to place nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, which might have led to destruction of much of the world. It did not happen. A nuclear war was barely avoided, and an anticipated invasion of Cuba did not take place, only continued US terrorism and economic warfare. But we do not sing praises to Khrushchev; we condemn him harshly for taking the risk. For ourselves, however, such considerations appear to be incomprehensible.

Let us turn now to the most elementary principles of just war theory. One fundamental principle, so obvious that it is rarely even mentioned, is universality: we are subject to the standards we apply to others. Those who cannot accept this truism should have the decency to keep silent about matters of right and wrong, or just war.

If we can accept this principle, some obvious questions arise: for example, have Cuba and Nicaragua been entitled to set off bombs in Washington, New York, and Miami in self-defence against ongoing terrorist attack? Particularly so when the perpetrators are well-known and act with complete impunity, often in brazen defiance of the highest international authorities? If not, why not? Certainly one cannot appeal to scale of crimes to justify such a stand; the merest look at the factual record bars that move, matters well understood outside privileged Western circles. If the questions are not answered, we know that the ‘just war’ pronouncements cannot be taken seriously; still more so if the questions are not even raised. I have yet to discover a case where the question is even raised in the contemporary revival. The conclusions may not be attractive, but they merit serious attention, self-examination, and concern.

To bring in some additional relevant facts, when Abdul Haq and other leading Afghan opponents of the Taliban were condemning the US bombing, along with the major aid and relief agencies and others, its official motive was to force the Taliban to hand over people that the US suspected of involvement in the crimes of 9/11; removing the Taliban regime was an afterthought, added several weeks later.62 The Taliban made some tentative moves towards extradition, requesting evidence. We do not know whether the moves were serious, since the US rejected them with contempt, and presumably would have done so even if it had had credible evidence. Apparently Washington had only (highly plausible) suspicions. That remained true even eight months later, as quietly conceded. FBI director Robert Mueller testified before Congress that ‘investigators believe the idea of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon came from al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, the actual plotting was done in Germany, and the financing came through the United Arab Emirates from sources in Afghanistan’.63

At the time when Taliban reluctance to hand over suspects without evidence was the lead story of the day, arousing much fury, Haiti renewed its request for extradition of Emmanuel Constant, leader of the paramilitary forces that had primary responsibility for the brutal murder of thousands of Haitians during the early 1990s, when the military junta was supported, not so tacitly, by the first Bush and Clinton administrations.64 The request apparently did not even merit a response, or more than the barest report. Constant has been sentenced in absentia in Haiti; it is widely assumed that the US is concerned that if he testifies, he may reveal contacts between the state terrorists and Washington.65 Does Haiti therefore have the right to set off bombs in Washington? Or to try to kidnap or kill Constant in New York, where he lives, one of the many murderous state terrorists who enjoy safe haven in the US? If not, why not? And why is the question considered too absurd even to raise?

One way to evade the issues is to dismiss moral truisms as absurdities. That is the stance adopted by Michael Glennon in highly-regarded work.66 A respected figure in the field of international law, his views merit serious attention, particularly because they are offered to establish a conclusion that is coming to be official policy: the framework of international law and treaties that has laboriously been constructed over many bitter years should be abandoned in favour of the new doctrine that the self-declared ‘enlightened states’ may resort to force as they see fit -- always for the most benign reasons, apparently by definition, since no argument is given, either historical or conceptual. It is hardly a new doctrine; rather, a venerable one, with a rich history that should need no review,67 but appears to be irrelevant, for unexplained reasons.

To establish his thesis, Glennon dismisses ‘objectivist philosophies’ because they do not have firm foundations. That is correct: another truism is that there are no firm foundations for elementary moral principles. That includes the moral truism that arouses his ire (quoting me): that ‘people are primarily responsible for the likely consequences of their own action, or inaction’, and that responsibilities mount with greater opportunity and more clearly anticipated effects. Rejecting this truism, Glennon argues that the ‘objectivist argument’ that NATO shares responsibility for the atrocities that followed its bombing of Serbia, exactly as it anticipated (the case in question) -- ‘is easily turned on its head’ to yield ‘a conclusion opposite the one’ that he falsely attributes to me: that NATO bears sole responsibility. His counter- argument is that by the same moral principle, we can conclude ‘It was the Serbs who are responsible’. His conclusion follows only if we adopt his tacit assumption that responsibility cannot be shared. The reader can discover that the other arguments quickly collapse when such reasoning is discarded.


This is a tiny sample of what we discover if we pay some attention to moral truism and elementary fact. I would like to end with a strong endorsement of the final words of Herring and Robinson’s essay. Their injunction follows directly, I think, if we agree to enter the moral arena: to apply to ourselves the standards we impose on others, and to recognise the obligation to help suffering people as best we can, a responsibility that naturally accrues to privilege. It is not pleasant to speculate about the likely consequences if concentrated power continues on its present course, protected from proper scrutiny in the manner described in the essays gathered here.