Kilroy Was Here
December 29, 2002
The Multilateralist?
In his Dec. 23rd, 2002 Washington Post article War and the Fickle Left, Robert Kagan makes the claim that the left, in the avatar of Michael Walzer, modified its position on unilateral action in Iraq at about the same time as the United States swore in George W. Bush into the White House.

"Walzer's illogical about-face is embarrassing but, sadly, not unique," states Kagan. "Yesterday's liberal interventionists, in Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti, are today's liberal abstentionists. What changed? Just the man in the White House. Intellectual consistency, even for great thinkers, is no match for partisan passions."

Regardless of what you may think of Michael Walzer's politics, you have to grant that he is, indeed, a great thinker. His book, Just and Unjust Wars, is one of the seminal works of modern just war theory. As a professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Michael Walzer has published over 20 books on various philosophical topics, taught courses on political philosophy, and contributed to various philosophical and national journals and magazines. (Michael Walzer's CV)

This is not to say that Mr. Walzer can't be wrong or can't have his reason subjected to his 'partisan passions'; however, when discussing the thoughts of 'deep thinkers', it helps to read them without a hidden agenda. As the man said, when it comes to the hearts of men, you bound to find whatever you're looking for.

And, in fact, if we read Mr. Walzer's articles in a more charitiable light, we can make a pretty good argument that no switch of thought has occurred. It is a little more subtle than Kragen gives Walzer credit for.

In Walzer's 1998 New Republic article The Lone Ranger, Walzer is making a technical argument. Walzer states that unilateral action, in and of itself, is not necessarily a good reason to oppose a war. However, Walzer is very cautious with his defense of unilateralism.

"This isn't an argument in support of unilateralism generally. The long history of imperial wars by one or another of the great powers ought to make us suspicious of unilateralist claims. But suspicion is not the same thing as opposition. Some unilateral uses of force can be justified; some might even be morally necessary. We have to worry about each case, about prudence, effectiveness, and proportionality--really worry, which means that automatic opposition is flatly wrong. If we are not ready, sometimes, to act unilaterally, we are not ready for real life in international society." (Walzer, The New Republic, 1998)

More importanlty, Walzer is not making a claim in support of any action against Iraq. At best, you could argue that Walzer would feel war is justified if inspectors are forcibly removed from Iraq, but you'd have to rely on some supporting evidence other than the 1998 Republic article. Kagan has cited none.

Kagan has mischaracterized Walzer's argument. Just because Walzer does not find unilateral action sufficient reason to oppose a war, does not mean that he would support all unilateral action to start wars. I might not oppose you punching me in the nose on general principle, but I'm going to want a real good reason when you do it.

However, in Walzer's 2002 New Republic article Inspectors Yes, War No, Walzer is not necessarily opposed to unilateral action.

"So we may yet face the hardest political question: What ought to be done when what ought to be done is not going to be done? But we shouldn't be too quick to answer that question. If the dithering and delay go on and on--if the inspectors don't return or if they return but can't work effectively; if the threat of enforcement is not made credible; and if our allies are unwilling to act--then many of us will probably end up, very reluctantly, supporting the war the Bush administration seems so eager to fight. Right now, however, there are other things to do, and there is still time to do them. The administration's war is neither just nor necessary." (Walzer, The New Republic, 2002)

So, what are we to think about Robert Kagan's article. I can only think of two choices. Kagan either innocently misread and misunderstand Walzer's arguments and articles, or Kagan is willing to mischaracterize determined and principled philosophical thought in service to his own 'partisan passions.'

Here's the links to Walzer's articles. You be the judge.

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