Who may we bomb?

Do people get the governments they deserve? It's not always possible to dinstinguish between guilty governments and innocent civilians
December 20, 2001

When war breaks out, who is a legitimate target? The near universal revulsion at the attack on civilians in the World Trade Centre shows that they were not a legitimate target-even for those who oppose US power. With the shift of the conflict to Afghanistan, the question of who can be attacked has become central to the legitimacy of the campaign against terrorism. Once again, we are seeing a shrinkage in the circle of legitimate targets-something which has been a feature of western rhetoric and military policy since the end of the cold war. Indeed, the idea that in war, people and their governments should be treated separately, has become something of a western fetish. In the war against Iraq, great efforts were made to avoid civilian casualties. Similarly, the air war against Serbia targeted the Milosevic regime. The contrast with the attitude of the Serbian and Iraqi militaries towards their enemy populations, or indeed the Russians towards Chechnya, is striking.

For the west, sparing civilians in war-as required by the western-inspired Geneva Conventions-is a way of establishing itself as civilised. But this western restraint contrasts with its behaviour during the second world war and the cold war. During these total wars, less effort was made to draw distinctions between people and states. In the second world war, both sides carpet-bombed each other's cities. No clearer statement of the linkage between state and people could be made than the nuclear incinerations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The cold war was more nuanced in its rhetoric but much the same in its practice. The west made communism the enemy, rather than the Russian or Chinese people, but the missiles would have obliterated their cities just the same.

The truth is that drawing a civilian-military distinction is problematic. In all-out war, the home front (production, logistics, conscription) is as much part of the conflict as the fighting front. In Vietnam, as in all guerrilla wars, the dilemma of who to target was particularly acute. The whole point of guerrilla war-as Mao said-is to blend fighters into a supportive population. This "blending in" applies also to terrorist groups like al Qaida who hide in and draw support from civilian populations. Where the state is weak the distinction between the military and civilians can disappear. In the tribal wars of Sierra Leone and Congo, or the clan wars of Somalia and Afghanistan, who is a soldier and who a civilian? To understand wars, whether to fight them or to resolve them, it is vital to appreciate that they are conducted not just between groups of fighters, but between these groups and their support networks.

Three factors have contributed to the west's new policy of attempting to separate guilty governments from innocent people. The first, and simplest, hinges on advances in technology: the so-called revolution in military affairs. During the second world war, precision bombing was impossible, so it was not feasible to separate government from people. In order to destroy the war-making power of the enemy, one had to bomb the cities. During the cold war, especially in its early decades, the marriage of inaccurate missiles with large nuclear warheads meant that collateral damage would be huge, regardless of the official target. But since the 1970s, and increasingly so over the past decade, it has become possible to deliver warheads with great accuracy. Precision weapons now provide choices about what is targeted during a war. One effect of this has been to establish unrealistic public expectations of precision in the use of force. Any collateral damage is used by western critics and even by target regimes to cast moral doubt on military action.

The second factor is an evolution in public morality in the west which in turn has supported the development of laws of war. (This is of a piece with the west's abolition of slavery during the 19th century and its rejection of empire during the 20th century, both moves growing out of the idea that all people have the right to decent treatment.) Not only do democracies not go to war with each other, but when they make war against non-democracies, they do so in ways that project their values. There is, to be sure, a taint of hypocrisy in this new attitude to war: suffering that is less visible causes less upset to western audiences. The west is fastidious about avoiding collateral damage to civilians during televised conflicts. But it is happy to use economic sanctions that inflict suffering and death on civilians in an attempt to weaken hostile governments. Nevertheless, by combining its technology and its values, the west has injected an element of humanitarianism into the bloody business of war. Since the late 1940s, the Geneva Conventions have laid down rules for the protection of prisoners, the wounded and civilians, and imposed a range of restrictions on the conduct of war. But they have not solved the problem of how to distinguish between civilian and military actors.

Thirdly, western governments have come to believe that de-linking people and governments is in their own interests. Since the end of the cold war, the arena of world politics has become more complex. The big ideological divisions have been replaced by a mosaic of historically-rooted conflicts. In this context, separating people from their governments during war has many advantages. It moderates charges of cultural imperialism, of one civilisation (usually the west) trying to impose its values on others. It invites the overthrow of tyrants from within and thus keeps open the option of a people remaking itself and gaining quick re-entry into international society. If people can be made to do some or all of the work of removing their own governments, then the west's casualties would be reduced and the legitimacy of both the action and its outcome increased.

These three explanations for the west's separation of people and governments suggest that it is both morally desirable and instrumentally efficient. But in what circumstances should people and governments be separated? The question can be starkly posed: do people get the government they deserve? During the second world war, the western answer was broadly, "yes." This understanding legitimised mass destruction attacks, and the forced remaking of Japan and Germany under occupation regimes.

During the cold war there was much more ambivalence about the linkage of governments and people and a tendency to assume that many of the people in the eastern bloc did not get the governments they deserved. The populations of eastern Europe definitely, and that of the Soviet Union more arguably, could be seen as victims of a coup, and thus as prisoners of their own governments. It is this position that has now been extended to most post-cold war conflicts. There are some exceptions-conspicuously in US attitudes towards the Islamic revolution in Iran-but from North Korea, through Burma, Iraq, Libya, Serbia, and now to Afghanistan, the west's policy separates bad governments from their people and constructs its military strategy accordingly. How valid is it to do so?

In well-rooted democracies, with traditions of individual rights, a broad franchise and regular elections, people clearly do deserve their governments, whether they bother to vote or not. This covers countries from India to Israel, from Norway to New Zealand, from Canada to Costa Rica, and from the US to Britain. Where a people deserves its government the demos shares some responsibility for that government's foreign policy. (An extreme version of this link between people and government can be found in the Israel/Palestine conflict. Arab radicals see no civilian sector in Israel. The Israelis have democracy, a large proportion of the Israeli adult population is in the military reserve and it is common for them to carry guns. Israeli militants return the compliment by thinking of the Palestinians in much the same terms, as a people united in the pursuit of terrorism. War is cast as an affair between people.)

Also easy to determine are the cases at the other end of the spectrum, where people clearly do not deserve the governments they get. This is most obvious when countries have their governments imposed by an outside power. In the present international system, this condition is rare, although it might be claimed by Tibetans, Kurds, Kashmiris and other minorities who find themselves prisoners within states not of their own making. Most recently, it was exemplified by eastern Europe under Soviet occupation. In colonial times it was the condition for perhaps the majority of humankind. It is true that occupiers are usually assisted by parts of the local population, as the British were in India and the Nazis were in Europe. But as a rule, people under occupation are not responsible for their governments.

If democracies define one end of the spectrum and occupation regimes the other, the middle is taken up by authoritarian governments of various sorts, which can be differentiated according to their degree of mass support. Just behind democracies come countries where mass revolutionary or nationalist regimes command wide support or acquiescence. These would include communist China, Vietnam, Cuba, Islamic Iran, Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. People in countries where the government has come to power through popular revolutions do deserve the governments they get and it seems fair to make a distinction between states of this type and those in which the people play little or no role in bringing a government to power.

In the middle of the spectrum are countries with authoritarian regimes that command mass acquiesence rather than support. The commonest form of this is found in countries where military rule gains acceptance as a means of restoring stability. One thinks of cases such as Pakistan or earlier, Nigeria, Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Acquiescence, of course, can be coerced, making the price of individual resistance high and allowing a minority who do support the government to rule over the rest. Such coercion is usually visible, allowing distinctions to be drawn between passive acceptance and terrorised obedience.

At the clearly undeserving end of the spectrum one finds blatant tyrannies in Iraq, Syria, Uganda under Amin, Haiti under the Duvaliers, Zaire under Mobutu and Burma under the generals. The existence of repression may well be evident in its own right. It may also be shown when substantial sections of the population put up active resistance but fail to unseat the regime or secede from the state. Burma and Sudan are the obvious contemporary examples of such failures, as in some ways is Iraq.

There are cases where it is impossible to make a judgement. How can one tell whether the North Korean regime has mass support/acquiescence, or is just very efficient at repression and indoctrination? What does one do with split countries, where the government is supported by one section of the population and opposed by another, as in Israel, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Turkey and up to 1994, South Africa? It would be difficult to argue that the Kurds in Turkey, the Palestinians in Israel or the southerners in Sudan get the governments they deserve.

Even more difficult questions arise if one tries to push the logic connecting governments and people beyond the immediate issue of day-to-day support, acquiescence, or repression. Is it useful to ask questions about the more general relationship between types of society and their governments? It is an empirical observation, for example, that democracy is largely absent from Arab societies, and authoritarianism (whether monarchical or military) is the norm. Does this make it legitimate to assume that Arab culture is responsible for generating such governments and that therefore the people (who reproduce and reaffirm that culture) are also in some direct sense responsible? If yes, then similar sorts of questions have to be put to other cultures.

One could look in a similar way at countries with strong structures of tribe and clan, such as Afghanistan, Congo, Libya, Somalia, Iraq, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. In such places, the choice seems to be between dictatorship and political disintegration. This question is pertinent to the attempt to think about Afghanistan as a target, following 11th September. How much support did the Taleban have amongst the population? They must have had some in order to take over most of the country as swiftly as they did, though they never eliminated armed opposition from the non-Pashtun areas. How much of that support represented real enthusiasm, and how much a simple desire to have any government in place of civil war? Democracy at the level of the state is almost impossible in places where the population is of multiple ethnicities/cultures and where there are no strong shared social structures. If the state is not held together coercively, it falls apart. It is not clear, for example, that Libya or Iraq or Afghanistan would end up with a different type of leadership than the ones they now have, if Gadaffi and Saddam Hussein and the Taleban were removed. If it can be claimed that the social structures of a people lead with some certainty to dictatorship or anarchy, are the people who reproduce the cultures collectively responsible?

Culturalist approaches of this sort contain the danger of validating xenophobic views, and of promoting "clash of civilisation" thinking. There is also the problem that any resort to such cultural generalisations has to be preceded by yet another question: what is the historical connection between people and the state they inhabit? In cases where the people have played a role in creating the state over time, the answer is clear. Swedes, Haitans, Egyptians, Iranians, Chinese, Japanese, Americans, French and many other people would accept a close identity between themselves and the states they inhabit. But there are many cases where this link is weak or nonexistent, most obviously in postcolonial countries. States such as Congo, Iraq, Jordan, Nigeria and Syria have shallow traditions and artificial borders. Some postcolonial states have taken root and acquired legitimacy, especially those that corresponded in some degree to precolonial history, such as India and Vietnam. Many have not. The people who live in Sudan, Angola, Indonesia, Chad or Guyana cannot be held responsible for the states they occupy. Where the state itself has failed to take root amongst its people, this often determines the type of government they get.

In sum, the question of whether people get the governments they deserve can often be answered quite simply on the basis of day-to-day observations about the relationship between the demos and the government. This type of observation cannot always give a reliable answer, but is more useful than seeking sweeping generalisations about culture.

This brings us back to the question of whether the current western habit of almost automatically separating people from their leaders makes for better or worse war policy. There can be no doubt that it constrains the sort of military pressure that can be brought to bear. It forces the west into the curious posture, first seen in the war against Iraq, of worrying almost as much about enemy casualties as about its own; and risks undermining support for action when-as is inevitable-civilians are killed by mistake. There is a self-justifying humanitarian argument for keeping casualties to a minimum, as well as the legal constraint of the Geneva Conventions. There is also the instrumental case that such an approach reduces the costs of conflict and makes political rehabilitation easier. So, where people do not deserve the government they get, separating the two as far as possible must be an imperative in war policy.

What of cases where people do deserve their governments? Here the questions are trickier. The problem is that if people really do deserve their government, and yet only the government is targeted, the country as a whole remains politically unreconstructed and thus a continuing danger. The crushing defeat of both states and people in Germany and Japan in the second world war was instrumental in converting those countries into liberal democracies able to fit comfortably into the international community of the west. The remaking of the two countries is rightly regarded as a huge success and played a big role in the victory of the west in the cold war.

To take a more contemporary case, what should the western response have been during the air war against Serbia if civilians had stood on the Danube bridges to prevent them from being bombed? If they were there as a result of coercion, then the bridges should not have been bombed. But if they were there as a demonstration of support for the Milosevic government then they made themselves legitimate targets. To de-link people from their governments, when they are in fact closely linked, is to undermine the political point of resorting to war in the first place. War is sometimes about changing the mind of a people about the sort of government they want.

And finally what of Afghanistan? It is not an arbitrary postcolonial construct, but neither is it a coherent self-made historical state. There are those who oppose the Taleban and those who actively support it, but the bulk of people fall in the middle of the spectrum-acquiescence-some of which is the result of effective coercion. The picture is thus messy. If the Taleban is attacked because it is a danger to international society then its supporters, and even in some circumstances those who acquiesce, are legitimate targets. Only by dismantling its concentric circles of support and acquiescence can the Taleban be overthrown and space created for something better. However, strategy towards Afghanistan must also acknowledge that there has been a great deal of foreign intervention in its domestic politics, which has played a role in determining the government the Afghans have. This means the current intervention has an obligation to be selective in the use of violence, and to stay engaged in the process of building a new country: one acceptable to international society and the people of Afghanistan themselves.