Casus Belli and Iran

posted Mar 24, 2007

Some people have observed that Iran's seizure of British soldiers would at most points in history be considered casus belli, and perhaps at least lead to naval blockade.

While I don't entirely disagree with the idea that some people consider what I would call cowardice a virtue, I don't think it completely explains the blasé attitude this is meeting with. I think there's a strong non-political component to it as well.

Western societies have grown by leaps and bounds over the past several hundred years. It takes a lot more to get our attention than it used to, because we are a much bigger society, and I think a strong case can be made that this is a perfectly rational outlook. A two-inch cut on a small child can be a big deal; the same cut on me is an annoyance. If the West went to war over every two-inch cut, we'd be in full-scale war, all the time; there's always another grievance to be converted to casus belli.

I think this partially explains why the Islamists perceive us as paper tigers who respond to provocations with waffling and caving. It is because in the grand scheme of things, most terrorist provocations are small change to a country like the United States. It's not that we can't follow through on a provocation, it's that we don't notice the piddling attacks. (9/11 is obviously an exception, and look what it spawned.) From their point of view this looks like Western weakness. From our point of view it's simply not worth worrying about; our tolerance is a manifestation of our belief that they are weak.

I think this can explain a lot of Iraq's media coverage in a fairly politically neutral way; fact is, most of what's going on in Iraq is simply below our threshold as a society. So some Iranians and Saudis blew up some Iraqis in a car bomb... so what? Even our military losses aren't enough to get our society worked up; there are still numerous single battles with a higher absolute death rate than the entire War on Terror, even before accounting for population differences over time. (Based on the casualty count, this should be called the Extended Skirmish over Terror.) The end result is that most debate takes place almost entirely free of the actual facts on the ground, which are muted and insignificant compared to the bellowing ideologues on television and on the Internet.

(A daily casualty number isn't news, or perhaps more accurately, it's the bare minimum data that could be called news. The closest thing to a real Iraq-related news story lately was the Walter Reed story, and that's still about the US more than the Middle East.)

I've made this point before, but I think this also points to a divide between war supporters and those who aren't. The best argument against the war is that Iraq, Iran, and the Middle East in general just aren't threats today. At best, all they can do today is disrupt our oil supply, and that's a double-edged sword if ever there was one. I think this is the best argument because it is completely true, today. Nothing and nobody in the Middle East is currently capable of fielding a threat to our interests that can rise above our threshold of interest, or at least they couldn't if we didn't have most of our forces in Iraq. This is realpolitik, but it's not cowardice.

War supporters must ultimately fall back on the argument that we are better off doing something today, because we will inevitably have to do something tomorrow if we don't and it will be worse then. You can point at worrying trends, you can point at rhetoric, you can make historical parallels, but when you boil it all down, the pro-war argument is all about future projections, not the readily-evident realities of today. Personally, I find these arguments very compelling, but looking at the situation dispassionately, it's surprising that it convinces anywhere near as many people as it does; it's a very abstract basis for an argument, no matter how well supported it may be.

Perhaps in the old days kidnapping some soldiers would be worth an entire war, but today it's just a pinprick, an annoyance.

Disclaimer: I'm not trying to make a moral argument about whether we should see kidnapping soldiers as a big deal or not, or the true strengths of the terrorist factions. Personally I am indeed inclined to see both as a bigger deal than the West at large is acting like it is. This post is about how I think the West is actually perceiving things, not how we should perceive them.


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