Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2003
George Weigel has a good article in the latest First Things about the Just War tradition: what it means, why it's bad that contemporary clergy so frequently get it wrong (or reject it outright), and how it needs to be updated. According to his synopsis: the just war tradition begins with the understanding that "rightly constituted public authority is under a strict moral obligation to defend the security of those for whom it has assumed responsibility, even if this puts the magistrate's own life in jeopardy." There is no presumption for or against war, therefore. The questions to ask before undertaking war are: Do we have the authority to go to war? Do we have a good reason to go to war (just ends)? Do we have a reasonable prospect of victory (prudence)? Will we conduct the war justly (proportionality in violence and efforts to avoid harm to noncombatants)? And are there any alternatives to war that have not yet been exhausted (last resort)?

Since his discussion focuses on preventing or defeating obvious evil, Weigel is implicitly assuming that the first question is already answered in the affirmative and that the affirmative answer to the second question is what prompts the discussion of resort to war. This ordering subordinates questions of just war to questions about political authority. It is not an accident that serious pacifists (such as the Amish) tend also to be serious anarchists; denying the state the power to wage war is part and parcel of denying the authority of the state at all (as a moral matter; as a practical matter, they may recognize that the state exists and must be reckoned with, but they do not recognize that it is their moral creation or that it has any just authority). Even non-serious pacifists and miscellaneous anti-war hangers-on (including many clergy) fundamentally doubt that the state is in any way a moral actor - or, at least they deny that our state is a moral actor. So I'm not sure precisely who he's arguing with; people who accept that the state has moral authority, if they at all intelligent, surely understand the police and defense functions of the state and accept them as legitimate, in which case they surely see some wars as just. Now we get to debate what constitutes prudence and what the parameters of just ends and just means are.

Weigel identifies the 1983 bishops' pastoral letter against nuclear weapons as a key document in the falling-off from the just war tradition. But I'm not sure he's got as good a case as he thinks. The fact is that mutually-assured destruction was a profoundly immoral doctrine. To understand why, think about it: if America were attacked with thousands of strategic nuclear weapons, the population of America would essentially be eliminated, and our continent rendered largely uninhabitable. If the Soviet Union had launched such a first-strike, what would the justification be for retaliation in kind? Retaliation would save no lives, would avert no evil, would serve no American interest (we would have no interests left). It would be an act of pure vengeance, which is an illegitimate moral basis for action in war. (The distinction Weigel draws between duellum and bellum is precisely on point.) If such retaliation would necessarily be immoral, then to threaten such retaliation must also be immoral - or imprudent, since an opponent might suspect that an immoral order would never be carried out.

It was precisely the recognition of the essential immorality of MAD that led President Reagan to propose a national missile defense. The same, correct moral conviction underlay the bishops' argument against nuclear weapons per se. Reagan placed more faith in an accountable, free, national government - that of the United States - than he did in paper agreements with the Soviets or international organizations. The bishops took the opposite view. I agree with Reagan, but this sounds like an argument about which course is more prudent, not about just ends or means.

This is the same question on which Weigel and critics of the Iraq war differ, only now Weigel is on the other side, sort of. Iraq, being an irrational actor, cannot be allowed to possess nuclear weapons because it will not be deterred from using them; mere possession is a sufficient threat to peace that it justifies preemptive war. I'm with him on this one - don't get me wrong - but it seems to me this is pretty much the case against nuclear weapons generally. The difference is that Weigel believes that some states - he doesn't identify precisely which - can be trusted with nuclear weapons, while the anti-nuclear bishops believed that none could be. That may be a disagreement about just authority. But once again it may be a difference about prudence.

Weigel identifies three areas where just war theory needs development. They are: (1) The delineation of just cause, (2) the identification of competent authority, and (3) the determination of last resort.

Traditionally, he says, just cause was understood as defense against aggression, recovery of something wrongfully taken, or the punishment of evil. Today, he says, we're pretty much limited to aggression. I'm not sure why he thinks that is the case. The Kossovo war was justified as punishment of evil. The Falklands war was as plausibly about recovery of something wrongfully taken as about defense against aggression (the former sounds like a subset of the latter in any case). But in any case, Weigel's point is that aggression needs to be defined differently because of the prospect of weapons of mass-destruction in the hands of radically evil states and non-state actors like terrorist groups. The potential damage from a WMD attack is too great to wait for one to happen to act. Therefore, we need to expand the doctrine of preemption to include a specific category of preventative war: war to prevent certain kinds of weapons from falling into certain hands.

This is entirely reasonable - so long as we can agree on whose hands we're talking about. Iraq is the easy case in this regard; the U.N. has already branded it a criminal state, so the only debate is whether the U.N. will do its job or not. But what about North Korea? Or Pakistan? Or Iran? Or Egypt? Or Lybia, new head of the U.N. Commission on Civil Rights? You could argue that, really, this is something for every state to decide; if we think something is too dangerous to be allowed, and we act to prevent it, we are behaving justly. But as the ultimate aim of this whole intellectual exercise is to teach statesmen how to preserve peace and order - and Weigel agrees that this is the key aim - then it matters whether American actions appear lawful and just in the eyes of the world, and not only whether they do so to us. It is significant, I think, that the Kossovo war was conducted not by any power acting along, nor by the U.N., but by NATO, a defensive alliance suddenly transformed into a regional Ordnungsmacht. Any expansion in the right to preemptive self-defense, it seems to me, needs similarly to be institutionally reified, something that will not happen through the U.N. by that body's very nature.

In other words: prudentially, Weigel's expansion of the notion of just cause requires a contraction of the definition of a competent authority. A single power may be sufficient to act in its own self-defense against clearly established enemies in defense of clear interests. But a single power cannot roam the globe in search of monsters to destroy - even if doing so is necessary and just - without causing considerable collateral damage to international order.

As for "last resort," this is one area where I think the modern anti-war crowd simply misunderstands a very plain concept. Last resort cannot mean that every means of redress short of war has been exhaustively tried in a literal sense. One can, after all, always continue talking, even after the door has been firmly slammed in one's face. Diplomacy is not an end in itself, but by its nature it does not have an end of itself; diplomats are supposed to keep talking until they are recalled, just as soldiers are supposed to keep fighting until told to cease. To try diplomatic resolution means to have some metric for determining whether diplomacy has failed. In the case of Iraq, any reasonable metric, I think, would read "failure" and has read so for years. If there is just cause for war with Iraq - as I strongly believe there is - and if war is prudent and could be conducted proportionately - as I certainly think it could be - then a "last cause" objection seems entirely specious.

What is disappointing about Weigel's piece is that he doesn't reckon with the most interesting problem of our current war: the question of "regime change." If you accept the neo-conservative argument (as I do and as Weigel seems to) that the internal character of a regime determines its foreign policy to a large extent (and, specifically, that certain kinds of radical authoritarian or "totalitarian" regimes need to be aggressive externally or they collapse internally), then maintaining public order means actively seeking to overthrow these regimes. But, as the saying goes, if you break it, you bought it. Israel's strike on the Osirak reactor was a clear example of Weigel's preemptive self-defense where the claim was that the mere potential acquisition of a weapon was sufficiently aggressive to justify military action. Well and good, and this should prove that this concept is not so novel as many think. But regardless, that won't do for our current war with Iraq; we're not preparing to invade in order to get rid of a particular weapon capability but in order to replace an entire political system and remake the country, to permanently remove it as a threat to peace. By what authority do we prepare to do this? Is this something that can be done unilaterally? If not, what kind of collective structure does it require? And once done, what are our responsibilities towards the occupied country? These, it seems to me, are the real new questions in just war theory, and questions that, if the theory is to be useful to statesmen, need badly to be addressed.