Arguing about War by Michael Walzer (Review)
December 13, 2004        

Michael Walzer’s best book is not, unfortunately, his most influential. Spheres of Justice (1983) succeeds brilliantly in imagining “an egalitarianism that is consistent with liberty.” In every society, Walzer observes, each social good has a distinctive meaning, which tells us who is entitled to it. Medical care should go to the ill; places in medical school to those most able and eager to heal; political and civil rights to every citizen; political office to the most persuasive; prizes and renown to those who (according to the best judges) excel; love to those who can make themselves loved; money to those who (in Walzer’s inspired example) make the best blintzes or provide other goods and services that may be bought and sold. But medical care, medical training, citizenship, political power, honors, and love should not be bought and sold, directly or indirectly; they must be earned in some other way, or simply deserved without being earned. Pursued in detail, this insight yields a complete – and completely convincing – theory of distributive justice. In scope, rigor, and originality, Spheres of Justice is the equal of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, though it has had only a fraction of the latter’s influence.

Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars (1977), on the other hand, which is little more than an elegant restatement with minor revisions of the traditional “just war” paradigm, has spawned an entire literature and become required reading at America’s military academies. Arguing about War, a collection of essays published in Dissent, The New Republic, Social Research, and elsewhere, is Walzer’s first book since then about international affairs. Although very uneven in quality – mostly bad, in fact – its topicality and Walzer’s reputation make it worth a look.

The best essay in the collection is the least topical: “Governing the Globe.” How centralized or decentralized should (future) global governance be? What kinds of organizations should coordinate which spheres of activity? How might the world evolve from where we are toward a balanced regime that promotes collective security, distributive justice, cultural pluralism, and individual freedom? In twenty pages (the book’s longest essay), Walzer sketches a reasonable approach to these questions – which is as much as anyone could do in twenty pages.

The other essays in Arguing about War are divided between applied (ie, to terrorism and humanitarian intervention) theory and contemporary cases (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iraq war). Exasperatingly, in this book, as in Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer writes as if the morality of the use of force in international affairs could be usefully discussed with little or no reference to the United Nations Charter. In Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer dealt briskly with the question of the Charter’s relevance. Defending Israeli reprisals, he declared that because the UN has “clearly not [been] ready or able to enforce the law,” its decrees “do not command intellectual or moral respect.” States are therefore entitled, he implied, to ignore their obligations under the Charter – at least, he never mentioned any such obligation as binding on any state. His position in Arguing about War is identical. Except for disparaging references to its ineffectuality, the UN scarcely figures.

From a moral theorist, this is wholly inadequate. States are not entitled to disregard their solemn obligations because others do – especially when their own past disregard (as is true, notably though not exclusively, of the United States and Israel) is part of the reason why those others do. The UN Charter is the supreme law of the United States and of most or all other countries who have signed it. It is a pledge to renounce the use of force except as authorized by the Security Council. It does not include a provision releasing states from this pledge whenever they decide that other states aren’t living up to it. So a law-abiding state may not, since 1945, make a determination – whether based on just war theory, on its views about its “national interest,” or on anything else – to use force (except in an emergency, very narrowly defined in Article 51).

Though legally sovereign, the UN is indeed ineffective. An honest approach to these matters would admit as much, go on to explore why the collective security system envisioned in the Charter has not worked out as hoped, and then try to suggest how habits – and eventually instincts – of restraint, consultation, and deference to collective decision-making might be patiently and gradually fostered, especially by the world’s strongest and richest states. But this would require acknowledging a great deal of lawless international behavior by the United States and Israel – something Walzer has always, especially in the latter case, been loath to do. As much as anything else, what has undermined the UN’s authority has been the manipulation of dependent member-states by the two global superpowers (especially the stronger one); the refusal of the United States to submit its ferocious and protracted aggressive war in Indochina to Security Council decision; the withholding of America’s UN dues; the many assertions of unilateral prerogative by American leaders of both parties; and the unwillingness since 1948 of Israel (a regional superpower almost since its birth) to honor the conditions of its admission to the UN: the return of Palestinian refugees from the 1947-48 war and the acceptance of an adjoining Palestinian state, a refusal supported and financed since 1967 by the United States. Though never, as I said, a particularly forthright critic of US foreign policy, Walzer might conceivably have brought himself to address the first several of these causes. But I suspect he would sooner be boiled in oil than acknowledge the final one. So he ignores or dismisses any line of inquiry that might make such an acknowledgment necessary.

This evasive maneuver is characteristic. Frequently, what is most important – and objectionable – in these essays is what is taken for granted, implied, mentioned only in passing. Important questions are deftly closed off or passed by; dubious or indefensible premises go unstated but are somehow insinuated; opposing positions are subtly deprecated as implausible or irresponsible without quite being formulated or even attributed to anyone. Consequently, much of what I want to argue with in Arguing about War must be dragged out from between the lines.

“Terrorism: A Critique of Excuses” shows Walzer at his shiftiest. “We live today,” he announces, “in a political culture of excuses” for terrorism. This seems to me highly questionable, but Walzer pretends it is so obvious that “there is no need” to cite examples; “my readers can make their own attributions,” which is very convenient for him. Still, a footnote informs us, two essays are such flagrant offenders that he “cannot resist” naming them as prime specimens: one by Edward Said, the other by Richard Falk; both appeared in the Nation in June 1986.

This is a disgraceful slur. To “excuse,” according to Webster’s Second International, means to “remove or lessen blame for,” “seek indulgence for,” “extenuate,” “exculpate,” “pardon, forgive, overlook.” There is not a hint of a breath of an excuse for terrorism in either Falk’s or Said’s essay. Nor does Walzer attempt to show that there is. He simply slanders two political opponents, presumably because they point out that after one has condemned terrorism, more remains to be said.

What more? First, that by the ordinary definition of terrorism – deliberate violence against civilians for political purposes (apart from war crimes, which are equally abhorrent) – both Israel and the United States have been guilty of terrorism: the former during its 1978 and 1982 invasions of Lebanon as well as many of its bombing raids in that country at other times; the latter far more extensively, through its support, training, and arms sales to many brutal regimes and insurgencies. Second, that the definition of terrorism should perhaps be broadened to include reprisals that can hardly fail to produce civilian casualties, like the bombing, strafing, and bulldozing of inhabited areas where terrorists are hiding; or that cause a grave deterioration in the life of an entire society, like large-scale jailings, house detonations, curfews, roadblocks, checkpoints, school closings, border closings, import restrictions, destruction of cultural, administrative, and agricultural resources, and more. Third, that those responsible for a massive, flagrant, persistent injustice, which they could remedy without grave detriment to their own security, and which terrorists claim to be protesting, deserve some blame for the terrorists’ crimes (an allocation that does not at all diminish the terrorists’ blame, obviously). There are also fourth, fifth, sixth, and many more things to be said on this subject. Walzer wants to prevent them all from being said by labeling them in advance as “excuse,” “apology,” and “appeasement.”

“The Four Wars of Israel/Palestine” is the book’s main essay on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Against the “great simplifiers” (i.e., his political opponents) Walzer argues bravely and complexly that there are rejectionists (bad) and accommodationists (good) on both sides. One might think that this would not be news even to many of the great simplifiers and that repeating what nearly everyone knows can hardly be the purpose of a medium-sized essay. In fact, I think that, notwithstanding some reasonable (though not very bold or controversial) things said in this essay and in “The Intifada and the Green Line” (the book’s other essay on Israel/Palestine), the point of both lies in some other, less reasonable things lurking between the lines.

Here he is, for example, hailing the first intifada: “What PLO terrorists failed to achieve over 20 years, teenagers with slingshots have achieved in eight months. They have put Palestine on the moral map, alongside Israel.” And a little further on, chiding the Israeli right: “When Prime Minister Shamir says of the intifada that it is a new form of warfare against the State of Israel, he is saying something absurd. But the absurdity is widely accepted – for haven’t the Arabs been at war with Israel for 40 years now, always refusing (Egypt the only exception) to accept Israeli statehood?” Both these remarks unobtrusively take for granted the notion – widely believed in the United States, though nowhere else – that neither Palestinian Arabs nor their political representatives have shown any readiness for a diplomatic settlement with Israel since its founding in 1948. On the contrary: as Simha Flapan first showed in The Birth of Israel (1987), after the initial failure of resistance, the majority of Palestinian Arabs accepted partition as inevitable, even if not desirable, and were ready to live peacefully either alongside Israel or, in the case of the refugees, under Israeli sovereignty. The failure to reach a settlement after 1948 was due primarily, in Flapan’s words, to Ben-Gurion’s “active strategy to prevent, at all costs, the creation of the Palestinian state as called for in the UN Partition Resolution.” As for the “20 years” (i.e., 1967-87) Walzer refers to, supposedly barren of any response from the other side to Israel’s constant desire for peace, his implied history is no more accurate. The Egyptian peace offer of 1971, the PLO-authored Security Council resolution of January 1976, and the Saudi-sponsored Fahd plan of 1981 were all serious proposals, which Israel either contemptuously rejected or did not even acknowledge.

Another sly formulation, this one about Camp David, 2000: “Arafat refused to make peace and survived; Barak failed to make peace and was defeated (we can learn something about the constituencies of the two men from this contrast).” What we are meant to learn is that Barak and the Israelis were serious about a just settlement, while Arafat and the Palestinians were not. As Tanya Reinhart in Israel/Palestine: Ending the War of 1948 (2002) and Naseer Aruri in Dishonest Broker: The US Role in Israel and Palestine, (2003) both demonstrate, this is untrue. Barak’s offer did not divide Jerusalem, did not give Palestinians effective control of a contiguous 90 percent of the West Bank, and required that UN Resolutions 194 (mandating the return of Palestinian refugees) and 242 (mandating Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza) no longer be the basis for negotiations. It was not the “generous offer” of mainstream mythology.

The first of the “four wars of Israel/Palestine” is the “Palestinian war to destroy the state of Israel.” Some Palestinians wage this war with bombs, others by insisting on their “right of return.” The latter is a baseless claim, Walzer implies; after all, “Palestinians are still in camps because a decision was made, by their leaders and by the adjacent Arab states, to keep them there: this was a way of insisting that Israel’s independence war was not yet over.” Shouldn’t a devotee of moral complexity at least have taken note of an additional explanation: that they are “still in camps” because the Israeli government decided, in defiance of its legal and moral obligations, in 1948 (and again in 1967, when an additional 150,000 Palestinians fled) not to allow them to return to their homes but instead to appropriate and settle their lands? And moreover, that if they had been allowed to return home, it is not at all impossible that two generations of misery would have been avoided without having jeopardized Israel’s independence?

“The first war has to be defeated or definitively renounced. Critics of Israel in Europe and at the United Nations have made a terrible mistake, a moral as well as a political mistake, in failing to acknowledge the necessity of this defeat.” The suggestion that European critics of Israel are indifferent to its threatened destruction is another slander. What explains this one is the unwillingness of those Europeans to line up behind the United States in support of Israel’s extensive land grabs in the West Bank and murderous aggression in Lebanon. That cannot be, Walzer would like his readers to believe, a matter of principled concern for Palestinian self-determination or international law, much less simple decency; it must be moral fanaticism or sheer dislike of Israel.

I have cited several statements in Arguing about War that seem to me inaccurate, misleading, or biased, invariably in Israel’s favor. They are representative of many more. Twenty-five years ago, in a review of Just and Unjust Wars, Noam Chomsky tellingly observed that Walzer all too often “assigns a special status to Israel and reconstructs the moral world accordingly.” Sadly, Walzer has not profited from that comradely criticism. On the contrary, to judge from Arguing about War, the distortion of moral perspective that Chomsky noted has become chronic, and probably terminal.

Arguing about War also contains five short essays on Iraq. Their gist is given by the title of the first one: “Inspectors Yes, War No.” The main problem is “European irresponsibility”: if France, Germany, and Russia had themselves threatened to enforce inspections militarily, the US would not have had to. But they have been “committed, all along, to appeasement.” Walzer proposes giving them one more chance, after which “many of us will probably end up, very reluctantly, supporting the war the Bush administration seems so eager to fight.”
Why was the Bush administration so eager to fight? About this Walzer has nothing to say, except to take them at their word: “Delay is dangerous.” To whom was it dangerous? None of Iraq’s neighbors supported the war, or even supported the sanctions. As for the threat to the United States: as Condoleeza Rice explained in early 2000, before assuming office, “if [the Iraqis] do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration.”

Some of the war’s opponents have speculated that the Bush administration’s motives included: anxiety to establish a commanding military presence in the region where the most important natural resource in the world is located; eagerness to turn a large and potentially rich country into a virtually unregulated investors’ paradise; a desire to impress the rest of the world once again with America’s insuperable lead in military technology; a desire to exploit near-universal hatred of Saddam to legitimize (by establishing a precedent for) the doctrine of unilateral American military intervention expounded in the National Security Strategy Document of September 2002; and last, but not (in the mind of Karl Rove) least, a wish to unify the country behind an administration that was making a hash of the economy and environment in order to shovel cash at its campaign contributors. Walzer responsibly refrains from all such speculations.

He does, however, once again consider it important to chastise his opponents on the left. “Some of the most vocal organizers of the antiwar movement, here and in Europe … deny that the Iraqi regime is particularly ugly.” How, he scolds, “can [Iraqi crimes] be ignored by a serious political movement?” As usual, Walzer offers no evidence that they have been. I myself have never heard anyone – except the Iraqi Information Minister – deny that Saddam’s regime was “particularly ugly.” I frankly doubt that Walzer has either.

Soft on the Bush administration, tough on the left: Walzer’s practice falls far short, it seems to me, of the ideal of social criticism that he has often preached. According to Interpretation and Social Criticism (1987), the critic ought to “challenge the leaders, the conventions, the ritual practices of a particular society,” decrying, where necessary, its “public pronouncements and respectable opinion as hypocritical.” One of the “tasks of the critic,” he writes in The Company of Critics (1988), is “to question relentlessly the platitudes and myths of his society.” The critic, he tells us in Thick and Thin (1994), “tears aside the veil” that his society’s “leading members … draw over their everyday evasions and the more ugly features of the world they have made.” I’m afraid all this doesn’t sound much like Walzer to me. When it comes to the role of his favored states in international affairs, there is very little challenging, veil-tearing, or relentless questioning. In this sphere, at least, Walzer’s habitual stance is less that of dissenter than (mildly) critical supporter.


George Scialabba writes about books in Dissent, the Nation, and elsewhere.