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Warring for peace?

Charles Rice | Thursday, February 17, 2005

“Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace.” Could this title of Harry Elmer Barnes’ 1953 book describe the focus of the Inaugural and State of the Union Addresses? The question is not hostile. I voted for President Bush in 2004 and, given the same choice, would do so again. But the both speeches raise concerns.

This Bush Doctrine pledges to “support … democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.” It equates freedom with democracy: “[B]ecause democracies respect their own people and their neighbors, the advance of freedom will lead to peace.” This promotion of democracy “in every nation and culture” is now “the urgent requirement of our nation’s security.”

One problem is ambiguity – “Demo-cracy” is not defined. An authoritarian regime need not be an automatic threat to the United States. Nor is a democracy intrinsically incapable of presenting such a threat. Thomas Aquinas listed the “forms of government” as monarchy, aristocracy and oligarchy as well as democracy. Pope John Paul II has spoken favorably of democracy, but all of those forms can sustain a culture of peace and freedom.

Does the Doctrine indicate a duty of on the part of the U.S. to press every nation to hold elections and to do so according to our standards? What further reforms does it require? We will tell “other governments … that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people [including] human dignity [and] rights … secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed.” If the people of a nation elect a leader dedicated to strict Islamic law and supportive of jihad, does the Doctrine imply a right of the U.S. to exert pressure, including the threat or use of force, to negate the results of that election?

“America,” said the president,”will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling.” But the system in the West is implicitly a model for “every nation and culture,” and that model has problems of its own. Thirteen days afer September 11, Pope John Paul II reminded the Islamic people of Kazakhstan of “the danger of a slavish conformity” to Western culture … “Western cultural models are enticing … because of their … scientific and technical cast, but … there is growing evidence of their deepening human, spiritual and moral impoverishment. The culture which produces such models is marked by the fatal attempt to secure the good of humanity by eliminating God, the supreme good.” The president’s personal invocations of God do not change that reality in Western culture.

The Constitution vested the powers of foreign relations in both Congress and the president. In regard to defense, it created a twilight zone, giving Congress the power to “declare” war, and in James Madison’s words, “leaving to the president the power to repel sudden attacks.” Presidents have sent forces into combat more than two hundred times. Congress has declared war five times.

After 9/11, and in 2002 for Iraq, Congress essentially gave the president a blank check to use military force “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate.” Consequently, Congress recedes here to a merely advisory and funding role. In any event, James Madison and his colleagues would have been surprised at the suggestion that Congress and the President are able to define the defense of the U.S. to require the active promotion of a particular form of government in “every nation,” regardless of whether that nation had ever attacked or menaced us.

The president says the promotion of democracy “is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary.” But if that promotion is now an “urgent requirement” of U.S. defense, how can the Doctrine categorically rule out the covert or overt use or threat of armed force, secondarily if not “primarily,” to meet that defense imperative?

The Iraq War was presented as a response to an imminent threat of attack by Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and his support of terrorism. Citizens had a duty to give the president’s judgment the benefit of the doubt. But the new Doctrine defines defense in such a way that regime-change could be construed as an “urgent requirement” of U.S. defense without an attack, or a threat of attack, by the nation involved. A just war requires that it be waged by a competent and lawful authority and that it be a last resort. It is difficult to see how those conditions could be met in the use or threat of force to implement regime-change in such a case. By what right does the U.S. claim the authority to prescribe the form of government appropriate for “every nation” on earth?

Congress would do well to scrutinize this new Doctrine. Harry Elmer Barnes may have called it right.

Professor Emeritus Rice is on the Law School faculty. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.