Fernando Teson on “The War on ISIS”: How to Start a War with a Non-Sequitur

Fernando Teson continues his dialectical winning streak on Near Eastern topics over at BHL. His latest is an attempt to defend a full-scale war against ISIS via “just war theory.” He presents his “case” (scare quotes, not a direct quote) in the form of a list of numbered propositions. I don’t know if he realizes that a list is not an argument, but this list obviously isn’t one, and doesn’t provide anything that begins to resemble a case for going to war against ISIS. The first item on the list is as follows:

  1. The international community—represented by an appropriate military coalition—has a just cause to wage war on ISIS. That just cause is twofold: (a) the right of humanitarian intervention aimed at saving the populations in Syria and Iraq that are presently victimized by ISIS, and (b) the right of self-defense in response to ISIS’ attacks elsewhere.

I hate to belabor the obvious, but X has just cause to wage war against Y doesn’t entail that X ought, all things considered, to wage war against Y. At best having just cause to wage war is a necessary condition for deciding to wage war, in just the way that having a right to self-defense against someone who threatens you on the street is a necessary condition for deciding to fight back, but not by itself sufficient for deciding to fight back. Among the other considerations: the probability of victory; the nature of the victory envisioned and whether it’s worth fighting for; the price of having to fight relative to the benefits of fighting; the probable unintended consequences of fighting and their costs; etc. Teson doesn’t address any of those obviously relevant issues. He just invokes just war theory, handwaves his way through the details, and somehow concludes that it’s time to wage another Near Eastern war.

Another belaboring of the obvious: is it clear that full-scale warfare will diminish ISIS’s attacks on us? If so, what is the argument for thinking so? For now, the argument is MIA.

This is the mentality of our “expert” class of IR theorists: dominated by theories whose defects and indeterminacies they refuse to acknowledge, they seem incapable of learning from even the most recent history, and incapable of rising to the level of ordinary common sense.  Yet another belaboring of the obvious: it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than Teson’s hand-waving to convince rational people that we ought to be venturing into another Near Eastern war (or any other kind of war) any time soon.

So try again, Teson. Or rather, do us all a favor and don’t try again. The accumulated weight of the unanswered questions in your arguments on this general topic are not exactly a credit to anything you’ve so far said on the subject. Time to hand the shovel up and stop digging.

Postscript, December 11, 2015: Fernando Teson may not regard my objections as worth responding to, and may not regard me as a worthy interlocutor, but I can’t imagine that he regards Andrew Bacevich as someone he can easily dismiss. This article from Wednesday’s New York Times gives a succinct summary, based on Bacevich’s arguments, of some of the most obvious objections to Teson’s “proposal.” And this article, published a year ago, gives readers a sense of the debate on ISIS we haven’t had, and aren’t having.

I have trouble understanding how anyone can be recommending war against ISIS while blithely ignoring issues like these:

If overwhelming firepower alone could guarantee success, the United States would have won the Vietnam War and emerged victorious from Afghanistan and Iraq. And 14 years after 9/11, the threat from Al Qaeda might have disappeared, rather than persisting, morphing and re-emerging as the Islamic State.

As if to underscore the inadequacy of a conventional military approach are terrorist attacks like the one last week in San Bernardino, Calif. It appears not to have been directed by the Islamic State, American officials say, but was simply inspired by it.

Middle East analysts across a broad spectrum — whether they call for more, fewer or different military interventions in the region — say that when it comes to the Islamic State, the West is acting as if it has failed to learn the lessons of the past.

Mr. Bacevich says “the lessons of these failures” are too rapidly forgotten as many Americans succumb to what he calls a form of militarism, “clinging to the illusion that because we have a splendid military, putting it to work will make things come out all right in the end.”

Unfortunately, he says, “little evidence exists to support any such expectation.”

2 thoughts on “Fernando Teson on “The War on ISIS”: How to Start a War with a Non-Sequitur

  1. Pingback: SMH at BHL: Munger on Trump, Locke, and Religious Toleration | Policy of Truth

  2. Pingback: 503+ Boots on the Ground and Counting | Policy of Truth

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