Bernard Finel justifies our crusade in Afghanistan (insufficiently)

Summary:  At look at the moral basis of our war in Afghanistan.  Are its roots found in Christian theology or western philosophy?  No!  It lies in our heritage from England, as explained by Napoleon.

Today’s reading about the war

Bernard Finel responds to my mockery (here and here) of our crusade bringing human rights to Afghanistan.  Like much of the war’s advocacy these days, I don’t understand his message.  So I cannot comment, but only recommend that you read it in full and decide for yourself.

Of course, the hawks run the war — so it will continue no matter what the cost or how flimsy the reasons.  Unless, of course, we grow spines and again become citizens (not “consumers”, aka sheep).

However, this part of his essay is striking, expressing a widely cited rationale for the war:

The more persuasive the case that we “broke” Afghanistan, the more compelling the moral argument for remaining. It take an inherently problematic argument about universal human rights and turns into a more narrowly contingent argument about the obligations to make amends for our previous mistakes.

Let’s examine this “more compelling moral argument”.

Describing the War, making it personal for us

We burst into Bob and Alice’s home.  Destroy their belongings.  Kill their pets.

Seeing the damage resulting from “our previous mistakes”, we feel an obligation to make amends.  Rather than apologize and leave a check for the damage, we insist this mistake gives us the right — the “obligation” — to stay.  Breaking more things, rearranging their life, redecorating their house, and building a base in their backyard.  No matter what they want.  We don’t even ask. 

It’s for their own good.  It’s our duty.

Let’s pause the story while Bob invites their cousins to visit, with AK-47’s.  Let’s rest until they arrive (ignore the IEDs under the cushions).

The morality of our War

So we occupy the strategic areas of Iraq and Afghanistan, building vast bases.  All to bring human rights to the children and women of those nations.  Of course, our efforts have killed many women and children.  and stripped the rights the women had before our invasions.  But we’ll occupy them until their societies meet our standards.  Or we no longer need the bases.  Whichever comes first.

It’s our duty.  Quoting from Finel’s essay:

“The ethical issues are incredibly complicated.  Universal moral obligations compete against practicality. “

We seem to have reconciled both.  Practicality in the form of bases from which to project power (and gain leverage to build pipelines and stop drug production) — while fulfilling “universal moral obligations”.  We are good!

The source of our moral conviction

Where do the war’s advocates get this kind of moral reasoning?  From St. Thomas of Albany?  St. Augustine of Florida?  No!  Its our cultural heritage from England, as described by Napoleon in The Man of Destiny by George Bernard Shaw: 

No, because the English are a race apart.  No Englishman is too low to have scruples: no Englishman is high enough to be free from their tyranny.  But every Englishman is born with a certain miraculous power that makes him master of the world.  When he wants a thing, he never tells himself that he wants it.  He waits patiently until there comes into his mind, no one knows how, a burning conviction that it is his moral and religious duty to conquer those who have got the thing he wants.  Then he becomes irresistible.  Like the aristocrat, he does what pleases him and grabs what he wants: like the shopkeeper, he pursues his purpose with the industry and steadfastness that come from strong religious conviction and deep sense of moral responsibility.

He is never at a loss for an effective moral attitude. As the great champion of freedom and national independence, he conquers and annexes half the world, and calls it Colonization.  When he wants a new market for his adulterated Manchester goods, he sends a missionary to teach the natives the gospel of peace.  The natives kill the missionary: he flies to arms in defence of Christianity; fights for it; conquers for it; and takes the market as a reward from heaven.

In defence of his island shores, he puts a chaplain on board his ship; nails a flag with a cross on it to his top-gallant mast; and sails to the ends of the earth, sinking, burning and destroying all who dispute the empire of the seas with him.

… There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find Englishmen doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong.  He does everything on principle.  He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles; he bullies you on manly principles; he supports his king on loyal principles, and cuts off his king’s head on republican principles.  His watchword is always duty; and he never forgets that the nation which lets its duty get on the opposite side to its interest is lost.

About Bernard Finel

He is now a senior fellow at the American Security Project, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, DC. Previously, he was an Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the National War College and Executive Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.

He holds a BA in international relations from Tufts University and an MA and Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown.

He posts at his blog about politics, national security, crime, justice, and social commentary.


  1. Bernard Finel explains “What would you do in Afghanistan? How would you explain it to the American people? And, if you favor more troops, how would you pay for it?”, posted at The Politico, 24 November 2009.
  2. Why They Hate Us (I): on military occupation“, Stephen M. Walt (Prof of International Relations,  Harvard), blog of Foreign Policy, 23 November 2009.

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9 thoughts on “Bernard Finel justifies our crusade in Afghanistan (insufficiently)”

  1. “In Richmond, Jefferson Davis repeated, “All we ask is to be let alone,” a remark which a Virginia private was to translate into combat terms when he told his captors, “I’m fighting because you’re down here.” — Shelby Foote

  2. Interesting observation about America’s inheritance of the British moral compass. There’s a big difference, though, between the British and the Washingtonian Empires: the Brits were actually good at it. Several reasons account for their success, of course, but perhaps the most important one was that they were the greatest propagandists of all time.

    The British marched forth and conquered the world bolstered by the absolute conviction that it was both their right and moral duty to do so. But that was not by itself remarkable —high self-esteem and great powers of rationalization are not rare among conquerors. No, what set the British forever apart in a class by themselves was that they not only believed in their own greatness, but made everyone else believe it also. Consider India: the British could not have ruled that vast subcontinent with a few thousand European troops if they had not thoroughly convinced enough Indians of the rightness of their rule.
    This British gift of moral suasion served them well not only in acquiring their empire, but in defending it against all European rivals. Napoleon went down at least partly because of the British determination to suffer no powerful rival on the European continent. Even worse, the poor fellow was recorded by history as an evil, power hungry madman—thanks to British historians. (Well, the Prussians didn’t like him either—but who cares what the Prussians thought?)

    That brings us to poor Kaiser Willy. He just wanted to have a little empire, and a modest modern navy. Like the Japanese a few years later, the Kaiser might have complained, “you taught us to play Poker, and now you want to play Bridge!” No, the English gentlemen would suffer no rivals—and it was their unique ability to appear to be gentlemen no matter what they did that made them, for a time, masters of the world. That, and an uncanny ability to make those who opposed them look like brutes.

    Compare this against the inept and shoddy American Empire of today. Like the British, the Americans are inwardly convinced that they are the rightful rulers of the world and the arbitrators of morality. But unlike the British they keep it a secret. Where the British conquered frankly for the sake of deserved conquest, the Americans pretend to do it for the good of their victims; they pretend that they have nothing to gain, that they are, in fact, making great sacrifices to bring civilization to the Lesser World (or at least those parts of it that have not yet developed a nuclear capability). And that, of course, convinces nobody. The world respected and feared the British; it sees America as a land of hypocrites and men lacking any true moral conviction. Where the British could rule continents with a “thin red line”, the Americans can’t rule places like Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, no matter what amount of direct force they bring to bear.

    True, the British didn’t have much luck in that last country either…but then that was another British virtue: they were too smart to continue a fight when they could not win.
    FM reply: The other difference between the Brits and us — their empire was profitable. We’re going broke running ours. Empires are a national IQ test; we’re failing.

  3. Great Shaw quote. Sums up the rationalization process nicely. States are not moral agents. Where they have intervened for “humanitarian” reasons is where doing so also happens to further their perceived self-interest.

    Finel is right in that we do have a moral obligation to the nations we have invaded and occupied. However, as FM points out, this obligation is contingent on the wishes of the people of those nations. If they want us to stay, we ought to do so as far as we are able; if they want us to leave, we have a moral obligation to do so. Not surprisingly, the wishes of the people are the last factor taken into account in decision-making. If they were, the U.S. would have left Iraq long ago, since poll after poll of Iraqis has showed strong support for U.S. withdrawal. Our leaders take counsel from many voices in determining the best interests of the populations under our control, all except the populations themselves.

    Bernard Finel admits that his view is “paternalistic” but that does not go far enough IMO. It is a continuation of the old imperialist stance that the childlike natives are incapable of determining their own best interests, so we must determine that for them. It is the same rationalization used to justify massive crimes throughout history, and is the worst sort of hypocrisy since great harm is done in the name of “their own good.”

    Think of the Spanish Inquisition. If you truly believed that an heretic was damned to an eternity of torment, you would use every means available to get them to recant. You would start with argument, and if that didn’t work move on to more and more dramatic means of torture, up to and including their death; all would be justified by the possibility of saving them from a much worse fate. The end would justify nearly any means.

    That’s the great danger in such justifications, especially given the propensity of the human mind to subconsciously rationalize it’s own self-interest. The only guarantee against such evil, albeit an imperfect one, is to allow people to determine their own self-interest. They may get it wrong, but it is better than the evils that can be done to them in their own name. The same principle applies to the superiority of democratic forms of government: they are worse than a benevolent dictatorship, but not to the degree to which they are superior to a malevolent dictatorship. This ignores, of course, the salutary effects of responsibility and self-determination on the character of individuals and societies. These themes are hardly new; they form the backbone of the West’s philosophical and literary tradition dating back hundreds of years.

    Dr. Finel is a very knowledgable and intelligent person, whose work I generally admire, so it is disappointing that he is unable to recognize the obvious, and historically commonplace, moral trap he has fallen into.

  4. The Indian story runs with the East Indian company . So a modern equivalent for Afghanistan , would not be having the campaign run by politicians , but by the management of Tesco’s ( a huge , efficient and almost-too-successful supermarket chain .) Which is rather what the Chinese are doing .

  5. Before we get too enthusiastic about Americanizing Afghanistan and Iraq, read William S. Lind’s article about 4GW in Salinas, CA.

    This basically means that whatever the feasibility or the merits of our Americanization efforts over there, meanwhile we are being Afghanizized and Iraqified over here.

    If that meant Afghan carpets and the Arabian Nights, that would be ok; but there are other ways to Iraqify a country.

  6. “This basically means that whatever the feasibility or the merits of our Americanization efforts over there, meanwhile we are being Afghanizized and Iraqified over here.”

    It shouldn’t surprise us if our imperial policy has consequences in the Homeland. Reminds me of the SDS slogan back in ’69: “Bring the war home!”

  7. “Ultimately, I don’t think we “owe” the Afghans anything due to our actions… The main lesson I learned from my support of the Iraq war in 2003 was that a string of individually insufficient arguments for war does not add up to a compelling case for war collectively.”

    I agree, but it seems to me the growing consensus nowadays is that people “understand” something is irreparably wrong with our occupation/war/mission to save Afghanistan, but that we must save it anyway. Talk about broken OODA loops. I just don’t get it. We’re somehow supposed to be impressed about Biden’s opposition and Obama’s lengthy consideration but it looks like that only shaved off 10k-14k off McChrystal’s request… which we are going to try and make up for through increased NATO commitments. We have an end date, sometime in 2017, which is conveniently beyond the possible term of the Obama presidency.

    As far as I can tell we know there’s a problem we can’t fix in a situation we don’t control and we’ve waited as long as humanly possible before settling on a response that no one is happy with and relatively few think will work.

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