That old-time sophistry

Henry Kissinger (still keeping the faith of cynicism) tries to defend the Bush doctrine of preventive war with the “what if Hitler had been stopped” trope:

Had Churchill’s early warning been heeded, the Nazi plague could have been destroyed at relatively little cost. A decade later, tens of millions of dead paid the price for the quest for certainty.

If France and Britain had wanted to fight Hitler before they actually did, they would not have needed any dubious theory of pre-emption or prevention. They only needed to stick by their treaty commitments: just for starters, Article 10 of the Covenant of the League of Nations and the 1924 and 1935 Czechoslovak treaties with France. Hitler’s ostentatious scrapping of the armaments restrictions in the Versailles Treaty, the Anschluss, and the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 could have been casus belli [mistake in Latin grammar fixed] by themselves. He wasn’t some possible future threat to international security but a serial violator of it, practically from the word go.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

18 thoughts on “That old-time sophistry”

  1. Just to raise the dorkiness quotient here a bit, the plural form of casus is casus. It's in the fourth declension, and so has different endings from most nouns ending in -us.

  2. Why leave it there – "imagine if the Allies had stopped the Kaiser in 1914, instead of waiting for later. At the costs of a few thousand deaths, his evil could have been stopped far earlier."
    Which is the counterfactual that they were thinking of, at the time.

  3. Of course it is silly to limit the discussion of preventive war to instances where subsequent events showed it would have been a good idea.
    How many wars might have been started on "preventive" grounds that were not started, where the "later" war ultimately proved avoidable?
    In other words, how many wars, and how much destruction, has avoiding preventive war prevented?

  4. Ian D-B: thanks, fixed, mea culpa.
    Bernard Yorntov: preventive war, as opposed to narrowly defined pre-emptive war (see the 1837 Caroline case} is aggression, and illegal in international law as it stands. If you allow preventive war, then you return international relations to a Hobbesian trap or Prisoners' Dilemma, and it will often seem reasonable for states to settle any conflict by attacking first. You need to have very strong reasons to overthrow a rule that is both settled law, commonsense morality, and good game theory.

  5. That puts Kissinger in a class with David Brooks (oooh, what a class to be in!) who compares Bush's Iraq invasion to Exodus and the marches of Martin Luther King. Brooks you can laugh at. HK has a lot to answer for.

  6. James Wimberley,
    I was not arguing for preventive war. I was pointing out, or trying, to, the silliness of the "it would have stopped X" argument by suggesting that it also "would have stopped A, B, C, and D" at enormous cost when there was no need to go to war at all to stop A, B, C, and D.
    In other words, if you say, in case X it would have ben a good idea, then you also have to count all the cases where the circumstances were the same as X but a preventive war would have been a disastrous mistake.
    Sorry I wasn't clear.

  7. Well, it may be six of one and half a dozen of the other. With Bush in office, if we don't have a preventive war in one place, we'll probably have it in another.
    It's a bad deal for the Iraqis, but they are the 'flypaper' to which we are stuck. You know Bush has just been itching to do "something" about Venezuela, and then there's always that Bay of Pigs thing his father was involved in that turned out so badly. Wonder how you spell 'Oedipus'….

  8. Onward and upward to the next level of dorkiness: the u in singular casus is short; in plural casus it's long, so the pronunciation would be casoos (oo like moon) rather than casus (us like us).

  9. Well hell, let's pick an example that may be a bit closer to home than some would like: If we had moved against Saddam Hussein when he made his unprovoked attack on Iran back in 1980, instead of looking after his coat, many hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, Iranian, and Kurdish lives would have been saved. I sure can remember Hank screaming for intervention against that bad old Saddam, back in the day. (Ahem.)
    So fine, you might say, certainly our failure to contain Saddam on first offense does not mean that we never move to contain Saddam. A valid point to be certain, but we already moved to contain Saddam back 1n 1991. Granting that Bush Sr.'s containment policy had not been able to rid the world of Saddam Hussein, and granting that the policy was problematic from a humanitarian standpoint, it is beyond doubt that Bush Sr.'s containment policy eliminated the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to the region, and if Junior had allowed the U.N. inspectors to complete their work, they would have provided us with ample proof of this.

  10. Her son ate the whole fucking light bulb and she said I was crazy

    I'll keep it short today. A few links of note. First is James Wimberley's post at The Reality-Based Community about the surreal policy of pre-emption, That old-time sophistry
    If France and Britain had wanted to fight Hitler before they actuall…

  11. "What are you trying to say with this post? That we should calmly abide while dictators create misery? That we should wait for the decision of some international body before taking decisive action?"
    Please note that this is the default policy of the USA, and especially of the GOP. With the modifier that the right-wing in the USA is more likely to actively help dictators increase misery. In addition, please note that wars are messy, violent, are guarranteed to cause much misery, under the best of circumstances. Wars also have a striking tendency to get out of control.

  12. "They only needed to stick by their treaty commitments"
    Sure, but countries often don't stick by their treaty commitments which is why I find it so odd that much of the focus on international relations is on treaties. Take the NPT for example. Pretty much no one tries very hard to enforce it with the occasional exception of the US. (I have no illusions about us doing so on a consistent basis). The treaty was poorly designed from the beginning but even that much is ignored. The history of Iraq is instructive. The enforcers of the NPT ended up badly surprised by discovering Saddam's nuclear progress after he invaded Kuwait. Despite that, long term sanctions were possible only with extreme arm-twisting from the US. When the inspectors were stopped from doing their jobs in 1998 (after more than 2 years of being severely hampered) most of the world yawned. In 2002 Germany, France and Russia wanted to stop the sanctions despite the fact that no inspections had taken place in 4 years and no effective inspections had taken place in 6. This was after it had been discovered that North Korea had continued its nuclear program under the Agreed Framework and that the NPT was going to be as useful as tissue paper with them.
    After all this, important European governments still believed that pure chit-chat diplomacy would be effective in Iran. So much so that explicitly refused to link even the threat of mild sanctions in to the talks, effectively forcing the diplomatic world to start at zero over what should have been apparent to even a diplomat in 2003–the fact that mere talk about the nuclear research going on in Iran was not going to stop anything.

  13. Churchill was a loon. I'll repeat that. Churchill was a complete loon. At various times Churchill detected threats of the end of civilisation as we know it. These included, in no special order:
    1. staying the course in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign
    2. opposing independence for India (and the rest of the empire) and any and all circumstances until the Roosevelt and Truman administrations told him to go away
    3. returning Britain to the gold standard and precipitating the British economic collapse in the 1920s
    4. staying the course in the disastrous Iraq campaign in the 1920s
    5. using chemical weapons of mass destruction in the said Iraq campaign
    6. complaining bitterly about George V meeting a 'naked fakir' named Mohandas Gandhi
    7. advocating massive rearmament to:
    7.1 beat up the French (1900s)
    7.2 beat up the Russsians (1900s)
    7.3 beat up the non-European inhabitants of the empire (1890s to 1965
    7.4 beat up the Germans (1910s to 1950s)
    7.5 beat up the Russians again (1940s to 1960s)
    Eventually, like a clock every 12 hours, one of his world-threatening crises actually turned out to be a world-threatening crisis and Churchill actually turned out to be much better war leader than he had been during the First World War.
    If George W wasn't too young you'd almost swear he was Churchill re-incarnate. Except for the bit about turning out to be a superb war leader. And being able to get through a complete grammatical sentence without stumbing.

  14. PS Votes for women and trade union power were also world-threatening crises in the Churchillian worldview. I'm sure I've forgotten other world-threatening crises. I suspect European Union should make the list as well, but I've run out of energy. Churchill, after all, had a long career.

  15. When did Churchill propose to "beat up the French"? He was a lifelong Francophile and strong supporter of the Entente Cordiale (see "Churchill and de Gaulle" by Francois Kersaudy). Even after all his problems with de Gaulle during the war, he still insisted that France was treated as one of the victorious Allies at Potsdam and got its occupation zone in Germany. Churchill was no saint and in a very long career was often wrong – but always rationally, not on Nazi Germany, and not in May 1940. I object to the comparison with an ignorant and disastrous fool like GWB.

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