Letter to America

By Habermas, Jurgen | The Nation, December 16, 2002 | Go to article overview

Letter to America


Habermas, Jurgen, The Nation


In an effort to provide a needed international perspective in the debate over US foreign policy, The Nation asked a number of foreign intellectuals to share their reflections. This is the fourth in that series, consisting of an interview with Jurgen Habermas, professor emeritus of philosophy at Frankfurt University and author of numerous books, including The Future of Human Nature (forthcoming in English from Polity Press). The interview was conducted in the United States, where Habermas is a visiting professor at Northwestern University, by Danny Postel, a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education and editor of the forthcoming Debating Kosovo (Cybereditions).

--The Editors

What is your position on the imminent war with Iraq?

The United States should not go to war without unequivocal backing from the United Nations.

What conditions would have to be met in order for you to support military action against Baghdad? The immediate conditions are those specified by the last resolution of the Security Council. And it should be up to the Council to interpret the findings. In any case, there should

be no military action without a long-term commitment--and a realistic perspective--for coping with the uniquely explosive concentration of problems in the Near East. Just bombing Saddam Hussein out of his palace and leaving the "cleanup" to others won't do.

Previous humanitarian interventions by NATO showed a shocking insensitivity to "collateral damage"--the term reveals what it's supposed to conceal. In the future, military strategy should convincingly meet the condition of "proportionality" in every single strike.

You supported the Persian Gulf War in 1991 ...

Yes, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was a violation of international law, and Saddam Hussein moreover threatened Israel with gas warfare.

... and NATO's Kosovo intervention in 1999.

Because of the stalemate within the Security Council, there was a greater burden of justification in this case. The massacre of Srebrenica changed my mind. Confronted with crimes against humanity, the international community must be able to act even with military force, if all other options are exhausted.

At that time, one could already see characteristic national differences in the modes of justification. In Continental Europe, proponents of intervention took pains to shore up rather weak arguments from international law by pointing out that the action was intended to promote what they saw as the transition from a soft international law toward a fully implemented human rights regime, whereas both US and British advocates remained in their tradition of liberal nationalism. They did not appeal to "principles" of a future cosmopolitan order but were satisfied to enforce their demand for international recognition of what they perceived to be the universalistic force of their own national "values."

How do you see your position on Iraq today in relation to those previous positions?

Factions within the American Administration may have wanted for obvious reasons a regime change in Iraq anyway. But the public perception of the issue did not shift until Bush responded to September 11 by a declaration of "war" against terrorism. Since a state can wage war only against other states, that quick redefinition of a generically new phenomenon in familiar but misleading terms offered a way to satisfy the popular expectation "that something had to be done." Bush's foreign policy seems hence to be dominated by domestic concerns. The intervention in Afghanistan could for a while conceal the paralyzing disproportion involved in bringing to bear against a diffuse network of slippery enemies the high-tech machinery of a superpower armed to the teeth. An irritating situation one could not cope with was displaced by the familiar pattern of warfare with enemies whom you can seize. …

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