As sabers rattle in preparation for an escalation of the conflict in Syria -- putatively with ISIS, but really it's just an enormous open-fire scrum there now -- it's worth revisiting the debate in the run-up to the Iraq war. Check out this episode of Charlie Rose, vis Vox, in which Michael Walzer and Christopher Hitchens, among others, debate the prospect of war.
I've always been sympathetic to Walzer's approach to the morality of war -- not wholly pacifist, in favor of humanitarian interventions under some circumstances, but also demanding a high bar for the moral justification of armed conflict. Here he is a cogent voice of reason in response to Christopher Hitchens, who for his part offers nothing but smarm and condescension.
As the Vox piece notes, it's remarkable how much Walzer and David Rieff got right in their analysis:
Walzer and David Rieff, by contrast, aren't really representative of the debate as it occurred then, mostly because thoughtful, nuanced criticism of the case for war wasn't given a lot of voice in most media outlets. Walzer rightly notes that the war would require a huge occupying force and cost a fortune, at a time when conservative pundits were predicting the war would be a "cakewalk" and administration officials were saying it would be so cheap it could be paid for with Iraq's own oil revenue. Rieff predicts the "fragmentation of Iraq, a war between Shia and Sunni" with eerie prescience.
Observe, by contrast, just how much arrogance, and how little substance, there was to the pro-war side in 2002. It's much the same now. The issue is not that ISIS is not horrible and should not be stopped, the issue is whether the strategy currently being contemplated will stop them. And what the pro-war side has consistently failed to do, from 2002 till now, is explain in a convincing way just how their policies would actually lead to a positive outcome to the conflict, and for the region. The fact that Hitchens is incapable of responding to Walzer's objections with anything better than a confident "well, I don't think that will happen" or "I think that's trite" demonstrate the vacuity of his position. All he really knew was that he wanted a war, and therefore any objection was merely an obstacle in his way. He was more than happy to unleash his formidable rhetorical power in order to bypass those objections. It's the quintessence of sophistry, and Hitchens was a master of it.
We refused to listen to cautious and thoughtful voices then. Perhaps, just as a change of pace, we should listen to them now.