Saturday, August 26, 2017

Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy in Politics and War

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Legitimacy defines what we consider to be right and wrong, and conflicting concepts of legitimacy have polarized our politics and initiated our wars—war being “an extension of politics by other means”.  Controversy over monuments to the Confederacy has reminded us of lessons in legitimacy that we should have learned in politics and war.

            Slavery was considered legitimate in 1776 when slave-holding American colonies proclaimed their independence from the British Empire; but in 1833 Great Britain passed the Abolition of Slavery Act.  When slave-holding states in the South seceded from the Union in 1860, state sovereignty was still an unsettled issue, but slavery had become a political anathema.

            The Confederacy was considered legitimate by white southerners, but it needed the support of Great Britain or France to defend itself against a vastly superior Union Army.  Had Lincoln announced an Emancipation Proclamation in 1860 rather than in1863, it would have undermined the legitimacy of the Confederacy earlier in Europe.  But Lincoln justified the war with the preservation of the Union, a justification dictated by politics rather than morality.       

            History provides the proper perspective to judge past military crusades.  The resentment of blacks to Confederate monuments and the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford is understandable.  Those monuments represent painful lessons learned in legitimacy, and they remain unpleasant reminders of the danger of using military force to reconcile conflicting concepts of legitimacy.

            Although Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833 it and other European nations retained colonial empires that rivaled slavery in their exploitation of natives in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and India.  The French colonial regime in Indochina ended at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and the U.S. unwittingly filled the French political vacuum left in Vietnam, with catastrophic results.

            Earlier in the 20th century the U.S. had tried its hand at being a colonial power in the Philippines and Latin America; and after World War II the U.S. kept Okinawa as a U.S. protectorate for its military bases.  It was not until 1970, after increasing Okinawan resentment toward Americans, that the U.S. allowed Okinawa to revert to Japan.

            The U.S. learned a painful lesson in legitimacy after LBJ deployed U.S. Marines to Vietnam in 1965.  Even a vastly superior U.S. military force could not overcome the lack of legitimacy in the South Vietnamese government.  That lesson should have prevented the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and should dictate an end to U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan.  
            American exceptionalism promotes American standards of legitimacy overseas.  Human rights and democracy have long been strategic objectives of U.S. foreign policy and military operations, but human rights have been a hard sell in Islamic cultures where Islamic Law (Shari’a) denies the freedoms of religion and speech with apostasy and blasphemy laws.   

            Religion is the primary source of standards of legitimacy, and conflicting concepts of legitimacy have historically motivated military crusades—most recently U.S. interventions against terrorism in Islamic nations.  Such interventions have been countered by terrorists using asymmetric warfare, confirming that God/Allah has nothing to do with wars in His name.

            Public support is essential for the legitimacy of military operations, and conflicting concepts of legitimacy can create public resentment that can turn a military success into political defeat.  The U.S. must remember the painful lessons of legitimacy learned in its Civil War and in its past military interventions overseas if it is to avoid having history repeat itself.     


See generally, Barnes, Religion, Law and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy, a paper submitted for a conference on April 14-16, 2016 at The Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL) at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.  See

Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian general who famously described war as “an extension of politics by other means” in his classic On War (unfinished at his death in 1831). 

On lessons learned in legitimacy and the legitimacy of military operations generally, see Barnes, Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium (Frank Cass, London, Portland, 1996), posted at

Seymour Martin Lipset has defined American exceptionalism in religious terms, citing Alexis DeTocqueville, Max Weber and Samuel Huntington to support the idea that American religions provided the moral energy for American progress and economic success. See Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1996, pp 60-67. In a more recent work focused on US military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Andrew J. Bacevich has predicted the end of American exceptionalism. See Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2008.  Richard Cohen has described American exceptionalism as a misguided mix of patriotism, politics and religion that seeks to impose American values in other cultures, the real danger being in using military force to accomplish that objective, as in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.  See Cohen, The Myth of American Exceptionalism, The Washington Post, May 9, 2011.

Fareed Zakaria has described Trump’s recently announced U.S. policy in Afghanistan as more of the same Bush and Obama policies that ignored issues of legitimacy.  Zakaria concludes that “…half a century later, at a lower human cost, the U.S. has replicated its strategy in Vietnam.”  See

Related Commentary:

(12/29/14): Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy

(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy

(5/24/15): De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect

(7/19/15): Religion, Heritage and the Confederate Flag

(10/25/15): The Muslim Stranger: A Good Neighbor or a Threat?

(11/15/15): American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion?

(4/16/16): Religious Violence and the Dilemma of Freedom and Democracy

(5/10/15): Religion, Human Rights and National Security

(8/27/16): A Containment Strategy and Military Legitimacy

(9/3/16): The Diplomat-Warrior: A Military Capability for Reconciliation and Peace

(4/1/17): Human Rights, Freedom and National Security

(5/6/17): Loyalty and Duty in Politics, the Military and Religion

(8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?

(8/19/17): Hate, History and the Need for a Politics of Reconciliation 

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