Military Action May Sometimes Be Moral and Constitutional, But Not Smart

President-elect Barack Obama – showing the obligatory toughness toward foreign "evildoers" needed (especially by Democrats) in American political campaigns – pledged to use the American military to go after al-Qaeda in Pakistan. Of all people, his hawkish rival, Senator John McCain, who supported the unprovoked US invasion and occupation of Iraq, criticized Obama’s approach toward Pakistan as unnecessarily incendiary.

McCain’s criticism of Obama’s proposed tactics, however, was undermined by the outgoing Bush administration’s same policy. The administration has been sending unpiloted drones deeper and deeper into Pakistani territory to attack suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban targets and has, on at least one occasion, used heliborne US Special Forces to launch a ground attack on such sites within Pakistan.

So this policy has at least some bipartisan endorsement. It also appears to have some moral sanction resulting from the right to retaliate against the perpetrators and enablers of the September 11 attacks on the United States. But the real question is whether such reflexively aggressive measures are smart policy. For the answer, some enlightenment can be gained from examining the actions of past presidents.

First, let’s examine counterproductive combative actions of a president with a godlike reputation (Abraham Lincoln) and then a much more effective response from a perceived incompetent president (Jimmy Carter).

Upon taking office in early 1861, Lincoln admittedly faced the harsh reality that many Southern states had already seceded from the union and that South Carolina threatened Fort Sumter, the only remaining federal fort in the South. When Lincoln assumed office, the fort, located on an island off South Carolina’s coast, was running low on food, and South Carolinians had fired on prior resupply ships during the prior Buchanan administration. Mirroring Northern public opinion at the time, Lincoln’s top military advisers – including Winfield Scott, one of the greatest generals in US history – believed that the fort was militarily inconsequential and advocated for its abandonment. Lincoln knew full well that any further resupply of the fort would probably mean war. Nevertheless, the federal naval commander on the scene at the fort, echoed by other government officials, concluded that Lincoln ordered the fort to be provided with more food, but not ammunition, so that South Carolina "should stand before the civilized world as having fired upon bread."

It seems clear that Lincoln wanted to provoke a war that he erroneously believed would be a short-lived affair and to blame Southerners for starting it. Retrospectively, the massive and bloody Civil War that ensued – still casualty-wise, the worst war in US history – has been deemed worthwhile because it freed the slaves. Of course, when Lincoln provoked the conflict, he had no such goal and was merely trying to keep Southern states from seceding to fulfill the self-determination spoken of in the US Declaration of Independence.

Only when military bungling and the unpopularity of the conflict’s carnage threatened the Northern cause did Lincoln change the war’s goal to freeing the slaves – largely to shore up its popular support by making it a moral crusade and to keep Britain and France from recognizing the Southern Confederacy.

Lincoln most likely had a constitutional right to put down an insurgency, especially after he maneuvered the South into foolishly firing on the fort first. Yet the more important question remains: Should he have provoked the war?

Slavery was a vile and morally atrocious institution. However, most other countries had already peacefully ended slavery, and Lincoln himself had earlier advocated compensated emancipation, which would have paid Southerners to free their slaves. In the end, a meaningful attempt to do this would have lost less lives and money than starting a cataclysmic Civil War, which killed more than 600,000 Americans and left national scars that remain today. Moreover, the war only nominally freed the slaves and eventually resulted in a violent Southern backlash against "freed" slaves in the form of the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups.

Lincoln could have learned something from Jimmy Carter. In late 1979, Iranians took US diplomats hostage in Iran. Although Carter had a moral right to militarily retaliate against Iran for attacking the US embassy – technically US soil – he wisely avoided this option. Although he did attempt a failed rescue, an outright attack would have likely resulted in the hostages being murdered. Unlike his successor Ronald Reagan’s response to US hostages being held in Lebanon, Carter refused to pay Iran ransom for a hostage release and lost his bid for reelection in part because the hostages had not been freed. On the day that Carter left office, the hostages were safely released. Although Carter and Lincoln both had the right to use military force, Carter was the wiser of the two men for avoiding it.

Obama would do well to learn the lessons of his predecessors and avoid the reflexive inclination to prove his strength by attacking Pakistan. The need for a young and inexperienced new president to avoid appearing weak resulted in John F. Kennedy’s disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and consequent Cuban Missile Crisis. These acts were performed for no strategic reason and nearly caused the world’s nuclear incineration.

Since September 11, al-Qaeda has become more decentralized, thus rendering its central leadership less dangerous to the United States. Although the president-elect should keep pressuring the Pakistani government to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and crew and up the bounty on the heads of the group’s leadership, the US occupation of Afghanistan and attacks into Pakistan are fueling the diffuse radical Islamism around the world that is leading to increased terrorism. Thus, Obama should avoid knee jerk US military responses that have become all too common and counterproductive and instead adopt a smarter policy of restraint.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.