Casus belli?

In the abstract how should we decide when a military intervention is the correct choice?

In discussion elsewhere (someone’s blog) specifically about Afghanistan I have asked that question and failed to get much of a response. (It seems positions fall into the “It’s just like Viet Nam!” and the “The Taliban and Al Qeada [they kind of blur together for these folks] must be crushed at any cost!” camps.) But I think that any specific discussion must first begin with any understanding of what the general principles are that we are trying to apply.

To me the issues include how much we have fully exhausted other tools as options and/or how effective they might be, how much our own vital interests and future safety are at stake, how much damage may be caused by the action versus how much is risked by inaction, the need to respect other nations’ sovereignty vs the need to intervene when some human rights lines are crossed (such as genocide).

Feel free to illustrate your points of what you think just casus belli are with specific historic examples but this thread is not intended to specifically debate Afghanistan or any other specific example but instead to discuss what the right tool is to use to think about each specific case.

Thank you.

The Pearl Harbor attack was sufficient cause for war. The assassination of an archduke and duchess on the streets of Sarajevo was not a sufficent cause for WWI, IMO. But apparently much of the world disagreed, and nobody asks me when to start a war anyway.

Oh c’mon. WHY for each one, what principles make each one an easy decision, at least in retrospect? This isn’t IMHO!

It’s very hard to answer the question unless you can first decide on a list of priorities. What exactly do you care about or not care about? If all you care about is the welfare of your own nation, then any offensive or retaliatory act is simply a matter of how much you expect the offense to cost (including the possibility of failure), versus how much you expect to gain. If, rather, you view yourself as the policeman of the world, then any particularly heinous act is grounds for invasion, and in fact necessitates it. Do you have a duty to be the architect of a new nation, or is capturing the baddy the only goal? Do you care about civilian casualties? Do you care about acting morally?

There isn’t going to be a single answer. You can’t even debate the logistics of the war without deciding what your stance is on your goals, foibles, and commitment.

Honest answer, I go by the first two parts of Hillel’s formulation: If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I? (The “If not now when?” doesn’t really apply.)

My family’s safety does come first but it doesn’t come only. There is a balance between the items in my stab at the principles the exact points of which is a subject for debate after the basic formulation is established. How much risk to my family is worth how much risk of damage and to whom? How much is the risk to those of mine going off to war is worth how much risk of inaction? So on.

Clearly few of us would declare those as all or none and few would choose the exact same point as being that point of balance. But first we have to be clear about what we are trying to balance, don’t we?

Times change. You can only talk about the popular balance of the day. If you want to assume some generic, modern day American, then we can base our answers on him. But that would be a far different answer compared to if you took your average European monarch from the 15th century. Either one will believe himself fully justified and the other a moron.

There is no real formula for deciding this question…it’s going to vary widely both between different people and between different situations.

My guess is a nation state should decide whether or not military intervention is necessary based on what it’s specific goals and objectives are and weighed against the needs and stance of it’s citizens. The trouble is, sometimes the ‘right’ decision (to go to war or not to go to war) runs contrary to the views of the majority of it’s citizens. For example, the US probably should have gotten involved in WWII much earlier than we did, since it was in our own collective best interests not to allow Nazi Germany to take over much of western Europe. It was also in our collective best interests to curb Japanese aggression in the Pacific.

By the same token, it was NOT in the US’s best interests, or the interests of our citizens, to intervene in WWI, at least not directly. It wasn’t our war and really we should have stayed out of it and let the Europeans setting it on their own. Same goes for Vietnam…our collective best interests would have been better served by blocking French (and English for that matter) colonialism post WWII and either staying neutral or siding with the Vietnamese nationalists.

The trouble is that mainly it’s hindsight that says what wars are worthwhile and which ones are not, and it’s fairly difficult, at the time and in the fog of war (historically speaking), to determine this.

How do you know when all other tools have been fully exhausted though? When do you make the call that enough is enough? In the War of 1812, for instance, American frustration with the Brits reached a point where it seemed war was the only choice. However, after declaring war, it was discovered that the Brits had finally conceded the main points already, and that the war was pretty much meaningless.

How do you determine what vital interests are, and whether they are worth going to war over? Take the second Iraq war…certainly it was in the US’s best interests to ensure that a friendly regime presided over 1/5th of the total world oil reserves…this was a vital interest after all. And we’d been going back and forth with Saddam for over a decade with various diplomatic efforts. However, did this justify the war in Iraq? I don’t think so…though it DID touch directly on our vital national interests.

I don’t think there IS a ‘right tool’ to determine when a country should or should not go to war. Certainly I think that diplomacy is important…but sometimes that avenue is either closed or has been exhausted. World opinion of a nations actions are also important…except that sometimes a nation needs to make the unpopular choices because it’s own interests are different from those other nations who disapprove. Genocide is certainly bad…but then, so is direct intervention. Even a ‘good cause’ can be seen (by the folks in the effected nation) as an invasion, and any action can be spun to look bad…which eventually erodes public opinion about a given war.

I think countries just have to take their best shot and hope that they are doing the right thing, for the right motives, and with the right political will to carry through.


That reminds me, I’m out of Dr. Bronner’s.

Sorry, couldn’t resist. Carry on!