Merchants of War

It appears that the participation of the United States and Europe in a number of the recent conflicts was “sold” to their populations partly by claiming that the prospective opponent is a dictatorship and therefore war against the dictator is necessary and just.  This certainly was the case in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Ukraine.  It seems that the same method has been a successful way to convince the citizens of a democracy to go to war since the Spartan “300”.

Peaceful citizens

Last week, Pope Francis said that the world is already in the midst of a World War III.  He was referring to the number and ferocity of the conflicts in the world now: Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, Ukraine, Pakistan, Gaza, etc.  The Pontiff has spoken repeatedly in the last several months beseeching the participants to seek other ways to resolve conflicts. Ironicaly, this week, the President of the United States announced a plan to broaden the war against the Islamic State in Iraq (ISIL) and pledged money and “non-lethal” military aid to Ukraine, whose military forces include ultra-nationalist battalions carrying symbols very much resembling the Nazi Wolfsangel.  In another ironic development, the United States Congress voted to arm and train “moderate” Syrian rebels to “fight ISIL”.  Apparently, they forgot the recent lesson of Libya and a little more dated lesson taught by the formerly freedom-loving Afghani mujahideen (later more widely known as Al-Queda).  Incidentally, claiming that the moderate Syrian rebels will fight ISIL allowed the United States government to overcome the popular resistance to arming these same rebels to fight Bashar Al-Assad.   It is clear that the Syrian rebels at the first opportunity will turn those arms against Bashar Al-Assad’s troops, who already demonstrated their willingness to escalate the killing in response.

Let’s consider some of the conflicts:

  • When the Syrian rebellion started, the story in the media portrayed the rebels as fighters for democracy, and it’s possible that some were. Later the true affiliations of some of the rebels became better known.  However, there seems to be little question that their common opponent, Bashar Al-Assad, is a hereditary dictator and very much an autocrat.
  • In Libya, the European Union, backed up by the United States, all stable democracies, supplied air support against Muammar Qaddafi, a long-term dictator, an autocrat.  The rebel ground troops, composed of factions of freedom fighters, and Al-Queda and ISIL affiliates, were another matter.
  • The Afghanistan conflict is a continuation of a war which was fought between NATO, for the most part a military alliance of Western democracies against Taliban, an oppressive dictatorship.
  • Most in the West are convinced that the Ukrainians are fighting for democracy against an incursion by the Russians ruled by a dictator. At least that is how the media propaganda campaign goes.

Among these and other conflicts none appear to be or are represented as conflicts between democracies, or at least, they aren’t represented that way in the media.  Arguments can be made that the Gaza conflict is between an elected Israeli government and an elected Hamas government. However it must be noted the Israeli government suppresses Palestinians and therefore does not look democratic to them while Hamas tries to kill Israelis and therefore isn’t perceived as being democratic by them.  Similarly, both Western Ukrainian and Eastern Ukrainians who are actually at war both held elections and referendums and try to look as democratic as possible.  Russia, too, just held gubernatorial and local government elections, although it was not widely reported in the world media.  Also, Russia is so dominated by a single party that it isn’t clear how real these elections are.


That democracies don’t fight each other very often is well-known empirical observation, first expressed by Immanuel Kant in 1795, resurrected in 1964 and much researched and written about since then.  The political science theory that grew out of that observation is called the Democratic Peace Theory.  The political scientists have accumulated databases of wars and applied sophisticated statistical analysis to show that indeed, democracies don’t fight each other and that the greater the difference between the democracy rating of the countries the greater the potential for war.  Some of the better known books on the subject are Spencer Weart’s “Never at War”  and Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man”.

Statistical analysis on war databases was extended to show that not only did democracies fight each other much less frequently, but autocracies also fight each other less than they fight democracies.  When democracies did fight each other, some political scientists claimed it was during periods when the democracies were transitioning into or out of democracy and therefore may not have looked like democracies to each other.

There certain well-known and cited exceptions or unclear cases, some say numbering about 50.  Some of the most widely cited are:

  • Peloponnesian Wars between Sparta and Athens with occasional involvement of other city-states. Both Sparta and Athens were at times democracies, oligarchies and dictatorships throughout the war.
  • The American Civil War.  Both governments were elected, but the South certainly didn’t look very democratic to the slaves and Abraham Lincoln was widely accused of being a contemporary Caesar.
  • World War I with Germany, France and England all having elected parliaments. However, it is thought that in Germany the Kaiser was a relatively strong monarch, especially in foreign affairs and among the combatants Russia and Turkey were autocracies.
  • The Russo-Georgian war of 2008, when both Georgia and Russia had elected governments, although the media and some in the US government claimed that Russia was an emerging dictatorship.

Peaceful citizens 2

There are alternative theories.  Some claim that wars are economic in nature and since democracies are generally more prosperous, they are less likely to fight.  Another theory is that states act to increase their power and go to war when they consider that they may improve their position.  The many exceptions to the DPT certainly give ammunition to the alternative viewpoints.

Implicitly, the Democratic Peace Theory (DPT) has been a part of the United States foreign policy for much of the twentieth century.  By the late 90s DPT became so widely accepted that it was featured as one of the central theories of “Project for the New American Century”, an influential American think tank which included many of the high-ranking members of the George W. Bush administration.  Its members included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Bolton, “Scooter” Libby, Paul Wolfowitz and many others.  One of its chief theorists was Francis Fukuyama, a political scientist and an author of one of the better known books on the subject.  Paraphrased, the think-tank’s theory was that since the United States is a democracy and democracies don’t go to war with each other, if there were no dictatorships the United States would be safe from aggression.  Also since the fall of the Soviet Union the United States is the world’s only superpower and thus is free from opposition and proxy participation by another power on the side of the dictators.  The test case was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which was threatening the United States energy supply by sitting on a lot of oil, took over Kuwaiti oil, and was threatening Saudi oil.   While the Soviet Union was still a power, it supported Saddam.  With the demise of the Soviet Union, the dictator was vulnerable.  It appears that all the United States had to do was take out the dictator and his Baathist supporters, the suppressed democratic opposition would rise to establish a democratic government and the world, including the United States, would be the beneficiaries of expanded Iraq oil production and safe supplies from the Gulf.  The talking points to justify the Iraq war were:

  • Saddam is a ruthless dictator who has killed his own citizens by the thousands. Iraqis deserve to be free and democratic.  Therefore the war against Saddam’s Iraq is a just and righteous war.
  • The infamous WMD argument: Nuclear, biological and chemical warheads in the hands of a ruthless dictator (see above) surely threaten the world.
  • Saddam cooperated with Al-Queda which just recently attacked the U.S. on its own soil on 9/11.

Compare the rhetoric used to justify the war with Iraq to some of the more recent wars:

  • Muammar Qaddafi is a ruthless dictator who terrorized his own people and therefore supporting Qaddafi’s enemies with airstrikes is just and righteous.
  • Bashar Al-Assad is a ruthless dictator who gasses his own people and therefore supplying rebels who fight against him with non-lethal and lethal assistance is just and righteous.
  • Vladimir Putin is a ruthless dictator who has ordered executions of journalists and persecution of political opposition, including a few oligarchs and has propped up ruthless dictators like Bashar Al-Assad. Therefore, it is just and righteous to contain Russia by surrounding it with governments hostile to Russia and possibly initiate regime change via sanctions.

European participation in the recent conflicts in Lybia, Syria, Ukraine and Iraq seems to indicate that the European governments also began subscribing to the DPT and began applying its principles in practice.

History, political science and the current events demonstrate that the difference in the types of governments is a propaganda tool which is often used to “sell” war to the populations of the democracies.  The recent escalation of a number of conflicts around the world as noted by Pope Francis may be at least partly due to applications of the Democratic Peace Theory in practice.


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