Iran and the Re-Legalization of War

Daniel Larison strongly backs Paul Pillar on the prospective illegality of attacks on Iran’s nuclear program by Israel, the U.S., or anyone else absent UN Security Council authorization. Pillar, who is in turn playing off of a post by Peter Jenkins that invokes the spirit of Thucydides, stresses the desirability of preserving a clear international legal and moral framework. Larison concurs, and focuses on the hypocrisy of interventionists who promote one standard of international conduct for the U.S. and allies, another standard for everyone else – just the kind of thing, it is widely argued, that causes “rogue” nations to feel justified in their own acts of defiance and especially in their determination to acquire their own WMD insurance policies.

Looking at Kosovo and other actions – especially the Iraq intervention, but also going back, as Larison points out, at least as far as Panama in 1989 – America and allies have severely and if not irreversibly undermined the international legal idealism of the UN Charter, under which the UN Security Council would have the final say, through lawful mechanisms, over inter-state military action except in cases of immediate self-defense. Another way of looking at the deterioration of that system, however, is that, as a result of the intransigent self-preference of all SC members, it had already proven inadequate and dysfunctional, and that alternatives were bound to fill the gap. That seems to be the view of advocates of humanitarian intervention as well as many others.

Either way, it’s also clear that an argument somewhat in line with intentions to restore but crucially re-configure an international framework has already been prepared, aiming specifically and inevitably at the self-defense exception. As Peter Berkowitz at Real Clear Politics explains, an Israeli or American or coalition intervention against Iran, without UNSC support either given or sought, may be termed “anticipatory self-defense,” a concept both underlying and following from Bush Doctrine, seen as adapted to contemporary technologies and threats, yet also defended as an application of immemorial “natural law.” Counter-Terrorism Adviser John Brennan deployed a version of it defending Obama administration anti-terrorist policy, and the (non-)reaction to the Israeli attack on Syrian installations is seen to have independently re-confirmed the approach.

A broadly defined and expansively applied doctrine of anticipatory self defense (pre-emptive war by another name) would completely circumvent the UNSC system, though, as with Kosovo and Iraq, but not with Syria, retroactive legal acknowledgement through the UN might still be sought. This multiply paradoxical pattern – of the undermining-maintaining lawful exception to the law – has always been inescapable for legal positivism and liberal theory generally. Any liberal order – perhaps any order at all – subsists as the suppression of this self-contradiction, to be identified as a consideration exclusively at the limits or for the extreme situation. WMD, terrorism, anti-terrorism, and genocide – eventually any kind of violence at all – all immediately place us at these limits, defining power itself as the power to determine our proximity to them.

In the meantime, this course of recent and possibly approaching events can be read as further erosion of the WW2 settlement, alongside tacit recognition that administration of a uniform and universal regime of fully legalized warfare seems well beyond the human race for now. Instead, we seem to be moving gradually toward a more sustainable spheres of influence structure, an uneven geopolitical web to be intermittently traversed by ad hoc coalitions acting on interpretations of their own particular and joint interests, or regional interests, or global economic or ecological or humanitarian interests. In some ways, this result is what conservative opponents of American internationalism (whether liberal idealist, hegemonist, or just imperialist) have always wanted, but, as those same internationalists have often warned their critics, escaping global-governance idealism may not equate with more conservative outcomes. Less political globalism does not necessarily mean less global activism, least of all for a maritime military-economic power like the USA.

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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