A proxy war is "an armed conflict instigated or directly supported by parties or nations that are not directly involved in the struggle, in order to advance their strategic interests."
We embark this year on the Sesquicentennial of the United States’ Civil War, euphemistically referred to in my native South Carolina during the conflict as “The War of Northern Aggression,” and after the conflict as the “The Late Unpleasantness Between the States.” (No one turns phrases quite like that anymore.) Jefferson Davis and the leadership of the Confederacy were in fact depending on the conflict with the Union turning into a proxy war for France and England, both of which countries, it was hoped, would intervene on the side of the South. The leaders of the Confederacy were counting on political and economic forces in France and England to drive their governments to provide support for the South in order to keep the textile mills in both countries supplied with southern cotton, exported to both countries in large quantities, and at the kind of reasonable prices that directly flowed from slave labor. It is one of the better war-time achievements of the Lincoln administration, buttressed by some timely Union Army victories, that the Union was able to dissuade both England and France from significant monetary and material support for the Confederate cause.
In the last century, we had a number of proxy wars. The Spanish Civil War, fought directly between the Nationalists of soon-to-be Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, and the duly elected Second Spanish Republic, was a proxy war for the Fascists/Nazis of Germany and Italy, weighing in on the side of Franco, and the Soviet Union, supporting the Republicans. Vietnam started out as proxy war between the United States and Russia, and the Soviet Union’s nine year occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s (which we have now eclipsed) lead to “Charlie Wilson’s War,” where we used the Mujahadeen as our proxy force to fight our real existential enemies, the Soviets.
In this century, warfare between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon has been a proxy war for the radical Islamic forces of the leadership of Syria and Iran, and the recent incursion by Saudi Arabian troops into Bahrain can be seen as a proxy war by the oil rich Gulf States against the efforts of the Iranians to extend their sphere of influence in the Middle-east through their support of Shiite revolutionaries in those countries.
We have a proxy war on-going right here in Wisconsin, where the Republicans and the Democrats, each buttressed by their key financial supporters, have turned this year’s Supreme Court race between incumbent Justice David Prosser and challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg into a public referendum on the many changes that the Republican Party and Governor Walker have tried to rapidly bring about in state and local government. Prosser is clearly seen as a member of the current four-to-three Conservative majority bloc, including Justices Roggensack, Gableman and Ziegler; and Kloppenburg is clearly being portrayed as someone liable to shift the balance of power on the Court to the Liberal wing, including Chief Justice Abrahamson, Justice Bradley and, occasionally Justice Crooks. While Kloppenburg has tried to distance herself from the many Capitol Square protest signs and Facebook posts that call a vote for her a vote repudiating the union-busting efforts of Governor Walker, she has raised the public statement by Prosser’s campaign manager late last year that a re-elected Prosser can be counted on to rule in a way more consistent with the conservative policies of the Walker Administration.
Usually Supreme Court races, constrained by judicial ethics rules limiting campaign statements suggestive of a predisposition in how future cases might be decided by the two candidates, are ho-hum affairs. Only in more recent years have the races assumed a “proxy war” aspect between Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (“WMC”) and Wisconsin Realtors on one side, and the unions, public workers and Democrats on the opposite one. Typically an incumbent Justice has a sizeable advantage in the race, unless successfully painted with a partisan label, as Justice Butler was in 2009. As Milwaukee’s WTMJ reported the day after the 2009 election:
"This has been a disastrous election for the court," said Mike McCabe, executive director of the government watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. He estimates that third-party groups spent more than $4 million on the race, outpacing the $3.1 million spent on last year's contest that also led to a conservative judge's victory. McCabe said the court's independence is being threatened by the involvement of special interests groups that greatly outspend the candidates and control the message. "Wisconsin is heading down a very dangerous path," he said. The millions spent by liberal and conservative interest groups, funneled largely into negative attack ads that blanketed the state's airwaves for weeks, pushed the race into the national spotlight. But it was one ad by Gableman, a Burnett County circuit judge, that drew the most criticism for misleading voters into thinking that Butler was responsible for a sex offender being set free early and committing another rape.
The ferocity of the current emotions of teachers, university students, parents of public school children, government workers, and those supporting quality health care for the young and old living in poverty; and the impact of social media in getting out the word that this race is a ‘proxy war’ referendum on Governor Walker, makes this year’s race one for the books.
Proxy wars are also fought to achieve another goal besides establishing the ascendancy of a particular political ideology. They serve to test weapons and military strategy of the states not directly involved in the conflict for later use in their own future direct conflicts. In the Spanish Civil War, the war machine of the Nazis (Stuka bombers bombing Guernica) was given a test run against the military equipment and advisors supplied to the Republicans by the Soviet Union. This served to give both countries a relatively painless (at least for them) dry run for the direct conflict between them when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Similarly, this Supreme Court race will be a great testing ground of the power of social media like Facebook and Twitter to stand up against the 30 second ad spots on TV and radio that are purchased by WMC, unions and other well-financed influence groups. It will serve to be an excellent indication of whether the recall efforts against the current Republican and Democratic Senators and the expected recall effort against the Governor can be effectively waged by these new weapons of political warfare.