Friday, June 19, 2009

Justifiable != necessary

On a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, discussed his most recent book, War of Necessity, War of Choice. While Mr. Haass is certainly well-qualified and makes a good argument, in the end I don't think any war can truly be said to be a war of necessity; there is always a choice, however unpalatable in may be.

For example, on the show, Mr. Haass described several wars as "wars of necessity" (from the American perspective), including the American Revolutionary War, World War II, and the Korean War (in the beginning, though he mentioned that it developed into a war of choice with the 1950 UN offensive), while describing the Vietnam War and the current Iraq War as wars of choice. This is an overly-simplistic view which I'm disappointed to find in such a distinguished diplomat.

Each of the wars presented by Mr. Haass as a war of necessity may be a justifiable war (jus ad bellum, though not necessarily jus in bello), but there is a difference between justified and necessary. There were alternatives to each war mentioned: in the American Revolution, 15% to 20% of the white population were loyalists; on December 8, 1941, Jeannette Rankin saw an alternative to war with Japan; in 1951, British Attorney General Sir Hartley Shawcross acknowledged opposition to the Korean War, saying, "I know there are some who think that the horror and devastation of a world war now would be so frightful, whoever won, and the damage to civilization so lasting, that it would be better to submit to Communist domination. I understand that view–but I reject it."

Shawcross's view, as expressed in that quote, probably comes close to Mr. Haass's intended meaning of "war of necessity" -- not that no other options are available, but that any options are perceived as relatively unacceptable. If, for example, you had the choice between losing a toe and losing an arm, most people would choose to keep their arm. That doesn't make losing the toe necessary, but it does make it justifiable.