Sunday, February 09, 2003

The Nuclear Question

I've reflected some on my discussions of yesterday with "Bobbert" (see entry below) and on this article by George Weigel. In that article, Weigel reflects on what constitutes reaching the "last resort" when dealing with the threat of nuclear attack.

I think Weigel makes a very valid point when he suggests that if “last resort” "is to have real meaning for statesmen, just war theorists can’t think of 'last resort' mathematically, as the terminus of a potentially infinite sequence of possibilities." I wholeheartedly agree. It is part of what I find completely bothersome with much of European diplomatic efforts. It isn't that they are more cautious and the U.S. too cavalier about the prospects of war. In reality, they tend to come across as incapable of recognizing practical limitations to diplomatic efforts. Even just war theory as captured by the Catechism doesn't ignore this, for it says that all other means must have been shown to be impractical or inneffective. In my view, that doesn't mean that we must try everything and have it all fail. It leaves room for a judgement, based on the significant diplomatic endeavors that have been tried, for a reasonable person to conclude that further efforts are not going to result in success. I agree with all of that.

Weigel makes a more interesting argument later in the article. Speaking about the Israeli operation to destroy Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981, Weigel writes:

"The moral and political rationale Israel’s leaders gave for acting when they did is also worth pondering. In circumstances like this, the Israelis argued, “last resort” cannot mean waiting until after the Iraqis have a nuclear weapon, and then trying to prevent their using it when they’re about to do so. Failure under those circumstances is too awful to risk. Therefore, the Israelis argued, when one is dealing with a man like Saddam Hussein, a regime like Iraq’s (in which there is no internal constraint on the dictator’s will), nuclear weapons (or other weapons of mass destruction), and ballistic missiles (or possible use of the weapons by terrorists), “last resort” is reached at the point where there is no option left but to forcibly deny the aggressor the possibility of obtaining the weapons, before he gets them."
Essentially, this was the argument that "Bobbert" was making yesterday. It's a nonproliferation argument only, given that there are already countries we don't like that possess nuclear technology and a definite threat of its sale to others or terrorists (which we may or may not be able to stop). The argument says, however, that when it comes to certain regimes preemption before they obtain the bomb is necessary because either (1) there's sufficient evidence that they will use it if they get it or (2) the damage that will result is so great that it outweighs even a small probability that the weapon would be used.

Now, clearly this doesn't circumvent the imminence requirement altogether. If the circumstances in 1981 weren't that the French were so close to having Osiraq nuclear reactor on-line for Iraq, but that they were teaching Iraqi scientists nuclear physics at Bagdahd University, I doubt Weigel would be offering up the Israeli attack as a possible example of a just war action. However, what Weigel does suggest, as did "Bobbert", is that the magnitude of damage that a nuclear bomb can cause suggests that intent to use isn't critical to establishing imminence or can be imputed from the nature of the regime. Naturally, I'm not entirely comfortable with this, because it is getting further and further away from objective evidence for the threat to subjective evaluations of the threat based on broadly drawn assumptions. And it brings us more and more into the realm of a hypothetical threat (because the weaponry hasn't been achieved yet) and out of the realm of an existing threat. But there is a point to be had in this.

My question is this: how would you determine that you are dealing with such a regime? Give me more than just something like "led by a dictator". Weigel offers some ideas, but I would like to see what others come up with. Certainly, some moral theologians had to have said something useful to this during all the years of the Cold War. We may be in a new era in some terms, but nuclear weaponry wasn't invented yesterday.

Similarly, I would like to know what weapons would you be willing to accept this "before acquisition" rationale? Just nuclear weapons? Biological and chemical? Dirty Bomb? High quantities of C-4?

Let me know your thoughts.

P.S. Bobbert, if you are reading this, feel free to drop me an e-mail. Given that we work in the same field, I wouldn't mind saying hello without the pseudonyms.


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