[Debating War: Why Arguments Opposing American Wars and Interventions Fail. By David J. Lorenzo. Routledge, 2016. viii + 233 pages.]

David Lorenzo, a professor of international affairs at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, has undertaken an ambitious task. America has engaged in many wars throughout its history, and all of them have encountered opposition. Lorenzo in this excellent book endeavors to classify the principal types of argument that have been raised by those who challenged the path of war.

Readers will come away from Lorenzo’s extensive survey with an indelible impression. The same debates recur again and again. If for example, we look at the debate over the War of 1812, it might be Ron Paul speaking about the invasion of Iraq in 2003:

Responding to Madison’s war message, [Representative Samuel] Teggart also argued that the war was illegitimate because it had been avoidable. Despite its assertions to the contrary, the administration and its backers were predisposed to engage in hostilities, themselves being caught up in war fever. … This fever created a psychological atmosphere which not only contaminated internal processes; it also affected external relations. … Key decision-makers and those in Congress who backed them, Teggart implied, were not in their right minds.

Another familiar theme emerges in the debate over the Mexican War:

The Whigs first attacked the decision to go to war by deploying a deligitimating Constitutional argument. The actions leading up to the war added up to an unconstitutional presidential grab for power, they held. By positioning the military in what was at best disputed territory along the Rio Grande, the president precipitated a war without Congressional approval. To allow presidents to place the military in harm’s way … is to allow executives to politically manipulate Congress with impunity.

The Anti-War Case Is Often About Prudence, Not Pacifism

Opponents of war must confront an objection. Granted that war fever and presidential usurpation of power may sometimes result in unnecessary wars, does this totally invalidate the case for war? Is not America sometimes really in danger? In the case most often cited by those who criticize noninterventionists, were not the pre-World War II “isolationists” willfully blind to the danger that Hitler posed to America?

It is a great strength of Lorenzo’s book that, having seriously studied the opponents of Franklin Roosevelt’s belligerent policies, he realizes that the answer to our question is ”no.”  To the contrary, “isolationists” like William Borah, Herbert Hoover, and Charles Lindbergh feared that commitments to foreign powers would weaken America. Only the direct prospect of an invasion of the homeland would justify war.

The practical problem with actions that he [Lindbergh] thought would lead to US involvement in the war was not that they were too militaristic … but that they would provoke an unnecessary war and in so doing divert attention and resources from national security needs. … The US should stay out of the affairs of other countries because such activism constitutes an unnecessary distraction from tending to its own security needs.

War Undermines Domestic Opposition to State Power

Another argument constantly recurs in the arguments of war’s opponents. Wars will result in an American empire, destroying our republican institutions.

John C. Calhoun used exactly this argument in challenging the Mexican War.

Calhoun held that aggressive foreign policies [toward Mexico] are not worth it from a purely material and utilitarian viewpoint. Calhoun then embarked on a different, delegitimizing discussion when considering what could be done with any territory taken from Mexico. … The bounty of Mexico would prove to be a poisonous fruit, ironically destroying the form of government and civilization that some were attempting to extend by means of war.

Garet Garett, one of the foremost twentieth-century figures of the Old Right, used a similar strategy one hundred years later to oppose the Korean War.

Garrett held that presidents can now routinely engage in hostilities and commit troops overseas without Congressional approval and dare Congress to protest. … [T]he state and its minions have succeeded in subordinating domestic policy to foreign policy. … Far-flung commitments also trap the US into a perpetually activist policy. To control and defend its empire, it must act as the world’s policeman and the keeper of world order against what it takes to be evil forces and those who would threaten civilization.

Incidentally, Lorenzo rightly notes that Lewis Mumford criticized the Cold War along the same lines as Garrett, but he fails to mention that Mumford sharply attacked Charles Beard for his opposition to Roosevelt’s bellicose policies. So strong was Mumford’s hostility to Beard’s isolationism that he resigned from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1948 in protest of its award of a gold medal to Beard.

Ron Paul’s Anti-War Libertarianism

Carrying his survey into present times, Lorenzo devotes an illuminating chapter to Ron Paul. He rightly discerns that the fundamental basis for Paul’s anti-war convictions is not the belief that America is “special,” as opposed to other nations. Rather, he accepts moral principles of universal scope:

Paul’s fundamental position [is] that governmental activity equals the use of force. Force is necessary to keep order within a community and to respond to an attack, but its use for any other purpose (including paternalistic or otherwise benevolent projects) violates the basic norms of individual dignity, freedom and autonomy that are to be found in natural rights doctrine.

Paul’s views diverge on many matters from those of Noam Chomsky, but Lorenzo notes that both of them often pose the same question: “On occasion he [Chomsky] puts this Moral analysis in the language of reciprocity that Paul also uses: What would the US do if another country invaded and occupied neighboring countries, stationed military assets in the region and threatened war if the US did not give up its nuclear arsenal?” If the United States would resist such aggressive policies and demands, how can Iran and North Korea be rightfully confronted with them?

If Paul and Chomsky sometimes use the same pattern of argument, on another matter they sharply diverge. Chomsky believes that the free market is fatally flawed and ought to be replaced, but for Paul the free market embodies the natural law principles he wishes to promote. “Paul the anti-interventionist is not Paul without his libertarianism any more that Chomsky the anti-hegemon is not Chomsky minus his anarcho-syndicalism …”

Why Do Anti-War Movements Fail?

Lorenzo has written an excellent survey, but the subtitle of his book promises more than it delivers. Only in the last chapter does the author attempt to determine “why arguments opposing American wars and interventions fail,” and what he says there is sometimes open to objection.

He maintains that

critics are at a disadvantage in terms of cooperative action when compared with their interventionist and activist rivals. It is easier for the latter to build coalitions and cooperate because at bottom, despite their differences, most of those who are in favor of particular interventions agree that such interventions are ultimately good for American security and in keeping with American values and therefore have little problem cooperating to push for action.

The situation, Lorenzo thinks, is different for anti-interventionists. Though the critics “are often more united in terms of generally opposing all interventions and wars than are interventionists, the reason for their objections provides important problems for cooperation. Critics differ fundamentally in the end goals they seek, and these differences spill out into their ability to cooperate.” Lorenzo’s argument is open to an objection. Is it not also the case that interventionists differ in their reasons to support the war? If these differences do not prevent the interventionists from cooperating to advocate a common policy, why do opponents of war face greater difficulties? Despite their different goals, all non-interventionists agree that avoiding war will help them gain whatever their ultimate end may be. If the clashing interventionists can cooperate, given that they share a proximate goal, why not their opponents?

Despite this problem, I highly recommend Debating War. It is a tribute to the author’s scholarly objectivity, a rare quality these days, that readers will be unable to discern the author’s own views about the historical issues of war and peace he so ably discusses.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.


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