9/11: An Exchange with Michael Walzer. Dissent Magazine Website, September 2001. (No longer available.)
September 25, 2001                    

"First, Define the Battlefield"
by Michael Walzer
The New York Times
September 21, 2001

There is an old Bill Mauldin cartoon in which two elderly gentlemen are sitting in a gentlemen's club. One leans forward and speaks: "I say it's war, Throckmorton, and I say, let's fight!" There has been a lot of talk like that in Washington since Sept. 11. And around the country, too: we all feel a little bit like Throckmorton's friend. But is it war? And if it is, how should we go about fighting it?

Certainly we have an enemy, all of us, whatever our politics or religion. Our lives and our way of life have been attacked -- everyone says this, but it is true nonetheless. The attack may have had its most immediate origins in the Persian Gulf war; it may have been fueled by fervid and highly distorted accounts of the blockade of Iraq and the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. But its causes go much deeper: resentment of American power and hatred of the values that sometimes, at least, guide its exercise. This is not, however, a "war of civilizations," since our enemy does not represent a civilization. We are not at war with Islam, even if terrorists exploit Islamic religious fervor.

So is it a war? The word is unobjectionable so long as those who use it understand what a metaphor is. There is, right now, no enemy state, no obvious battlefield. "War" may serve well, however, as a metaphor to signify struggle, commitment, endurance. Military action, though it may come, is not the first thing we should be thinking about. Instead, in this "war" on terrorism three other things take precedence: intensive police work across national boarders, an ideological campaign to engage all the arguments and excuses for terrorism and reject them, and a serious and sustained diplomatic effort.

What the police have to do is obvious, but there is work also for religious leaders and public intellectuals, because the intellectual climate in many parts of the world is insufficiently unfriendly to terrorism. Terrorists are morally as well as physically harbored, and the only remedy for that is political argument. And our diplomats have a lot more to do than they did in building the coalition that fought the gulf war. That was a jerry-built alliance, fit for the moment but not for the long haul. The alliance against terrorism has to be structured to last: it must rest on demanding and enforceable agreements.

But military action is what everybody wants to talk about -- not the metaphor of war, but the real thing. So what can we do? There are two conditions that must be met before we can fight justly. We have to find legitimate targets -- people actually engaged in organizing, supporting or carrying out terrorist activities. And we must be able to hit those targets without killing large numbers of innocent people. Despite the criticism of Israeli "assassinations" by United States officials, I don't believe that it matters, from a moral point of view, if the targets are groups of people or single individuals, so long as these two criteria are met. If we fail to meet them, we will be defending our civilization by imitating the terrorists who are attacking it.

It follows from these criteria that commando raids are likely to be better than attacks with missiles and bombs. When the target is, say, a small and scattered group of terrorists-in-training, a soldier with a rifle is smarter than the smartest bomb. But what if the purpose of our attack is to force governments that support terrorist activities to surrender the terrorists or to stop financing them? That is certainly a legitimate aim --indeed a necessary aim of any alliance against terrorism. But our coercive capacities in that sphere are morally limited. We can't coerce governments by terrorizing their civilian populations. In countries as desperately poor as Afghanistan, we can't set about systematically destroying what infrastructure is left. Electricity grids and water purification plants are not legitimate targets.

We can bomb government buildings, which will probably be empty. And maybe if the bombing is spectacular and the pilots heroic, that symbolic action will allow us to get on with what really has to be done. Terrorist states have to be isolated, ostracized and embargoed; their borders closed; their secret organizations penetrated; their ideological justifications everywhere rejected. The greatest danger right now is that having done sufficient damage -- somewhere -- we will edge away from these tasks and the commitment of resources necessary to defeat terrorism. We should pursue the metaphorical war; hold back on the real thing.

Posted by George Scialabba on September 24, 2001 at 12:50:23:

I assume the Dissent salon is an appropriate place to comment on Michael Walzer's op-ed in last Friday's New York Times. As a guide to military operations, it was admirable. One hopes (against hope) that it will influence the war plans now being formulated.

But in other respects it was disappointing. One of the immediate causes of the attack is said to have been "fervid and highly distorted accounts of the blockade of Iraq." No doubt some accounts somewhere of the effects of the blockade (and bombardment) have been fervid and distorted. But even an accurate, unembellished account would be sufficiently horrific. Does Michael mean to deny this? Or, admitting it, to defend the policy? We can all agree that even a cruel and destructive American policy does not justify an attack on American civilians. But if Michael believes that continuance of the blockade is just, perhaps he could explain why to his Dissent comrades? And if not, shouldn't he have refrained from implying as much by alluding dismissively to the international outrage this policy has evoked?

His characterization of the attack's deeper causes is even more misleading. Anti-American terrorism is motivated by "hatred of the values that, sometimes at least, guide the exercise of American power." On its face, this statement appears to mean that it is not because of anything at all the United States has done that Islamic terrorists hate it. Rather, it is solely because of American policymakers' alleged commitment to the self-determination, civil rights, and material welfare of other peoples, or whatever other values Michael has in mind. Can Michael, or anyone else, believe this? Is the enemy as inexplicably, inhumanly evil as that?

And what values does Michael believe generally "guide the exercise of American power"? Concern for others' self-determination, civil rights, material welfare, etc.? Or concern for American access to resources, markets, investment opportunities, and strategic assets, with very little regard - often indeed with brutal disregard - for the welfare of other peoples? If the former, would Michael please defend this position, at least in outline? It seems to me indefensible, utterly at variance with Washington's frequent support for repressive and inegalitarian governments, truly pitiful levels of humanitarian assistance, imposition of harsh economic "liberalization" regimes, and more.

Finally, why is there no mention, when enumerating the legal and moral constraints on American retaliation, of the fundamental obligation, imposed by Article 51 of the UN Charter, to seek the authorization of the Security Council for military action against another state? Does Michael believe that a unilateral US reaction, in disregard of international law, will set a useful precedent? Can he explain why American support for far graver atrocities than WTC in Central America, East Timor, Bangladesh, Kurdistan, and elsewhere would not similarly justify unilateral military action against the United States by the victims?

Michael calls for an ideological campaign to "engage all the arguments and excuses for terrorism and reject them." This is a necessary effort and, we may be sure, will be amply assisted by the world's most powerful government, with its virtually limitless resources. But is there no other "work for religious leaders and public intellectuals"? To help discredit anti-American terrorism is a duty. It remains at least as important, however - even if, now as always, less in tune with popular sentiment, media consensus, and official exhortation - to call attention to the enormous suffering caused by American foreign policy, past and present.

Posted by Michael Walzer on September 27, 2001 at 13:07:37:

In Reply to: Sept. 11 posted by George Scialabba on September 24, 2001 at 12:50:23:

Yes, it's true: "fervid and highly distorted accounts of the blockade of Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" played (and continue to play) an important part in the recruitment of terrorists and in the creation of the friendly seas in which they swim. I wouldn't call George's view of the blockade "fervid" or "distorted," though I think it is mostly wrong. But this isn't the place to argue about that.

And yes, I believe exactly what George finds so unlikely: that the terrorists do not oppose US foreign policy for his reasons or for reasons remotely like his. But that doesn't make them inexplicable. George seems to believe that the terrorists must be rational leftists (even if they have adopted vicious methods) or else they fall off the map of the known universe. "Here be dragons." In fact they are driven by religious zeal. I don't understand that very well, and George not at all, but it is in principle understandable. The terrorists are not inhumanly evil; they are all-too-humanly evil, for both active zealotry and fanatical versions of fundamentalist theology lie well within humanity's range. America, in the eyes of Islamic zealots, is the Great Satan, and it is satanic because it is, however imperfectly, secular, democratic, and liberal--and also, of course, because it is powerful: Denmark is not the Great Satan.

George wants to seize upon the terrorist attack as an occasion for a debate on American foreign policy--as if the attack was a move in an argument, a political statement. I don't accept that view. Whatever reasons we had for opposing (and for supporting) American policies before September 11, we have still; Dissent has a substantial record of opposition, especially on issues of international justice. Whatever disagreements among ourselves we had before, we have still. In that regard nothing has changed. The only issue specifically raised by the attack is how best to resist terrorism. We had better begin by trying to understand it, and that will require, on the left, a recognition that the terror network is not a protest movement.

Posted by George Scialabba on September 27, 2001 at 13:12:06:

In Reply to: Re: Sept. 11 posted by Michael Walzer on September 27, 2001 at 13:07:37:

Thanks to Michael for his prompt and courteous reply. Yes, I do think the attack should be an occasion for (continued, in the case of Dissent) debate about American foreign policy, though not because it was a "move in an argument." It was a crime and a catastrophe. But crimes and catastrophes have causes, and often recur unless those causes are understood and addressed. The United States is not the "Great Satan" because it is "however imperfectly, secular, democratic, and liberal" -- as though it would be more hated if it were more perfectly secular, democratic, and liberal, or less hated if it were less so. And it is certainly not hated because its foreign policy is liberal, democratic, and humane, as Michael unaccountably suggested in his Times op-ed. It is hated because it is perceived -- not only by terrorists but also by masses and elites throughout the Muslim world -- to have harmed and helped others to harm Muslims: in Iran, in Lebanon, in Saudi Arabia, in Pakistan, in Egypt, in Iraq, and in the West Bank and Gaza. Denmark and Sweden are not so perceived.

Of course the terrorist network is a protest movement, however inarticulate, irrational, and murderous. Denying this simply serves to preclude debate about American policy, past and present, in the Middle East and elsewhere. That policy -- or at least those aspects of it that lie in the background of the attack -- may be morally defensible. But this is a matter American policymakers, now as always, would prefer not be too searchingly discussed. It is difficult to see why "public intellectuals and religious leaders," or anyone else concerned to prevent future catastrophes, should oblige them.

Finally, I hope Michael will soon find an occasion to discuss at some length the morality of the Iraqi blockade, as well as the issues of unilateralism and international law mentioned in my earlier comment. These are knotty and mortally important questions, and there are few people whose opinions about them I would rather read.

Posted by Michael Walzer on October 01, 2001 at 12:16:26:

George thinks that the terrorist network is a protest movement and that the things it is protesting against overlap with the things he wants to protest against. So he has a new argument to persuade us to support his agenda: it will help to avoid a recurrence of the terrorist attacks. He thinks that the terrorists are criminals, but he has an informal alliance with them: they attack and threaten to attack again, and he recommends that we attend to their threats.

So let's look at his three recommendations. First, he wants us to end the blockade and, I assume, the almost daily bombing of Iraq. What would happen if we did that? Surely Saddam Hussein's forces would move north and destroy Kurdish autonomy, and they would also kill large numbers of Kurds--as much of the political elite as they could find--and terrorize the rest. How many times can we betray the Kurds? And, almost as surely, within two or three years, Saddam would have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them (but the already existing terrorist network might be the best means). I fail to see the attraction of this.

But, says George, the blockade is responsible for thousands of deaths from hunger and disease. Is it in fact responsible? I have only second and third hand knowledge, but I am told that in the Kurdish areas, where the blockade is as effective (and as ineffective) as it is everywhere else, there is no hunger and no health crisis; this is apparently because the Kurds are spending their oil revenue on food and medicine. Saddam spends his oil revenue on other things, chiefly on a long series of efforts to import military supplies and advanced technology. The greatest enemy of the Iraqi people is the government of Iraq, and it is part of the great strangeness of modern times that this brutal and tyrannical regime is not regularly denounced by leftists around the world.

Next, George would like us to stop supporting other authoritarian regimes in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. I agree that these are unattractive regimes, but they are likely to be replaced, if they fall, by far worse ones. Perhaps George has some friends in Cairo ready to seize power and form a social-democratic government. If not, I would support American aid to Mubarak so as to avoid a takeover by, say, the Muslim Brotherhood or some local version of the Taliban. Why is this our business? Well, we now have a new reason to make it our business: we don't want the Egyptian government to become an active patron of terrorism. But doesn't the corruption of the current regime, and the radical inequality it breeds, provide fertile recruiting ground for terrorists? Yes (along with the relative secularism of Egypt today and the relative liberalism of its cultural life), but at least now the recruits have to go to school elsewhere.

Last, George would like us to stop supporting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I am not sure we are supporting it, given the extraordinary efforts that President Clinton made to bring it to an end. But I agree this far: I would favor strong American pressure on both the Israelis and the Palestinians to accept a two state solution and to draw the line between the two states roughly along the '67 border. I don't believe, however, that the terrorist "protest" is directed against the occupation; it is Jewish sovereignty on "Arab land" that is the focus of radical Islamic attack--not the occupation but the state itself. The terrorists would regard an Israeli withdrawl to the '67 lines as a great victory, but definitely not as the end of the war. So, George, how far are you prepared to go to avoid a "recurrence" of terrorism?

George also asks why, in my NYT op-ed piece, I did not urge that the "war" against terrorism be conducted or, at least authorized and led, by the UN. Given the record of the UN, that seems a recipe for failure. Consider the record, beginning some thirty years ago. The UN did not even attempt to stop the Pakistini reign of terror in what is now BanglaDesh; it did not shut down the killing fields of Cambodia; it did not intervene, or authorize anyone else to intervene, to prevent mass murder in Idi Amin's Uganda. More recently, the UN failed in Somalia, mostly because the Americans cut and ran, but also because it was unwilling to order forceful action; it failed in each successive Yugoslav war, most horrifyingly in Srebrenica, where UN soldiers, who knew exactly what was happening, stood and watched while the men of the city were led off to be murdered. It failed in Rwanda where (according to an article to be published in Dissent next year) the Secretary-General ordered UN forces on the ground not to intervene in the massacres; it failed in East Timor, where it organized an election and then was unable to protect the people who voted for independence. If you want a serious and sustained struggle against terrorism, why would you even think of the UN as a candidate to provide its ground rules? And if you want a serious and sustained struggle, you will also not imagine that the terrorists will be appeased by changes in American foreign policy that reflect a Western left agenda. That game begins with dishonor and will end in disaster.

Michael Walzer
September 28, 2001

Posted by George Scialabba on October 03, 2001 at 11:54:11:

In his September 21 New York Times op-ed, Michael offered some useful admonitions about the proper limits on military retaliation against those found to be responsible for the September 11 bombings. But he also argued that "our way of life" was now under attack and that the hatred which lay behind this attack was "fueled by fervid and highly distorted accounts of the blockade of Iraq" (as well as of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and, even more fundamentally, by dislike of "the values that sometimes, at least, guide the exercise of American power" -- unspecified but presumably enlightened and humane values. "There is work for religious leaders and public intellectuals," he proclaimed, but the only task he mentioned was "an ideological campaign to engage all the arguments and excuses for terrorism and reject them."

To this I objected (Sept. 24) that: 1) He appeared to dismiss the blockade of Iraq as unworthy of serious moral concern, or at least as not harmful enough to justify the degree of international outrage it has evoked. 2) His characterization of American foreign policy as "sometimes, at least" guided by humane, democratic values was misleading. 3) To ascribe terrorist hatred solely to resentment of American decency, magnanimity, generosity, or whatever other noble (but of course unspecified) purposes allegedly "guide the exercise of American power" really didn't cut much explanatory mustard. 4) The United States has an unambiguous legal obligation to seek Security Council authorization for military action against another country, something a professedly careful moral philosopher might have been expected at least to mention when addressing a large and undoubtedly angry readership in an inflamed situation.

In response (9/26) Michael again insisted that the sole cause of radical Islamic anti-Americanism was theological: i.e., opposition to "secular, democratic, and liberal" values. Of course the fact of American power was relevant, he conceded, but not the specific character of American foreign policy. The terrorists are not protesting anything definable; they are merely a spasm of anti-modernity. "The only issue raised by the attack is how best to resist terrorism." (My emphasis.) To this I replied (9/27) that the terrorists are obviously theological fanatics and just as obviously reacting to American policy in their region over the last several decades, which they perceive, plausibly or not, as humiliating and oppressive.

Very well, Michael now (10/1) says, let's look at some of these alleged grievances. First, the blockade of Iraq, which, he writes, has caused the deaths of "thousands" of civilians. "Thousands"? Michael knows as well as I do that the most commonly cited estimates of civilian casualties are one million premature deaths, half of them before the age of five (from a UNICEF report, 1999), and 800,000 children under five chronically malnourished (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2000). I don't know any better than Michael whether these estimates are accurate or "fervid and highly distorted." But he might at least have acknowledged them.

However many deaths, they are not our responsibility, Michael argues. Moreover, lifting the blockade would only make it easier for Saddam to manufacture weapons of mass destruction and resume aggression against his neighbors. These are plausible arguments. (Michael evidently assumes that my saying the blockade poses a "knotty" moral problem was disingenuous.) There are no less plausible counterarguments that Saddam might be contained at a less horrific cost to Iraqi civilians. (See the Human Rights Watch letter of January 5, 2000, among many other sources.) My point has been all along that attempting to rule out in advance all discussion of the blockade and of any other aspect of American foreign policy in connection with the attacks, as Michael did in his Times op-ed, is intellectually and morally indefensible.

What should we say about US support for authoritarian regimes in the Mideast? Nothing just now, Michael concludes, because criticism might lead to their replacement by even worse regimes. He may be right. Contrary to his pretense, I made no "recommendations" about this or anything else, except that American intellectuals should help the public figure out whether American policies (not just American virtues) have contributed to creating intense and widespread anti-Americanism throughout the region.

What policies? Disregard of national sovereignty and popular welfare in pursuit of access to essential resources. (E.g., the American-supervised overthrow of the moderate nationalist Mossadegh in Iran in 1954. It was in reference to this intervention, by the way, rather than to the Declaration of Independence, that the epithet "Great Satan" first gained currency.) Unwillingness to limit arms sales or lead a serious effort to curb the international arms trade. (E.g., large scale American arms sales to Saddam Hussein before and during his nine-year war with Iran and his worst massacres of Kurds.) Cold War gamesmanship, again in disregard of local populations. (E.g., the recruitment and arming of extreme fundamentalists to harass the Russians in Afghanistan, with little thought for what might emerge from the wreckage and little effort to moderate the consequences with reconstruction assistance.) Unilateral military action in disregard of international law. (E.g., the bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory, asserted on no valid evidence to have been producing biological weapons.) Imposition of minimally regulated foreign investment and currency flows on fragile economies. (I am not sure what effects this policy has had in the Mideast -- some, I suspect -- but it has produced considerable suffering for tens of millions of Muslims in Indonesia, mainly in order to protect US financial institutions.)

Of course all these American actions and many others -- all others, in fact -- are irrelevant if anti-American terrorism is motivated solely by hatred of our "secular, democratic, and liberal" values.

"If you want a serious and sustained struggle against terrorism," Michael asks, "why would you even think of the UN as a candidate to provide the ground rules?" In other words, why comply with international law and treaty obligations if you don't think it will get you what you want? Such empty formalities may be left to insignificant nations subjected to American violence, like Nicaragua, which appealed to the World Court and the Security Council, or Sudan, which attempted to (it was prevented by the United States).

Of course the UN has been generally ineffective. Why, and what to do about it? Should the United States assume near-term security risks in order to strengthen the legitimacy of the UN and set useful precedents of adherence to international law? Especially since the U.S. currently enjoys overwhelming military predominance and is not without responsibility for the UN's feebleness? More "knotty" questions, as I pointed out (disingenuously again) in my last posting, where I appealed to Michael for some help in thinking about these matters.

No help forthcoming; only a prolonged jeer. "Consider the record," Michael scoffs. It is, truly, a sorry record; nonetheless, Michael's version of it calls for a bit of commentary. "The UN did not even attempt to stop the Pakistani reign of terror in what is now Bangladesh." Throughout those atrocities, the United States supplied most of Pakistan's arms. I don't know the diplomatic record, but I would guess that if there was an attempt to involve the UN, the United States opposed it, mainly so that Henry Kissinger could secure Pakistan's help in keeping his (pointlessly) secret China diplomacy secret. The UN "did not shut down the killing fields in Cambodia." But when the Vietnamese invasion of 1978 did just that, the United States instigated a campaign to punish Vietnam with international sanctions. (And of course it has never acknowledged any responsibility for preparing the way for the killing fields by dropping a half-million tons of bombs on that tiny country.) The UN "failed in East Timor" -- in the late 1990s. Actually, the UN also failed in East Timor in the mid-1970s, when Indonesia, with American foreknowledge and supplied almost exclusively with American arms, invaded East Timor and subsequently killed 20-25% of the population. The UN failed in this case even to censure Indonesia because of U.S. opposition in the Security Council.

Finally, Israel and the Palestinians. Sigh. Whether or not I "would like us to stop supporting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza," I've said nothing of the sort in the course of this exchange. Another phantom "recommendation." What I've actually been saying all along, and what Michael has been denying, is that anti-American terrorists are objecting -- justifiably or not -- to American policies and their results, not merely to our "way of life." It is therefore an elementary obligation, both of justice and of rationality, to examine those policies critically before settling on an anti-terrorism strategy rather than to absolve them a priori of any responsibility for anti-Americanism. For some reason, Michael seems willing to do almost anything -- even adopt a pretty nasty tone with a longtime Dissent contributor -- to forestall, or at any rate postpone, such an examination.

For the record, I am as disturbed as Michael is by Palestinian and Arab irredentism, by the cynical exploitation of popular anti-Zionism by undemocratic Mideast regimes, and by the lunatic exhortations of many Muslim clerics. (I suppose the lunatic exhortations of many Orthodox Jewish clerics should also be mentioned.) I don't have any specific recommendations, only a general commitment to self-determination for both communities. I certainly favor principled American support for Israel's survival. But I believe American support for Israel, like the rest of American foreign policy, is now anything but principled. It is based instead on Israel's enormous strategic value as a junior military partner in a region whose principal natural resource is essential to the global economy. If all the oil in the Mideast disappeared tomorrow and miraculously reappeared under Nebraska, I fear American support for Israel would weaken somewhat. Michael has chided me for imagining that anti-American terrorists might oppose American foreign policy for anything like the same reasons I do. Does he imagine that American policymakers support Israel for anything like the same reasons he does? If so, I think he's dangerously deluded. If not, he should cease pretending otherwise.

By now I think I've had my say. I'll leave the last word to Michael and/or others.


Posted by George Scialabba on October 03, 2001 at 11:56:52:

After rereading Michael's "Second Response" and simmering down a bit, I'd like to withdraw with regret the remark in my last message about his "nasty tone." I'm afraid I sometimes find it hard to distinguish between the experience of being sharply criticized and the experience of being cruelly traduced.


Posted by Michael Walzer on October 04, 2001 at 11:17:58:

In Reply to: last round posted by George Scialabba on October 03, 2001 at 11:54:11:

third reply to Scialabba

All George ever wanted, he says, was to promote a discussion of vital issues. Well, we've had a discussion, more of one than I wanted. I am glad it's over. The terrorist attack on New York does not seem to me that right occasion to rehearse the standard left critique of American foreign policy--now re-described as a list of the grievances that explain (but of course don't excuse) the attack.

I believe that my account of George's proposals is accurate; they are not "phantoms." A critique is always also an argument to do something, namely, to change what is being criticized. And what George's proposals amount to, it seems to me, is a policy of appeasement. The way to prevent a recurrence of the attack is to give the terrorists what George thinks they want. I am sure they would take whatever he offers, though they want a lot more; and then they will claim a great victory, welcome a rush of new recruits, and plan more attacks. Not a clever policy for the left in these times, though it does have precedent on its side.

The debate we should be having is about how to conduct and sustain a serious struggle against terror. How can we prevent the next attack? How can we make the friendly waters in which terrorists swim unfriendly? How should we deal with the culture of excuse and apology? What kind of diplomatic alliance should we be putting together? What kinds of pressure can we bring to bear on states that sponsor or protect terrorists? What limits on police investigations, intelligence gathering, and covert operations will protect our freedom and still permit the necessary work to be done? What kind of military action is both justifiable and potentially effective? Somehow I doubt that these questions will attract much webpage interest, but I would be glad to be proved wrong.

Michael Walzer