The “War” Model, Iraq’s Role, and the Need for Strategic Focus

by Bobby Chesney

Thanks to Chris and his colleagues at OJ for giving me an opportunity to participate in this important discussion.

Today we’re focused on broad premises underlying the book, and in particular the utility of using the concept of war in connection with counterterrorism policy.  Peggy’s most recent post critiques the Bush Administration’s emphasis on the war model, concluding that “the framing of our current counterterrorism policy as a “war” — including the legal policies Ben effectively critiques in the book — has cost the U.S. more in terms of prestige, reputation, support from allies and cooperation from other foreign states than it has gained us.” Perhaps so, but I’d like to press on that claim a bit.

First, there is the question of where Iraq fits into this analysis.  If in discussing the “war model” of counterterrorism policy we are including the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 (and all that has followed thereafter), then I can see the strength of Peggy’s argument.  Certainly the rhetoric of counterterrorism played a significant role in generating support for that invasion, and certainly Iraq subsequently became plagued by terrorism. So perhaps would should treat these policies together in this discussion.  But perhaps we aim to discuss the “war model” of counterterrorism policy as something distinct from Iraq, something that concerns the more narrow questions of when and to what extent it is legitimate or wise to invoke IHL principles to justify policies that have been employed in connection with al Qaeda and others separate and apart from Iraq.  This, I think, presents a more difficult question.  At the risk of becoming too focused on cost-benefit analysis, I will also note that none of us can say with much certainty just what offsetting benefits these policies have produced over the past six years.

None of which is to say we should simply move forward with the status quo.  Far from it.  As Ben persuasively contends in his book, the status quo is flawed in many respects, including the use of IHL concepts (e.g., detention for the duration of hostilities) without adequate consideration of the strategic goals for which those concepts will be deployed or the problems of legitimacy (and hence sustainability) that emerge when rules premised on one set of expectations (e.g., uniformed soldiers fighting as part of a regular armed force) are applied in a context that upsets those expectations (e.g., an enemy force whose members entirely eschew distinction, creating a much higher risk than normal of false positives and negatives in the detention process).  The task at this point should be to think carefully and thoroughly about those larger strategic goals (a point often emphasized by Matt Waxman), and then to craft legal and policy instruments tailored to achieve them.

Such instruments may in many instances be the stuff of existing domestic and international legal frameworks (including IHL and, let us not forget, IHRL), but Ben makes a powerful case that this is not true across the board.  And where it is not true, Ben’s book also reminds us that we then face the subsidiary question of which institution or institutions should play a role in crafting new instruments.

http://opiniojuris.org/2008/07/28/the-war-model-iraqs-role-and-the-need-for-strategic-focus/

3 Responses

  1. “The task at this point should be to think carefully and thoroughly about those larger strategic goals (a point often emphasized by Matt Waxman), then to craft legal and policy instruments tailored to achieve them”

    Again, the crafting exercise.  If we are thinking strategically and the strategic vision is we need to gather intelligence and we decide that to do that we need to have a policy of cruelty (Alberto Mora’s phrase) where does that leave us?  Does the strategic vision lead us as a matter of national security law to do mind-altered analyses to make pesky international law obligations and domestic oversight go away?

    I think Bobby you underestimate the constraints on us.  The benefits of compliance in the 1st gulf war appeared to be other forces and checks from allies that paid off substantial parts of the costs.  On the other hand, the costs in the current war in Iraq have been essentially born alone and for an uncertain outcome.  It seems very unlikely that treating people as third class persons is going to have them become enamored of us.

    Best,
    Ben

  2. Hi Ben.  I appreciate the concern you express in your second paragraph, but I think you may be jumping to an unwarranted conclusion.  Of course I do not mean to suggest that by identifying our strategic goals we thereby would be free to sweep aside all legal or moral obstacles to achieving them.  Indeed, it seems to me quite likely that a thorough assessment of our strategic aims would point to the need to emphasize rule of law values and the moral high ground. 

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