Screenshot by Rebecca Panovka

“A New Form of War” | An Interview with Samuel Moyn

The Drift

Since 2008, politicians have campaigned (successfully) on the promise to get out of Afghanistan. Finally, this August, U.S. forces withdrew, and the government our military had installed unravelled overnight. After nearly twenty years, it was now clear, the U.S. had accomplished nothing besides untold death and destruction. All at once, prominent commentators emerged to decry the move and lambaste the Biden administration for its strategic blunder.

To take the long view on a war that spanned multiple presidential administrations but had largely receded from the public consciousness until the past few weeks, we spoke with Samuel Moyn, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Jurisprudence and Professor of History at Yale University. The author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010) and Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (2018), Moyn is an essential voice on international law and its history. 

In his latest book, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War, out this month, Moyn makes what he told us was an “edgy” critique of the U.S. military’s harm-reduction strategies — its efforts to respect human rights, and to avoid the kind of violent spectacles hitherto a feature of all wars, American and otherwise. Taking issue with the ways the military has adapted to deflect humanitarian protest, Moyn dares us to imagine the unthinkable: the end of endless American war, not just its most grotesque features.

Over Zoom, we asked Moyn about post-9/11 hysteria, the bygone era of protest against torture, the history of pacifism, the hidden costs of drone strikes, and what a left foreign policy would mean.

Take us back to the immediate post-9/11 moment in the U.S. Who was right then, who was wrong then, and what have we learned, in retrospect, from the initial reactions?

9/11 was an extraordinary event for anyone sentient at the time. It would be unfair to say it was totally shocking, because — as the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard famously got in serious trouble for saying — Hollywood had imagined this event and given it currency in certain ways. But still.

It’s hard to imagine that the American government wouldn’t have responded by seeking justice and vengeance. 9/11 led to several years of what I would call patriotic lockdown, during which it was very hard to dissent not just from the desire for vengeance, but even from the reactivation of imperial agendas. And I think the debate we’ve been having over the past two weeks — and, really, twenty years — has been about what it means truly to get beyond our initial impulses. 

The invasion of Afghanistan was a terrible mistake, but it made sense at the time, like so many mistakes. It made sense to most of transatlantic humanity, which really was shocked by 9/11 and sympathized with America’s desire for justice, at least for a little while.

For years, it looked like the consensus was that we should get out of Afghanistan, and now that we’re actually doing it, there’s been a backlash, at least in the mainstream media. What have we learned over the past few weeks?

The truth is that we got out of Afghanistan a long time ago. Though Barack Obama decided, I think in error, on a surge that brought troop numbers up to 100,000, he got that number down to around 8,000 by the time he left office, and Trump brought it down by a few thousand more before he was stopped from completing the withdrawal. Meanwhile, the Taliban has been in resurgence for a long time and regained control of lots of territory in Afghanistan long ago. In the last few weeks we’ve seen, principally, shock over how quickly Afghanistan “fell” — in scare quotes just because much of it had already fallen. And our role, though not negligible, had been in decline for years. But I think the response has also illustrated an imperial nostalgia among those who think it’s our role to keep bad things from happening around the world, as if we weren’t responsible for many of them. These folks just assume that America is globally present and responsible, which hasn’t been true in that part of the world for a while. 

That said, even as America withdrew its troops, there was a pivot to a new strategy of counterterrorism which Barack Obama pioneered. It involves lighter engagement, the use of drones, and the deployment of special forces. This is a more “humane” form of war, but it’s not non-intervention. It’s a new form of hostilities, which Biden will continue in Afghanistan, and has acted to make more pure than before.

You’ve written that withdrawing from Afghanistan is not the same as ending the “forever wars.” Can you explain?

“The Forever War” was originally the name of a sci-fi novel. It was also famously the title of the New Yorker journalist Dexter Filkins’s book about the war on terror. And what it means exactly is disputed. The hashtag #endendlesswars gained traction in the later Obama years, when Congress was going through its annual ritual of approving massive war funding. What did the phrase mean for those activists? It is difficult to say — but certainly more than Afghan withdrawal. Even Donald Trump appropriated it and, before he was banned from Twitter, claimed it as his own slogan in numerous tweets. Joe Biden, in a Foreign Affairs piece during his campaign, said he would end the forever war. By now it’s clear that he wants to give the sense that “ending the forever war” means pulling troops out of Afghanistan. 

It’s not that what’s happened in recent weeks is trivial, but we should see that it coexists with this new form of war, which will only be intensified in consequence. From the point of view of the national security state, there are a lot of folks in Afghanistan who are now going to need to be taken out. Instead of being struck by the government we installed with air support from us, they are going to be struck with drones and missiles and special forces.

One of the pretexts for these “forever wars” is humanitarian intervention. Is that just a pretext? How did the set of ideas around humanitarianism and human rights evolve? Should those on the left think in terms of human rights?

Humanitarian intervention has often been a progressive idea, much like human rights in general, and there’s something to be said for it. If we’re really interested in its origins, we need to go back to the 19th century, when it was born as an imperial idea largely to police the Ottoman Empire in defense of Christians subject to Muslim rule. But over time it came to be justified in the name of humanity, not Christianity. Adolf Hitler sometimes claimed to be conducting humanitarian interventions, so in 1945, when the last big set of rules for world order were written down in the U.N. Charter, humanitarian intervention was basically prohibited because it could be used as a pretext — not always, but it would set a precedent for others to abuse. But things changed, mainly because America, as an unchallenged superpower after 1989, was given responsibility to act when no one else could or would. Meanwhile, the old worries about the practice were forgotten.

My main criticism of so-called humanitarian intervention is that it routinely makes the world worse. There might be something to say in its favor if it were a good cause that bad people sometimes abused. But not only does it mask all kinds of neo-imperial moves, it also fails to advance the human situation. The classic example — which broke the credibility of humanitarian intervention and associated notions like the Responsibility to Protect — was the invasion of Libya. That convinced a lot of people that even if we wanted to conduct regime change, we don’t know how to do it without making things worse. 

This is somewhat parallel to the situation with Afghanistan. It’s not that there wasn’t justice to pursue after 9/11, but once you’ve executed a regime change, you either have to rule the country or let it fall into chaos. We chose the first in Afghanistan and the second in Libya, and both are outrageously sad in outcome.

During the Bush era, it seemed like torture was in the news all the time. It’s not anymore. Why is that?

There was a successful campaign to challenge the initial Bush-era form of the war on terror, the increasingly unpopular, heavy-footprint wars. Yet what succeeded them was not the end of war, but the end of torture, certainly as a state-sanctioned policy. Unfortunately, we’ve lived through a time in which the noble cause of prohibiting torture has functioned to legitimate ongoing war. 

But I think we have to return to the moment after spring 2004, when the Abu Ghraib photos are published. Some people take the position that you could call intrinsic: that torture is wrong, full stop, that it’s abhorrent and ought to be removed from the equation, whatever else is going on. The trouble with that position is that it doesn’t take seriously the risk that attending to how war is fought could legitimize wars and actions that are equally noxious, just less brutal. 

Then there was the more instrumental position: some people believed that attacking the manner in which George Bush was prosecuting the war on terror would delegitimize the war. So opposing torture was an anti-war move in disguise. But if that’s the case, it failed. In fact, it delegitimized one form of war and produced another. 

The lesson I think ought to be learned is that our choices can have paradoxical consequences — so next time, if you want to be against war, you have to be against a war, not only its incidental features, like harsh treatment of detainees or collateral damage to civilians.

How does this new form of war impact the public’s ability to follow what we’re doing overseas, to reasonably assess what the government is doing, and to object? 

The new form of war — sometimes called “light footprint” or “no footprint” war — relies primarily on drones, special forces, and cyber warfare. More broadly, it also features sanctions, including supposedly “smart” sanctions. And it does involve less death and injury, not just for those with great power like the United States, but even for victims. Now, it may sound controversial or counterproductive to concede “progress” to imperial might in that way. To raise consciousness and opposition, we need to dramatize the death and injury of war, like the collateral damage from our recent drone strike in Kabul — both because it’s wrong, and because it’s spectacularly wrong in a way that might convince a lot of people the larger enterprise is wrong. 

But from a longer term perspective, grasping not just ostensible humanization of war but real improvement of it is the way to get at something that might simultaneously be making it more insidious. If great power war is getting less costly, not just for great powers and their soldiers — consider how many more died in Vietnam than in the war on terror — but even for victim communities around the world, it is easier to legitimize and maintain. The war on terror has lasted far longer than Vietnam in part for that reason.

Similarly, it really matters that military lawyers now help pick targets. It really matters that it becomes part of the “warrior culture” that you cannot torture — torture has been endemic in American war up until lately, very much including the early war on terror. It really matters that we haven’t had big anti-war movements, but we have had reformers engaging the military, arguing that it’s not humane enough yet, and that its practices need to be more in compliance with a set of rules that call for humane war. Humane war sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s real. It’s happening. It may not be humane enough yet to my liking or yours. But if we don’t recognize it’s happening, we can’t acknowledge its disturbing effects, that the move to this new form of hostilities is much more about domination and surveillance than death and injury.

Is it wrong? It’s parallel to what goes on in our cities. After the death of George Floyd, should we call for more humane policing, or less policing? I’m for the second option, both in cities and on a global scale.

The image of the U.S. as the policeman of the world is ubiquitous — and distasteful to many of us on the left. What would happen if we stopped policing the streets? What would non-imperialist forms of aid look like? What should people on the left be pushing for? 

In both debates — policing at home and, if you like, policing abroad — we needn’t be full abolitionists to be abolitionists. The debate has gotten miscast, as if calling for defunding the police means you have to be in favor of getting rid of policing altogether. Or that if you say you’re against the wars, you have to be a pacifist. But that’s false. We can start from the premise that most wars are bad and most make the world worse without taking the hard-line stance that, say, Leo Tolstoy, or Mohandas Gandhi, or even Martin Luther King, Jr. did. We place an incredibly high burden on those who assert the need for the discontinuation of any form of a practice, whether it’s policing or war — but we don’t want to have to make the argument for abolition or nothing.

On the global scale, we could pose the same questions that many police abolitionists are asking: how can we spend so much on policing rather than social services? How can we spend so much on forever wars — including trillions on Afghanistan and Iraq and billions on hardware that’s now in Taliban hands — when there are so many better uses for that money? I don’t think, in the near term, we’re getting rid of the American national security state or the police. But I do think we’re in a new moment where, in both areas, we can retrieve some past radicalism and explore how far down the continuum to abolition we can go. We can place the burden on those who insist on the persistence of these practices to demonstrate when they’re needed, because it’s much rarer than we have assumed.

Where did the idea of pacifism come from? In your new book, you explain that Leo Tolstoy was opposed to the Red Cross. How come? Do you agree?

When I was in my twenties, there was no left to speak of, outside a ghettoized and self-involved academic left. The ’90s and 2000s were a very hard time to have the views that I now find routine among young people. But these views aren’t new. We can debate what pacifism has meant historically — for the Biblical prophets, or early modern Europeans seeking a design for “perpetual peace,” or people elsewhere around the world. Americans played an enormous role in establishing anti-war and pacifist positions that became globally influential in the nineteenth century.

Tolstoy was an uncompromising abolitionist. I’m not; I’m just most of the way there. But I do argue in my new book that he raised useful challenges to those who try to humanize any violent practice, asking them to take seriously the risk that they are entrenching it in the process. That old idea turns out to be enormously relevant to the trajectory of the war on terror.

We’re in a position now to revive American and global dissent to war, which has not been on the political agenda here for a while. It’s an exciting time, not just because of the youth, but because the organized left and right are seeing a lot of ideological restlessness in the ranks. And many people now believe that the amount spent on American militarism is extraordinary and unjustified, so we can work in the coming years and decades to bring it back into some semblance of plausibility.

How have our two political parties switched positions over the years on interventionism and traded blame for its consequences? How does partisanship prevent us from thinking clearly about America’s role in the world? 

The past 50 years have seen an unholy alliance between the parties. There was one chance to break the pro-intervention consensus when there was an anti-war outburst among Democrats during the Vietnam War, but that chance was missed. George McGovern tried to detach the Democratic Party from its militaristic ways — remember, the Democrats started World War II, started Korea, started Vietnam — and his defeat was so humbling that other factions of Democrats ended up shaping U.S. foreign policy. Some became neoconservatives and joined the Republican Party. And then the liberal internationalists concluded after Vietnam that America had to have a global mission. The price of calling for restraint, let alone a less parochial form of internationalism, was considered to be electoral catastrophe. Barack Obama believed this. 

The worst thing, for Democrats, was being seen as soft on crime or threats abroad. And that helped the parties become even more allied after 9/11. Leadership in the war on terror did switch parties in the sense that a Democrat was elected for eight years, but the fundamentals of the policies were retained, with some cosmetic “humanization” for ethical legitimation and optical differentiation. And then those fundamentals were retained under Donald Trump, and they’re being retained today, as the war on terror continues in its new form. 

How do we proceed? It’s a strategic problem. My own view is that far beyond the topic we’re talking about, we need realignment. Both parties’ policies are determined by rich people. Both  are cross-class in their electoral constituencies. To my way of thinking, the only way of getting economic justice or a more peaceful agenda in this country would be a working class party, which neither party is right now. Maybe neither can be. But what we can’t allow is the Democrats to force us to accept militarism and neoliberalism just because they’re not the fascist party. That’s not good enough.

What is your read on Biden’s foreign policy, especially in relation to Trump’s? Obama and Trump both wanted to get out of Afghanistan, and both chickened out. Why did Biden go through with it?

Since 2008, presidential candidates have seen that they can legitimate their candidacies by condemning not all war, but some, as misbegotten. Obama did. Trump did. Biden did. And then they have to answer to the constituencies that voted for them. We should recognize that, while there haven’t been major movements, peace is a prime electoral consideration, and each of these guys responded to it — even if, sadly, they went on not to end but to reinvent the wars in a new form. The strategy over time has been to reduce the visible wars, the ones with lots of troops, in favor of the less visible and more “humane” ones.

In fairness, Trump tried hard, and not just in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq and Somalia, to purify this transition. And it’s interesting that Biden, in spite of being the anti-Trump, could finish the job. 

In the long run, though, we probably will see the darkest continuity between Trump and Biden’s foreign policy in the turn to belligerency against China, which Trump brought into the mainstream like never before. I think Democrats are worried that they will not get the white working class vote absent nationalism —  fewer grievous wars, perhaps, but more trade competition, and in general, more enmity towards China as a rising power. We have to guard against that continuity, which is going to be very hard to disrupt, because pursuing a new Cold War is something both parties are adopting as self-evident, just as both did with the war on terror.

Do you see any avenues to accountability for a bipartisan elite that continues to produce the same catastrophes over and over again? 

I think we should recognize that both parties are, in a sense, running scared, because they recognize that a lot of people are not quiescently accepting the status quo. And we’re seeing lots of policy evolution, even if it’s just in response to a limited recognition that Trump succeeded electorally in our anti-democratic system by breaking with norms. Now, party elites are moving substantially in his direction. It’s unthinkable that Biden would have withdrawn from Afghanistan absent Trump’s attempt to do so. It’s unthinkable that he would have embarked on trade wars or hostility with China without Trump. 

So, I do think politicians are responding to an electoral threat, even if that is very different from accountability. Still, we are now emphatically past our post-1989 complacency about the end of history. Trump had a lot to do with that, which does not mean he took history in the right direction. But we shouldn’t understate how much difference ordinary people can make in political outcomes, even when elites are always seeking legitimation for their own agendas.

How does the coronavirus pandemic figure in all of this? Has it changed our sense of the U.S.’s position in the world, and should it?

I think so. I’ve noticed that even a lot of mainstream liberals have responded by questioning our priorities. Why, for example, are we spending trillions on killing people rather than on a domestic or even global public health regime that could have responded better? We’re seeing a move from national security to human security, as it’s called at the United Nations — which is to say that if we really care about foreign policy, war ought to be incredibly marginal in it, including in its budget. 

We could imagine all kinds of progressive internationalist moves. That’s what I’m for, not isolationism or even just military restraint, but figuring out how we can pivot to a kind of human solidarity beyond borders. And if the pandemic hasn’t illustrated the necessity of doing so, I don’t know what could.