The Argument: Defense is Offensive

We know the adage: the best defense is a good offense. Generally speaking, that was the argument for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. That is the doctrine of preemptive attack. That is what Israel did in 1967.

That is not the argument I mean to address.

Perhaps coincidentally – or maybe not, after consideration I am not going to give the topic now – the argument I mean to address is one that is often employed by people who reject that first argument. This argument states, seemingly conversely, that to act defensively, in an aggressive, military manner, is offensive to those who may identify with one’s perceived enemy, and will thus make one new enemies. This is an argument frequently made by those who oppose continued U.S. military action in Afghanistan or clandestine, military-style attacks on Islamic terrorists, rather than non-military, but law enforcement actions. It is also an argument that was, and is, made against the Iraq War, most recently the other day, by Eliza Manningham-Buller, former director-general of Britain’s MI5 (H/T Normblog). She told the ongoing Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War:

Our involvement in Iraq radicalised, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people – not a whole generation, a few among a generation– who saw our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as being an attack upon Islam. [That is quite an immediate scaled back claim. AJA]

There the argument is in a nutshell. Now I’ll reduce it to the nut:

If we fight back, then they’ll really fuck us up.

Of course, that is a simplification devoid of all context. Depending on context, there may be many reasons to be measured in response to an attack, even to withhold any kind of like response. Note that neither South Korea, the U.S. nor anyone else (and note, while we’re noting, that the “anyone else” is completely pro forma) has taken military action against North Korea for its apparent sinking of a South Korean naval vessel. While it is usually conservatives, particularly when there is a Democratic President, who argue that every punch in the face requires a mallet over the head in response, even the military, in its counter insurgency (COIN) doctrine, acknowledges that all wars cannot be won simply by overpowering the enemy militarily. But that is a different argument.

This argument is that we – whoever “we” are, but really the West – in combating our enemies, should beware of aggressively counter attacking, because then we’ll really piss them off. This is, when you think about it, a truly peculiar argument. Of course, we’ll piss them off. (Whoever “we” and “they” are.) That’s what happens in conflict. You punch me in the face, and it really pisses me off. So I punch you back, and, by God, you don’t say, “Oh, sorry. I stand corrected.” No, it really pisses you off – and then we really have at it, until any number of possible outcomes, including – it does happen – somebody winning and somebody losing.

No doubt, during the latter stages of the Pacific War during World War Two, more than a few young Japanese males, barely men, hearing of the deaths in combat of their elder brothers or fathers were angrily and spiritually moved to volunteer to serve as Kamikaze pilots. Many young American men, in similar circumstances – just after Pearl Harbor, for instance – felt their blood boil and marched off to enlist at seventeen. In war, until the moment of final defeat and surrender (and even sometimes after, among bands of recalcitrant guerillas) the attack of one’s foe, by the very nature of the antagonisms of warfare, acts not quickly to end all conflict, but to engender more conflict. That is the way it goes. It is in the very nature of the argument that such as Manningham-Buller make, about Iraq or about Afghanistan, or about clandestine actions in Yemen or Somalia, that they are acknowledging that those conflicts are not discrete and separable Wars (certainly Iraq wasn’t after the invasion), but battles in what is a, structurally, potentially larger conflict – unless their claim is true (I think not) that by withholding aggressive response we can defuse the aggression against us.

To be clear, my point here is not necessarily that the U.S. or other Western nations or forces should wage war in any particular locale against violent Islamic extremists. Those are judgments that need to be made both in strategic and specific contexts. My point is that it is an obvious truth that joining a conflict against a violent enemy will engender, for an unknown period of time, not less, but more violence against the defending party, and so is, in and by itself, no argument either for or against that course of action.

The currency of the “defense is offensive” argument has, I think, several causes. First, it is, when stripped of context, essentially – there is no way to avoid this truth – an argument from fear and cowardice. It is an argument that says, If we don’t provoke them, maybe they’ll leave us alone. If we keep quiet and don’t acknowledge who we are, maybe they won’t notice us, and we’ll be safe. Maybe there is some way to mollify them. But if we oppose them, we’ll make them angry, and they’ll seek to hurt us more.

This is the mental attitude of people who no longer believe sufficiently in who they are, in their culture and civilization, and in their values, to feel sufficiently aggrieved by those who seek to negate them. It is the argument of those who have come to prize their apparent safety and comfort, which are part of the bourgeois ideal, beyond any resultant capacity to recognize with brute honesty the threat against those very features of their lives. This is a weakness, and it is precisely a weakness that the most extreme elements who oppose the West believe they see in it.

Beyond weakness, or maybe, truly as an expression of that weakness, it is demonstrably so that segments of the West do not perceive the West as even properly the aggrieved party. I speak now not in any relative sense – the subjective sense in which any parties to a conflict we’ll perceive their own position and interests. This is, in reality, the position from which these Western interests argue, that all conflict is always a matter of misunderstanding among people whose interests, misperceived as separate and irreconcilable, can, in fact, be reconciled. Of course, I am speaking of segments of the Left, which have indeed given up any belief in the unique value of their culture. Since I am picking today on the British, here is Madeline Bunting of The Guardian only a month after 9/11, arguing against the overthrow of the Taliban.

Intolerant liberalism

The west’s arrogant assumption of its superiority is as dangerous as any other form of fundamentalism

…what is also lurking here is the outline of a form of western fundamentalism. It believes in historical progress and regards the west as its most advanced manifestation. And it insists that the only way for other countries to match its achievement is to adopt its political, economic and cultural values. It is tolerant towards other cultures only to the extent that they reflect its own values – so it is frequently fiercely intolerant of religious belief and has no qualms about expressing its contempt and prejudice. At its worst, western fundamentalism echoes the characteristics it finds so repulsive in its enemy, Bin Laden: first, a sense of unquestioned superiority; second, an assertion of the universal applicability of its values; and third, a lack of will to understand what is profoundly different from itself.

While, argued in proper context, there may be elements of truth in what Bunting says (I have already suggested there are elements of truth in what Islamic extremists believe of the West), the major claim of Bunting is not elements of truth, but a sweeping rejection of Western culture, of, indeed – a theme she continued to develop – the Enlightenment. In such rejection we obviously move beyond simply an enervated will to affirm and defend the value of one’s own society. Such as Bunting commonly make the “defense as offensive argument” too, and there is, then, a form of unacknowledged yet embedded counter-argument just beneath the cover argument: Bunting does not actually accept the premise that the culture is worth defending. She even believes that it is Western culture that has committed the originating offense.  “Defense is offensive” is then not a critical analysis of outcomes, but an indictment: beyond sheer arrogant and dominating force of arms, Bunting argues against any moral force in the “defense” that can bolster its prospects.

Finally, there is frequently a level of disingenuousness when the “defense is offensive” argument is employed. It is disingenuousness similar to that of arguing against torture – when one believes it morally objectionable – on the basis of its efficacy. I made the case against this approach in Tortured Argument. It is demonstrably not always so that torture does not work – the Nazis, for instance, did break members of the French Resistance during the Second World War – and the immorality of torture, if that is one’s position, should require no support from an argument to efficacy. If torture is immoral, it is immoral even if it works.

While the nature of the disingenuousness with regard to “defense is offensive” is not an exact parallel – one might be opposed to the defense on other grounds and still argue persuasively that the defense is counterproductive – the unacknowledged, embedded argument should produce a healthy skepticism. When we recognize that a debater has not fully acknowledged the grounds for the claim he argues, we have good reason, then, to examine more closely the premises of the argument being made.

That aggressive defense may – even likely will – engender more offensive action in return is an obvious claim. It should be a premise from which to reason toward other more useful and possibly determinative conclusions. It should not be conclusive in itself.



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2 thoughts on “The Argument: Defense is Offensive

  1. Hmm. When you say it, the argument seems a little weaker than I perceive it to be.

    The West has a stake in increasing moderation. The Jihadists have a stake in increasing extremism. Violence increases extremism.

    We have a stake in peace. The Jihadists have a stake in war. Violence perpetuates war.

    So, escalating violence cedes the strategic initiative to the Jihadists.

    You are correct that that is not the final word. It doesn’t conclusively rule out all violence initiated by us. But it does mean there is a stragetic cost.

    My sense of things is that Jihadism is now waning not because of what we did in the Iraq war or in Afghanistan but because the violence initiated by Jihadists is marginalizing them within Islam. Their violence is weakening them. Our violence risks weakening us.

    1. Copithorne, you write,

      My sense of things is that Jihadism is now waning not because of what we did in the Iraq war or in Afghanistan but because the violence initiated by Jihadists is marginalizing them within Islam. Their violence is weakening them. Our violence risks weakening us.

      I think there is much to that argument. According to many polls, sympathy for Al-Qaeda in the Muslim world has declined significantly. That is one reason (among so many) that the most aggressive advocates on the Right, who would always escalate conflict, are now as always dangerous. I think, though, that the evidence is also irrefutable that the already engaged extremist elements were and are, and would have been more so, committed to destructive attacks – highly destructive attacks, if they can make them so – against the West, a commitment requiring aggressive defensive, i.e. now offensive, response.

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