The use of force in international relations is a common practice in the world today, as it has historically been, with the responsible party never failing to claim some noble cause or worthy justification for its actions. Such declarations of benevolence aside, the reasons publicly stated as pretext for wars are almost never true.
One is often left to deduce, therefore, the true reasons policy-makers in government make the decision to send a country’s military into armed combat, not by their statements intended for public audience, but by their actions and their statements not intended to be so widely received.
The United States provides a useful case study. Take the Mexican-American war in 1845. In seeking a Congressional declaration for that conflict, President James Polk said, “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon the American soil”.
The war was thus, as he presented it, an act of self-defense. In truth, he had deliberately provoked the attack he referred to by sending the army to the Rio Grande into what Mexico regarded as its territory, inhabited by Mexicans. The thin veil of a pretext aside, the true reason for the war could better be summed up by journalist John O’Sullivan’s remark that it was the “manifest destiny” of the U.S. “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
Or take the “splendid little war”, as Secretary of State John Hay called the Spanish-American war. When the USS Maine mysteriously exploded in Havana Harbor, Cuba, the event was used as a pretext for imperial expansion by accusing Spain of having blown up the ship. The press joined in with calls of “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!” The public bought into the deception and the government got their war for imperial expansion, taking over Cuba, Puerto Rico, Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippines.
Generations later, during the Kennedy administration, the Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed arranging “A ‘Remember the Maine’ incident”, suggesting, “We could blow up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and Blame Cuba.” This was just one in a whole series of proposed false pretexts for war against Cuba to remove Fidel Castro from power by force, collectively called “Operation Northwoods”.
In a memo to the Secretary of Defense, the Join Chiefs also proposed “to create an incident which will make it appear that Communist Cuban MIGs have destroyed a USAF aircraft over international waters in an unprovoked attack”, or “to create an incident which will demonstrate convincingly that a Cuban aircraft has attacked and shot down a chartered civil airliner”.
Killing innocent people was fair game: “We could sink a boatload of Cubans enroute to Florida (real or simulated).” Another proposal called for false-flag terror operations: “We could develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington”.
One specific act of terrorism proposed was to explode the rocket that was to lift John Glenn into orbit on February 20, 1962, “the objective” of which would be “to provide irrevocable proof that … the fault lies with the Communists et al Cuba”, which could be accomplished “by manufacturing various pieces of evidence which would prove electronic interference on the part of the Cubans.”
Going back to World War II, the Roosevelt administration was anxious to join Britain in the war against Germany and its Axis allies. The problem was that the American people were very much against joining the conflict. Lieutenant Commander Arthur McCollum of the Office of Naval Intelligence thus noted in a memo the problem, “It is not believed that in the present state of political opinion the United States government is capable of declaring war against Japan”.
So he offered a solution, suggesting the implementation of eight courses of action, including the oil embargo, in order to provoke Japan into making the first strike. “If by these means, Japan could be led to commit an overt act of war,” McCollum wrote, “so much the better.”
It was a widely accepted view. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes wrote a memo to Roosevelt which stated, “There might develop from the embargoing of oil to Japan such a situation as would make it not only possible but easy to get into this war in an effective way. And if we should thus indirectly be brought in, we would avoid the criticism that we had gone in as an ally of communistic Russia.”
Admiral Richmond Turner similarly suggested that “shutting off the American supply of petroleum” would force Japan to take “military action” that would “immediately involve us in a Pacific war”, the desired outcome.
Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, wrote in a journal entry from November of 1941, “The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without too much danger to ourselves. In spite of the risk involved, however, in letting the Japanese fire the first shot, we realized that in order to have the full support of the American people it was desirable to make sure that the Japanese be the ones to do this so that there should remain no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who were the aggressors.”
The desired outcome came on December 7, 1941 when Japan attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The government, of course, despite expecting and desiring the attack, characterized it as a complete and unprovoked surprise.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 have been widely compared to Pearl Harbor, a characterization that is at least in some regards correct. Prominent neo-cons in the Bush administration had long sought the “transformation” of the U.S. military into a force capable of expanding U.S. global hegemony, particularly over the energy-rich Middle East. The problem once again was that with the end of the Cold War, the American people didn’t think it was necessary or desirable for such a “transformation” to occur. Thus, the “process of transformation is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event — like a new Pearl Harbor.”
That was one of the conclusions of a document called “Rebuilding America’s Defenses”, a blueprint for U.S. global hegemony put out by the Project for a New American Century, a prominent neo-con think tank.
Their assessment was echoed elsewhere. For instance, Director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments Andrew Krepinevich, in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities on March 5, 1999, noted that “There appears to be general agreement concerning the need to transform the U.S. military into a significantly different kind of force from that which emerged victorious from the Cold and Gulf Wars”. The problem was that “this verbal support has not been translated into a defense program supporting transformation” because Americans were opposed to such a costly expansion of the military. “While there is growing support in Congress for transformation,” he added, “the ‘critical mass’ needed to affect it has not yet been achieved.”
But there was a solution. The American public could be shocked into believing that this “transformation” was necessary and this could provide the catalyst to make it happen. Thus Krepinevich noted that “in the absence of a strong external shock to the United States—a latter-day ‘Pearl Harbor’ of sorts—surmounting the barriers to transformation will likely prove a long, arduous process.”
After 9/11, the attacks were described as an “opportunity” by prominent neo-cons. Robert Kagan, for instance, wrote in the Washington Post, “Just as the Korean War, Pearl Harbor and the sinking of the Lusitania taught us that we can’t immunize ourselves against the world’s problems, Sept. 11 must spur us to launch a new era of American internationalism. Let’s not squander this opportunity.”
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice similarly stated, “No less than Pearl Harbor, September 11 forever changed the lives of every American and the strategic perspective of the United States”, adding that “an earthquake of the magnitude of 9/11 can shift the tectonic plates of international politics” and suggesting the attacks brought the U.S. into a “period not just of grave danger, but of enormous opportunity.”
The attacks were then used as pretext not only for war in Afghanistan, but also against Iraq. Yet plans to overthrow the Taliban regime had existed prior to the 9/11 attacks. Although the U.S. publicly stated that their objective was to capture Osama bin Laden, whom they said was the mastermind of the attacks, it refused to negotiate with the Taliban to see him turned over, which the Taliban leadership said they would be willing to do if the U.S. provided the evidence they claimed they had of his responsibility for the attacks.
The U.S. government also promised to release the evidence to the American public, but never did. Osama bin Laden remains on the FBI list of wanted terrorists — but the 9/11 attacks are not listed among those for which he is wanted. After the Taliban had been overthrown, General Richard Myers acknowledged that “The goal has never been to get bin Laden”. General Tommy Franks similarly denied that capturing or killing bin Laden was one of the objectives of the war. And earlier this year, press secretary Dana Perino denied to reporters that bin Laden was the mastermind of the attacks.
Then came Iraq, a particularly useful example of a war waged under false pretenses. The simple fact of the matter is that there was no evidence whatsoever to support the lying claims of the Bush administration that Iraq still possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to al Qaeda. Some in the administration even tried to connect Iraq to the 9/11 attacks. The campaign of deception was highly effective. Polls showed that as much as 70% of Americans actually believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. The Bush administration got its war.
Once again, through lies and deception, leaders in government were able to push through their own agendas by convincing the gullible masses that the actions they propose are somehow necessary or — ludicrously — in the best interests of the American people.
There are two cases in which the resort to force is recognized as legitimate and lawful under international law. The first is in cases of self-defense against armed aggression. The second is in cases where the United Nations Security Council has authorized the use of force, such as to end a violent humanitarian catastrophe or to repel an aggressor nation.
All other resort to violence in international relations is “aggression”, defined at Nuremberg as “the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
It’s obligatory for leaders of nations to spout rhetoric about the benevolence of their actions and provide endless justifications for war. Such declarations are meaningless. In the end the reasons given are almost always false and the resort to violence nothing less than the supreme international crime.
When the public learns to become skeptical of the reasons given for war and to demand real facts and evidence to support the declarations of their leaders, and to demand adherence to the rule of law, then history may begin to change and war as a means of executing foreign policy might become a less common practice — at least among freedom loving democratic nations where the people are ultimately responsible for the actions of their governments.