“Force and Legitimacy”

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"“Force and Legitimacy”"

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I said yesterday that I thought James Steinberg was the most interesting name on the Obama National Security Working Group list. The other folks are either people who’ve been in the Obama circle for a while, or else they’re elder statesmen types rather than potential future appointees. Steinberg, however, was Deputy National Security Advisor from 1996-2000 and is thus exactly the sort of person who could get a senior-level job in an Obama administration.

As such, I was interested to read his essay “Force and Legitimacy in the Post 9/11 Era: What Principles Should Guide the United States?” It’s a pretty disappointing piece of work. He observes that the UN Charter authorizes the use of force for the purpose of self-defense, for defense of others, or in other circumstances when authorized by the UN Security Council. He then observes that there are a variety of circumstances under which people sometimes think we should use non-defensive force even without Security Council authorizations. And he observes that using force in all of these circumstances is problematic in many ways. And that it’s more problematic the more unilateral it is. And then he kind of just concludes that it all depends. The essay is full of thumbsuckers like this:

Thus, the bottom line suggests that preventive force must be part of the policy mix in dealing with the acquisition of dangerous capabilities, especially WMD, but the wisdom of its use is highly fact-dependent and requires a very careful balancing of the real benefits to be achieved against likely costs.

And:

Although there are substantial costs and risks to acting preventively, the calculation may still be favorable in light of the alternatives.

None of this contradicts the bold thinking and new approaches some of us have been excited about, but it’s really the reverse of bold thinking and new approaches. Now arguably it’s a good idea for an incoming president to leaven some of his big new ideas with a certain amount of mealy-mouthed timidity and Steinberg does have sound views on the key substantive issues but there is a certain “change you can believe in” quality missing here. Part of the issue, as Chris Hayes says, is that you need to staff a national campaign and an administration with people who know what they’re doing, and that necessarily entails a certain status quo bias that’s bound to disappoint the true believers.

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