Ethics and the Global War on Terror

On March 8, 2017, Jonathan Fanton introduced a panel discussion on “Ethics and the Global War on Terror: Can Conflicts with Non-State Actors Be Fought in a Just Way?” The panel was chaired by Allen S. Weiner; and the panel consisted of Gabriella Blum, Neta C. Crawford, and Jennifer Leaning.

The discussion was streamed to groups of Academy members and other distinguished participants gathered in Washington, D.C., Stanford University, and Notre Dame University, in addition to cadets and faculty at West Point, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. When the panel concluded its presentations, members in each location held their own conversations.

The meeting served as the 2017 Distinguished Morton L. Mandel Public Lecture.

Good evening. It is my pleasure to welcome you and to call to order the 2052nd Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

This is also one of our Morton L. Mandel Public Lectures, established through a donation from the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Foundation based in Cleveland, Ohio. It is part of the Morton L. Mandel Program for Civic Discourse and Membership Engagement, which aims to strengthen the bonds of community among the Academy’s 5,500 members as we stimulate discussion of important issues with the general public. We are enormously grateful to Mort for his generosity.

Tonight’s topic is particularly important and timely; it also raises complex legal, ethical, and political questions. How should military fight against terrorist groups? Should these groups be protected under the Geneva Convention like soldiers of regular armies, or should they instead be treated differently? What are the moral boundaries and constraints that should not be violated in an all-out war against terror?

It was September 20, 2001 when President George W. Bush used the term “war on terror” for the first time. Nine days earlier, the United States had been subjected to the largest and bloodiest terrorist attack ever carried out on its own soil. The term “war on terror” was meant to signify an enduring, global campaign to eradicate terrorism everywhere. But the term itself also produced significant legal and political consequences. The use of the word “war” designated the American counterterrorist strategy no longer as a law enforcement operation but as a war with the scale and consequences that any other war would carry.  Additionally, because terrorism is a global phenomenon, this meant a serious U.S. military commitment around the world to fight a threat that was borderless in nature.

This “war on terror” has differed from more conventional wars in one very specific instance: it is primarily fought against individuals and non-state organizations. This war is asymmetric in nature, and the way it has been fought thus far has had a significant impact on civilians.

Although the Obama Administration stopped using the term in 2014, the war on terror is ongoing with drones, autonomous weapons, and the deployment of specialized troops from Syria to Yemen, from Afghanistan to Iraq, and beyond.

The panel of experts we have gathered here today will present different dimensions of the war on terror and address this overarching question: can conflicts with non-state actors be fought in a just way? If so, how?

Tonight’s program draws upon two Academy projects: the first, entitled New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology and War under the leadership of Professor Scott Sagan of Stanford University, explores how the changing character of warfare and the deployment of new military technologies affects the moral and legal behavior of states in war. The second, on Civil Wars, Violence and International Responses chaired by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and Professor Steve Krasner of Stanford University, explores the lessons learned from international interventions in past civil wars and seeks to articulate a new framework for international engagement for conflict prevention.

Alongside special issues of Daedalus on these two subjects, we have hosted a wide range of briefings, talks, and workshops with international organizations including NATO, the EU, the UNHCR, and the UN Department of Political Affairs; and we continue to engage with U.S. military academies as well as government agencies.

We should look at these problems today with an historical perspective and remind ourselves that we have been here before. Dilemmas of ethics, cooperation, war, and peace have challenged soldiers, philosophers, politicians, and scholars for many centuries.

In January 1915, in the midst of the First World War, Bertrand Russell writes:

“The objects for which men have fought in the past, whether just or unjust, are no longer to be achieved by wars amongst civilized nations. It is, however, perhaps not chimerical to hope that the present war, which has shocked the conscience of mankind more than any war in previous history, may produce a revulsion against antiquated methods, and may lead the exhausted nations to insist upon the brotherhood and co-operation which their rulers have hitherto denied them. There is no reason whatever against the settlement of all disputes by a Council of Powers deliberating in public. When this great tragedy has worked itself out to its disastrous conclusion, when the passions of hate and self-assertion have given place to compassion with the universal misery, the nations will perhaps realize that they have fought in blindness and delusion, and that the way of mercy is the way of happiness for all.”

The goal of global peace and a more advanced system of global cooperation seems, today, to be elusive – but it remains imperative and we should commit to it.

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