"Must the decision to use force always be made multilaterally?" Michael Walzer -- the renowned liberal philosopher, ethicist and just-war theorist -- posed this question not so long ago in an article in the New Republic. And his answer was, unequivocally, no. Noting that "the argument against unilateralism" was the "favorite argument of Americans who opposed an attack on Iraq," Walzer argued that the opponents were wrong. "Some unilateral uses of force can be justified," he insisted. "Some might even be morally necessary."
Iraq was such a case. "When a state like Iraq is known to possess weapons of mass destruction, and is known to have used them in the past, the refusal of a U.N. majority to act forcefully isn't a good reason for ruling out the use of force by any member state that can use it effectively." In fact, Walzer concluded, "if we are not ready, sometimes, to act unilaterally, we are not ready for real life in international society."
Walzer's short essay was full of wisdom and clear thinking, but before I go any further, I need to reveal two facts: First, Walzer's article was published in April 1998, a couple of months after the Clinton administration nearly went to war over Saddam Hussein's refusal to allow U.N. weapons inspectors access to certain suspicious sites; and second, Walzer apparently no longer holds this view. But more on that in a moment. Let's get back to wisdom and clarity.
Walzer's simple but profound point in 1998 was that the anarchic nature of the international system makes some unilateral action unavoidable. He attacked the Wilsonian fallacy that international society operates according to the same principles as domestic society. In domestic society, "the democratic state possesses a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and a near-monopoly on the actual use of force." Individuals have no need to act unilaterally to defend themselves because the state defends them. Therefore, they have no justification for acting unilaterally. They can submit to the democratic process and the rule of law without fear that something "absolutely awful" will happen to them.
But the international system is different. Because no international authority holds a monopoly of power, Walzer argued, nations cannot entrust their fate to international institutions or to international law. No nation can allow questions affecting its vital interests to be decided by a majority vote in the U.N. Security Council, because the U.N. Security Council cannot protect that nation in the event the majority makes a mistake and something "absolutely awful" happens. According to Walzer, American unilateral action was justified in some cases because "absolutely awful things happen all the time in international society, and anyone who can stop them or prevent them surely has a right, perhaps a duty, to do so."
Walzer had disdain for those who denied this "obvious" argument. Their denial stemmed "in part from a wish that international society be more like domestic society, and then from the wishful belief that it is actually becoming more like domestic society -- and won't unilateral action interfere with this happy process?" Nor did Walzer believe the United States could rely on arms control regimes. "One might well hope for an international regime banning or regulating" weapons of mass destruction, he argued. And it made sense to work for one. But until such efforts produced "a reliable result," which manifestly they had not, then "unilateral action" was still "a legitimate recourse."
Walzer thus made the case for "preventive" war in certain situations -- situations such as Iraq. True, preventive wars had "generally been ruled out" under international law. Before the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, nations had other ways to meet evolving threats short of preventive war. But "the argument looks different" in an era of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, "which are developed in secret, and which might be used suddenly, without warning, with catastrophic results." In such a world a nation such as the United States could act preventively and unilaterally to stop such weapons from being used or even developed, and be morally justified in doing so. This was an unpleasant prospect, perhaps, but as Walzer put it, such is "real life in international society."
Anyway, that's what Walzer thought in 1998. Today Walzer opposes war against Iraq as "neither just nor necessary." He argues (again in the New Republic) that the United States has no compelling case either for unilateral action or for preventive war. The United States does not face a "real threat" from Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Israel and Iraq's other neighbors do, but they "have not authorized" the United States to defend them. So the once "obvious" arguments for action seem to have melted away. Today Walzer still insists that "there was a just and necessary war waiting to be fought back in the 1990s when Saddam was playing hide-and-seek with the inspectors." But no longer.
What changed? Certainly not "real life in international society." Certainly not the nature of the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein has never stopped playing hide-and-seek with the inspectors. Iraq's neighbors hadn't "authorized" the United States to defend them in 1998 any more than they have now. And to suggest that the American case for preventive war is weaker today, after Sept. 11, 2001, than it was four years ago is manifestly absurd.
Walzer's illogical about-face is embarrassing but, sadly, not unique. Yesterday's liberal interventionists, in Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti, are today's liberal abstentionists. What changed? Just the man in the White House. Intellectual consistency, even for great thinkers, is no match for partisan passions.
Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes a monthly column for The Post.