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The Justification for War

During the Cold War, occasional resorts to war or threats of war by the United States were justified by the need to keep communism in check.  This justification had the advantage of being based on a real threat—notably in Berlin in 1949, in Korea in 1950, and during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.  The result was a degree of clarity and honesty: We were going to fight not only because we were virtuous upholders of the law of nations, or defenders of the Free World, but primarily because it was in our geopolitical interest to do so.

The old urge to cloak the use of American military power in missionary righteousness returned after the fall of the Soviet Union.  James Baker’s frank statement—that the Gulf War was all about oil—was contradicted by President George H.W. Bush, who preferred to speak of a moral action against Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.  Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo were likewise presented in “humanitarian” terms, but Richard Holbrooke subsequently boasted that the real reason was global hegemony: “We are re-engaged in the world, and Bosnia was the test.”

The attack on Iraq seems imminent some time in 2003, and the gap between the stated reasons for that war and the underlying motives of the decision-making community in Washington seems wider than ever.  As the Washington Times noted last August, “the...

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